Revisiting William Godwin
Abstract and Keywords
William Godwin was a leading radical political philosopher, novelist, and social thinker of the British Enlightenment. He was the author of Political Justice, a founding text of philosophical anarchism, and of the novel Caleb Williams. He was committed to the Dissenting belief in the duty of ceaseless inquiry and revisited the same preoccupations throughout his writing life. His work is full of ambiguities and contradictions. Critical tropes surface periodically in Godwin criticism, motivated by the search for consistency. The best critical studies take an encompassing view and place his writings in relation to the changing politics of his own times. Criticism now extends over his entire body of writings. Growth areas include his politics, pedagogical writings, historiographical writings, plays, and his diary and letters. To immerse oneself in Godwin’s wide-ranging body of texts can still be an expression of dissent from “things as they are.”
History of Critical Reputation
William Godwin (1756–1836) was a radical political philosopher, novelist, and social thinker of the British Enlightenment.1 He was the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), a founding text of philosophical anarchism, and of Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), one of the great novels of the eighteenth century. He also wrote five more full-length novels, works of educational theory, children’s books, plays, philosophical biographies, essays, political pamphlets—and a four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1824–1828). He was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early advocate of women’s rights, and then of Mary Jane Godwin, a translator and editor of children’s books; the father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818); and the father-in-law of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Sociable on principle as well as by disposition, he knew or corresponded with almost everyone of note on the political left from the era of the French Revolution (1789) to that of the Great Reform Bill (1832)—including nearly all the major literary figures of the Romantic era. His life is as intriguing a subject for study as his published works.
In The Spirit of the Age (1825), William Hazlitt described the eclipse of Godwin’s reputation:
Five-and-twenty years ago he was in 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:—now he has sunk below the horizon, and enjoys the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality.2
This account has been widely accepted ever since. Most scholars agree that Godwin enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in the 1790s but sank into obscurity after 1800, and that he spent the last thirty-six years of his life in neglect and poverty. However, a recent study of Godwin’s citations tells a more complicated story.3 It reveals that Godwin was never forgotten, and that his reputation fell into several different periods. The first phase did not peak in the early 1790s, but in 1801 (admittedly for negative reasons). This was followed by a precipitate loss of interest down to 1811. Percy Bysshe Shelley might be forgiven for having written to Godwin on January 3, 1812, that he had “enrolled [his] name on the list of the honorable dead,”4 since Godwin’s reputation was then at its lowest point. Yet 1812 also marked the start of a slow recovery of interest in Godwin with several peaks in his lifetime, the highest in 1831, and declining gradually again, touching bottom a few years after his death. Godwin’s reputation was low during the mid-Victorian period, but began to recover in the 1880s. Since then, two or three sub-trajectories can be identified, but overall his reputation has increased and continues to do so (see Figure 1).
The new Godwin who came into being from the 1880s onward was an exponent of a living philosophy as well as an object of scholarship. In particular, Political Justice drew the attention of anarchists in search of precursors. In England, the journal Freedom, founded by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin in 1886, included regular articles on Political Justice; in America, the leading anarchist journal Free Society ran a series of pieces on Political Justice in 1902–1903.5 In the interwar years, interest in Godwin revived again. This interest was not just because of his new role as a founding father of modern anarchism. The rise of English studies as an academic discipline prompted the growth of a critical literature, often biographical in focus, exploring Godwin’s links with other literary figures of his times.6 This was a mixed blessing. Godwin became known less for his own writings than for his connections with other writers—the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the (impecunious) father-in-law of Shelley, and the friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb.
Two books published in Canada immediately after the Second World War launched a further new phase of interest in Godwin’s writings. F. E. L. Priestley’s facsimile of the third edition of Political Justice (1946), with variants in the first and second editions, made the work available for twentieth-century academic study. Priestley’s edition was widely praised, though the Manchester Guardian remarked that Political Justice itself was “alas, social dynamite no longer.”7 The author of the second influential book published in 1946 might not have agreed. In William Godwin: A Biographical Study, the anarchist George Woodcock set out to “arouse interest among English anarchists in their great predecessor” and to rehabilitate Godwin more widely.8 His book appeared with a foreword by the poet and critic Herbert Read (who had declared himself an anarchist in 1937):
Mr Woodcock’s study of Godwin is timely. An increasing number of people, especially of the younger generation, are turning away in disillusionment from the dreary world created by authoritarian or State socialism, and being in no mood for reaction or despair, they discover that there is another and more revolutionary concept of socialism, libertarian socialism, which is still untried, and in detail largely unformulated. Godwin was the first and most eloquent prophet of this social philosophy, and in the years that lie immediately ahead of us, his name and his message will be reanimated.9
Like Godwin’s first readers in the 1790s, Woodcock and Read believed his philosophy could provide a new model of political engagement and guide moral action.
In the postwar years, a good deal of intellectual and cultural life became institutionalized in the expanding universities. Academic interest in Godwin surged during the 1950s, stimulated by David Fleisher’s William Godwin: A Study in Liberalism (1951) and D. H. Munro’s Godwin’s Moral Philosophy: An Interpretation of William Godwin (1953); and then again during the 1960s, the decade of Burton R. Pollin’s seminal contributions, including his Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography (1967). Godwin’s philosophical anarchism was to some extent in tune with the rise of the progressive and academic counterculture and the New Left, and this provided an opportunity to reprint his principal works. Caleb Williams was republished by Rinehart (New York) in 1960 and in the Oxford English Novels series in 1970; Political Justice was republished in 1976 by Penguin.
Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic tended to interpret Godwin’s philosophy in terms of the 1960s and 1970s. The main point at issue was the apparent contradiction between Godwin’s utopian social goals and his rejection of political activism. In the pamphlet Considerations on Lord Grenville’s and Mr. Pitt’s Bills (1795), Godwin criticized the political lectures of his disciple John Thelwall, leading to a temporary breach between the two.10 Revisiting this episode in 1972, Isaac Kramnick observed in the American Political Science Review: “Even today we see the wasteful confrontation of elitist radicals, disdainful of politics, and popular radicals seeking political change.”11 Kramnick was taken to task by John P. Clark, who objected to the charge of elitism: “Godwin’s entire philosophy is, in fact, a plea for the creation of a social structure in which the barriers to the enlightenment and liberation of the masses will be removed”—which Clark found consonant with later anarchist theory.12 Around the same time, Godwin got caught up in the polemical arguments within English Marxism. E. P. Thompson, leader of the “old” New Left of the 1950s, declared in The Poverty of Theory (1978): “Godwinism … was exactly such a moment of intellectual extremism, divorced from correlative action or actual social commitment, as we have seen in the last decade.”13 This characterization may have had more to do with Thompson’s hostility to the “new” New Left, especially the group associated with Perry Anderson, than with Godwin’s own views on politics.14
Meanwhile, Godwin’s enigmatic personality received fresh attention. Following the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, he began to loom large in publications that gave new prominence to Mary Wollstonecraft and their daughter Mary Shelley; in the 1980s he was the subject of three full-length biographies.15 In the 1990s his major works were reprinted in a large scholarly edition, and many early editions of his writings were made available electronically through a research project on the history and theory of anarchism.16
Godwin’s reputation has survived its initial decline, and has surged again in recent years. He has benefited from the rehistoricizing of authors, texts, and contexts, which, since the 1980s, has dominated academic study of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One consequence is the publication (in progress) of authoritative editions of his diary and of his letters.17 Another is the publication of new Oxford World’s Classics editions of his two principal works, Political Justice and Caleb Williams.18 In the last fifteen years or so several academic journals have devoted special issues to Godwin, and in 2011 the first book of critical essays appeared.19 The points of entry for scholarly investigation of Godwin and his writings are now many and various.
Scholarly and Classroom Editions
Modern, high-quality editions provide the foundation for informed critical study of authors once regarded as not quite canonical, such as Godwin. Until just over a decade ago, most of his works were available only to specialists using major research libraries. The publication in 1992 of the Pickering Masters edition of his Collected Novels and Memoirs, followed in 1993 by his Political and Philosophical Writings, both under the general editorship of Mark Philp, changed all that. The Pickering Masters editions did not include all of Godwin’s works, but they greatly increased those available to be read and taught. They made it possible to study his six full-length novels, changing preconceptions about the evolution of Romantic and Victorian fiction, along with his three short, experimental novels of 1783–1784, previously lost, that came to light in the 1960s. They made available nearly all of his political, philosophical, and educational writings, including newly attributed essays and a selection of material from the archives—though there was room for just one chapter from his late riposte to Malthus, Of Population (1820). Pickering augmented its Godwin series in 2010 with a further volume, The Plays of William Godwin, edited by David O’Shaughnessy.
The Pickering editions broke new ground in their treatment of Political Justice and Caleb Williams, making available new texts of both works. Godwin published three editions of Political Justice in his lifetime (1793, 1796, 1798), with extensive revisions on each occasion. Modern editions, including Priestley’s variorum edition, had previously used the third edition as the main text; but Philp provided a clean text of the first edition, together with a volume of variants in the second and third editions. Caleb Williams went through five editions in Godwin’s lifetime (1794, 1796, 1797, 1816, 1831), with significant revisions in the second and third. For the Pickering edition, Pamela Clemit selected the first edition over the conventional choice of 1831, the last edition corrected by the author, and provided variants in subsequent editions. In both cases, the first editions were preferred because they represented Godwin’s original intentions and were the texts that intervened in the Revolution controversy of the early 1790s. These editions captured the actual circumstances in which Godwin was writing, and made available his substantive revisions as a record of his changing ideas which could be studied separately.
The Pickering editions were preceded and followed by a series of classroom editions of Godwin’s major novels, which were informative both textually and contextually. The Oxford English Novels edition of Caleb Williams, republished in Oxford World’s Classics (1982), was the first to include the original manuscript ending, which had been discovered in 1966.20 The Penguin Classics edition of Caleb Williams (1987) was the first to include Godwin’s 1797 manuscript essay, “Of History and Romance.”21 St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century appeared in Oxford World’s Classics in 1994. The Canadian Broadview Literary Texts editions of Caleb Williams (2000), Fleetwood; or, The New Man of Feeling (2000), Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (2001), St. Leon (2006), and Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century (2015) provide extracts from related writings (including Godwin’s own), from other contemporary sources which helped to shape the text, and from early reviews. Each volume is in effect a study package highlighting the novel’s interrelations with society and history. But Broadview were less innovative in their choice of texts. They adhered to the conventional choice of the last edition corrected in the author’s lifetime (with the exception of Memoirs, which prints the first edition with variants in the second). This matters in the case of Caleb Williams, in which, as in the Penguin edition, contextual materials from the 1790s are presented alongside the revised text of 1831. Oxford World’s Classics were the first to make widely available the 1794 text of Caleb Williams (2009) and the 1793 text of Political Justice (2013).
Editorial scholarship is opening up Godwin studies in other ways as well. From 1788 to 1836 Godwin kept a diary. Entries are brief, usually occupying two or three lines of a ruled notebook page. He recorded how much he wrote each day, the books he read, and the people he saw, together with important public events, and the deaths of people of note. In 2010 a searchable online edition of the diary went live in the Bodleian’s Oxford Digital Library series, edited by Victoria Myers, David O’Shaughnessy, and Mark Philp, making publicly available for the first time this extensive record of Godwin’s writing, reading, and social circles.
