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The Letters of William Godwin

Volume II, 1798-1805


Edited by Pamela Clemit


Oxford: University Press, 2014

Hardcover. xlvii+423p. ISBN 978-0199562626. £100


Reviewed by Jeremy Elprin

Université Paris Diderot



The second of six projected volumes of the complete letters of William Godwin, magisterially edited by Pamela Clemit, this volume covers the years 1798-1805, ushering the reader through the various stages of Godwin’s reconstruction of his intellectual, professional, and domestic life after the devastating loss of Mary Wollstonecraft, with which the first volume had ended, in September 1797, and the simultaneous depreciation of his public standing. Whereas the first volume of letters (1778-1797) – showcasing the Godwin of An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793) and Caleb Williams (1794); the Godwin, that is, who would emerge as one of the most radical and influential thinkers of his time – is likely to remain of greater interest to a general readership, and as an irreplaceable companion to those major works, this second volume offers an intriguing portrait of a lesser-known, multifaceted figure, an eminent rationalist opening himself up to new forms of feeling and of expression, as he sifts through the remains of fading friendships, fortifies new ones, struggles to restore the sense of stability and clarity of purpose which suddenly seem to have slipped from his life.

If a “literary” narrative is to be sought in the letters of this volume, it can be found in the references to those works, both fictional and non-fictional, which Godwin undertook in the wake of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death, beginning with his Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (published in January 1798). As Clemit notes, in her lucid and precise introduction, this

candid and sympathetic account of every phase of Mary Wollstonecraft’s unconventional life […] provided a stimulus for conservative attacks on the private lives of radical intellectuals and alienated some of his own friends. For the next four years, Godwin’s views (and Wollstonecraft’s) were widely denigrated in newspapers and journals, in anti-Jacobin novels, and in sermons and pamphlets. [xxix]

 The political tide had turned, and the literary establishment, less accommodating of Godwin’s incendiary politics and philosophy, would use his private memoirs against him, forcing him into a discomfiting, defensive position. One of the most bristling of Godwin’s letters to have survived from this period, printed towards the end of the volume, is one which he sent to the turncoat Robert Southey on 15 May 1805 (and to which he explicitly did not request a reply). Writing in response to a series of articles in the Annual Review, in which he found himself to have been “treated with a low & despicable scurrility”, Godwin expresses his desire, with characteristic candour and at least the pretence of pedagogical design, to “carry some feelings of moral compunction & moral confusion home to that mind” of “the man who penned them” [350]. The list of wrongs which follows branches out from the inaccurate depiction of Godwin’s “intellectual abilities” to Southey’s lack of “decency” for having made a public attack on a “personal acquaintance”, and finally to Southey’s indefensible hypocrisy:

We were engaged by your own statement in one cause, the cause of human improveableness, of liberty, equality & mankind. What ought you to have thought of yourself, when you joined the vulgar & artful cry of the enemies of this cause against me? While no one as yet openly opposed my work, while it & its author appeared to possess an extensive popularity, you were its friend. When the refuse of every tyrannical & aristocratical party joined against me, […] then you thought it prudent, & you thought it magnanim[ous], to stand up against me, to repeat the words of these wretches hirelings, & to echo their sentences. [351-352]

This letter registers both Godwin’s gradual adjustment to (or at least one mode of coping with) his newly decentred position, as well as the process by which the once-vocal dissenting left came to be demonised in the press (and, in less nuanced ways, smothered by the increasingly repressive government) towards the end of the 1790s and in the decades to come. More cathartic than polemic, the letter closes by reiterating that any answer by Southey would be “in vain” [352]. As Clemit duly adds in a textual note, the letter’s recipient would agree: writing to a mutual friend, John Rickman, two weeks later, Southey remarks, “To such perfect Gobwinianism I do not think it worthwhile to reply, and if he should inquire of you concerning it, […] you may tell him so in what phrase you please—which may perhaps best be done by saying that I perfectly agree with him in opinion that his letter requires no answer” [353, n. 6]. Such an exchange (or non-exchange) brings to light one of the great virtues and pleasures of Clemit’s edition, which not only offers the reader a sense of continuing dialogue or discussion, so vital to the impulse of these epistolary texts (even when, as in this case, they seek to close off, rather than to re-open, certain lines of communication), but which also brims with rich historical, biographical and literary annotation, so as to re-create the cross-currents of Godwin’s shifting milieu and of the wider networks of Romantic-period writers and thinkers, more generally. In this, it proves a wonderfully suggestive resource not only for Godwin specialists but for scholars of British Romanticism and intellectual history, alongside the searchable digital edition of Godwin’s diary, a remarkable achievement in its own right.

