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Godwinian Moments

From the Enlightenment to Romanticism


Edited by Robert M. Maniquis & Victoria Myers


Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011

Hardcover. xii + 298 p. ISBN 978-1442642430. CAN$75.00 / £52.99


The Letters of William Godwin

Volume 1 : 1778-1797


Edited by Pamela Clemit


Oxford: University Press, 2011

Hardcover. lvi + 306 p. ISBN 978-0199562619. £105.00


Reviewed by Rowland Weston

The University of Waikato, New Zealand



Arising from a conference held at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA) in 2007, Godwinian Moments comprises a series of essays on aspects of this central figure of the late Enlightenment and Romantic periods. A generically-versatile philosophe in all senses of the term, Godwin’s achievement is perhaps best captured in the variety of texts and with the variety of intellectual concerns addressed in these essays. Godwinian Moments contributes substantially to recent scholarship which has set about the task of analysing Godwin’s prodigious output and its influence in the decades following the startling success of his anarchist treatise Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the equally innovative and celebrated novel Things as They Are; Or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). As Victoria Myers points out in her introduction, Godwin’s long life, relentless reflexivity and literary productivity afford a unique means of tracing Britain’s transition into the Romantic Age and, at the same time, of destabilising our ready categorisations of that epoch. In these regards Godwinian Moments succeeds admirably; it also sheds new important new light on a range of Godwin’s writings, some scarcely analysed until now.

Two texts with which scholars might feel a degree of familiarity are fruitfully reappraised in Robert M. Maniquis’ “Godwin’s Calvinist Ghosts: Political Justice and Caleb Williams”. Calvinism – or Sandemanianism more specifically – is surely the most cited and misunderstood of Godwin’s intellectual influences. Maniquis rightly reminds us that we should regard Godwin’s Calvinism less as an ineluctable determinant of his subsequent thought and more as a resource accessed and utilised by the philosopher with varying degrees of reflexivity. Of special importance in the essay is Maniquis’ helpful exposition of Godwin’s necessitarianism. Whether ultimately a product of his Calvinism or of his immersion in secular philosophy, Godwin’s staunchly espoused commitment to psychological necessity cannot be considered as a species of iron determinism ultimately destructive of agency or moral responsibility. Maniquis adroitly teases out these issues in his examination of Caleb Williams.

Godwin scholars have long been indebted to the work of Mark Philp, whose “Godwin, Thelwall, and the Means of Progress” in this volume continues his elaboration of the political and discursive contexts of Godwin’s writings of the 1790s. Generally, Godwin is viewed as turning against his radical principles (and fellow-travelers, specifically his erstwhile friend John Thelwall) in his public response to government measures against ‘Treasonable and Seditious Practices, and Unlawful Assemblies’. Philp shows how accusations of Godwin’s supposed apostasy derive from an unsophisticated and highly polarised view of political discourse in Britain at the time. It is clear that there was far more moderation and consistency in Godwin’s revealingly Burkean attitude to social change than in that of many of his fellow intellectuals. Philp also stresses the general and abstract nature of Godwin’s Political Justice. Clearly it was Godwin’s intention to take advantage of the ongoing revolution debate to ponder the underlying political and moral principles at issue. As Philp says, the debate also provided an opportunity for Godwin to introduce French political thought into public discourse; and it is well known that Godwin saw a profound defect or limitation in the British tradition of political philosophy deriving from Locke and culminating in the writings of his fellow Dissenter, the democrat Tom Paine.

Philp’s subject is further expanded in Jon Mee’s “ ‘The Press and Danger of the Crowd’: Godwin, Thelwall, and the Counter-Public Sphere”. Mee views the disparity between Thelwall’s and Godwin’s ideas about public discussion of political change as one best understood as varying conceptions of what constituted an appropriate and productive (Habermasian) public sphere. We are reminded of Godwin’s vexed and developing relationship with ‘sympathy’ viewed as a necessary social glue which also contained the deleterious potential for facilitating the transmission of irrational mass sentiment. Godwin always tended to conceive the democracy he desired for Britain very much as an intellectual oligarchy given to the gradual education of the public to a point at which they were fit for the anarchist utopia envisioned in his Political Justice. Mee shows how Thelwall was well aware of the supposed dangers of sympathy in plebian public spaces, but was rather more tolerant or optimistic than Godwin, perhaps because of his social background.

