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The Vicar of Wakefield
by Oliver Goldsmith
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes

Johnson Reading the Manuscript of 'The Vicar of Wakefield'
Painting by Edward Matthew Ward
Image: http://www.samueljohnsonbirthplace.org.uk


Oliver Goldsmith was born in Ireland on November 10, 1728. After Trinity College and a spell of "philosophic vagabondage" on the Continent, he settled in London in 1756, earned money in various ways, and spent it all. "The Vicar of Wakefield" was published on March 27, 1766, after Dr. Johnson had raised £60 for him on the manuscript. Goldsmith's style, along with the comedic coincidences and improbabilities of the story, made it a firm favourite through the Victorian era.

Abridged: JH

The Vicar of Wakefield

I.--Family Portraits

I was ever of opinion that the honest man who married and brought up a large family did more service than he who continued single and only talked of population. From this motive, I chose my wife, as she did her wedding-gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well. There was nothing that could make us angry with the world or each other. 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.

My children, as they were educated without softness, so they were at once well-formed and healthy; my four sons hardy and active, my two daughters beautiful and blooming. Olivia, the elder daughter, was open, sprightly, and commanding; Sophia's features were not so striking at first, but often did more certain execution, for they were soft, modest, and alluring.

The profits of my living I made over to the orphans and widows of the clergy of our diocese; for, having a sufficient fortune of my own, I was careless of temporalities, and felt a secret pleasure in doing my duty without reward.

My eldest son, George, just upon leaving college, fixed his affections upon Miss Arabella Wilmot, the daughter of a neighbouring clergyman, who was in circumstances to give her a large fortune. Mr. Wilmot was not averse to the match, but after the day for the nuptials had been fixed, I engaged in a dispute with him which threatened to interrupt our intended alliance. I have always maintained that it is unlawful for a priest of the Church of England, after the death of his first wife, to take a second; and I showed Mr. Wilmot a tract which I had written in defence of this principle. It was not till too late I discovered that he was violently attached to the contrary opinion, and with good reason; for he was at that time actually courting a fourth wife.

While the controversy was hottest, a relation, with a face of concern, called me out.

"The merchant in town," he said, "in whose hands your money was lodged has gone off, to avoid a statute of bankruptcy. Your fortune is now almost nothing."

It would be useless to describe the sensations of my family when I divulged the news. Near a fortnight had passed before I attempted to restrain their affliction; for premature consolation is but the remembrance of sorrow. During this interval I determined to send my eldest son to London, and I accepted a small cure of fifteen pounds a year in a distant neighbourhood.

The first day's journey brought us within thirty miles of our future retreat, and we put up at an obscure inn in a village by the way. At the inn was a gentleman who, the landlord told me, had been so liberal in his charity that he had no money left to pay his reckoning. I could not avoid expressing my concern at seeing a gentleman in such circumstances, and offered the stranger my purse. "I take it with all my heart, sir," replied he, "and am glad that my late oversight has shown me that there are still some men like you." The stranger's conversation was so pleasing and instructive that we were rejoiced to hear that he was going the same way as ourselves.

The next morning we all set forward together. Mr. Burchell and I lightened the fatigues of the road with philosophical disputes, and he also informed me to whom the different seats belonged that lay in our view.

"That, Dr. Primrose," he said to me, pointing to a very magnificent house, "belongs to Mr. Thornhill, a young gentleman who enjoys a large fortune, though entirely dependent upon the will of his uncle, Sir William Thornhill."

"What!" cried I, "is my young landlord, then, the nephew of one who is represented as a man of consummate benevolence?"

At this point we were alarmed by the cries of my family, and I perceived my youngest daughter in the midst of a rapid stream, and struggling with the torrent; she must have certainly perished had not my companion instantly plunged in to her relief. Her gratitude may be more readily imagined than described; she thanked her deliverer more with looks than words. Soon afterwards Mr. Burchell took leave of us, and we pursued our journey to the place of our retreat.

