Non-Crime Review: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Apologies for defecting – as I occasionally do – to a non-GAD related genre. Although, ‘non-crime’ is hardly accurate as this contains much criminal activity perpetrated on (and occasionally by) the unfortunate Family Primrose.

Note – there are spoilers ahead, quite whopping ones (though, you’ll probably know roughly where this is going, heading in)

 

Summary

Charles Primrose – the vicar of the title – and his family live an idyllic existence for about five minutes at the start of the book. The eldest son is about to be married to a lovely and wealthy young lady and all is sunshine and kittens.

Then their merchant defaults with all their money, the vicar quarrels with his prospective in-laws and the family is forced to leave Wakefield for a rather less pleasant curacy, with a greatly-reduced income. Eldest son George leaves to seek his fortune, while the rest of the family adapt to reduced circumstances and befriend a Mysterious Stranger. And all would have still been moderately well, if it hadn’t been for the entrance, stage right, of a dastardly Squire, whose false charms are only exceeded by his cape-swirling villainy.

Cue a series of increasing misfortunes for the Primroses, including seduction under false pretences; kidnapping with menaces; duels; flames; imprisonment and imprudent copper spectacles. After some lecturing, ranting and a considerable amount of moralising, the Mysterious Stranger – to the surprise of no-one but the Primroses – turns out to be the Squire’s wealthy and wise uncle, who waves a magic wand and brings back the sunshine and kittens: this time with added unicorns.

Thoughts

The Vicar of Wakefield is an interesting mix of satire and straight out preaching and has much sly humour (‘Mr Burchell is found to be an enemy: for he has the confidence to give disagreeable advice’) along with a breathtaking series of calamities: all set to rights, rather abruptly, at the end.

I do feel rather for Olivia who gets the short straw here. Her recompense for suffering the near-fatal shame of being tricked into becoming – as she thought – a dishonest woman with the Evil Squire, is to discover that she is, in fact, legally married to him after all and therefore she is stuck with him for life, knowing the depths to which he has sunk (including the kidnapping with intent to ravish of her own sister). One can imagine, at best, a somewhat awkward honeymoon, possibly followed by one of them doing away with the other and going stark staring mad with the horror of it all.

Any Other Business?

This book includes the much quoted ‘An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog’, the last line of which  – ‘the dog it was that dy’d’ – has formed (with more orthodox spelling) the title of at least three crime novels and been referenced in many more.

I read this in the Oxford world’s classics edition, which is nicely stuffed with footnotes. I haven’t enough power of retention to say that I actually learned much from the book, but I did discover that innocuous-sounding parlour games, such as Hunt the Slipper and Hot Cockles, involved a lot more violence than you might expect and that, should I ever have a hen to sell, I should wait until it’s sunny. Or perhaps I’ll just go into the line of Poultry Umbrella Merchant: a guaranteed money-spinner. You attach the harness beneath the wings, just so…

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