Monday, 30 January 2017

Old Maids and Bachelors by Oliver Goldsmith.

Oliver Goldsmith, by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Old Maids and Bachelors is a very short essay / letter by Oliver Goldsmith. It was first published in The Public Ledger in 1760, the year the magazine was founded (it still runs today, making it the world's oldest magazine). The essays Goldsmith wrote for The Public Ledger were under the title The Citizen of the World in which Goldsmith purported to be a Chinese visitor to London, recording his observations as though he were impartial (not unlike Persian Letters by Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, 1721). Old Maids and Bachelors was the 27th essay of the series.

It begins,
Lately in company with my friend in black, whose conversation is now both my amusement and instruction, I could not avoid observing the great numbers of old bachelors and maiden ladies with which this city seems to be over-run. "Sure marriage," said I, "is not sufficiently encouraged, or we should never behold such crowds of battered beaux and decayed coquettes still attempting to drive a trade they have been so long unfit for, and swarming upon the gaiety of the age. I behold an old bachelor in the most contemptible light, as an animal that lives upon the common stock, without contributing his share; he is a beast of prey, and the laws should make use of as many stratagems, and as much force to drive the reluctant savage into the toils, as the Indians when they hunt the rhinoceros. The mob should be permitted to halloo after him, boys might play tricks on him with impunity, every well-bred company should laugh at him, and if, when he turned sixty, he offered to make love, his mistress might spit in his face, or, what would perhaps be a greater punishment, should fairly grant the favour.
As for old maids, he goes on to write more sympathetically: "they should not be treated with so much severity, because I suppose none would be so if they could". It's tempting, I suppose, for a modern reader to raise an eyebrow at that, but a read of some of Jane Austen's novels, Pride in Prejudice (1813) immediately springs to mind, show an understandable urgency to marry and thus be financially secure. Goldsmith goes on to write on the status of 'old maids':
No lady in her senses would choose to make a subordinate figure at christenings and lyings-in, when she might be the principal herself; nor curry favour with a sister-in-law, when she might command an husband; nor toil in preparing custards, when she might lie a-bed and give directions how they ought to be made; nor stifle all her sensations in demure formality, when she might with matrimonial freedom shake her acquaintance by the hand, and wink at a double entendre. No lady could be so very silly as to live single, if she could help it. 
His friend disagrees, telling him it is not circumstance but "pride or avarice" that has led her to reject many suitors. These rejections, he add, is a source of pride for the cruel lady. On this basis, every old maid he sees he "tacitly accuse her of either pride, avarice, coquetry, or affectation". To back his point, he goes on to give four examples: Miss Jenny Tinderbox, Miss Squeeze, Lady Betty Tempest, who was essentially undone by reading romance novels, and finally Sophronia:
... how shall I mention her? She was taught to love Greek, and hate the men from her very infancy: she has rejected fine gentleman because they were not pedants, and pedants because they were not fine gentlemen; her exquisite sensibility has taught her to discover every fault in every lover, and her inflexible justice has prevented her pardoning them: thus she rejected several offers, till the wrinkles of age had overtaken her; and now, without one good feature in her face, she talks incessantly of the beauties of the mind.
There the essay ends.

Often, in novels I've read of the 18th and 19th Century, the story line concerning women is marriage: either a love match gone awry, but all is well in the end, or even a fear of never falling in love or getting married but with the happy ending of the right man showing up at the right time. It's not often old maids are really discussed, if they're there at all they are just sort of there, or else they serve a warning to our heroine not to be too picky. Here, however, Goldsmith presents a brief discussion which, yes, may well be there to spark fear in the hearts of fussy maidens, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the debate! A worthy essay: I always assumed The Vicar of Wakefield would be my first Goldsmith but oddly enough it was this. A positive introduction, I feel.

And that was my fifth essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. It's also the last essay of January and strangely four out of the five essays I've read have all been from the diamonds. My list is in no order whatsoever so it's hardly noticeable really! Next week, finally one from the clubs, How a Gallant Should Behave by Thomas Dekker.


  1. I really like Goldsmith and I believe that you'll like the Vicar when you get to him.

    I'm actually keeping up with the challenge ..... so far ..... I've forgotten where I put my next children's book so my record could quickly come to an end! Yikes!

    Thanks for the review! :-)

    1. I lost one of my books for the Deal Me In too! Thankfully I found it in the end, it had fallen behind the back of the filing cabinet. My books are a mess at the moment, one of my main spring clean goals is to get them all tidy and organised again :)

  2. reading Goldsmith and Johnson, always comes to mind the dire poverty they suffered in their early struggling years... and how they were able to later write with composure about the frailties and perquisites of the upper classes, with no apparent signs of bitterness...

    1. I didn't know they suffered dire poverty - thanks for telling me that, as you say there doesn't seem to be any bitterness in them. Very interesting, thank you :)

  3. As an "old" (but not THAT old) bachelor myself I found the first paragraph you quoted to be quite harsh(!) Thankfully it is a different world now and I do not often find myself hallooed after by any mobs or suffering other indignities. :-)

    1. It is indeed harsh - I must admit I was thinking more about the "old maids" bit I'm afraid, but yes, when I was reading the bachelors part I did wince :) Glad to hear you're not being hallooed!


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