The quintessential literary jack-of-all-trades – and master of every one - Oliver Goldsmith is now best known as a novelist, entirely on the strength of one little masterpiece, The Vicar of Wakefield. Surprisingly, Goldsmith himself expressed nothing but contempt for that newly fashionable genre, vehemently disparaging modern “romances” and “novels” (between which he made no great distinction) in print and in conversation throughout his sixteen-year writing life. He belittled Fielding’s Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, found Smollett’s attempts “coarse”, and classed Sterne’s Tristram Shandy among “obscene and pert novels”, as “derog-atory to public taste”. In his own first full-length literary project, a translation of Jean Marteithe’s Mémoires d’un Protestant (1758), he poured scorn on the taste of “the numerous Readers of reigning Romance”, and shortly afterwards urged his brother to withhold such books from his young nephew: “above all things, let him never touch a romance, or novel ... they teach the youthful mind to sigh after beauty and happiness which never existed, to despise the little good which fortune has mixed in our cup, by expecting more than she ever gave”. In The Citizen of the World (1760-1) Goldsmith’s Chinese philosopher asserts that “every book can serve to make us more expert, save romances, and these are no better than the instruments of debauchery”; and of the dozen “romances” that Goldsmith reviewed for the Monthly Review and the Critical Review in 1757, all but one were trashed.
That the future author of The Deserted Village and She Stoops to Conquer should himself have indulged in sentimental fiction for any reason other than his chronic indebtedness, which accounts for much else of his hackwork both inspired.and uninspired, may seem hard to explain. But some scholars have traced the composition of The Vicar of Wakefield (1760-2) to Goldsmith’s envy of the headlong success of the early volumes of Tristram Shandy. And recent critics have stressed its alleged satire on novel/romance conventions, regarding it as a kind of parody or anti-novel, in which sentimentality is exposed by implication - although if Goldsmith intended such a message it has wonderfully misfired. That is certainly not the reason for the massive popularity of The Vicar among ordinary readers for more than two centuries. Its being committed to print, however, was clearly occasioned by pressing need: the tale of Samuel Johnson selling the text for sixty guineas to John Newbery, while his friend lay under imminent threat of arrest, is a familiar one, although Newbery, sceptical of the work’s marketability, waited some four years to publish. Necessity also accounts for Goldsmith’s only other reluctant foray into novel-writing. Near the end of his short life he accepted an advance of £200 or £300 from Newbery, clearing a debt, “under the encouragement of writing a novel” (Sir James Prior in 1837, citing Newbery’s business successor). A. Lytton Sells, Goldsmith’s recent biographer, has identified this work as The Triumph of Benevolence: or the History of Francis Wills (1772), a highly persuasive attribution, although some Goldsmithians question it. Likewise that small classic of children’s fiction, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (Newbery, 1765), has been persistently attributed, and as often (and more reasonably) disattributed to Goldsmith.
But in Goldsmith’s parallel career as an editor and translator, skilled especially in French, the choice of genre may not always have been his, and his first direct experience with fiction-writing and its stylistic demands began early. On or before August 31, 1758, he wrote to his friend Daniel Hodson in Ireland that the traditional character of a Grub Street indigent (“lives in a garret, wears shabby cloaths, and converses with the meanest company”) did not apply to himself. “nor do I believe there is one single writer, who has ability to translate a french Novel [sic], that does not keep better company wear finer cloaths and live more genteely than many who pride themselves for nothing else in Ireland”. If this is a boast about his own situation and capacities, no specific “French Novel” translated by Goldsmith before that date has been identified - unless one counts Marteilhe’s sensational Memoirs of a Protestant, which was widely suspected of being at least partly fictitious. Goldsmith’s pseudonymous preface of 1758 stoutly denied that charge, but acknowledged its currency, and his protests may just have been tongue-in-cheek after all, if he himself half-doubted the authenticity of the narrative.
Another “French Novel” translation is fully documented, however, through an autograph receipt undated but signed “Oliver Goldsmith”, for ten guineas paid him by the publisher Ralph Griffiths, “for the translation of a book entituled Memoirs of My Lady W” - and this supposedly lost title has long puzzled Goldsmith’s biographers and critics. (The original receipt, known to most scholars from its transcript and publication by Prior in 1837, is now in the Osborn Collection at Yale.) Prior thought it referred to the “French Novel” of 1758, but Katharine C. Balderston ( Collected Letters of Oliver Goldsmith, 1928) pointed out the impossibility of that, since the translation was listed among “New Books” in the Gentleman’s Magazine for January 1761 as “Memoirs of Lady B. from the F[rench] Griffiths”, and the original work, Mémoires de Miledi B., by Charlotte-Marie Anne Charhonnière de la Guesnerie, was not published until 1760. No trace of the English version, paid for by the notoriously tight-fisted Griffiths and advertised as forthcoming (no price is mentioned), has hitherto been identified. Ralph M. Wardle (Oliver Goldsmith, 1957) gave it up for lost, as did the Goldsmith editor Arthur B. Friedman, in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature : “no copy known”.
