Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street by Norma Clarke review
The Irish writer’s stature is taken for granted in this exploration of his career as a ‘hack’
Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street
Harvard University Press
The vexed politics of commemoration is very much in the air. At Oxford, students have demanded that a statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed, while Princeton has just rebuffed calls to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Government and Public Affairs. There’s no evidence that Oliver Goldsmith, standing at the entrance to Trinity College Dublin, needs to shake on his plinth, but some may wonder what he’s doing there.
Any thinking on Goldsmith’s worth will benefit from Norma Clarke’s handsomely produced, attractively priced, and highly readable Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. Goldsmith is one of the most successful and enduring Irish writers. Among his many works a novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) has been continuously in print since publication; a poem, The Deserted Village (1770) immediately entered the canon; and a play, She Stoops to Conquer, has never been out of the repertoire since its first performance in 1773.
Clarke has no issue with Goldsmith’s stature as a writer; in fact, she takes it for granted. Her book is, however, most interested in a part of Goldsmith’s writing life that tends to get passed over: his Grub Street experience. As a result, Brothers of the Quill elegantly topples conventional accounts of Goldsmith’s career.
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Clarke begins her story with Goldsmith’s arrival in London from the continent in 1756. Goldsmith already had behind him a varied and incompletely successful career: studies at Trinity (interrupted by a failed attempt to emigrate to America); spells in Edinburgh and Leyden as a medical student; and extended travels in Europe as a busker.
In London, Goldsmith got a job as a tutor and was introduced to Ralph Griffiths, the powerful owner and editor of the Monthly Review. At this time, print culture was rapidly expanding. Booksellers and publishers took the place of patrons, and newspapers and periodicals (many short-lived) gave writers opportunities to earn money, if not a living. Goldsmith and Griffiths made an agreement. In return for £100 a year, and board and lodgings above the shop, Goldsmith would write reviews from 9am to 2pm daily. Goldsmith had become a ‘hack’: a writer for hire.
Goldsmith’s time with Griffiths ended badly, but he subsequently entered into similar relationships with other booksellers, most notably John Newbery, best known as an entrepreneurial publisher of books for children. For these men, Goldsmith produced to order reviews, prefaces, and translations that were published anonymously.
Goldsmith’s tremendous critical success with a poem, The Traveller, published under his own name in 1764, may have initiated his ascent to respected man of letters, but, as Clarke points out, his work on Grub Street still continued.
Goldsmith was doubly disadvantaged in London metropolitan society: he wrote for money, and he was an Irishman. About professional authorship, Goldsmith wrote obsessively-and inconsistently. He was capable of cherishing authorship as a possible source of independence and respectability, and of reviling it as base enslavement to poor public taste.
On Ireland, and being Irish, he was a lot less explicit. Many readers have seen the mark of the writer’s native land in his major works, particularly in the wasted landscape of ‘Sweet Auburn’, the deserted village, but Goldsmith insisted the setting was English.
The unconventional structure of Brothers of the Quill comes from Clarke’s belief that Goldsmith is best seen in the context of “other voices, other lives”. The first half of the book follows Goldsmith out of Griffith’s employ, while also providing deft and vivid accounts of other Irish writers in London.
Paul Hiffernan, an erudite former priest, published The Hiberniad, a stout defence of Irish learning and landscape. He was also a notorious sponger and avid subscription-getter for books that never appeared.
Edward Purdon from Limerick translated Voltaire and dropped dead in his late 30s, inspiring an epitaph from Goldsmith: ‘Here lies poor Ned Purdon, from misery freed/Who long was a bookseller’s hack;/ He led such a damnable life in this world, /I don’t think he’ll wish to come back’.
Samuel Derrick from Carlow, a poet, produced a respectable edition of John Dryden but his most lucrative effort was a catalogue of Covent Garden prostitutes (regularly updated). Con Pilkington, son of the poet Laetitia (herself the subject of a fine book by Clarke), turned his precarious life into an early example of ‘misery lit’. Hacks could be learned and enterprising but their lives were often sordid and brief.
Fundamental to the low esteem suffered by hacks was the suspicion that pens for hire would write anything, sell anything, in a grubby effort to survive. Hack writing was often described in terms of prostitution or slavery. Some of the links Clarke sees between Goldsmith’s major writings and his fellow hacks are speculative and suggestive, rather than conclusive, but the overall context is compelling. Grub Street represents in little the ambivalent power of a commercial, and newly imperial, society. Like other hacks, Goldsmith was mired in the processes of selling, but in his predicament he also saw commerce as a system at once productive and barbarous: ‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay’ ( The Deserted Village).
Nineteenth-century admirers of Goldsmith such as John Kells Ingram, one of the instigators of the Trinity statue, and the novelist William Thackeray, valued a gentle Goldsmith, full of love and feeling. Such versions of the author depended on autobiographical and partial readings of the works, on seeing Goldsmith in the naïve, but good-hearted, Mr Primrose, the Vicar of Wakefield, or as the nostalgic speaker of The Deserted Village, longing for the warmth and familiarity of a way of life that has been destroyed.
In perhaps the shrewdest critical judgment in her book, Clarke states that while Goldsmith “has urgent things to say that derive from the life he lived”, his impulse is not “confessional”.
Goldsmith is both autobiographical and impersonal. As regards the latter, Clarke draws attention to the regularity with which Goldsmith adopts personae and speaks with assumed voices, a facility he shares with Jonathan Swift. Read alongside his almost entirely forgotten “brothers of the quill”, Goldsmith looks different; he seems angrier, tougher, more pervasively Irish, and more coherently serious.
Goldsmith left relatively few letters and no journals but, according to Clarke, “all the evidence suggests Goldsmith was a shrewd operator, a survivor with a ruthless streak, gifted with very broad-ranging abilities”.
Not entirely lovable, then, but certainly a Goldsmith appropriately reimagined for the portal of a 21st-century Irish university.
Aileen Douglas teaches English at Trinity College Dublin. Her new book, Work in Hand, will be published next year by Oxford University Press