A Skeleton My Cat
- The Letters of Oliver Goldsmith edited by Michael Griffin and David O’Shaughnessy
Cambridge, 232 pp, £64.99, July 2018, ISBN 978 1 107 09353 9
Is there an 18th-century writer to rival Oliver Goldsmith? Who else achieved lasting popular and critical success in all three major genres? The Vicar of Wakefield has never been out of print; The Deserted Village was a schoolroom favourite well into the 20th century; and She Stoops to Conquer is still performed. Despite these works, and the other poems, plays, histories, biographies and essays he also produced, a tone of condescension has tended to accompany Goldsmith’s name, so that Adam Sisman in his book on Boswell could describe Goldsmith as ‘an awkward, improvident and slightly ridiculous Irishman … whose genius [Johnson] nevertheless acknowledged and championed’ – though in fact almost every reference to Goldsmith in the Life of Samuel Johnson itself belittles him.
Boswell was not alone. After Goldsmith’s death in 1774 stories of his ‘absurdities’ multiplied: he was ‘little Goldy’, Dr Minor to Johnson’s Dr Major, the Sancho Panza of English literature, ‘an idiot in the ways of the world’, an ‘anomalous character’, envious, blundering, clownish. James Prior’s full, scholarly biography, designed to restore Goldsmith’s dignity, did not appear until 1837 and was quickly supplanted by two popularising and very popular works, John Forster’s The Life and Adventures of Oliver Goldsmith (1848) and Washington Irving’s Life of Oliver Goldsmith (1849). Forster and Irving built on Prior’s research to reinstate – affectionately, but still damagingly – the simple, unworldly Goldsmith, Thackeray’s ‘most beloved of English writers’, but one who only just escapes being a fool. Irving, who believed biography should be tinted with sentiment, referred to his subject throughout as ‘poor Goldsmith’; Forster’s book was illustrated with line drawings and looked rather like the novel that it in some ways aspired to be.
Forster, a journalist himself, was in love with the distressed glamour of Grub Street. There was certainly toil and drudgery in Grub Street, but really Goldsmith didn’t do so badly. He began by working for Ralph Griffiths, whose Monthly Review was the first journal systematically to review new books; he was contracted to be at his desk from 9 a.m. till 2 p.m.; he lived and boarded upstairs for free; and he was paid £100 a year at a time when a village clergyman might get by on £40. He was never ill-paid for commissioned work: he got 250 guineas for his Roman History, £500 for a history of England and 800 guineas for his History of the Earth and of Animated Nature.
Goldsmith left Ireland in his mid-twenties; he never returned. His entire career as a writer took place in London. He barely mentioned Ireland in print, and even works that seemed influenced by his own past, such as The Deserted Village, were, he emphatically declared, based on his observations in England. It has seldom seemed necessary to consider his Irishness, but the editors of this new edition of Goldsmith’s letters, Michael Griffin and David O’Shaughnessy, urge its importance, and they are surely right. Some of the ideas that persistently recur in Goldsmith’s work – opposition to imperialism, scepticism about English notions of liberty – seem to be manifestations of his nationality. He had a developed political understanding of Ireland’s history not only as a colonised island but also in relation to Europe. Although of Protestant stock, Goldsmith claimed Spanish ancestry and grew up in Westmeath, a region where inter-faith relations seem to have been generally benign, even if at the administrative level there was a suspicion of Catholics. He was fluent in French – he wrote a biography of Voltaire – and was always keen to explore cultural difference, whether between east and west, France, England, Scotland or the Netherlands. He spent two years in Edinburgh studying medicine, and perhaps a year in Leiden, before setting off on his own version of a grand tour, travelling on foot, playing his flute, and staying when possible at Irish colleges, where company, lodgings and food could be had in exchange for music and debate. (Many dispossessed Catholic gentry sent their sons to study with exiled Irish priests in France.) The diaspora shaped his mature views well before he arrived in London with its very large Irish population.
