Squire Thornhill brings two fashionable ladies - Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs, though their names are not provided until later - to visit the vicar's family. The party convenes outside to practice some country dances. When they realize they lack sufficient female partners, the family invites the Miss Flamboroughs, two neighboring girls, to join them.
Afterwards, everyone converses over an elegant supper. The vicar notes that his daughters and wife are impressed by the "high life, and high lived company" of the two rich ladies (42). He is concerned that his family will eventually seem ridiculous and pretentious by mixing with a higher class. Nevertheless, the fashionable ladies seem quite fond of Olivia and Sophia, and ask whether the girls might accompany them home. The vicar politely refuses the request; as a result, his daughters are sullen for the rest of the night.
The vicar notices that his daughters are forgetting their lessons on humility and temperance. Instead, they are indulging in the "pride that [he] had laid asleep, but not removed" (44). They grow vain, overly worried about their complexions, and begin to abstain from their chores. Similarly, they speak disparagingly about the Miss Flamboroughs, whom they now deem too coarse and common, and attempt to talk only of fashionable, highbrow subjects.
One day, a gypsy passes nearby, and the vicar indulges his daughters by giving them a shilling with which to get their fortune told. After meeting with the gypsy, they express their great happiness at what they learned - Olivia was foretold to marry a squire, a Sophia to marry a lord. Paired with their recent changes in acquaintance, this incident leads the family to think themselves "designed by the stars for something exalted" (45). They believe their fortunes are rising, and expect the squire to soon propose to Olivia.
Towards the end of the week, the fashionable ladies send word that they look forward to seeing Olivia and Sophia at church. Anticipating the meeting, the girls convince the hesitant vicar that they must take their horses, rather than walk, in order to appear genteel. When Sunday comes, he leaves before them to prepare for the service, but they never arrive. After the service, he returns home and meets them on the road. It turns out that the horses refused to budge, after which the family "had met with a thousand misfortunes" (48). The vicar notes that their attempts at gentility had failed.
Humbled by their recent embarrassment, the family agrees to join the neighboring Flamborough family for games and snacks on Michelmas eve. However, they are appalled when the two fashionable ladies (their names now given as Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs) arrive to discover them playing these silly games. The ladies had been worried about the family's absence from church, and came in search of them. They are ardent in insisting on their affection for the vicar's daughters.
The entire group spends the evening together. The vicar's daughters and Deborah are overjoyed to discern that the society ladies are discussing two open positions in town, for which they might recommend the Primrose girls. Strangely, Mr. Burchell, who is also in attendance, constantly remarks "Fudge!" whenever the ladies say anything (50).
Deborah broaches the topic of sending the girls to town with the vicar, and he agrees to ask the fashionable ladies about it directly. They agree that Olivia and Sophia could succeed there, but note that they must first attain confirmation of the girls's reputations, simply as a formality. They offer to attain the reference from Squire Thornhill, whom Lady Blarney identifies as her cousin. The vicar and Deborah are quite proud, certain that the squire will provide a good reference.
The family schemes and plots together, to determine how to best take advantage of the impending opportunities. They decide to sell Colt, one of their horses, in order to buy a more attractive one for the girls. The vicar asks Moses to bring Colt to the market to arrange a good trade.
While Moses is gone, the family learns that Squire Thornhill has spoken well of them to the ladies. Mr. Burchell visits, and even though he had annoyed them at the previous dinner, they decide to ask him his opinion on the situation. His reservations about their plan annoy them further.
Moses soon returns, but without a horse. He explains that he made a profitable trade, obtaining some valuable silver-rimmed spectacles in exchange for Colt. However, the vicar examines the glasses to discover that the rims are not actually silver. It seems Moses has been swindled.
The family is ashamed of their recent disasters. One day, Mr. Burchell and Deborah argue over the girls' plan to go to town, and Deborah grows emotional and irrational. She accuses Burchell of having selfish reasons for dissuading them, and he angrily insists he will depart both their home and the countryside in general. He announces that he will come by only once more, to say goodbye.
The vicar reprimands his wife for her rudeness, but she stubbornly insists Sophia deserves better company than a poor man like Mr. Burchell. When Sophia insists that Mr. Burchell has always been "sensible, modest, and pleasing" to her, the vicar feels a prick of conscience, but quickly forgets it (59).
