Carole McDonnell
Essayist, Reviewer, Novelist


Samples of My Writing:
Academics



THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD: A MINOR CLASSIC


Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield has been called a minor classic. What makes this book a minor classic? A major classic, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, will always find admirers, regardless of the age, social class, and nationality of the reader. The concerns of Hamlet, for instance: self-doubt, obligations and distrust are universal. Lastly, the authors of major classics are often universally acknowledged as master writers.

The appeal of minor classics, however, rises and falls with cultural attitudes, events, and shifts. The concerns of these stories are still understandable to the average reader. But the reader may not find these problems less than compelling. For this reason, minor classics are usually not as well-known as their more-respected counterparts. Every educated teenager in North America will read Hamlet. Most will not read Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. In addition, the reader who finds this book may not think the writer very good. The question is why is The Vicar of Wakefield "good, but not great enough?" The book’s beginnings was dubious. Published in 1755 after a leery bookseller had kept it for four years, it is the story of a good vicar -- a minor priest-- who suffers through debt and disgrace because of the seduction and elopement of a beloved daughter. The books’ critics who did not know what to make of it. Was it satire? Or should they take it at face value? To understand their reaction, we must first see why the mood of the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, did not suit Goldsmith’s sentimental book.

The Enlightenment was a time of intellectual curiosity, exotic discoveries and great philosophical debate. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume had questioned traditional morality and spirituality. The Seven Years’ War and British explorer James Cook’s expeditions into Oceania had left Britain looking outwards towards its empire. The Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions had broadened possibilities. The Age of Enlightenment worshiped progress and the unlimited potential of the civilized free-thinker. Religion was questioned. This was not the time for a novel about the spiritual and financial struggles of a goodhearted middle-class vicar in the English countryside. In addition, this was one of the first books to deal with the problems of the rising class, money and "marriageableness".

The middle class has not always existed. Nor has it always been secure. Certainly, there were tradespeople during the preceding generations. But there was no self-sufficient, self-reliant middle-class with its own social structures, rules, events. The middle class had made its fortunes during the industrial and agricultural revolutions. They remembered their historical "place" as "lower classes." It was imperative that they hold on to their new-found place and that they look good and respectable in the eyes of the upper classes. Money could make the man or the "gentleman". And for a middle class woman, marriage to a rich lord would be her entry into the upper classes.

Few books before The Vicar of Wakefield ever aired the middle class’s dirty financial laundry by writing so blatantly about sexual transgressions, debt and money. Even fewer writers discussed the alternatives to a "good match" --elopement, seduction, poor husbands, abandonment. Goldsmith’s work would not be immediately comprehended by the rich Lord and Ladies --who were the usual book readers-- or to the rising middle class --who didn’t want to be reminded of how money-conscious they were.

But the book would find its readers. The Victorians would claim the good vicar as their own. While readers in the Age of Enlightenment were excited about travelers in exotic locales, the Victorians were interested in marriage, home, tradition, religious sentiment, respectability. The Victorians would understand the vicar’s spiritual and financial sorrows. Charles Dickens and Jane Austen would both write about debt and "marriageableness." Born decades earlier, Goldsmith would join them in literary esteem.

It is not a book about great crises: such as famine, the aftermath of war and disease. It’s a story about normal people in normal times attempting to maintain normalcy. The triumphs are small; the joys, minor. This is the difference between a minor and a major classic. And yet, books’ "perfect" reader will find in its pages, a writer who understands the depth of his own story.