150+ essays on literary topics
I finally got round to reading a book that has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be read for just under forty-nine years. I bought my second-hand, War Economy Standard edition of The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith at Easter 1966 (the date written inside, underneath my name) for a shilling (1/- written in bookseller’s pencil on the facing page) which means that I bought it on the two hundredth anniversary of its first publication.
I have started to read it a few times during those forty-nine years but have always given up after the first few pages, misled, as I now realise, by a first chapter which seems to promise nothing more than an ordinary account of an ordinary eighteenth century vicar’s ordinary daily life. It did not occur to me in 1966, or at any time since until now, that the author’s intention was to do to his vicar what God did to Job.
If the Book of Job were written in the first person, Job might have written about himself in much the same way as the Vicar of Wakefield does. After introducing us to his ‘good-natured’ wife, who ‘could read any English book without much spelling’, he goes on to say that ‘we loved each other tenderly, and our fondness increased as we grew old’. I should have guessed that the author was already rubbing his God-like hands in gleeful anticipation of the sufferings he had in store for his unsuspecting hero, especially when I read, at the end of the second paragraph, the fateful words, ‘We had no revolutions to fear, nor fatigues to undergo; all our adventures were by the fireside, and all our migrations from the blue bed to the brown.’
The hero of Goldsmith’s novel, which was the only one he wrote, serves the same function as Voltaire’s Candide or Swift’s Gulliver, which is to let the reader see a dishonest world through the eyes of an honest man and pity him as his delusions are stripped away one by one. Charles Primrose suffers one disaster after another, each the result of human weakness, folly or vice, declining in social status from parson to prisoner, but he never loses his faith in humanity or God (though the latter has only a walk-on part in what is essentially a product of the Enlightenment, a story of contemporary manners and morals).
When Dr Primrose’s son, George, returns from the travels on which he has been engaged since his father’s misfortune obliged him to fend for himself, he tells him what he has learned from his experience: ‘In this manner, therefore, I fought my way towards England, walking along from city to city, examined mankind more nearly, and, if I may so express it, saw both sides of the picture. My remarks, however, are but few; I found that monarchy was the best government for the poor to live in, and commonwealths for the rich. I found that riches in general were in every country another name for freedom; and that no man is so fond of liberty himself, as not to be desirous of subjecting the will of some individuals in society to his own.’
The narrator, however, continues to play his uncomplaining, Panglossian role, accepting whatever life has in store for him, even to the extent of recommending forbearance to the other prisoners when he finds himself in jail. Chapter XXIX, which consists of the sermon he preaches to the assembled prisoners, is headed ‘The Equal Dealings of Providence demonstrated with regard to the Happy and the Miserable here below. That, from the nature of Pleasure and Pain, the Wretched must be repaid the balance of their sufferings in the Life hereafter.’
A good satirist does not make easy targets out of straw men. Goldsmith’s vicar begins his sermon by facing up to reality. ‘Though we should examine the whole world, we shall not find one man so happy as to have nothing left to wish for; but we daily see thousands who by suicide show us they have nothing left to hope.’ He goes on to argue that this is why we must turn to religion, ‘in every circumstance of life, for our truest comfort; for if already we are happy, it is a pleasure to think we can make that happiness unending: and if we are miserable, it is very consoling to think that there is a place of rest. Thus to the fortunate, religion holds out a continuance of bliss; to the wretched, a change from pain.’
The mistake, in reading The Vicar of Wakefield, is to take the narrator for the author. The narrator is such a likeable man that we are apt to forget that he is also something of a fool. Goldsmith contrives a happy ending for him, a deus ex machina restoration to good fortune, which is no more radical than the ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’ with which Voltaire ended Candide. ‘I had nothing now on this side of the grave to wish for,’ Goldsmith’s narrator tells us, drawing his narrative to a close. ‘All my cares were over; my pleasure was unspeakable. It now only remained that my gratitude in good fortune should exceed my former submission in adversity.’ The satire is very gentle, the irony easy to miss.
While The Vicar of Wakefield was waiting to be read, so too, though not yet on my shelves, was the entire genre of crime fiction. The few occasions on which I have sampled it have never tempted me to further exploration. Genres, it seems to me, are by definition generic: read one and you’ve read them all. I was tempted though by The Red House Mystery, or rather by its author, who is better known as a writer of stories and poems for children.
We like to put writers in boxes and that is the box we have put A.A.Milne into. Very few writers nowadays write for both adults and children. A hundred years ago, most of the writers we think of as children’s writers were just writers. In his very amusing introduction to The Red House Mystery, Milne alerts us to the growing tendency to pigeon-hole. ‘When I told my agent a few years ago that I was going to write a detective story, he recovered as quickly as could be expected, but made it clear to me (as a succession of editors and publishers made it clear, later, to him) that what the country wanted from “a well-known Punch humorist” was a “humorous story.” However, I was resolved upon a life of crime; and the result was such that when, two years afterwards, I announced that I was writing a book of nursery rhymes, my agent and my publisher were equally convinced that what the English-speaking nations most desired was a new detective story.’
The Red House Mystery is the first crime novel I have ever really enjoyed. I think this is because a) it is very well written, b) it is fictional. P.G.Wodehouse is quoted on the cover of the Vintage paperback as saying of A.A.Milne, ‘I love his writing.’ That is because Milne’s humour is, like Wodehouse’s, the humour of character. He gives his characters a voice and leaves it to them to get the laughs. Apart from the occasional laconic remark, the narrator takes a back seat. Galton and Simpson in their scripts for Tony Hancock were the inheritors of this kind of writing. Winnie the Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore are in this respect just like the characters in Only Fools and Horses or Dad’s Army. They have a fictional reality.
To say that Milne’s crime novel is fictional might seem like a statement of the obvious. But most crime fiction, most fiction of any kind, pretends not to be. Realist fiction is what we are used to, but realist fiction is a contradiction in terms. In his novel, Milne has Bill, the Dr Watson to Antony’s Sherlock Holmes, ask, ‘How could he help feeling that this was not real tragedy, but merely a jolly kind of detective game that he and Antony were playing?’ But that of course, as everyone knows, is just what it is, what all fiction is. That’s the point, with stories for grown-ups as with stories for children. If you don’t believe in them enough to feel scared, it doesn’t work. But if you believe in them so much that you think it’s real, you won’t be able to get to sleep. Fictional reality is the only sort that human kind can’t get enough of.
February 2015 will see the start of a new monthly feature – a short story published in daily instalments on consecutive days.
The first story, Bicycle Thief, will be published in six instalments, 4-9 February, each one going on-line at 7am.
Don’t worry if you miss one – once they’ve been published, instalments will stay on the Home Page for you to read any time, just like the regular posts.
More short stories will follow, all starting on the first Wednesday of the month.
The next regular weekly post after the February story will be my Reader’s Diary for 11 February.