As it seems like the girls will indeed soon leave for town, the vicar decides to sell the family's other horse to obtain a better one. This time, he travels to the fair himself.
Several hours pass, and the vicar can hardly interest anyone in the horse, since it seems the beast has several medical conditions. Eventually, the vicar agrees to have a drink with a fellow clergyman. In the ale-house, the vicar is impressed by a respectable older gentleman, who both seems intelligent and exhibits charity when he gives a poor boy some money.
After the other clergyman leaves, the vicar approaches the old man (Ephraim Jenkinson, though we do not learn his name until later), and they quickly impress one another through a discussion of church matters. The vicar is taken by the man's grasp of complicated ideas, and is flattered to learn that the old man has heard of the vicar's opinions on matrimony.
Eventually, they share their reasons for being at the fair. The old man had come to buy a horse for his tenant, and an agreement is quickly struck for him to buy the vicar's horse. However, the vicar does not have sufficient change to break the old man's bill. Therefore, the old man writes a statement that he swears Solomon Flamborough, the vicar's neighbor and a colleague of the old man's, will honor by paying the clergyman himself. The transaction being done, they part ways.
On his way home, the vicar grows nervous at having accepting a draught (the document of payment) from a stranger, and his worst fears are confirmed when Solomon tells him that he has been tricked by Ephraim Jenkinson, "the greatest rascal under the canopy of heaven" (64).
The vicar arrives home embarrassed, but is distracted to find his daughters and wife in tears. It turns out that someone has spoken ill of the girls' reputation to Squire Thornhill, and so he will not sponsor their trip to town. The vicar wonders who would want to spread rumors about his harmless family.
The family asks around to determine who has slandered their name, to no avail. One day, one of the young boys discovers a letter case that belongs to Mr. Burchell. In the case is a letter that seems to denounce the reputations of Olivia and Sophia. Naturally, they are incensed.
Soon afterwards, Mr. Burchell visits their house, and the vicar assails him with violent criticism. The family is so angry that they do not allow him to speak. Eventually, Mr. Burchell grows equally angry, and threatens that he could have the vicar arrested for opening mail that does not belong to him. With a promise never to return, he leaves.
Squire Thornhill begins to visit the family more frequently, and the vicar notes that "the hopes of having him for a son-in-law [as Olivia's husband], in some measure blinded us to all his imperfections" (70). The greatest evidence of the squire's intentions comes when the family commissions a portrait of themselves posed as great historical figures, and the squire asks to be included. He is painted as Alexander the Great, sitting at Olivia's feet. Though the family is overjoyed by his request, they are dismayed to realize that the painting is far too large for their modest home, and hence must be awkwardly propped against a wall. Many townspeople make fun of the situation.
One day, Deborah decides to probe into the squire's intentions, and slyly asks him whether he knows of an appropriate suitor for Olivia. When she suggests that they are considering Father Williams, the squire vehemently refuses to support such a match, citing his private sentiments as his reason. The family naturally takes this as further evidence of his desire to propose.
The Primrose family's pride further manifests in these chapters, growing into a more dangerous vice. The vicar, who once admonished the family for their pretensions of wealth, here acquiesces to the schemes that aim to secure them a heightened social status. Tellingly, though, each one of their attempts to improve their appearance ends in a disappointment.
First, the women's attempt to arrive at church by horse proves disastrous. They worry only about how they will appear to the fashionable ladies, and yet end up not only traveling to church as they always have, but in fact encountering several other misfortunes because of their pretensions. The scheme to sell the horses also reveals the limits of the family's social acumen. Though both Moses and the vicar believe themselves capable of succeeding at shrewd business deals, their naiveté robs them of both their animals.
However, the clearest symbol of their delusions comes with the painting. That the family would want a portrait painted is hardly strange. That they would elect to have themselves represented as historical figures, however, reveals how their pretensions have overtaken them. Further, the composition - in which each figure is separated in identity from the other - suggests that their cohesion as a family unit has been sacrificed to self-interest. And of course, they show a lack of social intelligence by forgetting to measure their wall before paying the commission. As a result, this intended symbol of grandeur only reveals their absurdity.
