Oliver Goldsmith’s early life: inspiration for She Stoops to Conquer


This is a letter written by Dr Oliver Goldsmith’s sister, Catherine Hodson, to Thomas Percy, a Church of Ireland bishop and Goldsmith’s biographer. In the letter, written after Goldsmith’s death in 1774, Hodson shares anecdotes from his early life in Ireland.

The portrait she sketches of Goldsmith’s character is endearing and exasperating in equal parts. He was bashful and self-deprecating, but also irresponsible and prone to episodes of reckless self-abandon. The stories foreshadow his precarious later life in London. One story relates how, after running away from university in Dublin, Goldsmith ‘squandered away the greatest part of what little money he had’ and resolved to ‘go to Cork and take shipping for he knew not where’. He swiftly ran out of money, however, and was ‘obliged to sell his shirts’ and walk for days back to his father’s house in Athlone, County Westmeath with no means of sustenance (ff. 40–41).

Inspiration for She Stoops to Conquer

Hodson’s memoir also includes an anecdote (ff. 36–39) in which Goldsmith mistook a country house for a country inn. Goldsmith later translated this humiliating escapade into the premise for his highly successful play, She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

Much like his character Marlow, Goldsmith was rude and arrogant in the treatment of his hosts. Many of Marlow’s faux pas originate from Goldsmith’s real behaviour: he ordered the best food and wine, which he grudgingly ate with his hosts, and indulged in more wine than was polite. In an amusing but misguided twist, which demonstrates Goldsmith’s good-natured personality, he ‘insisted on the ladies telling [ordering] their choice’ of food and wine from their own home. His sister explains in her letter that ‘while the guinea [money] lasted the Doctor knew not how to spare’. The next day, after sleeping in the best room of the house, Goldsmith tried to pay his bill and was mortified to discover that the man he assumed to be the landlord had ‘never kept an inn’ and was in fact a good friend of his father’s.

Full title:
GOLDSMITH-PERCY PAPERS. Vol. II (ff. 155). Collections and correspondence of Thomas Percy, relating (except art. i) to his Life of Goldsmith, viz.:- (1) Letter from Dr Samuel Johnson to the Rev. William Jessop, of Lismore, co. Waterford; 28 June 1766
1776, Ireland
Manuscript / Letter
Catherine Hodson
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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 42516

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