When and where did the outlines of our modern age first become discernible in British fiction? There is a case to be made for 1766 and the publication of The Vicar of Wakefield.
Oliver Goldsmith’s novel appeared just 10 years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which argued strongly in favour of free markets and the economic benefits of unrestricted trade within and between states (in the same year, 1776, British trade restrictions and taxes led to the American Declaration of Independence).
Smith had very little to say about the moral and spiritual dangers of increased commercialism. Perhaps he never read The Vicar of Wakefield, because Goldsmith portrayed them as a threat.
Two hundred and fifty years later we are used to being lectured on the subject by our religious leaders. Only last month the Archbishops of Canterbury and York warned of “rampant consumerism and individualism” and the invidious doctrine of “every person for themselves”. But in 1766 the idea that untrammelled commercialism might lead to trouble was less clearly defined – despite warning signs such as the South Sea Bubble earlier in the century.
Mainstream Protestant thinking was tolerant of commerce, seeing it as broadly compatible with Christian virtues such as thrift, industry and prudence. However, Goldsmith was uneasy about its unsettling effect on individuals and families.
Early in The Vicar of Wakefield we learn that the ever-sanguine hero, Dr Primrose, has been ruined by a failed investment with a merchant who has run off with all his money. This forces the family to move away from its comfortable and happy home so the vicar can take up “a small Cure of fifteen pounds a year … in a distant neighbourhood”. So begins a rapid decline in his fortunes, which leads to the moral and physical disintegration of the family and his eventual incarceration in debtors’ gaol.
In one of the book’s most telling scenes, the vicar’s wife refers to the times as an “age of self interest”. This is a reference to the fact that well-off young women are much more likely to make good marriages than poor but respectable girls like her daughters. However, she also hints at the increasingly mercantile nature of the 18th century, when commerce and capital were taking over from landed wealth as the main drivers of economic growth, and “good breeding” was no longer enough to ensure a good match.
As Paul Langford notes in the Oxford Illustrated History of Britain (1984): “…land was only one form of property and not necessarily the most important. Even at the beginning of the [18th] century the primacy of land was diminishing… In fact, the land itself was merely part of the general commercialization of the English economy; in its exploitation and its improvement, it was increasingly treated exactly like an investment in stock, in trade, and in manufacturing.”
If Dr Primrose had lived 150 years earlier, his private income would probably have come from farming and rents paid by people working the land on his behalf. However, he has been swept along by the “age of self-interest” and tempted into unwise investments. Although natives of the age, he and his family are particularly unsuited to thrive in it and are easy prey for people who seek to profit from their innocence and gullibility.
Goldsmith goes to great and humorous lengths to demonstrate how blind faith in commerce can lead to moral and economic ruin, as when Moses Primrose “invests” money from the sale of his father’s horse in the purchase of a box of spectacles, which he intends to sell for a profit; inevitably this does not materialise.
The author portrays the desire for wealth as a corrupting influence. Mrs Primrose and her daughters are deceived by the ostentatiously wealthy but wicked Mr Thornhill, while failing to recognise the merits of the virtuous and modest Mr Burchell, who conceals his own wealth.
The central theme of The Vicar of Wakefield is that religion, virtue and family life are the only true bulwarks against the corrupting effects of commerce and the desire for profit. It is a message that might easily have come straight from the mouths, or pens, of Archbishops Welby and Sentamu in 2015, and could easily be applied to our own “age of self interest”.