William Godwin

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 270-78.

"YONDER walks William Godwin! The marks of age press heavily upon him; but there gleams out of that strange face and above that stranger figure the eye of fire which lighted up with the conceptions of Caleb Williams and St. Leon. Wonderful books! Once read, not only ever remembered but ever graven on the mind of those who know how to read. We can enter into the feeling of Lord Byron's exclamation, when, after asking Godwin why he did not write a new novel, his lordship received from the old man the answer, that it would kill him. 'And what matter,' said the poet; 'we should have another St. Leon.'"

"Godwin," said Northcote to Hazlitt, in one of their famous colloquies, "is a profligate in theory, and a bigot in conduct. He does not seem at all to practice what he preaches, though this does not appear to avail him anything." "Yes," replied Hazlitt, "he writes against himself. He has written against matrimony, and has been twice married. He has scouted all the commonplace duties, and yet he is a good husband and a kind father. He is a strange composition of contrary qualities. He is a cold formalist, and full of ardour and enthusiasm of mind; dealing in magnificent projects and petty cavils; naturally dull, and brilliant by dint of study, pedantic and playful; a dry logician, and a writer of romances." Talfourd, in like strain, depicts the two-fold character of the old philosopher: — "He was a man of two beings, which held little discourse with each other, — the daring inventor of theories contrasted with airdrawn diagrams, — and the simple gentleman, who suffered nothing to disturb or excite him, beyond his study." S. C. Hall, in his Book of Memories, says, "Few who saw this man of calm exterior, quiet manners, and inexpressive features, — seeming generally half asleep when he walked, and even when he talked, — could have believed him to have originated three romances, — Falkland, Caleb Williams, and St. Leon, — not yet forgotten because of their terrible excitements, — and the work, Political Justice, which, for a time, created a sensation that was a fear in every state of Europe." This same incongruity seemed to attach to Godwin in everything. His stature was short, yet his massive head might have befitted a giant. His voice was thin and small, and the topics of his conversation usually trivial; yet he had, in the solitude of his study, promulgated theories which had convulsed nations and shaken thrones. His demeanour, we learn from Lamb's biographer, was drowsy and spiritless, nor could the most interesting society keep him awake after dinner; yet his imagination had kindled works which will never die, and he had achieved a reputation "which once filled the civilized world with its echoes."

GODWIN was born at Wisbeach, in Cambridgeshire, March 3rd, 1756. His father was a Nonconformist minister, as had been his grandfather also. Godwin naturally took to the pulpit himself; but, the story goes, that his congregation would listen to his father's old sermons, but not his own; and that consequently, when the former were exhausted, there was nothing left for the son but a resignation of his charge. He then betook himself to London and Literature.

It was in 1793 that he blazed forth upon society, the "Comet of his Season," with his Political Justice. This was a book born of the ferment which agitated men's minds, and added to the perturbation of which it was the offspring. No book was ever so much read at one time, to be so completely forgotten at another. It did its work; aided in the formation of the opinion of the age; and, like the scaffolding about a building, may now be consigned to the fire, or the lumberheap. Shelley, writing from Dublin in 1812, says of it: — "Nearly twenty years have elapsed since the general diffusion of its doctrines. What has followed? Have men ceased to fight? Have vice and misery vanished from the earth? Have the fireside communications, which it recommends, taken place? Out of the many who read that inestimable book, how many have been blinded by prejudice? How many, in short, have taken it up to gratify an ephemeral vanity, and when the hour of its novelty had passed, threw it aside, and yielded with fashion to the arguments of Mr. Malthus?" On the other hand, Maginn, in 1834, expresses the opinion that the principles of the Political Justice, "derived, as was pretended, from the Bible, would if they could have been acted upon, have subverted all the honourable relations of society, and destroyed all the ennobling or redeeming feelings of the heart."

In 1797, he published The Enquirer, a series of essays, in which he still further illustrated his original theories. Five and twenty years later he was called upon to edit a new edition (1823, 8vo), to which he prefixed an Advertisement, in which he says that, on reading over the Essays he "scarcely finds a thought that is his present thought," or which, at least, he should not express otherwise, if then called to write upon their subjects for the first time; adding, in gloomy tone, "Alas! to what does it all amount? The toys of childhood, the toys of manhood, and the toys of old age, are still toys; and if it were hereafter possible for me to look down upon them from a future state, I should find them to be all alike laborious trifles."

It was, I think, in 1794, that Caleb Williams burst upon the world, a book which has been proclaimed, with that exaggerated eulogy which defeats its object, "the most powerful novel in the language." Gilfillan gives a graphic account of his first perusal in the dead of night, and in a lonely room. "There is about it," says he, "a stronger suction and swell of interest than in any novel we know, with the exception of one or two of Sir Walter's. You are in it ere you are aware. You put your hand playfully into a child's, and are surprised to find it held in the grasp of a giant. It becomes a fascination. Struggle you may, and kick; but he holds you by his glittering eye." Hazlitt used to observe of the two principal characters, that "the manner they are played into each other was equal to anything of the kind in the drama." I admire Caleb Williams myself, but must confess that I have always thought it somewhat overrated, — though I will not go so far as Joseph Ritson, who proclaimed it "a very indifferent, or, rather, a despicable performance." It is upon this novel that the reputation of Godwin must rest, and I believe that it is one which the world will not let die.

