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Brothers of the Quill

Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street
Norma Clarke
Publisher
Harvard University Press
Price
€30.00
ISBN
9780674736573
Cover: Brothers of the Quill in HARDCOVER

EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

From the Introduction

Early in 1756 a penniless Irishman stepped off a boat at Dover, having crossed the Channel from France. He was ragged, dirty, hungry, tired, and perhaps disheartened—or perhaps, since he had been wandering on the Continent for almost two years with little and sometimes no money, his spirits were lifted by landing safely in England. He had come all the way from northern Italy, mostly on foot. He had begged night lodgings from peasants, slept in ditches, attached himself to travelling English and Irishmen who welcomed his conversation on the long stretches of dreary road, had played his flute in France, that 'land of mirth and social ease', and, so it is said, debated in Latin at monasteries in exchange for supper and a bed. He was a philosophic vagabond and he had been furthering his education in real life.

The vagabond was to become a celebrated man of letters, one of the best-loved writers of eighteenth-century English literature and firmly associated with London, where he soon settled. Oliver Goldsmith was a journalist, a poet, a novelist and a playwright. His novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, has never been out of print, and his play, She Stoops to Conquer, continues to be staged. His essays are models of English essay writing. People used to learn long passages of The Deserted Village by heart. His name belongs in the list whenever the culture of the times is character­ized: literature students will still find themselves reading about 'the age' of Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds and Burke. His career was short—he was in his late twenties when he arrived and he died in his mid-forties in 1774—and crammed. Goldsmith was among the first generation of 'writers by profession' who were able to look to the reading public and booksellers for financial support rather than to aristocratic patrons. With success came social status as well as the money that secured his wants; his name was recognized in the highest circles of the land, and he mingled with those who had never known what it was to wonder where the next meal was coming from.

Goldsmith's story is extraordinary, although it is not unique: hopeful authors all made their way to London and some became fa­mous in this, the first great era of celebrity. Grub Street, the heart of the book trade, could be a launching pad. Samuel Johnson himself had arrived twenty years earlier with more or less empty pockets and begun as an anonymous journalist, working to order from a publish­er's back room.