II.--The Squire

At a small distance from our habitation was a seat overshaded by a hedge of hawthorn and honeysuckle. Here, when the weather was fine, and our labour soon finished, we usually sat together to enjoy an extensive landscape in the calm of the evening. On an afternoon about the beginning of autumn, when I had drawn out my family to the seat, dogs and horsemen swept past us with great swiftness. After them a young gentleman, of a more genteel appearance than the rest, came forward, and, instead of pursuing the chase, stopped short, and approached us with a careless, superior air. He let us know that his name was Thornhill, and that he was the owner of the estate that lay around us. As his address, though confident, was easy, we soon became more familiar; and the whole family seemed earnest to please him.

As soon as he was gone, my wife gave the opinion that it was a most fortunate hit, and hoped again to see the day in which we might hold up our heads with the best of them.

"For my part," cried Olivia, "I don't like him, he is so extremely impudent and familiar." I interpreted this speech by contrary, and found that Olivia secretly admired him.

"To confess the truth," said I, "he has not prepossessed me in his favour. I had heard that he was particularly remarkable for faithlessness to the fair sex."

A few days afterwards we entertained our young landlord at dinner, and it may be easily supposed what provisions were exhausted to make an appearance. As he directed his looks and conversation to Olivia, it was no longer doubted but that she was the object that induced him to be our visitor; and my wife exulted in her daughter's victory as if it were her own.

On one evening Mr. Thornhill came with two young ladies, richly dressed, whom he introduced as women of very great distinction and fashion from town. The two ladies threw my girls quite into the shade, for they would talk of nothing but high life and high-lived company. 'Tis true, they once or twice mortified us sensibly by slipping out an oath; their finery, however, threw a veil over any grossness in their conversation.

I now began to find that all my long and painful lectures upon temperance, simplicity, and contentment were entirely disregarded. The distinctions lately paid us by our betters awakened that pride which I had laid asleep, but not removed. When the two ladies of quality showed a willingness to take our girls to town with them as companions, my wife was overjoyed at our good fortune. But Mr. Burchell, who had at first been a welcome guest at our house, but had become less welcome since we had been favoured with the company of persons of superior station, dissuaded her with great ardour, and so angered her that she ended by asking him to stay away.

Returning home one day, I found my wife and girls all in tears, Mr. Thornhill having been there to inform them that their journey to town was entirely over. The two ladies, having heard reports of us from some malicious person, were that day set out for London. We were not long in finding who it was that had been so base as to asperse the character of a family so harmless as ours. One of our boys found a letter-case which we knew to belong to Mr. Burchell. Within it was a sealed note, superscribed, "The copy of a letter to be sent to the two ladies at Thornhill Castle." At the joint solicitation of the family, I opened it, and read as follows:

"Ladies,--I am informed that you have some intention of bringing two young ladies to town, whom I have some knowledge of, under the character of companions. As I would neither have simplicity imposed upon nor virtue contaminated, I must offer it as my opinion that the impropriety of such a step will be attended with dangerous consequences. Take therefore, the admonition of a friend, and seriously reflect on the consequences of introducing infamy and vice into retreats where peace and innocence have hitherto resided."

Our doubts were now at an end. It appeared to me one of the vilest instances of unprovoked ingratitude I had ever met with. As we set ruminating upon schemes of vengeance, Mr. Burchell himself entered and sat down.

"Do you know this, sir--this pocket-book?" said I.

"Yes, sir," returned he, with a face of impenetrable assurance.

"And do you know this letter?"

"Yes; it was I that wrote that letter."

"And how could you so basely presume to write this letter?"

"And how came you," replied he, with looks of unparalleled effrontery, "so basely to presume to open this letter?"

I could scarcely govern my passion. "Ungrateful wretch!" I cried. "Begone, and no longer pollute my dwelling with thy baseness!"

So saying, I threw him his pocket-book, which he took up with a smile, and left us astonished at the serenity of his assurance.

