The Literary Encyclopedia, January 8, 2001
Political Writer, Biographer, Novelist, Children’s Writer
Active 1793-1836 in England, Britain, Europe
William Godwin rose to public prominence in the early 1790s, with two publications that rank amongst the most influential of that decade: Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence Modern Morals and Happiness (1793) and Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). These two texts positioned Godwin at the center of the debates defining British political and cultural life in the decade following the French Revolution, and were crucial to the development of the radical critique of state authority in that period. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the radical milieu with which Godwin was associated was disintegrating under the pressure of repressive legislation and emerging cultural nationalism occasioned by the rise of Napoleon and military conflict between England and France. By the time Percy Shelley was pursuing Godwin’s political thought in 1812, he wasn’t even sure whether Godwin was still living. At his death in 1836 Godwin had in fact become virtually unknown, but for the memory of what he had been forty years earlier. His rise and then his fall into public obscurity reflect the ideological pressures of the period in which he lived, while the ensuing neglect of the body of fiction he produced after Caleb Williams indicates the ways in which these pressures have had an enduring and detrimental impact on subsequent understandings of literature in the Romantic period.
Godwin was born in 1756 into a family of dissenting ministers. Between 1775 and 1778 he was educated at a dissenting academy at Hoxton, not far from London, ultimately becoming a minister himself in Ware in 1778. He moved to London in 1783, and began his career as a writer with the publications of Italian Letters, or, The History of the Count de St. Julian and Imogen: A Pastoral Romance from the Ancient British in 1784. Six years after arriving in the metropolis, in November 1789, he was present at the Old Jewry chapel to hear Richard Price deliver his Discourse on the Love of our Country. Price’s speech consolidated and articulated the support of British radicals for the revolution in France, prompting Edmund Burke’s reply Reflections on the Revolution in France, directed against Price and the Revolution Society with which Godwin was affiliated. Burke’s text quickly prompted a number of influential responses, of which Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) are perhaps the best known. Godwin’s background in radical dissent clearly predisposed him to political sympathies similar to those expressed in these critiques of Burke. His major contribution to these debates, however, was much more a work of political-philosophy than an immediate political intervention. His Enquiry Concerning Political Justice deals with a much more abstract set of terms than texts by Paine and Wollstonecraft (though it was no less influential as a result), articulating a position that became known as “rational anarchism”. Owing a good deal to Rousseau, Godwin saw government and the state machine as social evils impinging on the innate moral and communicative disposition of man in a way detrimental to the political maturity of society. Political Justice advocates not revolution, but a process of gradual reform in which the withering of the state apparatus, the “euthanasia of government”, takes place in proportion to the developing maturity and autonomy of public opinion, which Godwin described as “the most potent engine that can be brought within the sphere of political society.”
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice established Godwin’s prominence in the radical culture of the time and accounts for his influence on first generation Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, an influence later disavowed by these writers as the political climate and their own intellectual beliefs changed dramatically. Parts of the text were reprinted in abbreviated, aphoristic form in Daniel Isaac Eaton’s journal Politics for the People, while radical speakers like John Thelwall adapted its ideas in their speeches. At this point, in 1793, Godwin was, in William Hazlitt’s words, “at the very zenith of a sultry and unwholesome popularity; he blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation; no one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme, his name was not far off.”
Caleb Williams followed the next year. The preface to the novel clearly indicates that Godwin saw it as a fictional continuation of the project articulated in the Political Justice. The novel’s “delineation of things passing in the moral world” involves damning fictional portrayals of aristocratic despotism, Burkean sentimentality, the practices of property monopoly and enclosure, and the official manipulation of public opinion. Few texts match its insight into the relationship between ideology and the Gothic-sentimental conventions that, in Burke’s text and parliamentary speeches, served to legitimize the state. The same year saw the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the arrest and trial for treason of Thomas Hardy, secretary of the London Corresponding Society, and other prominent radical intellectuals, including John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke, events that seemed to vindicate the bleak political vision Godwin had presented in his novel. In response to the arrests he published Cursory Structures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre, October 2, 1794. A year later his Considerations on Lord Grenville and Mr Pitt’s Bill attacked the gagging acts of 1795 (known as the “two acts”), which threatened the movement for parliamentary reform and the milieu of radical debating and corresponding societies with renewed legal attacks.