Godwin was also a prolific writer of letters with a wide circle of correspondents. All of his letters are being published for the first time by Oxford University Press in six volumes, under the general editorship of Pamela Clemit. Two volumes have been published so far. Volume 1 (2011) follows Godwin’s transformation from a pedantic and precocious schoolboy in the 1770s to the famous radical philosopher of the 1790s. Volume 2 (2014) reveals a less familiar person in different surroundings: a man still well connected, attracting new friends and disciples, but increasingly embattled as a public intellectual, a political radical, and a professional author. The Letters of William Godwin, when completed, will include around 1,500 items, only a quarter of which have been published before. They complement the diary’s sparse lists. They provide an intimate view of Godwin’s thinking and writing, and capture the intensity of his social relations. These two projects recast our understanding of Godwin, as both man and author, making possible many new kinds of research.
Since the 1970s, when paperback editions of Political Justice and Caleb Williams became available, Godwin has been approached in various ways: as a literary writer, a guru, and a serious philosophical thinker. Broadly speaking, these perspectives were united by the first wave of historical critics (often associated with the “old” New Left), split apart by the rise of postmodernism, and welded together again by new historicist critics, who often drew on other innovatory critical trends, such as the history of the book. A number of critical tropes surface periodically in Godwin criticism, testifying to the enduring power of his ideas.
One recurring theme is the search for consistency in Godwin’s work. Godwin did not revise his texts as compulsively as Wordsworth,22 but he revisited the same preoccupations throughout his writing life. He worked out what he wanted to say during the process of composition and sent his works to the printer before completion. Individual works do not provide definitive statements of his philosophy, but represent what he thought and judged it possible to say at a particular historical moment—Political Justice and Caleb Williams each went through two rounds of authorial revisions during the political ferment of the 1790s. Any critic approaching Godwin’s writings is confronted by ambiguities and apparent inconsistencies, together with a slightly pompous style that can be a barrier to clarity.
There are two main reasons for these apparent inconsistencies. As noted earlier, Godwin’s career did not follow a traditional cycle of rise and fall, but went through several different phases and authorial identities. Until recently, critics tended to focus exclusively on the books he produced during the 1790s. These are his most important works, but they do not represent the whole of his career. His literary disciple Edward Lytton Bulwer, writing in 1830, described Godwin as “a man, endowed with a mind as various and accomplished as it is inquiring and profound,” and drew attention to his constant refashioning of himself as “an historian, an essayist, a biographer, a novelist, a dramatic writer, a philosopher,”23 as he responded to changing political and cultural circumstances. Such comprehensiveness may be traceable to Godwin’s upbringing and education in eighteenth-century English religious nonconformity, with its ideal of universal knowledge. His generically diverse body of writings owes no allegiance to modern disciplinary categories.
Godwin’s diversity was not only a matter of versatility but also of intellectual outlook. This protean quality of mind has made it even harder to establish a definitive interpretation of his writings. In the pamphlet Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon (1801), Godwin remarked: “The human intellect is a sort of barometer, directed in its variations by the atmosphere which surrounds it” (Political and Philosophical Writings, ii. 70). This observation is primarily directed at those who originally welcomed Political Justice and later changed their minds, but it also provides a gloss on his own flexibility in the face of changing times. Even or perhaps especially in the 1790s, there is ample evidence of such mental “ductility” (Novels and Memoirs, i. 52) in his gradual modification of the rationalist and individualist doctrines of the first edition of Political Justice. In the second and third editions, as in the third edition of Caleb Williams, Godwin placed increased emphasis on the role of sympathy and feeling in moral judgments. Godwin’s politics, too, could seem unstable. In Political Justice, he criticized monarchy, aristocracy, the priesthood, marriage, and inequality of property. But he did not wish to destroy these institutions, only to indicate their eventual, necessary dissolution. His practical politics were reformist and gradualist: he preached truth and sincerity to an educated elite rather than revolution to the masses.
A justification for such flexibility may be found in the Dissenting belief in the duty of ceaseless inquiry. To commit oneself to following truth, “whithersoever thou leadest” (Political and Philosophical Writings, vi. 173, 219), was to embark on an open quest for moral and spiritual enlightenment. In cases in which further exploration or insight reveals the inadequacies of one’s professed views, revision becomes a moral duty. Contemporaries with a similar background in English religious nonconformity recognized that Godwin’s writings had an underlying consistency derived from his belief in the pursuit of truth. Others deplored an apparent “weathercock instability of opinion.”24 Even Coleridge, a close friend by the early 1800s, claimed to be baffled by the changes in his views. After reading a review of Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon, he wrote to Godwin on June 23, 1801:
It strikes me that both in this work & in your second Edition of the Political Justice your Retractations have been more injudicious than the assertions or dogmas retracted. But this is no fit subject for a mere Letter. If I had time, which I have not, I would write two or three sheets for your sole Inspection, entitled, History of the Errors & Blunders of the literary Life of William Godwin. To the World it would appear a Paradox to say, that you are all too persuadible a man; but you yourself know it to be the truth.25
Coleridge, perhaps because of his own intellectual changeability, captures the quality of Godwin’s ductility of mind. Yet the initial response of modern critics, faced with this baffling complexity, was to single out individual works for separate study.