In “ ‘Awakening the Mind’: William Godwin’s Enquirer”, Gary Handwerk rightly posits education as a cohering focus and purpose of Godwin’s wide-ranging literary output. Allied to this, of course, is the core ‘anarchist’ conundrum: how free can we ever be to make of ourselves what we will? These concerns go to the heart of Godwin’s oeuvre: sympathy is essential to education yet invariably leads to imitation of the instructor rather than the desired cultivation of the pupil’s independence. For Handwerk, Godwin’s pedagogical practice consists not in a resolution of education’s polarised tendencies either to ‘despotism’ or ‘anarchism’ [118] but rather in a pragmatic and experimental employment of both.

Pedagogical themes are continued in Robert Anderson’s chapter “Godwin Disguised: Politics in the Juvenile Library”. Godwin spent a good portion of his middle career writing and publishing children’s books. Generally constrained to do so under a variety of pseudonymns as a consequence of his adverse reputation in polite society, Anderson shows how Godwin nevertheless contrived to inject a degree of radicalism and subversiveness into these writings. Anderson thus counters some views that Godwin’s children’s writings were apolitical and uncontentious, arguing for their sustained, if ‘unstable’ [130] engagement with a range of issues, including ethnocentrism. Anderson’s engaging exposé of Godwin’s occasional authoritarian tendentiousness fruitfully underlines a central problematic of his Political Justice: if we teach everyone to think for themselves, can we be sure that they will think correctly?

Victoria Myers’ “Oratory and History: Godwin’s History of the Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham” is a welcome analysis of a significant, though little known early work. Myers demonstrates how Godwin’s historiographical emphasis on private sentiment and biography – supposedly a consequence of his epistemological turn to the passions in the mid-late 1790s – is in evidence as early as 1783. The essay explores Godwin’s focus on Pitt’s oratory as both indicative of the statesman’s character and as a performance problematically forming and responding to public sentiment. For Myers this rightly raises real questions about agency, an issue which dogged Godwin until the end of his life and which this essay shows to be extant very early in his career.  

In “The Disfiguration of Enlightenment: War, Trauma, and the Historical Novel in Godwin’s Mandeville”, Tilottama Rajan trains her formidable knowledge of German philosophy and modern theory on Godwin’s novel of seventeenth-century England. We are reminded that Godwin’s historical characters – specifically Mandeville – cannot be regarded simply as instantiations of historical circumstance or spokespersons for discrete ideological positions but must also be understood in psychological and occasionally pathological terms. Godwin’s novel cannot be placed in the Hegelian paradigm demonstrated by Walter Scott’s historical novels which propose steady if dialectical progress and neat narrative resolutions. An intricate and theoretically sophisticated essay defying ready summary, this piece points emphatically to the richness of one of Godwin’s more (supposedly) marginal texts.

The next essay – David O’Shaughnessy’s, “ ‘This is the dread hour, / That must decide the fate of England!’: Godwin’s St Dunstan” – continues this welcome focus on Godwin’s under-examined historiographical output. In other writings O’Shaughnessy has made a highly significant contribution to Godwin scholarship in demonstrating the significance of Godwin’s hitherto unappreciated dramatic output to his overall philosophical, political and pedagogic achievements. In this essay, he shows how St Dunstan evidences Godwin’s development of a number of the issues in political philosophy that were to be more fully articulated in his Political Justice. The play illustrates the capacity of institutional power to create and maintain public opinion and, most importantly, those habits of mind inimical to progress and happiness. This piece also draws attention to Godwin’s play as an explicit engagement with contemporary debates around the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts.

In “Heavy Drama”, Julie Carlson argues convincingly that drama was a medium consciously chosen for its efficacy in tackling ideas of special concern to Godwin at this point in his life and career. Carlson emphasises that Godwin’s well-known and self-confessed attempts in works subsequent to his Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft (1798) to revise his notorious attitude to the domestic affections was not a simple volte-face. Rather, we ought to view Godwin as attempting a more complex and equivocal exploration of the dangers – in particular, the competition between filial and marital imperatives – as well as the benefits, of family life.

In “The Philosopher and the Moneylender: The Relationship between William Godwin and John King”, Michael Scrivener provides a fascinating exploration of a little-known element of Godwin’s wide-ranging social network. Scrivener suggest that this relationship must have afforded Godwin knowledge of a somewhat seamier side of London life than was available through his more usual contacts. This must have impacted on Godwin’s development and output as a social critic and as a novelist. Acquaintance with King seems to have had a definite influence on the novel St Leon (1799) and on Godwin’s maturing religious views. This essay does much to destabilise and humanise our usual image of Godwin, as does the final essay in Godwinian Moments, Pamela Clemit’s “Commerce of Luminaries: Eight Letters between William Godwin and Thomas Wedgwood”. Clemit’s contribution here is drawn from her larger project of collecting and editing Godwin’s correspondence, the first volume of which is reviewed here. Under Clemit’s scrupulous and sympathetic editorship, The Letters of William Godwin marks the first attempt to collect all of the philosopher’s known correspondence. This is a mammoth undertaking which promises substantially to inform our appreciation of Godwin’s life and work.

