Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography
By Alexandra Ripp
Inspiration for She Stoops to Conquer
At age 17, Goldsmith was traveling in the Irish countryside, and when night came asked a passerby to recommend an inn. The passerby, who happened to be the town’s joker, directed Goldsmith to the home of a squire. The squire played along with the prank, and only when Goldsmith left special instructions for his breakfast did his host reveal that the house was not an inn, but a private home.
Oliver Goldsmith was a paradoxical man: on the one hand, a perennial outcast who suffered misfortune throughout most of his life, on the other a sublime writer whose works would withstand the test of time. Born in Ireland between 1728-1731 (his exact birth year is unknown) into the large family of a country rector, young Oliver was an unlikely future celebrity. He was notably homely, with a protruding mouth, short chin, and deep scars from the smallpox that afflicted him at age seven. His peers taunted his appearance, and his teachers dismissed him as unintelligent. Although he received a B.A. from Trinity College in 1749, he was not an outstanding student. After graduation, he was denied the taking of holy orders, ran out of money studying both law and medicine, served brief jail time, and journeyed aimlessly on foot through Europe with almost no money. When Goldsmith arrived in London in 1757, things only got worse. Thanks to his poor appearance, poverty, and unsophisticated speech, he was often jobless and hungry. Goldsmith’s first thirty or so years of life completely belie the fame that he would later achieve.
Only when Goldsmith entered the literary world in 1757 did his life finally take a positive turn. He found low quality, poorly paid work, editing for the Monthly Review and proofreading for a printer. But after penning a successful translation and a series of articles between 1758 and 1759, Goldsmith quickly gained recognition, employment, and friendship with some of the foremost literary minds of his day. He produced, with equal skill, renowned novels, poetry, dramas, criticism, essays, biographies, and histories.
Yet in genteel London high society, Goldsmith remained as scorned and ridiculed as he had been as a boy. A stammering, clumsy prankster, Goldsmith often willingly humiliated himself in public, and refused to change his rural manners or Irish brogue. However, his ability to remain independent in all respects allowed him to create art free of social restraints. His openness, imagination, self-mockery, and scorn for affectation were noteworthy in the European intellectual sphere at this time.
With the production of She Stoops to Conquer in 1773, Oliver Goldsmith found himself at the peak of his fame—yet deeply depressed and in debt. By 1774, he was dead. Sadly, his own generation did not fully recognize Goldsmith’s talents, and it was not until the mid-twentieth century that he began to receive the full scholarly and biographical analysis that he deserves.