Political Justice and Caleb Williams
Literary critics studying Caleb Williams in isolation interpreted it variously as a psychological study of the divided self, a metaphysical tale, or a flawed analysis of homoerotic desire.26 The most successful studies took a more comprehensive view, bringing Political Justice and Caleb Williams into meaningful relationship with each other and restoring both to the political milieu of the 1790s. Mitzi Myers was one of the first to argue that Godwin’s philosophy and his accomplishments as a novelist were interconnected, and that Political Justice informs Caleb Williams not as a set of doctrines but as an imaginative exploration of a moral problem.27 This exploratory impulse accounted for the textual instability of the novel, notably Godwin’s composition of a “new catastrophe”: the ending of the book as originally projected was no longer suitable to the work as it had developed during the process of writing. Gary Kelly and Marilyn Butler almost simultaneously produced reassessments of Caleb Williams as the most successful English Jacobin novel, a term coined by Kelly to describe the fiction of social protest written by middle-class radicals inspired by the French Revolution and by reform movements at home.28 In this reading, Caleb Williams is both a sketch of contemporary society and a study of the inner life of a single tormented individual, who tells his own story. Butler (building on the work of James T. Boulton and David McCracken) followed up with an influential essay reading the novel as designed to refute the arguments of Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France.29
These critics recognized the limitations of examining individual works in isolation, but the polymathic character of Godwin’s writing was still to be addressed. “Nowadays,” Marilyn Butler wrote in 1984:
we lack commonly accepted rules for reading books like … Godwin’s Political Justice…. If the philosopher and the literary critic collaborated, their account of the book’s meaning would be enriched by the need to relate its “perennial” matter to its method and manner, the text’s subliminal ploys to win the reader’s agreement. If either would consider the circumstances of the book’s production, too often the concern of only the historian, they would see an unstable but more fascinating work, its matter and manner responding to the events of 1790–5, changing even in its relationship to Burke’s Reflections.30
This method was pioneered by Mark Philp in his doctoral thesis of 1983, as Butler acknowledged.
Philp’s subsequent book, Godwin’s Political Justice (1986), transformed Godwin studies. He was interested not just in the meaning of Political Justice but in the broader question of what Godwin, in the colloquialism sanctioned by Quentin Skinner, was “up to.”31 He set out to reconstruct the intellectual and political context in which Political Justice came to be written and to achieve its final form in the third edition. He dwelt on Godwin’s origins in English religious nonconformity and argued that the evolution of his thought needed to be understood in the light of Rational Dissent, its relations to the extra-parliamentary movement for reform of the political franchise in the early 1790s, and its decline in the wake of a sustained campaign against radical intellectuals in the second half of the decade. In Philp’s view, the first edition expressed commonly held assumptions of the metropolitan community of Rational Dissenters frequented by Godwin, and Godwin was best seen as a perfectibilist rather than as a utilitarian. The changes made to subsequent editions, especially the increased emphasis on feeling as the basis of human action, reflected Godwin’s engagement with British moral sense philosophy and the literature of sensibility. He retained his central commitment to the Dissenting ideal of private judgment, which was not simply a matter of principle but also a way of life.
This leap from social context to intellectual orientation was unacceptable to some readers, who rightly noted that Godwin wrote in other idioms besides Dissent.32 Nonetheless Philp’s book set the trend for subsequent scholarship, and made Political Justice available to literary critics in a way it had not been before. His preoccupation with the formative influence of Rational Dissent appealed to new historicist critics who were engaged in recovering forgotten writers, and became part of a larger exploration of the literature of eighteenth-century nonconformity. In encompassing all three editions, and anchoring them in the political currents of the 1790s, Philp explicated the changes in Godwin’s thought. His book convincingly refuted the view of Godwin as an airy idealist, divorced from political reality (E. P. Thompson got short shrift). His understanding of radical social circles was in keeping with the growing popularity of the 1790s as a distinct area of study and contributed to a developing interest in Romantic sociability. Finally, Philp included Godwin’s other writings of the 1790s in a comprehensive reading, giving special attention to Caleb Williams and its changed ending. The overall effect was to put Godwin criticism on a multidisciplinary footing and to pave the way for the large-scale editorial projects of the 1990s, and beyond.
The 1990s were, bibliometrically speaking, Godwin’s decade. A new wave of historical studies refined upon the work of the 1970s and ranged more widely across Godwin’s oeuvre. Caleb Williams remained the most popular text for analysis and was scrutinized from every conceivable critical angle, sometimes in conjunction with other works by Godwin and his associates. Pamela Clemit, in her monograph, The Godwinian Novel (1993, 2001), reassessed his whole career as a philosophical novelist. She proposed that Godwin invented a subgenre of intellectual fiction that owed more to an older tradition of politically engaged literature inspired by the Puritan ethic of free choice than to the Jacobin novel of the 1790s. In Caleb Williams, Godwin employed a Rousseauvean confessional form to explore the tensions between self and society.33 By adopting a first-person narrative, Clemit argued, he solicited the active participation of the reader, seeking to activate his central philosophical belief in the doctrine of private judgment. In subsequent novels, Godwin employed the same confessional form to write an alternative form of history—a history of mentalities. The novels of his followers, notably Charles Brockden Brown and Mary Shelley, use the same generic features to present variants, often highly critical, on Godwin’s ethical and political norms.
