The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Thirty-Two

Marriage of Little Comedy — Goldsmith at Barton — Practical Jokes at the Expense of His Toilet — Amusements At Barton — Aquatic Misadventure

Though Goldsmith found it impossible to break from his literary occupations to visit Bennet Langton, in Lincolnshire, he soon yielded to attractions from another quarter, in which somewhat of sentiment may have mingled. Miss Catharine Horneck, one of his beautiful fellow-travelers, otherwise called “Little Comedy,” had been married in August to Henry William Bunbury, Esq., a gentleman of fortune, who has become celebrated for the humorous productions of his pencil. Goldsmith was shortly afterward invited to pay the newly married couple a visit at their seat, at Barton, in Suffolk. How could he resist such an invitation — especially as the Jessamy Bride would, of course, be among the guests? It is true, he was hampered with work; he was still more hampered with debt; his accounts with Newbery were perplexed; but all must give way. New advances are procured from Newbery, on the promise of a new tale in the style of the Vicar of Wakefield, of which he showed him a few roughly-sketched chapters; so, his purse replenished in the old way, “by hook or by crook,” he posted off to visit the bride at Barton. He found there a joyous household, and one where he was welcomed with affection. Garrick was there, and played the part of master of the revels, for he was an intimate friend of the master of the house. Notwithstanding early misunderstandings, a social intercourse between the actor and the poet had grown up of late, from meeting together continually in the same circle. A few particulars have reached us concerning Goldsmith while on this happy visit. We believe the legend has come down from Miss Mary Horneck herself. “While at Barton,” she says, “his manners were always playful and amusing, taking the lead in promoting any scheme of innocent mirth, and usually prefacing the invitation with ‘Come, now, let us play the fool a little.’ At cards, which was commonly a round game, and the stake small, he was always the most noisy, affected great eagerness to win, and teased his opponents of the gentler sex with continual jest and banter on their want of spirit in not risking the hazards of the game. But one of his most favorite enjoyments was to romp with the children, when he threw off all reserve, and seemed one of the most joyous of the group.

“One of the means by which he amused us was his songs, chiefly of the comic kind, which were sung with some taste and humor; several, I believe, were of his own composition, and I regret that I neither have copies, which might have been readily procured from him at the time, nor do I remember their names.”

His perfect good humor made him the object of tricks of all kinds; often in retaliation of some prank which he himself had played off. Unluckily these tricks were sometimes made at the expense of his toilet, which, with a view peradventure to please the eye of a certain fair lady, he had again enriched to the impoverishment of his purse. “Being at all times gay in his dress,” says this ladylike legend, “he made his appearance at the breakfast-table in a smart black silk coat with an expensive pair of ruffles; the coat some one contrived to soil, and it was sent to be cleansed; but, either by accident, or probably by design, the day after it came home, the sleeves became daubed with paint, which was not discovered until the ruffles also, to his great mortification, were irretrievably disfigured.

“He always wore a wig, a peculiarity which those who judge of his appearance only from the fine poetical head of Reynolds would not suspect; and on one occasion some person contrived seriously to injure this important adjunct to dress. It was the only one he had in the country, and the misfortune seemed irreparable until the services of Mr. Bunbury’s valet were called in, who, however, performed his functions so indifferently that poor Goldsmith’s appearance became the signal for a general smile.”

This was wicked waggery, especially when it was directed to mar all the attempts of the unfortunate poet to improve his personal appearance, about which he was at all times dubiously sensitive, and particularly when among the ladies.

We have in a former chapter recorded his unlucky tumble into a fountain at Versailles, when attempting a feat of agility in presence of the fair Hornecks. Water was destined to be equally baneful to him on the present occasion. “Some difference of opinion,” says the fair narrator, “having arisen with Lord Harrington respecting the depth of a pond, the poet remarked that it was not so deep, but that, if anything valuable was to be found at the bottom, he would not hesitate to pick it up. His lordship, after some banter, threw in a guinea; Goldsmith, not to be outdone in this kind of bravado, in attempting to fulfill his promise without getting wet, accidentally fell in, to the amusement of all present, but persevered, brought out the money, and kept it, remarking that he had abundant objects on whom to bestow any further proofs of his lordship’s whim or bounty.”

All this is recorded by the beautiful Mary Horneck, the Jessamy Bride herself; but while she gives these amusing pictures of poor Goldsmith’s eccentricities, and of the mischievous pranks played off upon him, she bears unqualified testimony, which we have quoted elsewhere, to the qualities of his head and heart, which shone forth, in his countenance, and gained him the love of all who knew him.

Among the circumstances of this visit vaguely called to mind by this fair lady in after years, was that Goldsmith read to her and her sister the first part of a novel which he had in hand. It was doubtless the manuscript mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, on which he had obtained an advance of money from Newbery to stave off some pressing debts, and to provide funds for this very visit. It never was finished. The bookseller, when he came afterward to examine the manuscript, objected to it as a mere narrative version of the Good–Natured Man. Goldsmith, too easily put out of conceit of his writings, threw it aside, forgetting that this was the very Newbery who kept his Vicar of Wakefield by him nearly two years through doubts of its success. The loss of the manuscript is deeply to be regretted; it doubtless would have been properly wrought up before given to the press, and might have given us new scenes in life and traits of character, while it could not fail to bear traces of his delightful style. What a pity he had not been guided by the opinions of his fair listeners at Barton, instead of that of the astute Mr. Newbery!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/irving/washington/goldsmith/chapter32.html

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