Southey is one of many prominent names that readers will encounter in this volume of Godwin’s correspondence, and one of only a few for whom Godwin’s famed eloquence would be used to channel his ire. (Another was George Dyson, one of Godwin’s younger radical associates, who had written him a “rude & insulting letter” [72], and who would, more grievously, after a few too many drinks, break into Godwin’s house and make a pass at one of his servants.) Among his more reliably sympathetic correspondents at this time were Thomas Holcroft, Thomas Wedgwood, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, and even Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Godwin had first met in 1794, but with whom he did not strike up a real friendship until 1799. The political economist Thomas Robert Malthus also makes an appearance, in a brief note of 15 August 1798 (for which a black-and-white facsimile is given), which follows up on a discussion he and Godwin had begun over breakfast, and which most of us would probably not consider the typical accompaniment of morning tea and toast: “It strikes me upon recollection,” Godwin writes, “that in our conversation this morning I omitted the most material part of the subject, the most striking view in which it may be placed. Myriads of centuries, for aught I know, of still increasing population may occur, before the island of Great Britain shall contain all the population it is capable of subsisting, though certainly not centuries of unchecked increase” [54]. Malthus had recently published his Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Further Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, and Godwin found in him a ready, polite adversary, of stimulating mental might. Like so many letters in this volume, Godwin’s note to Malthus bespeaks the fundamental sociability, the steadfast, benevolent eagerness with which he sought to engage with other minds on the most important issues of the day. This feature continued to characterise and to sustain Godwin throughout this trying period, which saw a number of notable successes and failures in his evolving creative and intellectual endeavours.

Among the fruits of his labour at this time were the novel, St Leon : A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, first published in December 1799, and already in a second edition by February 1800; Antonio ; or, The Soldier’s Return, which was performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in December 1800; the tragedy, “Abbas, King of Persia”, endlessly reworked, only to be rejected by the Theatre Royal (Coleridge, to whom Godwin had sent a draft manuscript, employed a complex system of symbols to signpost those passages where the “Language [was] false or intolerable English”, those which struck him as “flat or mean”, and those in which Godwin had “adopted the worst sort of vulgar Language, common-place book Language”; he concluded, rather discouragingly, “The first two acts, I am convinced, you must entirely re-write” [226, n. 2]); a Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in two quarto volumes in October 1803, and republished, in four octavo volumes, four months later (Godwin was particularly sensitive to the format of his published works, as attested to by the many quibbles he had with his publishers); and Faulkner : A Tragedy, twice rejected by Covent Garden, before being submitted to Drury Lane. Each of these works crops up in various guises in Godwin’s letters, as he struggles with their respective creative difficulties and with the more practical implications of their financial worth. Indeed, the correspondence shows Godwin grappling with day-to-day money matters as much as with abstruse philosophical questions, and therein lies one of its readerly charms.

As for the business of finding a new partner to complete his domestic happiness, that begins as a fairly awkward affair with Harriet Lee, whom Godwin had met in Bath some months after the death of Mary Wollstonecraft, and whom his (heavily revised) epistolary attempts at wooing come off as overly self-assured, and destined to failure. The dozen or so rather stodgy letters to Lee with which the volume begins eventually give way to the more expressive, warm-hearted style he would take with Mary Jane Clairmont, whom he would marry (at two different chapels) in December 1801, and who would bear him a son, William, in 1803. Together, the Godwins would establish a children’s book-selling and publishing business, for which he would write a number of instructional works. More importantly, Mary Jane Godwin would, as a domestic companion, business partner, emotional pillar, and sensitive and lively correspondent, come to fill the void left by Mary Wollstonecraft. In one particularly rapturous letter, of 5 April 1805, Godwin writes to his wife:

You will readily believe me when I say that I have not for four years received so much pleasure from any letter that has reached me within that time, as from your letter addressed to me at Godalming. I have hope you will understand me as I mean, when I say that the whole reminded me strongly of an epistolary style that never was written but by one person before, in the world. You cannot misunderstand me, since, alas! the compositions which I allude to were not confined to me, but before my time were addressed with no less fervour to others. But yet, whether they were superscribed to a fusty old peasant of a painter, or to an impudent & unprincipled debauchee, the same sensibility irradiated them, the same warmth of feeling, the same strength of affection, the same agonising alarm, the same ardent hope, as I trace with such unspeakable delight in the letter before me. [347]

In a textual note, Clemit observes that “Mary Jane Godwin’s letter is not extant” [348, n. 2]. This might strike the reader as a rare admission of editorial defeat, in light of Clemit’s uncanny ability, in countless other instances in the volume, to keep the epistolary conversation going, to offer a fuller understanding of the words and thoughts to which Godwin was responding, and of those which would come bopping back up to the surface in the wake of each fresh act of writing. Yet the feeling which prevails, of admiration and of gratitude for her overall editorial feat, chimes with Godwin’s own buoyant return to those emotions to which he had given voice in his letters to Mary Wollstonecraft at the end of Volume I, and which he seems to struggle to recover throughout much of Volume II. The unexpected re-emergence of an “epistolary style” which so invigoratingly mingles “warmth of feeling” and “agonising alarm” with “ardent hope” might be seen as mirroring Godwin’s own attempts to regain his footing in these turbulent years, in no small part through the restless penning of carefully argued letters.


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