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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IX. Oliver Goldsmith

§ 17. The Vicar of Wakefield: the History of the Book

The Traveller was an immediate and enduring success; and Newbery, so far as can be ascertained, gave Goldsmith £21 for it. Second, third and fourth editions quickly followed until, in 1774, the year of the author’s death, a ninth was reached. Johnson, who contributed nine of the lines, declared it to be the best poem since the death of Pope, a verdict which, without disparagement to Goldsmith, may also be accepted as evidence of the great man’s lack of sympathy with Gray, whose Elegy had appeared in the interval. Perhaps the most marked result of The Traveller was to draw attention to “Oliver Goldsmith, M. B.,” whose name, for the first time, appeared on the title-page of Newbery’s thin eighteen-penny quarto. People began to enquire for his earlier works, and thereupon came a volume of Essays by Mr. Goldsmith, which comprised some of the best of his contributions to The Bee, The Public Ledger and the rest, together with some fresh specimens of verse, The Double Transformation and A new Simile. This was in June, 1765, after which it seems to have occurred to the joint proprietors of The Vicar of Wakefield, that the fitting moment had then arrived for the production of what they apparently regarded as their bad bargain. The novel was accordingly printed at Salisbury by Collins for Francis Newbery, John Newbery’s nephew, and it was published on 27 March, 1766, in two duodecimo volumes.

There is no reason for supposing that there were any material alterations in the MS. which, in October, 1762, had been sold by Johnson. “Had I made it ever so perfect or correct,” said Goldsmith to Dr. Farr (as reported in the Percy Memoir), “I should not have had a shilling more”; and the slight modifications in the second edition prove nothing to the contrary. But it is demonstrable that there was one addition of importance, the ballad The Hermit or Edwin and Angelina, which had only been written, in or before 1765, for the amusement of the countess of Northumberland, for whom, in that year, it was privately printed. It was probably added to fill up chapter VIII, where, perhaps, a blank had been left for it, a conjecture which is supported by the fact that other lacunae have been suspected. But these purely bibliographical considerations have little relation to the real unity of the book, which seems to follow naturally on the character sketches of The Citizen of the World, to the composition of which it succeeded. In The Citizen, there is naturally more of the essayist than of the novelist; in The Vicar, more of the novelist than of the essayist. But the strong point in each is Goldsmith himself—Goldsmith’s own thoughts and Goldsmith’s own experiences. Squire Thornhill might have been studied in the pit at Drury lane, and even Mr. Burchell conceivably evolved from any record of remarkable eccentrics. But the Primrose family must have come straight from Goldsmith’s heart, from his wistful memories of his father and his brother Henry and his kind uncle Contarine and all that half-forgotten family group at Lissoy, who, in the closing words of his first chapter were “all equally generous, credulous, simple, and inoffensive.” He himself was his own “Philosophic Vagabond pursuing Novelty, but losing Content,” as does George Primrose in chapter XX. One may smile at the artless inconsistencies of the plot, the lapses of the fable, the presence in the narrative of such makeweights as poetry, tales, political discourses and a sermon; but the author’s genius and individuality rise superior to everything, and the little group of the Wakefield family are now veritable “citizens of the world.” Only when some wholly new form has displaced or dispossessed the English novel will the Doctor and Mrs. Primrose, Olivia and Sophia, Moses (with the green spectacles) and the Miss Flamboroughs (with their red topknots) cease to linger on the lips of men.

It is a grave mistake, however, to suppose that this unique masterpiece, which still sells vigorously to-day, sold vigorously in 1766—at all events in the authorised issues. From the publisher’s accounts, it is now known with certainty that, when the fourth edition of 1770 went to press, there was still a debt against the book. The fourth edition ran out slowly, and was not exhausted until April, 1774, when a fifth edition was advertised. By this time, Collins had parted with his unremunerative share for the modest sum of £5. 5s., and Goldsmith himself was dying or dead. These facts, which may be studied in detail in Charles Welsh’s life of John Newbery, rest upon expert investigations, and are incontrovertible. They, consequently, serve as a complete answer to all who, in this respect, make lamentation over the lack of generosity shown by Goldsmith’s first publishers. How could they give him a bonus, when, after nine years, they were only beginning to make a profit? They had paid what, in those days, was a fair price for the manuscript of a two volume novel by a comparatively unknown man; and, notwithstanding the vogue of his subsequent Traveller, the sale did not contradict their expectations. That, only as time went on, the book gradually detached itself from the rubbish of contemporary fiction, and, ultimately, emerged triumphantly as a cosmopolitan masterpiece—is its author’s misfortune, but cannot be laid at the door of Collins, Newbery and Co. Johnson, who managed the sale of the manuscript, did not think it would have much success; they, who bought it, did not think so either, and the immediate event justified their belief. Goldsmith’s appeal was not to his contemporaries, but to that posterity on whose fund of prospective praise he had ironically drawn a bill in the preface to his Essays of 1765. In the case of The Vicar, the appeal has been amply honoured; but, as its author foresaw, without being “very serviceable” to himself.