Around the same time, Tilottama Rajan brought together hermeneutics, deconstruction, and cultural criticism to make essentially similar points. She read Caleb Williams as “a work of political metafiction” and proposed a new account of when the political novel became “romantic.”34 For Kelly, the Jacobin novelists became “Romantic” when they turned away from politics to the domestic sphere; for Rajan, the political novel became “romantic” when it crossed “the threshold between rhetoric and hermeneutics … involving the reader in the making of the text.”35 Like Philp and Clemit, she argued that the published ending of Caleb Williams invites the reader to apply in their own lives an insight that comes too late to help the characters. Gary Handwerk, too, revisited the two endings of Caleb Williams, arguing that inconsistencies arise because Godwin was unable to rewrite the whole of the novel in the way that he rewrote the ending.36 As David Bromwich observed in 1994: “What Caleb Williams never accounts for is the pertinacity with which the disciple Caleb probes and finally unmasks the reputation of a man he venerates.”37 Critics in the field of law and literature tackled this problem head-on. They turned a forensic lens on the multiple disputes about ownership of property (and ownership of other persons) at the heart of Caleb Williams.38 Such readings gave prominence to Godwin’s critique of emotions that are complicit with unequal social relations, and explained Caleb’s curiosity as a deviant form of inquiry.
Since the 1990s, scholarship has expanded to cover the whole of Godwin’s oeuvre, as he became “first an insistent presence, then a crux, and now a focal point in scholars’ re-vision of the Romantic period.”39 Critics did not stop writing about Caleb Williams and Political Justice, but they often used these works to contextualize his other writings. The “Godwinian moment” of the 1790s continued to attract debate, but critics also rediscovered Godwin’s post-revolutionary career, in which he had to meet the challenges of adversity, both politically and personally, and sought to recuperate the unfinished project of Political Justice by writing novels, plays, biographies, children’s books, and historiographical works. Readers in the 1990s and the following decade responded to the special qualities of Godwin’s later works. Jeremy Bentham once remarked of Samuel Johnson, “Like Godwin, this man infused a tinge of melancholy, though of a different hue, into every book he touched.”40 In Godwin’s case, that tinge of melancholy reflected a thwarted progressivism and, especially in the later novels, an abrasive, unblinking attention to unpleasant political realities, as refracted through the individual psyche. Such a vision has a particular resonance for readers in a post-deconstructionist world. It may seem contentious to single out particular growth areas in Godwin studies. Nonetheless, five areas stand out.
Some well-thumbed critical issues will not go away. E. P. Thompson, in a 1993 review-essay of the Pickering editions, restated his views of the 1970s and kicked off another round of critical discussion concerning Godwin’s apparent tergiversation in Considerations, notably his criticism of Thelwall (“an episode which illustrated a parting of the ways between activist and philosophical reformers”).41 Thompson’s error, according to Mark Philp, was to treat the French Revolution controversy as a simple conflict between reform and loyalism.42 In Considerations Godwin sought a middle ground between his faith in public discussion and the furthering of reform. He protests against the Two Acts while also warning Thelwall against inciting the populace in public meetings. The point at issue was the appropriate method of political education. Considerations was consistent with the first edition of Political Justice, in which he argued that reform should be carried on by gradual steps, through the agency of books and private discussion, so as to accustom people’s minds to the workings of truth. Jon Mee broadly agreed with Philp but characterized the divergence between Godwin and Thelwall differently, highlighting their apparently competing attitudes to political debate.43 Godwin was the beneficiary of a Dissenting ideal of conversational exchange based on deliberative reasoning, whereas Thelwall, a self-taught controversialist in the popular debating clubs of eighteenth-century London, trusted the generous sympathy of the metropolitan crowd. The tensions between theory and practice in Godwin’s thought—he urged the true reformer “to regard the improvement of every hour as essential in the discovery and dissemination of truth, and willingly to suffer the lapse of years before … reducing his theory into actual execution” (Political and Philosophical Writings, iii. 116)—ensure that his position among radicals of the 1790s remains especially vexed.
Godwin’s pedagogical writings continue to attract attention, not least because his denunciation of late-eighteenth-century educational practices resonates in an age that, as Gary Handwerk noted in 2011, “persists in seeing learning and intellectual development as testable and quantifiable processes.”44 From the mid-1790s onward, the debate prompted by the French Revolution gave way to an equally intense preoccupation with education as the means by which social change was to be achieved. Godwin adapted his method of political education accordingly, moving from a belief in the dissemination of definitive knowledge (through the “men of study and reflection” whom he identified as the intended audience of Political Justice) to a more discursive mode. In The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797), he published conversational essays that were presented “to the contemplative reader, not as dicta, but as the materials of thinking” (Political and Philosophical Writings, v. 78). They were designed to achieve what he saw as the chief purpose of education: awakening the mind. Nonetheless he remained attuned to “the despotic undertow of the pedagogical situation,”45 and sought to get round it in both theory and practice.
Education was not an abstract concern. By 1803 Godwin was the father of two children and the de facto parent of three more. In 1805 he and his second wife, Mary Jane Godwin, established a publishing house for children’s books, for which he produced a sizeable body of pseudonymous instructional literature. Ironically these books were praised by conservative reviews which had excoriated his writings for adults. Godwin’s Juvenile Library has long been a subject of bibliographical interest among historians of children’s literature.46 In recent years, scholars have also explored the content of the books. Pamela Clemit argued that Godwin turned to children’s books as a continuation of his radical program of the 1790s.47 M. O. Grenby claimed that Godwin’s children’s books, like those of virtually all his contemporaries, avoided politics altogether.48 Robert Anderson, in a subtle analysis, came down somewhere in the middle.49 He noted the instability of the political meanings of particular works and argued that the resulting contradictions are consistent with Godwin’s desire to provide young readers with the “materials of thinking.” This wish to cultivate autonomy in the child reader is sometimes at odds with an authoritarian tendency: Godwin always sought to ensure that the child reader’s interpretation of events followed his own reformist values. Even so, Anderson concluded, the best of Godwin’s schoolbooks fulfill the aim that Godwin set himself a decade earlier in Caleb Williams: “to disengage the minds of men from prepossession, and launch them on the sea of moral and political enquiry.”50 As often in Godwin criticism, the wheel comes to rest with his own statements about how his works should be read.
