Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street by Norma Clarke (review)
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Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street by Norma Clarke
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.
x+400pp. US$35. ISBN 978-0-674-73657-3.

Oliver Goldsmith (1728–74) remains a difficult writer to get a hold of. Although the assessment of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers could hardly have been higher—Goldsmith “wrote like an angel,” in David Garrick’s well-known words—twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers clearly have had an altogether harder time placing him. Mid-century critics made a great deal of the various ironies that complicate the situations and effects of The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). Some more recent commentators have sought to locate Goldsmith in a more identifiably Irish tradition. The difficulty with that locating is that much of Goldsmith’s work, set in what appear to be generically English locales (“Wakefield,” “sweet Auburn”), often goes out of its way to disguise whatever specifically Irish details or concerns it may contain, and, as Declan Kiberd points out, it does not easily lend itself to being read as part of an Irish tradition (Kiberd, Irish Classics [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001], 107). Unlike his great predecessor in Anglo-Irish literature, Jonathan Swift, Goldsmith did not make Anglo-Irish relations an overt subject in his major work. Nor does social critique, so central a feature of Swift’s work, ever seem to seriously threaten the social order even when it does appear in Goldsmith’s work (in The Deserted Village, A Citizen of the World, etc.).

Swift’s biting accounts of Irish colonial experience and exploitation have attracted more contemporary critical interest than Goldsmith’s gentle ironies—what Eavan Boland describes as Goldsmith’s “sweet Augustan double talk” (Boland, “Re-Reading Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village in a Changed Ireland,” quoted in Clarke, 335). Nonetheless, [End Page 526] devoted as Goldsmith may have been to assimilation into English literary and cultural life, he frequently betrays his Irish roots with details and references made considerably more meaningful when read within an Irish context. Norma Clarke’s study helps to highlight this aspect of Goldsmith’s work, offering an illuminating reading, for example, of Squire Thornhill’s doings in The Vicar of Wakefield in the framework of Irish society. The problem of the clash there, between Goldsmith’s vigorous defence of a traditional social hierarchy and the extraordinarily unprincipled behaviour of the squire apparently heading that hierarchy, is one that all readers of the book have to contend with. Clarke’s argument that this conflict has to be understood as Goldsmith conflating Irish and English situations provides this clarification: “Goldsmith’s predatory squire emerges more from Irish than from English tradition ... The rural English squire might rape his own servants, but the vicar’s daughters were generally off limits. In Ireland the story was different. The relation of landowner to tenant farmer was not based on any integrated sense of community” (252). The Irish context that Clarke establishes makes Goldsmith’s sudden, sometimes jarring shifts from idyll to nightmare both more compelling and, in a sense, more logical.

Reading Goldsmith in the kind of full context that makes his work and achievement clear is Clarke’s avowed aim in Brothers of the Quill, though as the title and subtitle indicate, the primary context is the literary culture of mid-eighteenth-century London rather than Ireland. Clarke focuses the book not on readings of Goldsmith’s major works or on Anglo-Irish relations, but on the community of Grub Street writers and men of letters with whom Goldsmith lived, worked, and competed. Major figures apart from Goldsmith himself are Ralph Griffiths, editor of the Monthly Review and Goldsmith’s early employer; poet James Grainger; and a series of Goldsmith’s fellow-countrymen: the Irish MP Robert Nugent, and fellow authors including Paul Hiffernan, Edward Purdon, and Samuel Derrick. Clarke maps the major events of their professional lives and their relationships with Goldsmith, arguing persuasively that an examination of his career and connections offers a uniquely privileged insight into literary London. Given Goldsmith’s position as both Grub Street hack and celebrated author, Clarke notes, there is “no better writer to take...


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