Goldsmith began writing The Traveller, or, A Prospect of Society while on his grand tour, picturing himself sitting high on a mountain and surveying the whole of Europe. The poem contains observations about the social manners and customs of the countries he can supposedly see from his Alpine perch, encompassing the extremes of wealth and rank, from monarchy to peasantry, and has good and bad things to say about the different nations, but the burst of passion and anger is reserved for Britain. Britain is ‘the land of Freedom’, with a gentle climate (like other 18th-century thinkers, Goldsmith considered climate a formative influence on national character), a gentle landscape of lawns and sparkling streams, and yet its freedom is ‘fictitious’. ‘Self-dependent lordlings’ have been able to engross power and make laws that suit their own interests at the expense of the country as a whole, and have at the same time convinced the meanest peasant that he too is free:
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by …
True to imagined right, above control,
While e’en the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself as man.
In the early 1760s, when Goldsmith returned to the poem and completed it, the British did see themselves as lords of humankind, especially after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 brought the Seven Years’ War to an end and extended Britain’s imperial possessions. Wealth and conquest fanned a mood of triumphal jubilation. Goldsmith regarded it sourly:
When I behold a factious band agree
To call it freedom when themselves are free;
Each wanton judge new penal statutes draw,
Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.
His political point here is not directly about Ireland and its vexed relationship to Britain, but the language of penal laws is telling, as is his imagery of families forced from their homes, a ‘melancholy train’ of emigrants setting out reluctantly across the ocean. Goldsmith understood that increased wealth created a paradoxical increase in scarcity. As he put it later in The Deserted Village: ‘Scourged by famine, from the smiling land/The mournful peasant leads his humble band.’ Rampant self-interest might work for the few but it was unsustainable: ‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’
We know that The Traveller was begun before Goldsmith arrived in London in February 1756 because in the dedication to his brother Henry he writes that he sent part of it to Henry from the Continent. The poem itself is addressed to Henry, like a letter in verse, expressing a powerful sense of belonging and loss:
Where’er I roam, whatever realms to see,
My heart untravell’d fondly turns to thee;
Still to my brother turns, with ceaseless pain,
And drags at each remove a lengthening chain.
Family feeling, a longing for home, a love of the country he would never see again – ‘Unaccountable [fond]ness for country, this maladie du Pays, as the French [call] it’ – recurs in the early exilic years. In this slim volume of 66 surviving letters, some of them scraps, 15 are to friends and family in Ireland. Many letters have of course been lost, but there are enough apologies for not having written to confirm what Goldsmith himself admitted to James Grainger: ‘He never wrote a letter in his life … except to a bookseller for money.’ That wasn’t quite true, but most of his letters are instrumental, or have business to accomplish, including the ones expressing the pain of separation: Goldsmith wanted his correspondents to circulate proposals and help gather subscriptions in Ireland for his first book. If we go to a writer’s letters to gain insight into his works, or to come closer to his inner world, Goldsmith’s will disappoint. With pen in hand he was rarely off-duty. He was ‘a man whose trade is writing’, and more writing was the last thing he wanted to do in his leisure hours: ‘No turnspit gets up into his wheel with more reluctance, than I sit down to write.’ Not everything in his letters should be believed: the editors acknowledge his general ‘tendency to mislead or obfuscate where his own family background and early life and travels were concerned’, and he did the same when writing home about his progress in London. Goldsmith was known to be sympathetic to those in need, especially new arrivals from Ireland, but he didn’t want his family descending on him and played down his success. In 1759 he pictured himself for Henry’s benefit as habitually gloomy: ‘Imagine to yourself a pale melancholy visage with two great wrinkles between the eye brows, with an eye disgustingly severe,’ unfit for the society of friends at home, unable to enjoy a revel, ‘nor contribute to raise its jollity, I can neither laugh nor d[rin]k, have contracted an hesitating disagreeable manner of speaking, and a visage that looks illnature itself.’ In 1770, at the height of his fame and influence (he had been appointed professor of ancient history at the Royal Academy), he told his younger brother Maurice, who had no assets, that he couldn’t help him financially but would be glad to receive a letter of news now and then.