In 1796 he began a relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he had met in 1791. The two married the next year, after Wollstonecraft became pregnant, despite Godwin’s avowed opposition to marriage as a form of tyranny. Wollstonecraft died of puerperal poisoning in September of that year, ten days after giving birth to a daughter, Mary, who eloped with Percy Shelley in 1814 and went on to publish Frankenstein in 1818, a novel that owed much to her father’s Caleb Williams and which has been justifiably described as “Godwinian.” Wollstonecraft’s death prompted Godwin to write Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Godwin’s frank account of Wollstonecraft’s life and death, covering her relationships with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay, and her two suicide attempts, provoked moral outrage. While Robert Southey was not alone in thinking that Godwin had displayed a “want of feeling in stripping his dead wife naked,” the honesty of the text and its lack of regard for the prudishness of its readership generated an important early example of modern biography.
Godwin’s next major publication, St Leon (1799), continued some of the themes developed in Caleb Williams, though the muted Gothic overtones of the earlier novel here give way to a full blown Gothicism in which political-philosophical critique is worked into a story about alchemy and the secret of eternal life. In St Leon the eponymous hero’s possession of the philosopher’s stone, which functions as a metaphor for enlightened knowledge, estranges him from his family and guarantees his alienation from community of any kind. As St Leon, having discovered the secret of eternal life, moves through various representative historical and social moments, the public cultures of the court, feudal militarism, the inquisition, religious reformation and ultimately market capitalism, are all shown to generate equally irrational forms of collective consciousness, leaving the enlightened philosopher an outcast. As was the case in Caleb Williams, the novel is ultimately an exploration of the constitutive irrationality of society and embodies Godwin’s political pessimism at the end of the century. Indeed the common thread linking Political Justice, Caleb Williams and St Leon seems to be a sense of political hopelessness and despair at the impossibility of attaining political enlightenment or progress through public interaction and political institutions, which always seem to be compromised by some sort of irrationality or official manipulation. As Godwin put it in the Political Justice, “We can seldom make much progress in the business of disentangling truth from error and delusion, but in the sequestered privacy, or in the tranquil interchange of sentiments that takes place between two persons.”
After St Leon, Godwin’s work seems to prioritize the psychological over the political. While Caleb Williams and St Leon are both fascinating as psychological studies, they are both also intelligible in terms of the political-philosophical debates mapped out in Political Justice. By the time Godwin published Fleetwood: or the New Man of Feeling in 1805, the political debates that characterized the 1790s seem much more distant, while Godwin’s own position in the public culture of the time had changed dramatically. Under a pseudonym, “Edward Baldwin,” he published children’s literature, catering to a growing bourgeois demand for educational material. This work, like his Life of Chaucer (1803), was in general very positively reviewed, even by publications hostile to Godwin’s politics. Fleetwood, however, is still a novel that embodies Godwin’s radical political sympathies, but its primary object of engagement is the cult of sensibility and its adaptation into Romanticism. Influenced by Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Hélo¬se, Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling and Julia de Roubigné, and Wordsworth’s poetry, the novel examines the ways in which sensibility fuels an egotistical misanthropy that undermines domestic stability. Godwin’s focus on aberrant psychology is even more evident in Mandeville. A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England (1817), which explores the pathological jealousy of its eponymous protagonist, who ends up being an anti-hero marginalized and vilified as a result of his own instability. In both Fleetwood and Mandeville the persecuted Godwinian heroes of Caleb Williams and St Leon have become paranoids persecuted by their own egotism. Though most critics agree that these novels lack the power of Godwin’s earlier work, they are both fascinating early examples of the psychological novel that explore the darker possibilities lurking in the forms of subjecthood that Romanticism had worked so hard to consolidate. In the climate of the early nineteenth century, where military conflict necessitated forms of masculinity appropriate to the demands of emerging cultural nationalism, and, later, in a Victorian culture that stressed the educational potential of English literature, it is fair to say that novels like Fleetwood and Mandeville had no institutional or ideological context conducive to their continued circulation.
Godwin published two other novels towards the end of his life, Cloudesley. A Tale (1830) and Deloraine (1833). Though, at this particular point, he was a marginal figure, his impact more generally has been far from negligible. His influence on the development of Percy Shelley’s political thought is well documented, but he also had a significant impact on a number of other novelists who adapted the conventions of the Gothic and Romantic novel into a more obvious investigation of psychology states. A novel like James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner could justifiably be described as a “Godwinian,” as could the work of the American writer Charles Brockden Brown, which was crucial to the development of nineteenth-century American fiction. It is, however, as the novelist and political-philosopher so central to the movement for parliamentary reform in the 1790s that Godwin is deservedly remembered and re-read. For left literary historians his work represents a powerful articulation of the progressive intellectual and political possibilities defeated by the consolidation of industrial capitalism and bourgeois hegemony over the subsequent century. Godwin died on April 7, 1836.