III.--The Elopement

The visits of Mr. Thornhill now became more frequent and longer; but all the schemes of Olivia and her mother to bring him to a declaration came to nothing. And although Olivia considered his fine sentiments as instances of the most exalted passion, it seemed to me plain that they had more of love than matrimony in them.

One evening as I sat by the fireside, thanking Heaven for tranquillity, health, and competence, and thinking myself happier than the greatest monarch upon earth, I noticed that Olivia was absent.

"Where is my darling Olivia?" I asked. Just as I spoke, my boy Dick came running in.

"Oh, papa, papa, she is gone from us; she is gone from us for ever!"

"Gone, child?"

"Yes; she is gone off with two gentlemen in a postchaise, and one of them kissed her. And she cried very much, but he persuaded her, and she went into the chaise."

"Now, then," cried I, "may Heaven's everlasting fury light upon him and his! Thus to rob me of my child! Bring me my pistols; I'll pursue the traitor. Old as I am, he shall find I can sting him yet--the perfidious villain!"

My poor wife caught me in her arms.

"Indeed, sir," said my son Moses, "your rage is too violent."

"I did not curse him, child, did I?"

"Indeed, sir, you did."

"Then may Heaven forgive me and him. But it is not--it is not a small distress that can wring tears from these old eyes. My child--to undo my darling! May confusion seize--Heaven forgive me! What am I about to say? Had she but died! My son, bring hither my Bible and my staff. I will pursue her; and though I cannot save her from shame, I may prevent the continuance of her iniquity."

My suspicions fell entirely upon our young landlord, whose character for such intrigues was but too well known. I therefore directed my steps towards Thornhill Castle. He soon appeared, with the most open, familiar air, and seemed perfectly amazed at my daughter's elopement, protesting upon his honour that he was quite a stranger to it. A man, however, averred that my daughter and Mr. Burchell had been seen driving very fast towards the Wells, about thirty miles distant.

I walked towards the Wells with earnestness, and on entering the town I was met by a person on horseback, whom I remembered to have seen at the squire's, and he assured me that if I followed them to the races, which were but thirty miles further, I might depend upon overtaking them.

Early the next day I walked forward to the races, but saw nothing of my daughter or of Mr. Burchell.

The agitations of my mind, and the fatigues I had undergone, now threw me into a fever. I retired to a little ale-house by the roadside, and here I languished for nearly three weeks.

The night coming on as I was twenty miles from home on my return journey, I put up at a little public-house, and asked for the landlord's company over a pint of wine. I could hear the landlady upstairs bitterly reproaching a lodger who could not pay.

"Out, I say," she cried; "pack out this moment!"

"Oh, dear madame," replied the stranger, "pity a poor, abandoned creature for one night and death will soon do the rest!"

I instantly knew the voice of my poor ruined child, Olivia, and flew to her rescue.

"Welcome, anyway welcome, my dearest lost one, to your poor old father's bosom!"

"Oh, my own dear"--for minutes she could say no more--"my own dearest, good papa! You can't forgive me--I know you cannot!"

"Yes, my child, from my heart I do forgive thee." After we had talked ourselves into some tranquillity, I said, "It surprises me how a person of Mr. Burchell's seeming honour could be guilty of such deliberate baseness."

"My dear papa," returned my daughter, "you labour under a strange mistake. It is Mr. Thornhill who has ruined me; who employed the two ladies, as he called them, but who, in fact, were abandoned women of the town, to decoy us up to London. Their artifices would certainly have succeeded but for Mr. Burchell's letter, who directed those reproaches at them which we all applied to ourselves."

"You amaze me, my dear!" cried I. "But tell me, what temptation was it that could thus obliterate your virtue?"

"He offered me marriage," replied she. "We were indeed married secretly by a popish priest, whose name I was sworn to conceal."

"What!" interrupted I. "And were you indeed married?"

"Alas!" she said, "he has been married already by the same priest to six or eight wives more, whom, like me, he has deceived and abandoned."

