What compelled me to pick The Vicar of Wakefield from the shelves of the Perfect Bookshop last week I no longer recall, perhaps Virginia Woolf’s regard for Oliver Goldsmith’s only novel: ‘once we begin to read we read on, not to reach the end but to enjoy the present moment. We cannot dismember this small complete world. It hems us in, it surrounds us.’
It’s a silly story with little to commend it beyond the excellence of its sentences and what Woolf describes as its ‘tart eighteenth century humour’. I read with satisfaction—much against the grain—and the better for it.
‘However, when any one of our relations was found to be a person of very bad character, a troublesome guest, or one we desired to get rid of, upon his leaving my house, I ever took care to lend him a riding coat, or a pair of boots, or sometimes a horse of small value, and I always had the satisfaction of finding he never came back to return them.’
I found a beautiful illustrated edition of this in my school library when I was about 11 years old and read it more for the pictures at the time – but was also enchanted with the humorous, old-fashioned charm of it. I would probably get so much more out of it if I read it now – but it’s really sunk from view, hasn’t it?
That may be an edition that passed me by. Petersfield Bookshop tweeted a picture of one last October and I regret not snapping it up. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the writing and will certainly read more Goldsmith. Woolf reckons ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ a marvel.
I’m not sure what am illustrated antiquarian edition was doing in a school library (although this would have been in the 1980s), when it sells for £500-£1500 now… but there you go!