The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The Poet Among the Ladies — Description of His Person and Manners — Expedition to Paris with the Horneck Family — The Traveler of Twenty and the Traveler of Forty — Hickey, the Special Attorney — An Unlucky Exploit

The Deserted Village had shed an additional poetic grace round the homely person of the author; he was becoming more and more acceptable in ladies’ eyes, and finding himself more and more at ease in their society; at least in the society of those whom he met in the Reynolds circle, among whom he particularly affected the beautiful family of the Hornecks.

But let us see what were really the looks and manners of Goldsmith about this time, and what right he had to aspire to ladies’ smiles; and in so doing let us not take the sketches of Boswell and his compeers, who had a propensity to represent him in caricature; but let us take the apparently truthful and discriminating picture of him as he appeared to Judge Day, when the latter was a student in the Temple.

“In person,” says the judge, “he was short; about five feet five or six inches; strong, but not heavy in make; rather fair in complexion, with brown hair; such, at least, as could be distinguished from his wig. His features were plain, but not repulsive — certainly not so when lighted up by conversation. His manners were simple, natural, and perhaps on the whole, we may say, not polished; at least without the refinement and good-breeding which the exquisite polish of his compositions would lead us to expect. He was always cheerful and animated, often, indeed, boisterous in his mirth; entered with spirit into convivial society; contributed largely to its enjoyments by solidity of information, and the naïvete and originality of his character; talked often without premeditation, and laughed loudly without restraint.”

This, it will be recollected, represents him as he appeared to a young Templar, who probably saw him only in Temple coffee-houses, at students’ quarters, or at the jovial supper parties given at the poet’s own chambers; here, of course, his mind was in its rough dress; his laugh may have been loud and his mirth boisterous; but we trust all these matters became softened and modified when he found himself in polite drawing-rooms and in female society.

But what say the ladies themselves of him; and here, fortunately, we have another sketch of him, as he appeared at the time to one of the Horneck circle; in fact, we believe, to the Jessamy Bride herself. After admitting, apparently with some reluctance, that “he was a very plain man,” she goes on to say, “but had he been much more so, it was impossible not to love and respect his goodness of heart, which broke out on every occasion. His benevolence was unquestionable, and his countenance bore every trace of it: no one that knew him intimately could avoid admiring and loving his good qualities.” When to all this we add the idea of intellectual delicacy and refinement associated with him by his poetry and the newly plucked bays that were flourishing round his brow, we cannot be surprised that fine and fashionable ladies should be proud of his attentions, and that even a young beauty should not be altogether displeased with the thoughts of having a man of his genius in her chains.

We are led to indulge some notions of the kind from finding him in the month of July, but a few weeks after the publication of the Deserted Village, setting off on a six weeks’ excursion to Paris, in company with Mrs. Horneck and her two beautiful daughters. A day or two before his departure we find another new gala suit charged to him on the books of Mr. William Filby. Were the bright eyes of the Jessamy Bride responsible for this additional extravagance of wardrobe? Goldsmith had recently been editing the works of Parnell; had he taken courage from the example of Edwin in the fairy tale? —

“Yet spite of all that nature did

To make his uncouth form forbid,

This creature dared to love.

He felt the force of Edith’s eyes,

Nor wanted hope to gain the prize

Could ladies look within —

All this we throw out as mere hints and surmises, leaving it to our readers to draw their own conclusions. It will be found, however, that the poet was subjected to shrewd bantering among his contemporaries about the beautiful Mary Horneck, and that he was extremely sensitive on the subject.

It was in the month of June that he set out for Paris with his fair companions, and the following letter was written by him to Sir Joshua Reynolds, soon after the party landed at Calais:

“MY DEAR FRIEND— We had a very quick passage from Dover to Calais, which we performed in three hours and twenty minutes, all of us extremely seasick, which must necessarily have happened, as my machine to prevent seasickness was not completed. We were glad to leave Dover, because we hated to be imposed upon; so were in high spirits at coming to Calais, where we were told that a little money would go a great way.

“Upon landing, with two little trunks, which was all we carried with us, we were surprised to see fourteen or fifteen fellows all running down to the ship to lay their hands upon them; four got under each trunk, the rest surrounded and held the hasps; and in this manner our little baggage was conducted, with a kind of funeral solemnity, till it was safely lodged at the custom-house. We were well enough pleased with the people’s civility till they came to be paid; every creature that had the happiness of but touching our trunks with their finger expected sixpence; and they had so pretty and civil a manner of demanding it that there was no refusing them.

“When we had done with the porters, we had next to speak with the custom-house officers, who had their pretty civil ways too. We were directed to the Hotel d’Angleterre, where a valet-de-place came to offer his service, and spoke to me ten minutes before I once found out that he was speaking English. We had no occasion for his services, so we gave him a little money because he spoke English, and because he wanted it. I cannot help mentioning another circumstance: I bought a new ribbon for my wig at Canterbury, and the barber at Calais broke it in order to gain sixpence by buying me a new one.”

