Book Review: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Surprisingly readable given its age, The Vicar of Wakefield is a morality tale combined with a large dose of satire.  Entertaining, engaging and humorous whilst raising some important social questions of the time it was written. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

When Dr Primrose loses his fortune in a disastrous investment, his idyllic life in the country is shattered and he is forced to move with his wife and six children to an impoverished living on the estate of Squire Thornhill. Taking to the road in pursuit of his daughter, who has been seduced by the rakish Squire, the beleaguered Primrose becomes embroiled in a series of misadventures – encountering his long-lost son in a travelling theatre company and even spending time in a debtor’s prison. Yet Primrose, though hampered by his unworldliness and pride, is sustained by his unwavering religious faith. In The Vicar of Wakefield, Goldsmith gently mocks many of the literary conventions of his day – from pastoral and romance to the picaresque – infusing his story of a hapless clergyman with warm humour and amiable social satire.

Favourite Quote

I armed her against the censures of the world, showed her that books were sweet unreproaching companions to the miserable, and that if they could not bring us to enjoy life, they would teach us to endure it.

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, pg 186


What persuaded me to pick up The Vicar of Wakefield over other classics currently waiting to be read on my shelves?  One: there used to be a small pub of the same name in my village.  Two: it was an extremely popular book during the nineteenth century, one that is often referenced in other classics.  Three: a copy of it was carried on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to discover the North-West Passage, and it was one of the books that the crew took with them when they abandoned the ships (a copy being found amongst the remains of the expedition years later)…

The first thing, and to be honest, quite a notable thing when reading a classic, is that The Vicar of Wakefield is surprisingly readable, given its age – it was written in 1766.  Compare it to some of the classic prose that came later – I’m looking at you Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw – and, apart from the odd word that is no longer in common usage, the story is easy to read.

The plot is completely ridiculous and farcical; anything that could go wrong for Dr Primrose and his family, did.  The family, from the moment they lost their fortune never had more than a few peaceful moments between disasters.  It is, of course, from this, where the satirical humour comes from.

I’m not really sure if I actually liked any of the characters, and I’m not sure you’re meant to; they were often at either ends of the extremes: too nice, too naïve, too sentimental, too evil, too vapid.  And it is largely because of this I struggled to muster any sympathy for the family.  However, I did feel sorry for them on occasion.  When something bad happened, Dr Primrose would try and “cheer” everyone up by preaching at them.

The Vicar of Wakefield is cleverly written; it’s almost a Georgian pantomime in book form.  It pokes fun at the desperation of social climbers (Mrs Primrose is an ambitious woman, reminding me a little of Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice) and doesn’t let us forget that at this time a young woman’s fortune is almost always more important than the woman herself. It covers nearly every bad thing that could have happened to a person during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, whilst providing a warning for readers that you cannot – and should not – wholly trust in the goodness of man.  If you do, you will come unstuck.  And it is a lesson that Dr Primrose refuses to accept.  By not learning from it, he is destined to suffer the consequences again and again.

There is also an element of social criticism to this morality tale.  A number of serious issues are raised as the story progresses, the most memorable being on crime and punishment.  Why should a man caught stealing be given the same punishment as one found guilty of murder?

The perfect happy ending was certainly comical and tied up all loose ends magnificently. It was nice to see Dr Primrose rewarded for his faith and fortitude in the face of such adversity, even if much of it was of his own family’s making.

An interesting and entertaining quick read.  For those who have yet to read it but enjoy the classics, I heartily recommend it to you.


4 / 5

Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #7 in the list: A book you would class as a classic

Book Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

London, 1727. Tom Hawkins, a gentleman known for his love of women, wine and gambling, finds that he cannot pay his debts. As a consequence he is taken to the infamous Marshalsea debtors prison.

Life inside is dangerous but tolerable if only he can manage to afford to live on the Master’s side, where all things considered, life is not so different from that beyond the walls. Luckily for Tom, the notorious Samuel Fleet, equally feared and despised within the prison, finds him intriguing, and he is soon sharing a room with him, courtesy of Fleet’s purse.

Tom quickly realises that things are not as settled within the Marshalsea as those running it would have it appear. Rumours of murder, ghosts and the devil spread. When he comes to learn that it was Fleet’s previous room mate who was murdered and that the majority of the prisoners believe that Fleet himself was responsible, he starts to wonder just how long he himself will survive.

Things look set to go from bad to worse for Tom when his fate becomes intertwined with the unmasking of a murderer.

Is there any chance of escape for Tom Hawkins, or will fate and those who are working towards their own agendas, conspire to ensure that he never makes it out of the Marshalsea alive?

The Marshalsea is the perfect setting for a murder mystery and provides a colourful cast of characters (many of whom use authentically colourful language). The story captured my attention from the beginning, pulling me deeper and deeper into it so that I couldn’t put the book down until I read it to its conclusion. The plot was full of twists and turns and was never for a moment too slow, quiet or sedate.

Within the walls of the prison, we are given a glimpse into the life of a eighteenth century debtor, which I found thoroughly interesting. The idea that there could be a coffeehouse and tap room / pub inside the prison made for such fascinating reading, but as always with the best books, it is the characters that we are introduced to in the story that make it believable and entertaining – this book is no different.

I would certainly be interested to read more by this author; she has a gift for bringing historical drama to life with such ease and strength that it is impossible not to get caught up in the tale she has written. Great stuff. One of my favourite books of the year so far…