Henry George Bohn on Goldsmith’s ‘moral character’ and its influence on his writings, prefaced to an edition of The Works of Goldsmith, 1848
Of Goldsmith's moral character, it is difficult to speak either in terms of praise or blame. That his conduct, especially in the earlier part of his career, was highly irregular, is undeniable. It is probable, also, that at this period his religious principles were not more settled than his notions upon most other subjects; and it is certain, that he sometimes talked of sacred things with unbecoming levity ... In his writings, he shews himself uniformly the friend of virtue, and the advocate of religion; and even those who are least disposed to look upon this as a sufficient test of a man's real sentiments, will find it difficult to believe, that the author of the Vicar of Wakefield, however much he may have erred in his own conduct, could have been otherwise than deeply imbued with belief in the truth, and reverence for the character, of religion. Possessing a warm heart and generous affections, he was at all times liberal to the distressed; of an unsuspicious temper, he often became the dupe of the designing and the worthless. He would rise from his bed at midnight, to relieve the wants of a street beggar; and perhaps finish the remainder of the night at a gaming-table, where he hazarded without scruple the money which properly belonged to some industrious tradesman, his creditor: yet no one has more happily ridiculed or more severely condemned the character of the man who
is generous before he is just. His veracity has been called in question, and perhaps not without reason: nothing is more apt to lead to occasional departure from truth than inordinate vanity. His fictions, however, were harmless-so far as falsehood can ever be harmless-since they were generally intended not to injure others, but to convey an exaggerated notion of his own importance: they were also harmless in another point of view, since they were often so little plausible as to be easily detected. But while we must deny him the praise of virtue, we ought not to forget that his faults have been brought to the surface by his own simplicity, and that we need therefore make the less allowance for secret sins. As the generality of men are more wicked than they appear, so, on the other hand, it may be suspected of Goldsmith, that he appears more faulty than he really was; at least it may be surmised that his vices were not so much worse, or more numerous, than those of many who left a better character, as that he had less art to conceal them. His simplicity in this respect does, however, form no proper justification of his conduct; and it cannot be sufficiently lamented, that he who shewed himself so capable of appreciating the beauty of a virtuous life, should have indulged in irregularities which every good man must condemn. Yet such was the warmth of his affections, and the general benevolence of his disposition, that, in spite of his follies and his faults, he has more of our kindness than any ofhis contemporaries whose conduct may have been less exceptionable. . .