An incident which occurred in the course of this tour has been tortured by that literary magpie, Boswell, into a proof of Goldsmith’s absurd jealousy of any admiration shown to others in his presence. While stopping at a hotel in Lisle, they were drawn to the windows by a military parade in front. The extreme beauty of the Misses Horneck immediately attracted the attention of the officers, who broke forth with enthusiastic speeches and compliments intended for their ears. Goldsmith was amused for a while, but at length affected impatience at this exclusive admiration of his beautiful companions, and exclaimed, with mock severity of aspect, “Elsewhere I also would have my admirers.”

It is difficult to conceive the obtuseness of intellect necessary to misconstrue so obvious a piece of mock petulance and dry humor into an instance of mortified vanity and jealous self-conceit.

Goldsmith jealous of the admiration of a group of gay officers for the charms of two beautiful young women! This even out-Boswells Boswell; yet this is but one of several similar absurdities, evidently misconceptions of Goldsmith’s peculiar vein of humor, by which the charge of envious jealousy has been attempted to be fixed upon him. In the present instance it was contradicted by one of the ladies herself, who was annoyed that it had been advanced against him. “I am sure,” said she, “from the peculiar manner of his humor, and assumed frown of countenance, what was often uttered in jest was mistaken, by those who did not know him, for earnest.” No one was more prone to err on this point than Boswell. He had a tolerable perception of wit, but none of humor.

The following letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds was subsequently written:

“To Sir Joshua Reynolds.

“PARIS, July 29 (1770).

“MY DEAR FRIEND— I began a long letter to you from Lisle, giving a description of all that we had done and seen, but, finding it very dull, and knowing that you would show it again, I threw it aside and it was lost. You see by the top of this letter that we are at Paris, and (as I have often heard you say) we have brought our own amusement with us, for the ladies do not seem to be very fond of what we have yet seen.

“With regard to myself, I find that traveling at twenty and forty are very different things. I set out with all my confirmed habits about me, and can find nothing on the Continent so good as when I formerly left it. One of our chief amusements here is scolding at everything we meet with, and praising everything and every person we left at home. You may judge, therefore, whether your name is not frequently bandied at table among us. To tell you the truth, I never thought I could regret your absence so much as our various mortifications on the road have often taught me to do. I could tell you of disasters and adventures without number; of our lying in barns, and of my being half poisoned with a dish of green peas; of our quarreling with postilions, and being cheated by our landladies; but I reserve all this for a happy hour which I expect to share with you upon my return.

“I have little to tell you more but that we are at present all well, and expect returning when we have stayed out one month, which I did not care if it were over this very day. I long to hear from you all, how you yourself do, how Johnson, Burke, Dyer, Chamier, Colman, and every one of the club do. I wish I could send you some amusement in this letter, but I protest I am so stupefied by the air of this country (for I am sure it cannot be natural) that I have not a word to say. I have been thinking of the plot of a comedy, which shall be entitled A Journey to Paris, in which a family shall be introduced with a full intention of going to France to save money. You know there is not a place in the world more promising for that purpose. As for the meat of this country, I can scarce eat it; and, though we pay two good shillings a head for our dinner, I find it all so tough that I have spent less time with my knife than my picktooth. I said this as a good thing at the table, but it was not understood. I believe it to be a good thing.

“As for our intended journey to Devonshire, I find it out of my power to perform it; for, as soon as I arrive at Dover, I intend to let the ladies go on, and I will take a country lodging somewhere near that place in order to do some business. I have so outrun the constable that I must mortify a little to bring it up again. For God’s sake, the night you receive this, take your pen in your hand and tell me something about yourself and myself, if you know anything that has happened. About Miss Reynolds, about Mr. Bickerstaff, my nephew, or anybody that you regard. I beg you will send to Griffin the bookseller to know if there be any letters left for me, and be so good as to send them to me at Paris. They may perhaps be left for me at the Porter’s Lodge, opposite the pump in Temple Lane. The same messenger will do. I expect one from Lord Clare, from Ireland. As for the others, I am not much uneasy about.

“Is there anything I can do for you at Paris? I wish you would tell me. The whole of my own purchases here is one silk coat, which I have put on, and which makes me look like a fool. But no more of that. I find that Colman has gained his lawsuit. I am glad of it. I suppose you often meet. I will soon be among you, better pleased with my situation at home than I ever was before. And yet I must say that, if anything could make France pleasant, the very good women with whom I am at present would certainly do it. I could say more about that, but I intend showing them the letter before I send it away. What signifies teasing you longer with moral observations, when the business of my writing is over? I have one thing only more to say, and of that I think every hour in the day; namely, that I am your most sincere and most affectionate friend,

“OLIVER GOLDSMITH.

