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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGoldsmith - Chapter 16. She Stoops To Conquer
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Goldsmith - Chapter 16. She Stoops To Conquer Post by :sbeard Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2085

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Goldsmith - Chapter 16. She Stoops To Conquer

CHAPTER XVI. SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER

But the writing of smart verses could not keep Dr. Goldsmith alive, more especially as dinner-parties, Ranelagh masquerades, and similar diversions pressed heavily on his finances. When his _History of England appeared, the literary cut-throats of the day accused him of having been bribed by the Government to betray the liberties of the people:(3) a foolish charge. What Goldsmith got for the _English History was the sum originally stipulated for, and now no doubt all spent; with a further sum of fifty guineas for an abridgment of the work. Then, by this time, he had persuaded Griffin to advance him the whole of the eight hundred guineas for the _Animated Nature_, though he had only done about a third part of the book. At the instigation of Newbery he had begun a story after the manner of the _Vicar of Wakefield_; but it appears that such chapters as he had written were not deemed to be promising; and the undertaking was abandoned. The fact is, Goldsmith was now thinking of another method of replenishing his purse. The _Vicar of Wakefield had brought him little but reputation; the _Good-natured Man had brought him L500. It was to the stage that he now looked for assistance out of the financial slough in which he was plunged. He was engaged in writing a comedy; and that comedy was _She Stoops to Conquer_.

(Footnote 3: "God knows I had no thought for or against liberty in my head; my whole aim being to make up a book of a decent size that, as Squire Richard says, 'would do no harm to nobody.'"--Goldsmith to Langton, September, 1771.)

In the Dedication to Johnson which was prefixed to this play on its appearance in type, Goldsmith hints that the attempt to write a comedy not of the sentimental order then in fashion, was a hazardous thing; and also that Colman, who saw the piece in its various stages, was of this opinion too. Colman threw cold water on the undertaking from the very beginning. It was only extreme pressure on the part of Goldsmith's friends that induced--or rather compelled--him to accept the comedy; and that, after he had kept the unfortunate author in the tortures of suspense for month after month. But although Goldsmith knew the danger, he was resolved to face it. He hated the sentimentalists and all their works; and determined to keep his new comedy faithful to nature, whether people called it low or not. His object was to raise a genuine, hearty laugh; not to write a piece for school declamation; and he had enough confidence in himself to do the work in his own way. Moreover he took the earliest possible opportunity, in writing this piece, of poking fun at the sensitive creatures who had been shocked by the "vulgarity" of _The Good-natured Man_. "Bravo! Bravo!" cry the jolly companions of Tony Lumpkin, when that promising buckeen has finished his song at the Three Pigeons; then follows criticism:--

"_First Fellow. The squire has got spunk in him.

_Second Fel. I loves to hear him sing, bekeays he never
gives us nothing that's low.

_Third Fel. O damn anything that's low, I cannot bear it.

_Fourth Fel. The genteel thing is the genteel thing any
time: if so be that a gentleman bees in a concatenation
accordingly.

_Third Fel. I likes the maxum of it, Master Muggins. What,
though I am obligated to dance a bear, a man may be a
gentleman for all that. May this be my poison, if my bear
ever dances but to the very genteelest of tunes; 'Water
Parted,' or the 'The Minuet in Ariadne.'"

Indeed, Goldsmith, however he might figure in society, was always capable of holding his own when he had his pen in his hand. And even at the outset of this comedy one sees how much he has gained in literary confidence since the writing of the _Good-natured Man_. Here there is no anxious stiffness at all; but a brisk, free conversation, full of point that is not too formal, and yet conveying all the information that has usually to be crammed into a first scene. In taking as the groundwork of his plot that old adventure that had befallen himself--his mistaking a squire's house for an inn--he was hampering himself with something that was not the less improbable because it had actually happened; but we begin to forget all the improbabilities through the naturalness of the people to whom we are introduced, and the brisk movement and life of the piece.

