When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray;
What charm can sooth her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom – is to die.
Oliver Goldsmith, from The Vicar of Wakefield
Recently, out of the blue, I had the admittedly bizarre urge to re-read The Vicar of Wakefield, a novel I had not read and had barely thought of for probably over forty years. All I remembered of it was that it contained a song that became celebrated on its own: "When lovely woman stoops to folly."
So I picked up a copy of the Oxford World's Classics edition, which was fine except the annotations give away, early on, a key point that a reader really wouldn't want given away. I understand that it's a bit silly to issue spoiler alerts for a novel first published in 1766 (and be warned I'm going to give away some plot points here), but it's all new if you've never read the book before (or read it over forty years ago and have forgotten most of it), and surprises should be revealed by the author, not the Kinbotish annotator. I'm still extremely bitter about reading the Penguin edition of Felix Holt the Radical years ago and having a crucial relationship revealed long before George Eliot wanted it revealed. This seems to be a thing academic annotators do, and seriously, what the hell?
Anyway, the tale of the Vicar Mr Primrose and his family is a very enjoyable and strange little book, part philosophical parable in the style of Rasselas or Candide, part nostalgic picture of country life, part protest against class and gender power inequities, part satire of the Vicar and his family, and part praise of them, and usually it's several of those things all at once.
The song is sung by the daughter Olivia, who has indeed stooped to folly, succumbing (partly through vanity and a desire to rise socially, and partly through genuine affection and interest) to the blandishments of wealthy and powerful Mr Thornhill, the local young rakehell. It seems a bit strange under the circumstances to have her sing such a song to entertain her family, but its gentle melancholy has a therapeutic effect on her spirits, much as if she were a young woman today encouraged to speak about her feelings by sympathetic or at least curious friends.
Through the machinations of Mr Thornhill (here come the spoilers) the Vicar is imprisoned, and his daughter does indeed go through a kind of death: while her father is imprisoned, he is told that his languishing daughter has died. He has never held the Thornhill episode against her, and is devastated, but it turns out that not only is she still living, but Thornhill was outwitted by one of his confederates, who wanted something to hold over him, and his marriage to Olivia is in fact legal. The accomplice confesses this out of affection for the naive goodness and spirit of the imprisoned Vicar (I'm sure that Dickens had these prison scenes somewhere in his mind when he wrote the great scenes of Mr Pickwick in debtor's prison at the end of The Pickwick Papers.)
Even at the time it was clear that woman, particularly lovely woman, had a few options other than death after she had stooped to folly; in fact, in Goldsmith's other famous work – though perhaps, like The Vicar of Wakefield, it's less famous than it once was – when she stoops, She Stoops to Conquer. I haven't seen or read that play in years, but if I'm remembering correctly, the plot concerns a woman who disguises herself as a barmaid because the guy she likes is free and easy with lower-class women but tongue-tied and bashful around women of his own more elevated social class. There's a lot of class and gender stuff in these works, but, you know, how could there not be?
This song, in the context of the novel, is an artistic expression of a simple, old-fashioned sort of morality, and as such is part of the novel's play on nostalgic longing for what was perceived as a simpler time, because there's always the impulse among us to consider the past a simpler time. In the nineteenth century, a novel such as Cranford filled this role, and in our own day, it could be filled by something like a BBC-TV adaptation of Cranford. It should also be noted that the song is presented not as the view of "Society" (those around Olivia take very different views, often of indignation against the wealthy and powerful man who abandoned her); it is Olivia expressing her own personal view of her condition. She is, of course, the creation of a male author, and the tendency nowadays would be to assume he's expressing some sort of patriarchal "male-gaze" blah blah blah, but there's really no reason besides our own preferred thinking to assume he's basing this scene on anything but accurate observation from life, and indeed Goldsmith is too eccentric and complicated a writer for any such simplistic theories. It's also useful to keep in mind that historically novel-reading, and this is particularly true of the eighteenth century, was seen as a (middle-class) female occupation, and there's no particular reason to think those women readers were so easily persuaded by male authority (just as in this novel, Mr Primrose's wife and daughters feel free to dissent from Mr Primrose's husbandly/paternal/clerical guidance).
Despite what she sings in her song, Olivia does not really die of her folly. Even so, twenty-first century readers are unlikely to be satisfied with her ultimate fate, though it occurs to me that my own preferred resolution, in which she grows into a cheerful and sturdy independence in a country cottage, raising chickens, vegetables, and bright flowers, is in fact more sentimental and less realistic than Goldsmith's ending, in which she lives apart from but pines for her seducer/husband, longing to return to him once he shows any sign of acceptable repentance, while he, having lost his money and social position due to his uncle's anger at his misbehavior, tries to ingratiate himself as a companion to another, still-wealthy, relation, and endeavors to learn the French horn.
This song was once well-known enough, and symbolic enough of an old-fashioned, sentimental morality, to warrant parody; here is TS Eliot to do the job. Before he gained his current world-wide renown as lyricist for the smash-hit musical Cats, Eliot was perhaps best known for a number of high-modernist poems, chief among them The Waste Land, published in 1922, from which this excerpt is taken. (To explain the reference to "the Bradford millionaire": according to a footnote in the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, "Bradford is a manufacturing town in the north of England. A millionaire from that town would have made his money in trade or manufacturing. Hence, nouveau riche.")
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit. . .
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
"Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
TS Eliot, from The Waste Land, Part III, The Fire Sermon