Oliver Goldsmith’s mid-eighteenth century novel The Vicar of Wakefield was one of the most widely read books of its era. Filled with Victorian romanticism and dripping with happy endings, the book had a major influence on the European novels that followed it. Two other books in the Well-Read Man project even mention it by name: Frankenstein and Middlemarch.
Charles Primrose is a rich and happy vicar. Despite his focus on the humble spiritual life (including a fixation on the question of whether Anglican windowed priests should be allowed to remarry), his family enjoys the comforts of upper-class living. That changes when a dishonest merchant flees the country, taking nearly all of the family’s wealth with him. Reduced to poverty, the vicar’s family moves to a farm in another part of the country.
While there, the family members have experiences both good and bad, but mostly bad. Each new day brings fresh calamities, some caused by their own foolishness, but many caused by the selfishness and vices of those around them. Eventually (spoiler alert!), all of their troubles are wiped away, and they live happily ever after.
Or do they? Despite their restored wealth, the family will still need to battle with an aspect of life that shows up repeatedly in many of the novels of the day: vanity. This focus on self and its associated prideful spirit is referred to repeatedly in the book, and it also takes center stage in the works of other European authors, from John Bunyan to Jane Austin.
Despite this explicit warning against vanity, The Vicar of Wakefield is primarily a joy to read. The characters are vivid and quirky, the vicar as narrator is never at a loss for something interesting to say, and his upbeat attitude, even in the face of tragedy, keeps a smile on your face throughout the entire novel. I highly recommend the book. If it was good enough for Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, it is good for the modern well-read reader.
(For more information on this book, visit its project page.)