she stoops to conquer

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  • Topic: She Stoops to Conquer, Farce, Comedy
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She Stoops to Conquer
Tom Davis's introduction to Oliver Goldsmith's play (E. Benn / Norton, 1979)

The Author

Oliver Goldsmith was born an Irishman, the second son of a not very affluent clergyman, probably in the village of Pallas, County Westmeath, probably in 1730. Soon afterwards the family moved to the village of Lissoy, one of the candidates for the role of Auburn in Goldmith's famous pastoral The Deserted Village. The intensity of the longing for the idealized village of the poem is mirrored by the intensity with which Goldsmith attempted to desert his own village background: as an entrant to Trinity College, Dublin (1745); in two attempts to emigrate to America; in a flight to Dublin, intending to study law in London (both in 1750-52); finally, and successfully, as a medical student at the university of Edinburgh (1752). He stayed there two years, in considerable poverty—his extravagance not being met by his only source of income, a small allowance from his uncle—before the urge to travel took him, without a degree and after what can only have been a superficial education in medicine, for a by no means grand tour of Europe. Not much is known of his travels, except for the probably rather fictitious accounts given by Goldsmith himself; he seems to have visited Flanders, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, living (as he was always to do) on the edge of destitution. He survived, to emerge in London in 1756, trying one job after another to subsist. Apothecary's assistant, unsuccessful (and unqualified) physician, possibly proof-reader, certainly an usher in a boy's school.

Gradually, however, he felt his way into the literary life. In 1757 he was writing articles on a regular basis for the Monthly Review, and earning a steady and reasonable income from it; by 1762 he had established himself as a writer worth respecting, with a wide set of friends in the literary world, including Samuel Johnson, whose career had run somewhat parallel to his. Although in 1760 he was earning the comfortable salary of £100 a year for writing two articles a week for John Newbery, these being the letters of a fictitious Chinaman reporting his amusing and penetratingly naïve impressions of England, he remained constatnly in debt, his money draining away on gambling (which he was very bad at), elaborate and rather tasteless clothes, and other extravagances. In 1762 Newbery became his patron, landlord, and banker, and made him a strict allowance, to be debited against the credit earned by work done. This action explicitly acknowledged him to be the foremost journalistic talent in the stable of one of the most prominent publishers of the day, and worth the investment of a shrewd businessman. He took at this point another crucial step: he signed a contract for a Survey of Experimental Philosophy; that is, in order to make immediate money he was prepared to use the distinctive assurance and clarity of his prose style in producing compilations, translations, and other hack productions on matters of popular interest: a History of England (1764), a Roman History (1769), anotherHistory of England (1771), and the posthumously published Grecian History and History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774). His life was to be bedevilled by debt, squandered advances, deadlines, and undone work; this is why, out of the voluminous quantity of his writings, relatively little is read now.

In 1764, however, he produced a major poem: The Traveller, or a Prospect of Society, a meditative account of his own wanderings in Europe. This piece was, remarkably, the first he had published under his own name, and it brought him fame, respect, and adulation. He was an eminent man; a founder-member, for instance, of what is still one of the most exclusive clubs in London: Dr Johnson's Club, whose membership has included most of the most eminent, witty, and talented people of their day. Reynolds (who became Goldsmith's closest friend), Sheridan, Gibbon,...
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