Fashions in dramatic literature may come and go; but the wholesome good-natured fun of _She Stoops to Conquer is as capable of producing a hearty laugh now, as it was when it first saw the light in Covent Garden. Tony Lumpkin is one of the especial favourites of the theatre-going public; and no wonder. With all the young cub's jibes and jeers, his impudence and grimaces, one has a sneaking love for the scapegrace; we laugh with him, rather than at him; how can we fail to enjoy those malevolent tricks of his when he so obviously enjoys them himself? And Diggory--do we not owe an eternal debt of gratitude to honest Diggory for telling us about Ould Grouse in the gunroom, that immortal joke at which thousands and thousands of people have roared with laughter, though they never any one of them could tell what the story was about? The scene in which the old squire lectures his faithful attendants on their manners and duties, is one of the truest bits of comedy on the English stage:

"_Mr. Hardcastle. But you're not to stand so, with your
hands in your pockets. Take your hands from your pockets,
Roger; and from your head, you blockhead you. See how
Diggory carries his hands. They're a little too stiff,
indeed, but that's no great matter.

_Diggory. Ay, mind how I hold them. I learned to hold my
hands this way when I was upon drill for the militia. And so
being upon drill--.

_Hard. You must not be so talkative, Diggory. You must be
all attention to the guests. You must hear us talk, and not
think of talking; you must see us drink, and not think of
drinking; you must see us eat, and not think of eating.

_Dig. By the laws, your worship, that's parfectly
unpossible. Whenever Diggory sees yeating going forward,
ecod, he's always wishing for a mouthful himself.

_Hard. Blockhead! Is not a bellyfull in the kitchen as good
as a bellyfull in the parlour? Stay your stomach with that
reflection.

_Dig. Ecod, I thank your worship, I'll make a shift to stay
my stomach with a slice of cold beef in the pantry.

_Hard. Diggory, you are too talkative.--Then, if I happen
to say a good thing, or tell a good story at table, you must
not all burst out a-laughing, as if you made part of the
company.

_Dig. Then ecod your worship must not tell the story of
Ould Grouse in the gunroom: I can't help laughing at
that--he! he! he!--for the soul of me. We have laughed at
that these twenty years--ha! ha! ha!

_Hard. Ha! ha! ha! The story is a good one. Well, honest
Diggory, you may laugh at that--but still remember to be
attentive. Suppose one of the company should call for a
glass of wine, how will you behave? A glass of wine, sir,
if-you please (_to DIGGORY).--Eh, why don't you move?

_Dig. Ecod, your worship, I never have courage till I see
the eatables and drinkables brought upo' the table, and then
I'm as bauld as a lion.

_Hard. What, will nobody move?

_First Serv. I'm not to leave this pleace.

_Second Serv. I'm sure it's no pleace of mine.

_Third Serv. Nor mine, for sartain.

_Dig. Wauns, and I'm sure it canna be mine."

No doubt all this is very "low" indeed; and perhaps Mr. Colman may be forgiven for suspecting that the refined wits of the day would be shocked by these rude humours of a parcel of servants. But all that can be said in this direction was said at the time by Horace Walpole, in a letter to a friend of his; and this criticism is so amusing in its pretence and imbecility that it is worth quoting at large. "Dr. Goldsmith has written a comedy," says this profound critic, "--no, it is the lowest of all farces; it is not the subject I condemn, though very vulgar, but the execution. The drift tends to no moral, no edification of any kind--the situations, however, are well imagined, and make one laugh in spite of the grossness of the dialogue, the forced witticisms, and total improbability of the whole plan and conduct. But what disgusts me most is, that though the characters are very low, and aim at low humour, not one of them says a sentence that is natural, or marks any character at all." Horace Walpole sighing for edification--from a Covent Garden comedy! Surely, if the old gods have any laughter left, and if they take any notice of what is done in the literary world here below, there must have rumbled through the courts of Olympus a guffaw of sardonic laughter, when that solemn criticism was put down on paper.

