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  • The Family Piece”: Oliver Goldsmith and the Politics of the Everyday in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Portraiture
  • Christopher Flint (bio)

Still to ourselves in every place consign’d, Our own felicity we make or find: With secret course, which no loud storms annoy, Glides the smooth current of domestic joy. The lifted ax, the agonizing wheel, Luke’s iron crown, and Damien’s bed of steel, To men remote from power but rarely known, Leave reason, faith and conscience all our own.

Oliver Goldsmith 1


As the speaker in Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Traveller” implies, “the smooth current of domestic joy” in eighteenth-century Britain was supposed to run its “secret course” untouched by history, power, torture, or storm. Families should, instead, seek a “remote” space for rational, spiritual and moral self-possession, “consign’d” to a state where the devious uses of the ax, wheel, crown, and bed are “rarely known.” Whether simply found or actively made, “domestic joy” ought to be [End Page 127] determined by the shared desire among family members to create a resolutely separate sphere. In Goldsmith’s poem, however, such family privacy necessitates an observer who both explains the value of household seclusion and exposes it. By contrasting his hard knowledge of power to the “felicity” he celebrates, the speaker virtually denies his inclusion in the secure domestic group that his emphatic use of “our” seems to promise. In order to picture the family’s retreat from political contingencies he must, though pretending to be a member, stand away from it. The poem suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that the ideal depiction of household relations alerts the viewer to painful political realities while suppressing them within the family itself; like the speaker, “our” reading of the poem situates us both within and without the shared community of others. 2

Goldsmith’s sentimental novel The Vicar of Wakefield, itself a domestic portrait, also examines the separation of family and state, but adopts a more skeptical position than “The Traveller,” testing the Primroses’ capacity to resist external representations of power as they endeavor to validate their own internal image of security. In this respect, Goldsmith’s novel simply reproduces a persistent literary anxiety in the eighteenth century about the family’s conception of itself. From Penelope Aubin’s The Life of Madame Beaumont (1721), in which Belinda, the novel’s protagonist, verifies the hero’s merit by gazing at his family paintings, to Pride and Prejudice (1813), or gothic narratives like The Castle of Otranto (1764), where galleries of ancestral portraits trouble the susceptible protagonists, countless works of fiction document the urge to manifest family by displaying artful images that, while they are meant to idealize the family, persistently mirror its problematic relationship to representation. On a meta-narrative level, the portraits within novels embody the writer’s own interest in making characters and convincing stories about them. But in a more general sense, these family portraits (often called “family pieces” in the eighteenth century) embody the narrative’s self-reflexive concern with the troubling exchange between private experience and public performance. In Goldsmith’s poignant phrase they transcribe the desire to make “reason, faith and conscience all our own” within a context—a punishing world of customs, laws and governments—that negates the family’s urge to regard itself as self-sufficient.

That contradiction is demonstrated when the family members in The Vicar of Wakefield fail to anticipate the impracticality of an enormous family piece they have commissioned and effectively signal their own demise as a functioning social and representational unit. Indeed, deciding to represent their own domestic harmony in the form of a commodity simply exposes them to a semiotic indeterminacy of particularly destructive force. Describing the evolution of the portrait in a chapter subtitled “The family use art, which is opposed with still greater,” Goldsmith emphasizes the protean nature of representation (and domestic representation specifically). 3 As the subtitle suggests, the family’s art begets contrary art, continually widening the gap between image and subject as it satirizes the Primroses’ relationship to family myth.

In this particular instance of collective self-fashioning, the family’s failures of artistic insight are many. For one, they commission...

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pp. 127-152
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