Before becoming a professor of English literature at London’s Kingston University, Norma Clarke wrote books for children. I suspect that that background contributes its mite to the great excellence of “Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street.” Clarke knows from experience what it’s like to be an “author by profession,” to use the 18th century’s supercilious phrase for anyone who scribbled for money. What’s more, she has also made sure that her new study of that era’s literary bohemia keeps readers eagerly turning the pages. Indeed, the book often reads like a collection of interconnected short stories.
In this regard, Clarke joins several contemporary English writers whose works brilliantly mix group biography, history and literary criticism. If you enjoyed Jenny Uglow’s “The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World,” Richard Holmes’s “The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” or Michael Holroyd’s “A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families,” you are the right audience for this study of Grub Street. “Brothers of the Quill” may be somewhat more academic overall, but it displays a comparable sprightliness and anecdotal abundance.
For many younger readers, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) is probably little more than a name, if that. Yet by the time of his relatively early death at age 45, he had produced a classic of sentimental fiction, “The Vicar of Wakefield ,” the witty stage comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer,” and the influential descriptive poem, “The Deserted Village.” His essays, collected as “The Citizen of the World,” remain models of easygoing harmonious prose. Samuel Johnson, who should know, declared that Goldsmith was “a man who, whatever he wrote, did it better than any other man could do.”
In Clarke’s view, Goldsmith and his writing, both typically characterized as “good-natured,” deserve to be studied more closely through the lens of his ethnicity and social class. Before you shudder, rest assured that Clarke isn’t doctrinaire or heavy-handed in this; she simply supplies an illuminating, hitherto absent context. Born in Ireland, the penniless Goldsmith arrived in London after almost two years of vagabondage in Europe and, to survive, soon fell to cranking out introductions, translations, tracts and book reviews for various magazine editors and parsimonious publishers. In short, through most of his life, he was always in harness. One of his earlier employers was none other than John Newbery, after whom the famous children’s literature award is named. It is even thought that Goldsmith may have been the author, or part-author, of the moralizing (but still touching) kids’ classic, “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.”
To the English, Goldsmith appeared stereotypically Irish: easygoing, innocent and loquacious, but also impudent, feckless and improvident. Whatever money he earned, he immediately spent. When he acquired wealth, he bought luxuries yet still managed to die heavily in debt. With few real facts extant about Goldsmith’s early years in Grub Street, Clarke sensibly turns for insight to the parallel lives of his “brothers of the quill,” most of them Irish. Theirs is the world of Richard Savage’s barely fictional writer for hire, Iscariot Hackney, and of scores of other real-life poetasters, rogues, sycophants and dreamers.
Samuel Derrick, John Pilkington, James Grainger and Robert Nugent Jr. aren’t names anyone is likely to recognize today. But they are a fascinating, colorfully disreputable crew. Derrick wrote poetry and worked as a part-time pimp, further supplementing his income by ghosting the scandalous “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.” Later in life, he succeeded Beau Nash as the arbiter of taste in upscale Bath. Pilkington was the son of the poet and sexual outcast Laetitia Pilkington, celebrated for her memoirs of Jonathan Swift. Grainger’s narrative poem, “The Sugar-Cane,” took readers to the slave plantations of Jamaica, where he practiced as a doctor and made a fortune, while Nugent’s roman a clef, “The Oppressed Captive,” attacked his cruel father, a bombastic politician who refused to acknowledge or help his illegitimate son (yet later became Goldsmith’s patron). All these men lived by their wits, frequently begging aristocrats for cash “subscriptions” to their future poems or novels — a pre-Internet version of crowdfunding.
Moreover, each dreamed of escape from scribbling drudgery. In this era only the gentleman-amateur could be a true artist or original thinker. “Put simply, 18th-century thought equated independent means with an independent mind.” The few who made it, like Goldsmith or that industrious novelist, anthologist, editor and translator, Tobias Smollett, might naturally feel ashamed of their sordid pasts. After all, you might not want polite society to know about your old pal John Cleland, author of the notorious “Fanny Hill” and “Memoirs of a Coxcomb.”
Toward the end of “Brothers of the Quill” Clarke zeroes in on Goldsmith’s major works, detecting behind their surface geniality a darker critique of the times. While “The Vicar of Wakefield” is remembered for its theme of virtue rewarded, it first shows us a father imprisoned for debt, a son’s fortunes ruined, one daughter kidnapped and another seduced (this last catastrophe memorialized by the haunting lyric that begins, “When lovely woman stoops to folly,/ And finds too late that men betray”). In the calamities besetting the Primrose family, as in the rural displacement poignantly described in “The Deserted Village,” Clarke sees a reflection of England’s exploitative treatment of the Irish. In the end, her Goldsmith is not just a “good-natured” man but also a profound critic of British colonialism and rather a shrewd literary operator as well.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Norma Clarke
Harvard. 399 pp. $35