But the book apparently does survive, having slipped through the net of bibliography for three reasons: a slightly different title, an unexpected publisher, and a misdated first volume. Memoirs of Lady Harriot Butler: now first published from Authentic Papers, in the Lady’s own hand-writing, in two volumes, bears the imprint in Volume One “London: Printed for R. Freeman, near St. Paul’s, M.DCC.XLI”, an obvious error for “M.DCC.LXI”, as Volume Two is dated “MDCCLXII’ (although in fact both volumes were available for review by November 1761). This is a direct and quite literal translation of Mme de la Guesnerie’s Mémoires de Miledi B, a novel of sensibility often misattributed to Mme Riccoboni, the best-selling author of a similar tale of Angl-French exile and blighted romance, Lettres de Milady Jueliette Catesby ; the misattribution was encouraged by its publisher (Amsterdam, 1760, and subsequent editions) with a teasing “par Madame R***” on the title. “Miledi B”, converted in the English version to a more marketable “Lady Harriot Butler”, is the child of a wellborn French Protestant intellectual and an English Duke’s Catholic daughter, who dies giving birth. Her melancholy widower is exiled for his religion, retiring with the infant Harriot to a lonely Scottish grotto, where the child is educated intensely (trilingual by five) and with “severe love” from her stoical parent, until the inevitable arrival of handsome young Lord B-, the son of an ousted partisan of James II. After the death of Harriot’s father, their pledged love calls them back, separately, to France, where Lord B- has become hopelessly debauched, and Harriot proves her breeding and moral distinction by rejecting him, and all others. But she consents to a mariage blanc with the reformed and penitent wastrel when he is dying of a rival’s stab-wound. Harriot then takes up residence with a stern and “philosophical” widowed Marchioness, with whom she is said to have passed “ten years of intimacy” prior to the start of her narrative.
Perhaps Goldsmith found this rather grim plot and these sentiments less offensive than Fielding’s and Smollett’s fictions, or at any rate not so “derogatory to public taste” as to deter him from earning ten guineas. The translation, while hardly a triumph of art, has a certain elegance, and seems stylistically compatible with, Goldsmith’s other acknowledged piecework - indeed, there must be more of such prose in print, anonymously, than has so far entered the canon. It is possible, of course, that this lone surviving text of the English version of Mémoires de Miledi B is not what Griffiths paid Goldsmith for writing, but that seems unlikely, given what we know of publishers’ practice in the mid-eighteenth century. Griffiths may simply have decided, as Newbery long did with The Vicar of Wakefield, that Harriot Butler was not worth publishing after all, and sold on the manuscript to Freeman, a rather marginal London colleague, as a way of recouping his £10 investment; indeed, the announcement in the Gentleman’s Magazine for January 1761 may even have preceded the commission to Goldsmith, as Griffiths sought to pre-empt the title by claiming to have printed it already. Alternatively, Goldsmith’s translation may have disappeared, and another one have been composed independently, although such wasteful duplication of effort on so slight a project would be odd. Finally, but unlikelier still, Goldsmith might himself have double-sold his translation, and Freeman might have changed the title (and even fiddled the date) to conceal that act of bad faith. But if that were the case, we can be sure that the powerful and often pitiless Griffiths, for whom Goldsmith’s earlier work resembled nothing so much as indentured servitude, would have revenged himself somehow, and that contemporaries (and posterity) would have heard of it. And surely, too, as proprietor of the Monthly Review, he would never have countenanced the brief notice Harriot Butler received from that organ in December 1761: described as “12mo. 2 vols. 5s. Freeman”, it was puffed as “Pretty sentimental for the Ladies”.
The six-word Monthly critique does not suggest deep immersion in the text of Harriot Butler, but the Critical Review for November 1761 gave it the best of eight pages, in a sensitive and sympathetic notice that again may help to explain why so adamant a disliker of “modern novels” as Goldsmith undertook the translation above and beyond the modest fee it commanded:
After a long plot summary, buttressed with extracts, the reviewer concludes (on the death of Lord B-):