"Have patience, my child," cried I, "and I hope things will yet be better. To-morrow I'll carry you home to your mother. Poor woman, this has gone to her heart; but she loves you still, Olivia, and will forget it."

IV.--Fresh Calamities

It was late the next night when I approached my own home. I had left Olivia at an inn five miles away, intending to prepare my family for her reception. To my amazement, I saw the house bursting out into a blaze of fire, and every aperture red with conflagration! I gave a loud convulsive outcry, which alarmed my son, and all my family ran out, wild with apprehension. Our neighbours came running to our assistance; but the flames had taken too strong a hold to be extinguished, and all the neighbours could do was to stand spectators of the calamity. They brought us clothes and furnished one of our outhouses with kitchen utensils; so that by daylight we had another, though a wretched, dwelling to retire to.

In the midst of this affliction our poor lost one returned to us. "Ah, madam," cried her mother, "this is but a poor place to come to after so much finery! I can afford but little entertainment to persons who have kept company only with persons of distinction; but I hope Heaven will forgive you."

The unhappy victim stood pale and trembling, unable to weep or to reply.

"I entreat, woman," I said to my wife, with severity in my voice and manner, "that my words may be now marked once for all. I have here brought you back a poor deluded wanderer--her return to duty demands the revival of our tenderness. The real hardships of life are now coming fast upon us; let us not increase them by dissensions among each other. The kindness of Heaven is promised to the penitent, and let ours be directed by the example."

My daughter's grief, however, seemed formed for continuing, and her wretchedness was increased by the news that Mr. Thornhill was going to be married to the rich Miss Wilmot, who had formerly been betrothed to my eldest son.

On a morning of peculiar warmth for the season, when we were breakfasting out of doors, Mr. Thornhill drove up in his chariot, alighted, and inquired after my health with his usual air of familiarity.

"Sir," replied I, "your present assurance only serves to aggravate your baseness."

"My dear sir," returned he, "I cannot understand what this means!"

"Go!" cried I. "Thou art a poor, pitiful wretch, and every way a liar; but your meanness secures you from my anger!"

"I find," he said, "you are bent upon obliging me to talk in a harsher manner than I intended. My steward talks of driving for the rent, and it is certain he knows his duty. Yet, still, I could wish to serve you, and even to have you and your daughter present at my marriage."

"Mr. Thornhill," replied I, "as to your marriage with any but my daughter, that I never will consent to! And though your friendship could raise me to a throne, or your resentment sink me to the grave, yet would I despise both."

"Depend upon it," returned he, "you shall feel the effects of this insolence," and departed abruptly.

On the very next morning his steward came to demand my annual rent, which, by reason of the accidents already related, I was unable to pay. On the following day two officers of justice took me to the county gaol.

There is no situation, however wretched it seems, but has some sort of comfort attending it; and I found mine in the help and kindness of a fellow-prisoner, Mr. Jenkinson by name, who was awaiting trial for several acts of cheating and roguery. I myself, indeed, had been one of his victims.

The fortune of my family, who were lodged in the town, was wholly and distressingly adverse. Olivia was ill, and longed for me to make my submission to Mr. Thornhill by approving his marriage with Miss Wilmot. When I had been confined a fortnight, Mr. Jenkinson brought me dreadful news--Olivia was dead! And while yet my grief was fresh upon me my wife came weeping to tell me that Sophia had been seized by ruffians and carried off.

The sum of my miseries, thought, I, is now made up; nor is it in the power of anything on earth to give me another pang. Yet another awaited me. My eldest son, George, to whom I had written, went to Thornhill Castle to punish our betrayer; he was attacked by the coward's servants, injured one of them, and was brought into the very prison where I was confined.

The enemy of my family had now triumphed completely. My only hope was in a letter I had written to Sir William Thornhill, telling him of the misdeeds of his nephew. I was by this time myself extremely ill. I sought to break from my heart all ties that bound it to earth, and to fit myself for eternity.