Biographical analysis of Godwin began during his lifetime; and he expressed an interest in the activity himself. In the nineteenth century readers were treated to a number of evocative and occasionally astute thumbnail sketches of Godwin, from William Hazlitt’s sympathetic but by no means hagiographic portrait in The Spirit of the Age to Leslie Stephen’s harsh dismissal of the philosopher as a ‘cold head full of brains’. Godwin thus became known to his readers (as to his contemporary public) usually in caricature. More recent biographies have provided a fuller picture of this major literary figure, but none, perhaps, do as much as the present volume in evoking a complex and, above all, fully human subject. We get to see different sides of Godwin – the more familiar, morally earnest, occasionally pedantic philosopher, but also the playful and endearing friend and lover. The Letters evinces Godwin’s changing circumstances and outlook from convinced Calvinist, through his loss of faith, his journalistic career, the composition of his magnum opus Political Justice and his unexpected, happy and tragically brief love affair with Mary Wollstonecraft.

The collection is rendered further remarkable and useful by its judicious insertion of relevant correspondence received by Godwin (much of which is also previously unpublished). For example, his letter of 2 February 1796 chiding the novelist Mary Hays for her insufficient stoicism is rendered more revealing of Godwin by Hays’ response. In this exchange our sympathies are definitely with Hays, though we doubt neither Godwin’s sincere rationalism nor his capacity for compassion. Indeed, The Letters fleshes out a personality marked more by candour than by hyper-rationalism: Godwin could be excessively rationalistic at times, but he was no enemy to feeling. Consider the following remark to Thomas Wedgwood of 7 November 1795: ‘Do you not feel how very inadequately epistolary communication supplies the place of oral discussion’ [132]. Such comments reveal to us the extent to which Godwin’s reputation as a cold and disembodied exchanger of ideas is mistaken. He was very much enamoured of the view that an urbane, polite, somatic sociability provided the optimum environment for fruitful intellectual discourse. At the same time, Godwin’s words to Wedgwood should not discourage hopes of uncovering a wealth of information from his letters. Here is the collected correspondence of an individual for whom social intercourse (including the epistolary) was essential to moral development and wider social progress. This was also true of the majority of Godwin’s interlocutors featured in this volume.

Godwin was in contact with many of the major political and cultural figures of the times. Some of this contact was fleeting – as in the case of Burke, Paine and Sheridan. Other contacts were maintained more extensively: Mary Hays, John Thelwall, Thomas Wedgwood and, above all, Mary Wollstonecraft. And even for those readers well aware of the story, the first letter to Wollstonecraft is a bolt from the blue, a delightful instance of the heady, awkward, endearingly juvenile passion of the romantically inexperienced intellectual. The correspondence between the two presented here shows us two highly but differently sensitive individuals: Godwin the uncertain, but ardent lover, untutored in intimacy and with a large and fragile ego; Wollstonecraft, more experienced in the emotions but, perhaps because of that, more imperiled by them.

Godwin emerges from this correspondence as a complex figure, both awkwardly compassionate and passionately rational. Certainly he was an individual with a strong sense of his own intellectual merit and a burning desire that it be acknowledged by others. And though his predilection for preaching at people must have been a constant source of irritation to many of his correspondents, there is no reason to doubt the truth of the following admission: ‘When I discuss any subject with another person, I think I am often & more strenuously employed in learning, than in teaching’ [184]. His was a life of constant and honest reflection and revision.

Perusal of Godwin’s correspondence can teach us much about the man and his work. Those recalling Godwin’s finest and most popular novel Caleb Williams will recognise in Godwin’s reproving letter to the renowned lawyer, Thomas Erskine, his praise of those principles of frankness, ingenuousness and the omnipotence of truth which ultimately carry the day in the novel’s concluding courtroom scene. Another letter gives similar advice to the political activist Joseph Gerrald as he awaits his trial for sedition.

This volume’s detailed and assiduously researched notes are never intrusive nor tendentious and enable the reader always to grasp the full significance and context of Godwin’s correspondence and provide a fascinating parallel narrative of modern British history’s most eventful and dramatic decade. The Letters of William Godwin - Volume 1 : 1778-1797 is an indispensable resource for scholars of the late Enlightenment and Romantic eras in British history.


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