“Direct to me at the Hotel de Danemarc,

Rue Jacob, Fauxbourg St. Germains.”

A word of comment on this letter:

Traveling is, indeed, a very different thing with Goldsmith the poor student at twenty, and Goldsmith the poet and professor at forty. At twenty, though obliged to trudge on foot from town to town, and country to country, paying for a supper and a bed by a tune on the flute, everything pleased, everything was good; a truckle bed in a garret was a conch of down, and the homely fare of the peasant a feast fit for an epicure. Now, at forty, when he posts through the country in a carriage, with fair ladies by his side, everything goes wrong: he has to quarrel with postilions, he is cheated by landladies, the hotels are barns, the meat is too tough to be eaten, and he is half poisoned by green peas! A line hi his letter explains the secret: “The ladies do not seem to be very fond of what we have yet seen.” “One of our chief amusements is scolding at everything we meet with, and praising everything and every person we have left at home!” the true English traveling amusement. Poor Goldsmith! he has “all his confirmed habits about him”; that is to say, he has recently risen into high life, and acquired highbred notions; he must be fastidious like his fellow-travelers; he dare not be pleased with what pleased the vulgar tastes of his youth. He is unconsciously illustrating the trait so humorously satirized by him in Bill Tibbs, the shabby beau, who can find “no such dressing as he had at Lord Crump’s or Lady Crimp’s”; whose very senses have grown genteel, and who no longer “smacks at wretched wine or praises detestable custard.” A lurking thorn, too, is worrying him throughout this tour; he has “outrun the constable”; that is to say, his expenses have outrun his means, and he will have to make up for this butterfly flight by toiling like a grub on his return.

Another circumstance contributes to mar the pleasure he had promised himself in this excursion. At Paris the party is unexpectedly joined by a Mr. Hickey, a bustling attorney, who is well acquainted with that metropolis and its environs, and insists on playing the cicerone on all occasions. He and Goldsmith do not relish each other, and they have several petty altercations. The lawyer is too much a man of business and method for the careless poet, and is disposed to manage everything. He has perceived Goldsmith’s whimsical peculiarities without properly appreciating his merits, and is prone to indulge in broad bantering and raillery at his expense, particularly irksome if indulged in presence of the ladies. He makes himself merry on his return to England, by giving the following anecdote as illustrative of Goldsmith’s vanity:

“Being with a party at Versailles, viewing the waterworks, a question arose among the gentlemen present, whether the distance from whence they stood to one of the little islands was within the compass of a leap. Goldsmith maintained the affirmative; but, being bantered on the subject, and remembering his former prowess as a youth, attempted the leap, but, falling short, descended into the water, to the great amusement of the company.”

Was the Jessamy Bride a witness of this unlucky exploit?

This same Hickey is the one of whom Goldsmith, some time subsequently, gave a good-humored sketch in his poem of The Retaliation.

“Here Hickey reclines, a most blunt, pleasant creature,

And slander itself must allow him good nature;

He cherish’d his friend, and he relish’d a bumper,

Yet one fault he had, and that one was a thumper.

Perhaps you may ask if the man was a miser;

I answer No, no, for he always was wiser;

Too courteous, perhaps, or obligingly flat,

His very worst foe can’t accuse him of that;

Perhaps he confided in men as they go,

And so was too foolishly honest? Ah, not

Then what was his failing? Come, tell it, and burn ye —

He was, could he help it? a special attorney.”

One of the few remarks extant made by Goldsmith during his tour is the following, of whimsical import, in his Animated Nature.

“In going through the towns of France, some time since, I could not help observing how much plainer their parrots spoke than ours, and how very distinctly I understood their parrots speak French, when I could not understand our own, though they spoke my native language. I at first ascribed it to the different qualities of the two languages, and was for entering into an elaborate discussion on the vowels and consonants; but a friend that was with me solved the difficulty at once, by assuring me that the French women scarce did anything else the whole day than sit and instruct their feathered pupils; and that the birds were thus distinct in their lessons in consequence of continual schooling.”

His tour does not seem to have left in his memory the most fragrant recollections; for, being asked, after his return, whether traveling on the Continent repaid “an Englishman for the privations and annoyances attendant on it,” he replied, “I recommend it by all means to the sick, if they are without the sense of smelling, and to the poor, if they are without the sense of feeling; and to both, if they can discharge from their minds all idea of what in England we term comfort.”

It is needless to say that the universal improvement in the art of living on the Continent has at the present day taken away the force of Goldsmith’s reply, though even at the time it was more humorous than correct.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/irving/washington/goldsmith/chapter29.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38