V.--The Rescue

On parting from my unhappy son, who was removed to a stronger cell, I laid me down in bed, when Mr. Jenkinson, entering, informed me that there was news of my daughter. He had scarcely delivered his message when my dearest girl entered with Mr. Burchell.

"Here, papa," she cried, "here is the brave man to whom I owe my delivery; to this gentleman's intrepidity--"

A kiss from Mr. Burchell interrupted what she was going to add.

"Ah, Mr. Burchell," said I, "you were ever our friend. We have long discovered our errors with regard to you, and repented our ingratitude. And now, as you have delivered my girl, if you think her a recompense, she is yours."

"But I suppose, sir," he replied, "you are apprised of my incapacity to support her as she deserves?"

"I know no man," I returned, "so worthy to deserve her as you."

Without the least reply to my offer, he ordered from the next inn the best dinner that could be provided. While we were at dinner, the gaoler brought a message from Mr. Thornhill, desiring permission to appear before his uncle in order to vindicate his innocence and honour. The poor, harmless Mr. Burchell, then, was in reality the celebrated Sir William Thornhill!

Mr. Thornhill entered with a smile, and was going to embrace his uncle.

"No fawning, sir, at present," cried the baronet. "The only way to my heart is by the road of honour; but here I only see complicated instances of falsehood, cowardice, and oppression."

At this moment Jenkinson and the gaoler's two servants entered, hauling in a tall man very genteelly dressed. As soon as Mr. Thornhill perceived the prisoner and Mr. Jenkinson, he seemed to shrink backward with terror, for this was the man whom he had put upon the carrying off of Sophia.

"Heavens," cried Sir William, "what a viper have I been fostering in my bosom!"

"As Mr. Thornhill and I have been old fellow-sporters," said Jenkinson, "I have a friendship for him; and I hope he will show a proper return of friendship to his own honest Jenkinson, who brings him a wife."

So saying, he went off and left us.

"I am surprised," said the baronet, "what he can intend by this?"

"When we reflect," I replied, "on the various schemes--Amazement! Do I see my lost daughter? It is--it is my Olivia!"

"As for you, squire," said Jenkinson, "this young lady is your lawful wedded wife. Here is the licence to prove it. He commissioned me, gentlemen," he continued, "to procure him a false licence and a false priest in order to deceive this young lady. What did I do, but went and got a true licence and a true priest. To my shame, I confess it, my only design was to keep the licence and let the squire know that I could prove it upon him whenever I wanted money."

"How could you," I cried, "add to my miseries by the story of her death?"

"That," replied Jenkinson, "is easily answered. I thought the only probable means of freeing you from prison was by submitting to the squire, and consenting to his marriage with the other young lady. But this you had vowed never to grant while your daughter was living, so I had to join with your wife in persuading you that she was dead."

Mr. Thornhill's assurance had now entirely forsaken him. He fell on his knees before his uncle, and implored compassion.

"Thy vices, crimes, and ingratitude," said the baronet, "deserve no compassion; but a bare competence shall be supplied thee, and thy wife shall possess a third part of that fortune which once was thine." Then, turning to Sophia, he caught her to his breast with ardour. "I have sought," he cried, "for a woman who, a stranger to my fortune, could think I had merit as a man. How great must be my rapture to have made a conquest over such sense and such heavenly beauty!"

On the next day Sophia was wedded to Sir William Thornhill; and my son George, now freed from justice, as the person supposed to be wounded by him was detected to be an impostor, led Miss Wilmot to the altar. As soon as I had awakened that morning, I had heard that my merchant had been arrested at Antwerp, and that my fortune had been restored to me.

It may not be improper to observe, with respect to Mr. Thornhill, that he now resides as companion at a relation's house. My eldest daughter has told me that when he reforms she may be brought to relent.

I had now nothing on this side of the grave to wish for. All my cares were over. It only remained that my gratitude in good fortune should exceed my submission in adversity.

* * * * *

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