The painting's particulars also serve both as a symbol for the latent chaos in the family, and as foreshadowing for discord and disharmony to come. Deborah is represented as Venus, a goddess of love, and a symbol patently opposed to the vicar's strong ideas on matrimony and fidelity. Olivia is represented as an Amazon and Sophia as a shepherdess. The strength of the Amazon figure is ironic since Olivia is so compliant to the squire's whims, while only Sophia's figure suggests the inner strength that keeps her true to Burchell even as her family turns from him. The most ridiculous of all is the squire's representation as Alexander the Great. In his annotations to the book, Robert Mack writes, "the intrusion of the Squire as Alexander the Great (a historical figure whose rapacious desire for conquest can at least be connected with his own character in the novel) only suggests how foolish the family will prove to have been in permitting him to stand in a position of such intimacy in their household."
What their "foolish" inclusion of the squire here - as well as all the other examples listed above - reveal is that the family is not only growing prideful, but is also growing blind to their actual identities. They are losing sight of who they are, instead focusing only on unfounded desires. As the reader becomes more and more confident that Squire Thornhill's intentions are impure, the family only grows further seduced by the potential of securing a profitable match for Olivia. She has become a commodity through which they might earn a social rise. Were they not so blinded, these many misfortunes might alert them to the truth of their situation; however, each misfortune only forces them to redouble the extent of their delusions.
The quest for social status is clearest in the way the daughters idolize Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs, while scorning the Flamborough girls. It comes as little surprise when the women are later revealed to be disreputable, considering how fraudulent they seem here. For instance, the names are almost ridiculous imitations of fancy names, yet the family is so blinded by the potential of wealth that they lose their senses. The name Miss Carolina Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs is particularly ridiculous, and indeed Goldsmith also used it in one of his letters from his Citizen of the World (1760). The name obviously tickled Goldsmith, for he made his vicar delight in it as well. Further, the Flamborough girls appear to the reader as sweeter, more appropriate companions for the family, and yet are treated as though lesser. When Solomon Flamborough, their father, later reveals a greater common sense than the vicar has (after the vicar is conned by Ephraim Jenkinson), the reader is to realize that these common folk have virtues far greater than the Primrose family is willing to give them credit for.
A few of the incidents in these chapters bear some explanation. For instance, after Olivia and Sophia hear their fortunes read, they begin to misinterpret their dreams to support their hopes. The particulars they use refer to rural superstitions that were characteristic of the time – a 1755 edition of The Connoisseur said a purse was a "round cinder, as opposed to a hollow oblong one, which betokens a coffin," and the 1756 Universal Spectator said "she never has any Thing befals her, without some fore-notice or other; she...is forewarn'd of Deaths by bursting of Coffins out of the Fire; Purses too from the same Element promise Money; and her Candle brings her Letters constantly before the Post." It is worth realizing how Goldsmith seeks to skewer not just universal human qualities like the delusions of pride, but also some specific instances of foolishness that he observed in his day.
Also, Mr. Burchell's tendency to yell "Fudge" when the ladies speak might give the scene an unintentionally absurd air that Goldsmith did not intend. At the time, the word denoted a lie or nonsense, so Goldsmith's intended audience would have seen that Mr. Burchell did not believe the women. For a modern reader, the scene might simply seem like a broadly comic sketch.
Finally, the vicar's acceptance of Jenkinson's "draught" needs some illumination. A draught was a formal, written order for payment, addressed to someone who would be responsible for that payment. Though the vicar rightly felt nervous about the transaction, it was not an entirely unheard of means of barter.
This group of chapters signifies the end of what critics consider the novel's first section. In the next chapter, Olivia's abduction both provides a climax and indicates the introduction of a more serious, tragic air. Thus, chapters I-XVI offer a much different type of tale than the one that is about to come. The critic Richard H. Passon notes that the first section "is pervaded by an atmosphere of simplicity and idyllic unreality, with comic irony directed by and at Dr. Primrose puncturing the balloon from scene to scene to bring the idyll back to earth." The reader, then, "finds himself to be in an attractive but slightly unreal world of simple beauty that ugliness intrudes upon only now and then." That Goldsmith can write a popular sentimental novel is already clear; that he is capable of digging more deeply into those conventions is evidences by the chapters to come.