Godwin’s rich body of historiographical writings are now getting their due.51 Scholars have drawn attention to his critique of Enlightenment philosophical history and his rejection of grand narratives in favor of particularity and contingency. Tilottama Rajan argued that Godwin’s archaeology of British history moves in the opposite direction from that of Sir Walter Scott, who draws the losses of history into a narrative of improvement.52 Godwin, conversely, presents a view of society, and of the individual, as irredeemably fractured. In her most recent contribution, Rajan proposed that Godwin was engaged in writing a world history in bits and pieces, viewed through the different modes of novels, children’s books, biographies, and histories. This multigeneric historical corpus forms what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a “rhizome” or “burrow,” with “multiple entrances” that have “rules of usage” and connect in different ways, allowing the “map of the rhizome” to be modified at the point at which one enters it.53 Rowland Weston concurred that the rhizome—“an expression of dynamic multiplicity which cannot be reduced to … a totalizing, concretizing unity”—is a valuable trope with which to understand Godwin’s historical and biographical practices.54 It helps to explain Godwin’s focus on instances of moral and intellectual energy occurring in particular characters or epochs. The entry point that dominates his late-career historiography is the Stuart period, which he described in the essay, “Of History and Romance,” as “the only portion of our history interesting to the heart of man” (Political and Philosophical Writings, v. 296). In Essay on Sepulchres (1809), Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton (1815), Mandeville (1817), and the four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1824–1828), he explores individual and general history from a multiplicity of viewpoints.
Another growth area involves Godwin’s writings for the stage. Critical reassessment of Godwin’s plays, only one of which was staged successfully, was pioneered by David O’Shaughnessy in his monograph, William Godwin and the Theatre (2010). He situated Godwin in the London theatrical world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and argued that his plays were essential for understanding the development of his political thought. Drama, as “the link between the literary class of mankind & the uninstructed,”55 had a particular significance for Godwin as a means to effect political change. It reflected the shift from “a drip-down … economy of moral improvement” in Political Justice to the collaborative mode of political education described in The Enquirer.56 Julie Carlson shared O’Shaughnessy’s view of the theater as a forum of intellectual exchange and added a further dimension.57 She argued that Godwin’s plays, uniquely among his works, deal with the conflict between marital and filial ties—a theme taken up by Mary Shelley in her last two novels.
Finally, Godwin’s diary and letters are receiving scholarly attention of a depth and range once reserved for the intellectual giants of the age, such as Bentham and Coleridge. An indication of the kind of detailed interpretative work made possible by the digital edition of Godwin’s diary (subtitled “Reconstructing a Social and Political Culture, 1788–1836”) is provided by a special issue of the Bodleian Library Record (2011). In some contributions, Godwin scholars have found new dimensions of his life and writings; in others, the diary has enabled scholars in different fields to connect their work with Godwin and his circle for the first time. The diary tells us not just whom Godwin knew. It also tells us “about the literary, artistic and political circles of the metropolis, who knew whom, who met regularly, who was apparently rarely seen with whom,”58 and about the broader social and cultural practices of the period.
The trickledown effect of the Oxford University Press edition of Godwin’s letters is necessarily slower—but sure. The letters, in Kenneth R. Johnston’s phrase, “radiate moral philosophy in action.”59 They occupy a significant place in Godwin’s debates about ethics and politics, and they show him to be committed to candid inquiry and debate in practice as well as in theory. Godwin appears a more complex figure than his published writings suggest. He was not an inflexible rationalist who was unable to form a just estimate of the affections, but was always reassessing his ideas of what it meant to be human. He was a man of strong feelings who reflected intensively on his own experiences (notably, his love and loss of Mary Wollstonecraft). His diligence in preserving copies of his letters after 1795 indicates his awareness of their importance for posterity.60 Like the diary, the letters provide insight into the self-understanding and self-presentation of a radical intellectual. They may ultimately prove more significant for interpreting Godwin than his published works.
“We seem to be living through a critical moment for William Godwin,” Jon Mee observed in 2012.61 Why has Godwin’s moment come round again? The values expressed by Godwin are humanity, moderation, disinterestedness, benevolence, justice, and candor. They are out of tune with the amoral acquisitiveness of neoliberalism, which has come to dominate Western societies today. To immerse oneself in Godwin’s ocean of texts can still be an expression of dissent from “things as they are”—a refusal to conform. As long as people continue to yearn for justice, equality, and fairness, Godwin will be read.