Meanwhile Colman's original fears had developed into a sort of stupid obstinacy. He was so convinced that the play would not succeed, that he would spend no money in putting it on the stage; while far and wide he announced its failure as a foregone conclusion. Under this gloom of vaticination the rehearsals were nevertheless proceeded with--the brunt of the quarrels among the players falling wholly on Goldsmith, for the manager seems to have withdrawn in despair; while all the Johnson confraternity were determined to do what they could for Goldsmith on the opening night. That was the 15th of March, 1773. His friends invited the author to dinner as a prelude to the play; Dr. Johnson was in the chair; there was plenty of gaiety. But this means of keeping up the anxious author's spirits was not very successful. Goldsmith's mouth, we are told by Reynolds, became so parched "from the agitation of his mind, that he was unable to swallow a single mouthful." Moreover, he could not face the ordeal of sitting through the play; when his friends left the tavern and betook themselves to the theatre, he went away by himself; and was subsequently found walking in St. James's Park. The friend who discovered him there, persuaded him that his presence in the theatre might be useful in case of an emergency; and ultimately got him to accompany him to Covent Garden. When Goldsmith reached the theatre, the fifth act had been begun.

Oddly enough, the first thing he heard on entering the stage-door was a hiss. The story goes that the poor author was dreadfully frightened; and that in answer to a hurried question, Colman exclaimed, "Psha! Doctor, don't be afraid of a squib, when we have been sitting these two hours on a barrel of gunpowder." If this was meant as a hoax, it was a cruel one; if meant seriously, it was untrue. For the piece had turned out a great hit. From beginning to end of the performance the audience were in a roar of laughter; and the single hiss that Goldsmith unluckily heard was so markedly exceptional, that it became the talk of the town, and was variously attributed to one or other of Goldsmith's rivals. Colman, too, suffered at the hands of the wits for his gloomy and falsified predictions; and had, indeed, to beg Goldsmith to intercede for him. It is a great pity that Boswell was not in London at this time; for then we might have had a description of the supper that naturally would follow the play, and of Goldsmith's demeanour under this new success. Besides the gratification, moreover, of his choice of materials being approved by the public, there was the material benefit accruing to him from the three "author's nights." These are supposed to have produced nearly five hundred pounds--a substantial sum in those days.

Boswell did not come to London till the second of April following; and the first mention we find of Goldsmith is in connection with an incident which has its ludicrous as well as its regrettable aspect. The further success of _She Stoops to Conquer was not likely to propitiate the wretched hole-and-corner cut-throats that infested the journalism of that day. More especially was Kenrick driven mad with envy; and so, in a letter addressed to the _London Packet_, this poor creature determined once more to set aside the judgment of the public, and show Dr. Goldsmith in his true colours. The letter is a wretched production, full of personalities only fit for an angry washerwoman, and of rancour without point. But there was one passage in it that effectually roused Goldsmith's rage; for here the Jessamy Bride was introduced as "the lovely H----k." The letter was anonymous; but the publisher of the print, a man called Evans, was known; and so Goldsmith thought he would go and give Evans a beating. If he had asked Johnson's advice about the matter, he would no doubt have been told to pay no heed at all to anonymous scurrility--certainly not to attempt to reply to it with a cudgel. When Johnson heard that Foote meant to "take him off," he turned to Davies and asked him what was the common price of an oak stick; but an oak stick in Johnson's hands, and an oak stick in Goldsmith's Lands, were two different things. However, to the bookseller's shop the indignant poet proceeded, in company with a friend; got hold of Evans; accused him of having insulted a young lady by putting her name in his paper; and, when the publisher would fain have shifted the responsibility on to the editor, forthwith denounced him as a rascal, and hit him over the back with his cane. The publisher, however, was quite a match for Goldsmith; and there is no saying how the deadly combat might have ended, had not a lamp been broken overhead, the oil of which drenched both the warriors. This intervention of the superior gods was just as successful as a Homeric cloud; the fray ceased; Goldsmith and his friend withdrew; and ultimately an action for assault was compromised by Goldsmith's paying fifty pounds to a charity. Then the howl of the journals arose. Their prerogative had been assailed. "Attacks upon private character were the most liberal existing source of newspaper income," Mr. Forster writes; and so the pack turned with one cry on the unlucky poet. There was nothing of "the Monument" about poor Goldsmith; and at last he was worried into writing a letter of defence addressed to the public. "He has indeed done it very well," said Johnson to Boswell, "but it is a foolish thing well done." And further he remarked, "Why, sir, I believe it is the first time he has _beat_; he may have _been beaten before. This, sir, is a new plume to him."

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