June 02, 2005

The vicar of Wakefield

The book-on-tape that I just finished listening to over the weekend was something of a departure for me; normally I go for the suspenseful thriller mystery, since one of its chief goals will be to keep me awake and alert while driving. But this one struck my fancy anyway, billed as the first comedic novel written in English: The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, first published in 1766. And the voice actor's accent alone was worth the price of admission (which was free, but still); the novel itself was a little scattershot, but still a fun read. I was interested to note that the desire to tie up all the loose ends with a nice, happy little bow, currently billed as some sort of American weakness, was already alive and well in 18th-century England.

Indeed, I was pretty surprised at a lot of the ways in which this novel could have been written much more recently. Many turns of phrase were older than I thought, and aside from a leaning towards some now-less-used words like 'assiduity', there were very few places where the language of the novel would be out of place in modern Standard English. (Even the thees and thous seemed to be on their way out; I think by this point they were already restricted to intra-family conversation.) I was certainly pleased to note a bunch of split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions, the most delightful being in the second-to-last chapter: "She was now made an honest woman of." Magnificent.

But the most interesting parts of the book were when characters were having discussions about politics and society, many of which are just as applicable today as they were 240 years ago. On class and the accumulation of wealth:

An accumulation of wealth, however, must necessarily be the consequence when, as at present, more riches flow in from external commerce than arise from internal industry; for external commerce can only be managed to advantage by the rich, and they have also at the same time all the emoluments arising from internal industry; so that the rich, with us, have two sources of wealth, whereas the poor have but one. For this reason, wealth in all commercial states is found to accumulate, and all such have hitherto in time become aristocratical.
That's from Chapter 19. On the nature of punishment and the role of the state therein:
Then, instead of our present prisons, which find or make men guilty, which enclose wretches for the commission of one crime, and return them, if returned alive, fitted for the perpetration of thousands....
Chapter 22 has more on this theme, starting around page 224. Some of it, it's like he's looking through time at turn-of-the-21st-century America, and all of us that even existed then was a bunch of colonies across the sea.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Perhaps because of its familiarity in language and politics, it helps to show me just how different some other things were about life in 18th-century Britain.

What could we say? We're only twenty five years old,
with 25 sweet summers, and hot fires in the cold.
This kind of life makes that violence unthinkable;
we'd like to play hockey,
  have kids,
  and grow old.... --Moxy Früvous, "Gulf War Song"

Posted by blahedo at 2:13pm on 2 Jun 2005
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