ABOUT THIS BOOK
Oliver Goldsmith arrived in England in 1756 a penniless Irishman. He toiled for years in the anonymity of Grub Street—already a synonym for impoverished hack writers—before he became one of literary London’s most celebrated authors. Norma Clarke tells the extraordinary story of this destitute scribbler turned gentleman of letters as it unfolds in the early days of commercial publishing, when writers’ livelihoods came to depend on the reading public, not aristocratic patrons. Clarke examines a network of writers radiating outward from Goldsmith: the famous and celebrated authors of Dr. Johnson’s “Club” and those far less fortunate “brothers of the quill” trapped in Grub Street.
Clarke emphasizes Goldsmith’s sense of himself as an Irishman, showing that many of his early literary acquaintances were Irish émigrés: Samuel Derrick, John Pilkington, Paul Hiffernan, and Edward Purdon. These writers tutored Goldsmith in the ways of Grub Street, and their influence on his development has not previously been explored. Also Irish was the patron he acquired after 1764, Robert Nugent, Lord Clare. Clarke places Goldsmith in the tradition of Anglo-Irish satirists beginning with Jonathan Swift. He transmuted troubling truths about the British Empire into forms of fable and nostalgia whose undertow of Irish indignation remains perceptible, if just barely, beneath an equanimous English surface.
To read Brothers of the Quill is to be taken by the hand into the darker corners of eighteenth-century Grub Street, and to laugh and cry at the absurdities of the writing life.
[Clarke] has created a colorful, canny, immensely readable book which rehearses, underlines and proclaims the importance, not only of Goldsmith himself, but also of his writerly world, of fraternal compatriots and infernal enemies, and of the ways that he and they found—or didn’t—to get by…She is a wizard at telling stories…You will get a helpful sense of the nature of all of Goldsmith’s lasting work from Brothers of the Quill…[A] rich volume.
-- Min Wild Times Literary Supplement
[Clarke’s] careful tracing of the networks of Irish affiliation in mid-18th-century London yields a completely new vision of both Goldsmith and the London he inhabited. Clarke concludes with a lament for the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of the contributions of Irish writers to English literature in the 18th century. The braided, archipelagic histories of these islands have yet to be completed, but are certainly enhanced by this study of Goldsmith.
-- Moyra Haslett Times Higher Education
The book often reads like a collection of interconnected short stories. In this regard, Clarke joins several contemporary English writers whose works brilliantly mix group biography, history and literary criticism…[Brothers of the Quill] displays a comparable sprightliness and anecdotal abundance.
-- Michael Dirda Washington Post
Brothers of the Quill is a rich book about poor writers, the duckers, divers and hacks-for-hire scratching a living in Dr. Johnson’s London. It is also a forensic reconstruction of Grub Street at the dawn of literary journalism: the friendships, the rivalries, the reign of the publishers…Brothers of the Quill is part biography, part social history and part literary criticism. If you have not read Goldsmith already, you will find yourself wanting to do so.
-- Frances Wilson The Oldie
Brothers of the Quill elegantly topples conventional accounts of Goldsmith’s career.
-- Aileen Douglas Irish Times
In Brothers of the Quill Norma Clarke has made a significant and very readable contribution to 18th-century literary studies.
-- Catherine Peters Literary Review
Sir Joshua Reynolds described Oliver Goldsmith’s prose as ‘sprightly and animated.’ One could describe Norma Clarke’s similarly. Well-written, highly readable, and frequently witty, Brothers of the Quill offers a detailed account of Goldsmith’s milieu of improvident, mostly Irish authors, as they attempt to earn a living on Grub Street. Johnson, Boswell, Burke, and Reynolds, who receive their due elsewhere, appear aptly. Most significantly, Clarke makes the case for Goldsmith’s importance as a writer.
-- Robert Folkenflik, University of California, Irvine
With its broad tableau and vividly drawn cast of characters, this book is a genuinely accessible and enlightening account of the working lives of Grub Street authors.
-- Michael Griffin, University of Limerick
Norma Clarke’s Brothers of the Quill follows Oliver Goldsmith’s rise from Irish hack to English national treasure. Goldsmith both cherished and reviled literary celebrity…Clarke say a great deal about the powerlessness of writers, and the growing authority of readers.
-- Frances Wilson Times Literary Supplement
Portrays an extraordinary period in literary history and captures the puzzling blend of principle and opportunism that defined Goldsmith’s career.
-- Jonathan Wright Catholic Herald
Clarke has made the literary life of the 18th century available and entertaining to the general reader.
-- John Mullan The Guardian