Butler, Marilyn. “Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams,” Essays in Criticism 32(3) (July 1982): 237–257.Find this resource:
Clemit, Pamela. The Godwinian Novel: The Rational Fictions of Godwin, Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon, 2001.Find this resource:
Clemit, Pamela. “Self-Analysis as Social Critique: The Autobiographical Writings of Godwin and Rousseau,” Romanticism 11(2) (2005): 161–180.Find this resource:
Clemit, Pamela, and Avner Offer. “Godwin’s Citations, 1783–2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor,” Nineteenth-Century Prose 41(1–2) (Spring-Fall 2014), 27–52.Find this resource:
Graham, Kenneth W.William Godwin Reviewed: A Reception History, 1783–1834. New York: AMS Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Hamilton, Paul. “Politics in Reserve: Coleridge and Godwin.” In Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory, by Paul Hamilton, pp. 69–87. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.Find this resource:
Handwerk, Gary. “Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams,” English Literary History 60(4) (Winter 1993): 939–960.Find this resource:
Kelly, Gary. The English Jacobin Novel, 1780–1805. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.Find this resource:
Maniquis, Robert M., and Victoria Myers, eds. Godwinian Moments: From the Enlightenment to Romanticism, UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies / William Andrews Clark Memorial Library Series, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Mee, Jon. “William Godwin’s Moment,” Huntington Library Quarterly 75(1) (March 2012): 123–129.Find this resource:
Myers, Mitzi. “Godwin’s Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 12(4) (Autumn 1972): 591–628.Find this resource:
O’Shaughnessy, David. William Godwin and the Theatre. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010.Find this resource:
O’Shaughnessy, David, and Mark Philp, eds. Bodleian Library Record 24:1 (April 2011). Special issue on William Godwin’s Diary.Find this resource:
Philp, Mark. Godwin’s Political Justice. London: Duckworth, 1986.Find this resource:
Pollin, Burton R.Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.Find this resource:
Rajan, Tilottama. The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.Find this resource:
Rajan, Tilottama. “Between Individual and General History: Godwin’s Seventeenth-Century Texts.” Nineteenth-Century Prose 41(1–2) (Spring–Fall 2014): 111–160.Find this resource:
Tysdahl, B. J.William Godwin as Novelist. London: Athlone, 1981.Find this resource:
Weston, Rowland, ed. Nineteenth-Century Prose 41(1–2) (Spring–Fall 2014). Special issue on William Godwin.Find this resource:
(1) Thanks to John Barnard for his valuable comments on a draft of this essay, and to Jenny McAuley, Eliza O’Brien, Tilottama Rajan, Helen Stark, and Rowland Weston for sharing work in progress.
(2) William Hazlitt, “William Godwin,” The Spirit of the Age; or, Contemporary Portraits (1825), in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, edited by P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London: Dent, 1930–1934), xi. 16.
(3) Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer, “Godwin’s Citations, 1783–2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor,” Nineteenth-Century Prose 41(1–2) (Spring–Fall 2014), 27–52, from which the rest of this first section is adapted. I thank the editor for permission to reprint.
(4) The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), i. 220.
(5) Burton R. Pollin, Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 267–269; see also Heiner Becker, “Notes on Freedom and the Freedom Press, 1886–1928,” The Raven 1(1) (1987): 4–24, and Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, edited by Candace Falk, Barry Pateman, and Jessica M. Moran, 3 vols. to date (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003–), ii. 551.
(6) On the post-First World War rise of English studies, see Chris Baldick, The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848–1932 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), 86–108.
(7) Manchester Guardian, March 9, 1948, 3.
(8) George Woodcock, “Introduction to a New Edition,” in William Godwin: A Biographical Study (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989), ix.
(10) William Godwin to John Thelwall, 28 and 29 November 1795, in The Letters of William Godwin, general editor, Pamela Clemit, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011–), i. 136–137.
(11) Isaac Kramnick, “On Anarchism and the Real World: William Godwin and Radical England,” American Political Science Review 66(1) (March 1972): 115.
(12) John P. Clark, “On Anarchism in an Unreal World: Kramnick’s View of Godwin and the Anarchists,” American Political Science Review 69(1) (March 1975): 166.
(13) E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London: Merlin Press, 1978), 373.
(14) Mark Philp, “Thompson, Godwin, and the French Revolution,” History Workshop Journal 39(1) (1995): 99.
(15) Don Locke, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980); Peter H. Marshall, William Godwin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984); William St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family (London: Faber and Faber, 1989).
(16) Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, general editor, Mark Philp, 8 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1992) (hereafter Novels and Memoirs), and Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, general editor, Mark Philp, 7 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1993) (hereafter Political and Philosophical Writings); Anarchy Archives: An Online Research Center on the History and Theory of Anarchism, a research project directed by Dana Ward, http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/, accessed November 11, 2014.
(17) The Diary of William Godwin, edited by Victoria Myers, David O’Shaughnessy, and Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford Digital Library, 2010), http://godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk, accessed November 11, 2014; see note 10.
(18) Caleb Williams (the 1794 text), edited by Pamela Clemit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (the 1793 text), edited by Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
(19) For example, Studies in Romanticism 39(4) (Winter 2000) and 41(3) (Fall 2002); Nineteenth-Century Prose 41(1–2) (Spring–Fall 2014); Robert M. Maniquis and Victoria Myers, eds., Godwinian Moments: From the Enlightenment to Romanticism, UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies / William Andrews Clark Memorial Library Series (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).
(20) D. Gilbert Dumas, “‘Things As They Were’: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 6(3) (Summer 1966): 575–597.
(21) The manuscript containing this essay and another one entitled “Of Scepticism” was annotated by Godwin, “These Essays were written while the Enquirer was in the press, under the impression that the favour of the public might have demanded another volume” (Bod. MS Abinger c. 86, fol. 23r), but was not published during his lifetime.
(22) Stephen Gill, Wordsworth’s Revisitings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
(23) [Edward Lytton Bulwer], “The Lounger, No. I,” New Monthly Magazine 28 (1830), 365.
(24) Robert Southey to William Taylor, July 1, 1804, in John Warden Robberds, A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1843), i. 507.
(25) Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956–1971), ii. 736.
(26) For example, Rudolf F. Storch, “Metaphors of Private Guilt and Social Rebellion in Godwin’s Caleb Williams,” English Literary History 34(2) (June 1967): 188–207; A. D. Harvey, “The Nightmare of Caleb Williams,” Essays in Criticism 26(3) (July 1976): 236–249; Alex Gold Jr., “It’s Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin’s Caleb Williams,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19(2) (Summer 1977): 135–160.
