The Vicar of Wakefield is a delightful romantic novel, which Andrew Lang classes among books “to be read once a year.” Goldsmith’s own criticism of the story in the Advertisement announcing it has not yet been surpassed:—
“There are an hundred faults in this Thing, and an hundred things might be said to prove them beauties. But it is needless. A book may be amusing with numerous errors, or it may he very dull without a single absurdity. The hero of this piece unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth: he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family. He is drawn as ready to teach and ready to obey; as simple in affluence, and majestic in adversity.”
[Illustration: DR. PRIMROSE AND HIS FAMILY. From a drawing by G. Patrick Nelson.]
The Vicar of Wakefield has faults of improbability and of plot construction; in fact, the plot is so poorly constructed that the novel would have been almost a failure, had other qualities not insured success. The story lives because Dr. Primrose and his family show with such genuineness the abiding lovable traits of human nature,—kindliness, unselfishness, good humor, hope, charity,—the very spirit of the Sermon of the Mount. Goethe rejoiced that he felt the influence of this story at the critical moment of his mental development. Goldsmith has added to the world’s stock of kindliness, and he has taught many to avoid what he calls “the fictitious demands of happiness.”
Goldsmith wrote two plays, both hearty comedies. The less successful, The Good-Natured Man (acted 1768), brought him in L500. His next play, She Stoops to Conquer, a comedy of manners, is a landmark in the history of the drama. The taste of the age demanded regular, vapid, sentimental plays. Here was a comedy that disregarded the conventions and presented in quick succession a series of hearty humorous scenes. Even the manager of the theater predicted the failure of the play; but from the time of its first appearance in 1773, this comedy of manners has had an unbroken record of triumphs. A century later it ran one hundred nights in London. Authorities say that it has never been performed without success, not even by amateurs. Like all of Goldsmith’s best productions, it was based on actual experience. In his young days a wag directed him to a private house for an inn. Goldsmith went there and with much flourish gave his orders for entertainment. The subtitle of the comedy is The Mistakes of a Night; and the play shows the situations which developed when its hero, Tony Lumpkin, sent two lovers to a pretended inn, which was really the home of the young ladies to be wooed.
It is interesting to note that his contemporary, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), produced, shortly after the great success of She Stoops to Conquer, the only other eighteenth-century comedies that retain their popularity, The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), which contributed still further to the overthrow of the sentimental comedy of the age.