Biographers of Goldsmith have always struggled with the paucity of materials: there is almost nothing on his early life in Ireland, nothing on his early months in London, very little on his relationships (nothing about women) except what others said about him, nothing of substance that throws light on his writings. The earliest letter to survive is a fragment written when he was a medical student in Edinburgh in 1752, which begins characteristically by declaring there is nothing for him to describe, goes on to claim that he is at lectures all day and that at night in his ‘Lodging I have hardly an[y other s]ociety but a Folio book a skeleton my cat and my meagre landlady’, and continues, even more characteristically, by talking about money. With his old schoolfriend and fellow drinker at George Conway’s inn in Lissoy, Robert Bryanton, he is more expansive, but the act of writing a long letter leaves him ‘splenetick’ and apt to recall that Bob is handsome and successful with women, whereas he is not: ‘An ugly and a poor man is society only for himself and such society the world lets me enjoy in great abundance.’ Putting off a visit to Bennet Langton in Lincolnshire in 1771, he offered a grumpy cameo of himself during his summer retreat at Farmer Selby’s on Edgware Road: trying to write She Stoops to Conquer, he was ‘strolling about the hedges studying jests with a most tragical countenance’ while also deep in the ‘half finished’ eight-volume History of the Earth and of Animated Nature. ‘God knows Im tired of this kind of finishing, which is but bungling work, and that not so much my fault as the fault of my scurvy circumstances.’
By ‘scurvy circumstances’ Goldsmith meant both pressure of work and precariousness of income. He left the security of contracted employment after less than a year, having made good use of his time at Griffiths’s Monthly Review to write An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe. He launched himself as a freelance, hoping his book would help him secure commissions – which it did. He had begun to be assured of his ‘quality’, to have a sense of his own standing in company where ‘refind conversation’ took place. He could sense the possibilities, as he told his brother-in-law Daniel Hodson: ‘I have no certainty it is true; but why can’t I do as some men of more merit who have liv’d upon more precarious terms?’ As he well knew, many men of literary merit had starved in London, though he was at pains to disabuse Hodson of such assumptions:
I know you have in Ireland a very indifferent Idea of a man who writes for bread, tho Swift and Steel did so in the earlier part of their lives. You imagine, I suppose, that every author by profession lives in a garret, wears shabby cloaths, and converses with the meanest company; but I assure you such a character is entirely chimerical.
By the time he was writing She Stoops to Conquer and giving Langton brief bits of news about their mutual friends, he had proved himself right. His company was by no means mean: Reynolds, Burke, Johnson, Garrick, Topham Beauclerk, Hester Thrale, every one of them ‘visiting about and merry but myself’; all were wealthy or well provided for, including Johnson, who had a crown pension of £300 per annum.
When there is so much we don’t know, it seems harsh that Goldsmith’s scurvy circumstances should be on full view in the letter he wrote to Griffiths a few months after leaving his employ. The matter at issue was a new suit of Goldsmith’s that had been pawned, along with some books belonging to Griffiths. The tailor wanted his money and Griffiths had stood surety. Goldsmith admitted his ‘imprudencies’ and saw debtors’ prison looming. It’s an ill-tempered but dignified letter, written probably after he realised that he’d been unsuccessful in his application to the East India Company for a post as physician in a factory at Coromandel. (The suit was probably purchased for the interview at Surgeons’ Hall.) Goldsmith had been in two minds about the East India scheme: it demanded considerable initial expense (he had to pay his own passage) and there were ‘the fatigues of sea the dangers of war and the still greater dangers of the climate’ to consider. In the flush of enthusiasm, he had weighed those drawbacks against his prospects in London, ‘a place where I am every day gaining friends and esteem and where I might enjoy all the conveniences of life’. It was hard to decide. Coromandel promised ‘a genteel independance for life’; London, literary fame – if he could find within himself the ‘strong steady disposition which alone makes men great’, and if Griffiths didn’t spread the word that he was ‘a villain’.