(27) Mitzi Myers, “Godwin’s Changing Conception of Caleb Williams,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 12(4) (Autumn 1972): 591–628.
(28) Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel, 1780–1805 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), 179–260; Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 57–87.
(29) Marilyn Butler, “Godwin, Burke, and Caleb Williams,” Essays in Criticism 32(3) (July 1982), 237–257; see also James T. Boulton, The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), 207–249; and David McCracken, “Godwin’s Caleb Williams: A Fictional Rebuttal of Burke,” Studies in Burke and His Time 11(2) (Winter 1969–1970): 1442–1452.
(30) Marilyn Butler, “Introductory Essay,” in Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy, edited by Marilyn Butler, 2 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
(31) Interview with Quentin Skinner, in Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, The New History: Confessions and Conversations (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2002), 224. Skinner is discussing the methodology of his Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996): “The question that underpins the book is not so much what Hobbes means in his various texts, but what he is up to, what he may have meant by writing as he did.”
(32) Gregory Claeys, “Godwinian Enthusiasms,” Historical Journal 30(3) (September 1987): 764; see also his “William Godwin’s Critique of Democracy and Republicanism and Its Sources,” History of European Ideas 7(3) (1986): 253–269.
(33) See also Gregory Dart, Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 76–98.
(34) Tilottama Rajan, The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 184, 193.
(36) Gary Handwerk, “Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams,” English Literary History 60(4) (Winter 1993): 939–960.
(37) David Bromwich, “Perfection without Consolation,” Times Literary Supplement 4755 (May 20, 1994), 9.
(38) For example, Jan-Melissa Schramm, Testimony and Advocacy in Victorian Law, Literature, and Theology (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 89–94; Nancy E. Johnson, The English Jacobin Novel on Rights, Property and the Law: Critiquing the Contract (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 110–129.
(39) Victoria Myers, Review of The Letters of William Godwin: Volume I, Keats-Shelley Journal 61 (2012), 156.
(40) “Memoirs and Correspondence,” The Works of Jeremy Bentham, edited by John Bowring, 11 vols. (Edinburgh: W. Tait, 1843), x. 13.
(41) E. P. Thompson, “Benevolent Mr Godwin,” London Review of Books, 8 July 1993, reprinted in Thompson, The Romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thelwall (Woodbridge, U.K.: Merlin Press, 1997), 99.
(42) Philp, “Thompson, Godwin, and the French Revolution,” 99–100; see also his “Godwin, Thelwall, and the Means of Progress,” in Godwinian Moments, 59–82.
(43) Jon Mee, “‘The Press and Danger of the Crowd’: Godwin, Thelwall, and the Counter-Public Sphere,” in Godwinian Moments, 83–102.
(44) Gary Handwerk, “‘Awakening the Mind’: William Godwin’s Enquirer,” in Godwinian Moments, 104.
(45) Handwerk, “‘Awakening the Mind’: William Godwin’s Enquirer,” 110.
(46) See esp. Brian Alderson, ‘“Mister Gobwin’ and His ‘Interesting Little Books, Adorned with Beautiful Copper-Plates,’” Princeton University Library Chronicle 59 (1998): 159–189.
(47) Pamela Clemit, “Philosophical Anarchism in the Schoolroom: William Godwin’s Juvenile Library, 1805–25,” Biblion: The Bulletin of the New York Public Library 9(1–2) (Fall 2000–Spring 2001): 44–70.
(48) M. O. Grenby, “Politicizing the Nursery: British Children’s Literature and the French Revolution,” The Lion and the Unicorn 27(1) (January 2003): 3, 12.
(49) Robert Anderson, “Godwin Disguised: Politics in the Juvenile Library,” in Godwinian Moments, 125–146.
(50) Godwin, “To the Editor of the British Critic,” 7 June 1795, British Critic 6 (July 1795): 94–95, quoted (with adaptations) in Anderson, “Godwin Disguised,” 142.
(51) For example, John Morrow, “Republicanism and Public Virtue: William Godwin’s History of the Commonwealth of England,” Historical Journal 34(3) (September 1991), 645–664; Tilottama Rajan, “Uncertain Futures: History and Genealogy in William Godwin’s The Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton,” Milton Quarterly 32(3) (October 1998): 75–86; Mark Salber Phillips, Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740–1820 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 322–327; Porscha Fermanis, “William Godwin’s History of the Commonwealth and the Psychology of Individual History,” Review of English Studies 61(252) (November 2010): 773–800.
(53) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, translated by Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 3, quoted in Tilottama Rajan, “Between Individual and General History: Godwin’s Seventeenth-Century Texts,” Nineteenth-Century Prose 41(1–2) (Spring–Fall 2014): 118–119; see also Rajan, “Uncertain Futures,” 78.
(54) Rowland Weston, “History, Memory, and Moral Knowledge: William Godwin’s Essay on Sepulchres (1809),” European Legacy 14(6) (2009): 661–662.
(55) Godwin, undated note, Bod. MS Abinger c. 21, fol. 57v, quoted in David O’Shaughnessy, William Godwin and the Theatre (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010), 9 (corrected from the manuscript).
(57) Julie Carlson, “Heavy Drama,” in Godwinian Moments, 217–238.
(58) John Barrell, “May I Come to Your House to Philosophise?” London Review of Books, 33(17) (September 8, 2011), 22.
(60) Pamela Clemit, “William Godwin and James Watt’s Copying Machine: Wet-Transfer Copies in the Abinger Papers,” Bodleian Library Record 18(5) (April 2005): 532–560.
(61) Jon Mee, “William Godwin’s Moment,” Huntington Library Quarterly 75(1) (March 2012): 123.