‘Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street’ by Norma Clarke

51D-L2Nk1cL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_John Mullan at The Guardian:

Oliver Goldsmith has always been a puzzle. So he was to his contemporaries, many of whom found him, as the actor David Garrickput it, “a mixture so odd” of contradictory qualities. Was he brilliant or foolish? The painter Joshua Reynolds recalled that Goldsmith like to argue from “false authorities” and talk humorous nonsense. Listeners never knew when to take him seriously. He is a puzzle to literary history too: he dabbled in this genre and that, producing no coherent body of work, yet managed to write a handful of small masterpieces.

There is his brilliant comedy of social pretensions and mistaken identities She Stoops to Conquer, almost the only play of the 18th century apart from Sheridan’swork still to be staged and relished. There is his nostalgic, melancholy poem “The Deserted Village”, once a favourite of all poetry anthologists, its quotability adaptable to any political perspective. “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates and men decay”. Above all, perhaps, there is The Vicar of Wakefield, one of the most frequently reprinted novels in English. This hilarious pastiche of the Book of Job manages to seem both a deliciously innocent tale and a wicked mockery of sentimentality. In its naive, sententious, oddly endearing narrator, Dr Primrose, Goldsmith created one of the great unreliable narrators of British fiction.