Goldsmith wrote many works that are not mentioned in his letters: there is nothing here about The Vicar of Wakefield or The Deserted Village, no way of knowing why he chose a Chinaman to be his mouthpiece in The Citizen of the World, or how he went about selecting the material for his histories. The editors hope to ‘reorient’ discussion of his life and works with this volume, even though, barring some small additions, it reproduces the letters collected and edited by Katherine Balderston in 1928. Their introduction provides biographical and intellectual context for the periods in Goldsmith’s life around which the letters cluster; there are no significant new finds. We are reminded that if, as he put it, Goldsmith brought only ‘his brogue [an]d his blunders’ out of Ireland, he was not alone: a quarter of the medical students at Edinburgh, for example, were Irish. His sociable hours there soon came to be spent at the house of the Duke of Hamilton, whose wife was one of the Gunning sisters from County Roscommon, famed beauties (Goldsmith tired of them: ‘it seems they lik’d [me] more as a Jester than as a companion’).
But there are things to learn, especially when a phrase or allusion familiar from later published work appears in a letter. In his first missive from London in 1757, Goldsmith asks Hodson if he and his wife ‘sometimes make a migration from the blue bed to the brown’, a reference that can’t be explained but which finds its way into the deceptively peaceful opening chapter of The Vicar of Wakefield: ‘We had no revolutions to fear, nor fatigues to undergo; all our adventures were by the fire-side, and all our migrations from the blue bed to the brown.’ The Vicar of Wakefield wasn’t published until 1766, though a version of the manuscript was sold in 1762. Nothing is known of its composition: it was found in a drawer and sold for £60 by Samuel Johnson to rescue Goldsmith from a crisis. Perhaps it was begun much earlier; the chapters describing family life convey the ambivalent fondness Goldsmith expresses when writing to Hodson, Bryanton and his brother Henry. An unusually didactic letter to Henry in 1759 about the upbringing of his son William (the one family member Goldsmith did actively help in London) is filled with precepts taken from the recently completed Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe and foreshadows much that would appear in The Citizen of the World. That book began as a series of twice-weekly fictional letters in the Public Ledger, running from January 1760 until spring 1761. Wearing the mask of a Chinese visitor called Lien Chi Altangi, Goldsmith sent dispatches to a reading public that described how strange their practices seemed to an outsider. China meant distance, but familiarity too: in the 1750s there was a vogue for everything Chinese – wallpaper, teapots, painted buddhas, pagodas.
Ireland was near but it was never fashionable. Goldsmith needed somewhere as far away as China to use as a mask for his criticisms. He didn’t want to offend; he wanted to be respectable and admired. Later generations thought he had indeed played the court jester, fudging his disgust and naming no names, his good nature spaniel-like, his harsh observations wrapped in sweetness. But reading the letters you feel the strain: bitterness, a yearning for security. He was only 45 when he died, and his road by any measure had been rocky. In 1773, Boswell wrote him a cringeworthy letter congratulating him on the success of She Stoops to Conquer – ‘While you are in the full glow of theatrical splendour, while all the great and the gay in the British metropolis are literally hanging upon your smiles, let me see that you can stoop to write to me’ – to which Goldsmith replied: ‘I believe I always told you that success upon the stage was great cry and little wool. It has kept me in hot water these three months … I promise you, my Dear Sir, that the stage earning is the dirtiest money that ever a poor poet put in his pocket.’ He assured Boswell he would pass on the news to Johnson, Garrick and Reynolds that Boswell intended to come to London (though in fact he was already in town and had perhaps written to Goldsmith mainly to garner a celebrity collectible). He added that when they met he would relate ‘long stories about my struggles and escapes, for as all of you are safely retired from the shock of criticism to enjoy much better comforts in a domestic life, I am still left the only Poet militant here, and in truth I am very likely to be militant till I die.’ The ‘Poet-militant’ – a reference to Pope, a favourite of Goldsmith’s – lives in constant envy of those with secure positions and a pension.