In 1799, Godwin published St. Leon, the most pathetic and imaginative of his novels. The object of this work is to show that it is beneficial to the individual to conform to the manners and usages of the society of which he is a unit, and that immunity from the sorrows and cares of humanity is a calamity instead of a blessing. For the general idea of the plot, Godwin was probably indebted to a passage in the very curious Hermippus Redivivus; or, the Sage's Triumph over Old Age and the Grave, by Dr. Campbell, from the German of Cohausen (London, 3rd ed., 1771, 8vo); and in like manner, it was from Caleb Williams that George Colman got the materials for his Iron Chest. There is a satire on St. Leon, entitled, St. Godwin: a Tale of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Century. By Count Reginald de St. Leon (London, 1800, 8vo). This curious book I am inclined to attribute to Edward Dubois.

A charming little book of Godwin's is his Essay on Sepulchres; or, A Proposal for Erecting some Memorial of the Illustrious Dead in all Ages on the Spot where their Remains have been interred (London, 1809, small 8vo, pp. 116). This was the favourite of Charles Lamb, who affronted the author by telling him that it was "better than Hervey, but inferior to Sir Thomas Browne." Lamb calls it "a pretty, absurd book;" and Talfourd says of the scheme, that it is "quite chimerical in itself, but accompanied with solemn and touching musings on life and death, and fame, embodied in a style of singular refinement and beauty."

In 1797, Godwin, in conformity with those of the world, though in opposition to his own principles and those of the lady, obtained a legal sanction to his union with the celebrated and unfortunate MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT. This writer, in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the pieces preserved in her Posthumous Works, has ventured to expound theories, and discuss subjects, usually thought to be beyond the province of her sex; and thus, like Harriet Martineau in an after day, incurred at the hands of Maginn that ridicule and obloquy which is the modern form of the ostracism and lapidation of former times. Yet Mary Wollstonecraft was, if not perfect, "a woman nobly planned." Her principles may have been dangerous and her practice incorrect; but the emotions of her heart were ardent and sincere. She has left one book, at least, which ought to give her a permanent place in literature. This is her Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796, 8vo), of which it may safely be said that they contain more soul and feeling than any epistolary work in the language, and, more irresistibly make the reader in love with the writer. Dr. Thomas Brown, the Scotch metaphysician, held this book in the highest estimation, and accompanied a copy which he gave to a friend with some verses which were published in his poems, and subsequently expanded into the volume known as The Wanderer in Norway; and Mrs. Siddons wrote to Godwin, of the same work, that it was read by no one possessing "more reciprocity of feeling than herself, or more deeply impressed with admiration of the writer's extraordinary powers." I have before me a charming portrait of her from the painting by Opie, which hung in the study of Southey, who wrote of the original as one,—

Who, among women, left no equal mind
When from this world she passed—.

At the time of her marriage with Godwin she was pregnant; and she brought with her a natural daughter about three years of age, the result of a former connection. A few months later, she died, having given birth some days previously, to a daughter, who received her mother's name. The child, who thus inherited genius from both her parents, was destined to become the young wife of the poet, Shelley, himself a widower; and give the world that portentious conception, Frankenstein, which Charles Lamb pronounced "the most extraordinary realization of the idea of a being out of nature which had ever been offered," and which, as the production of a young girl of nineteen, is probably without a parallel in literature.

Godwin was plunged into grief at the loss of his wife, and wrote her life:

William hath penn'd a waggon load of stuff
And Mary's life at last he needs must write,
Thinking her — were not known enough
Till fairly printed off in black and white, etc.

This Life cost Godwin the friendship of Dr. Parr. He had been accustomed to visit at Hatton and wrote to the Doctor for an explanation of the causes which had led to the evident disruption of friendship between them. "In 1794," replied the Doctor, "I had not been shocked in common with all wise and good men, by a work which you entitle Memoirs, etc." He alludes, moreover, to sceptical expressions in The Enquirer, — to the dreadful effects of his correspondent's principles upon the conduct and happiness of certain of his young friends, — promises to return the books which had been sent to him, — and desires a cessation of visits and correspondence. All this is impudent and arrogant enough; though I do not forget that this unfortunate tribute to the memory of his wife evidently displeased the liberal Roscoe, whose quatrain, written by him on the fly-leaf of a copy, was transcribed from memory by Dr. Shepherd, of Liverpool, the biographer of Poggio Bracciolini:—

Hard was thy fate in all the scenes of life,
As daughter, sister mother friend and wife;
But harder still the fate in death we own
Thus mourn'd by Godwin, with a heart of stone.

However all this may be, I record my own opinion that Mary Wollstonecraft was a woman of passion, heart and genius; and that her husband's little tribute to her memory is a slight but interesting memorial of an ill-directed and unhappy career. I have read a curious story somewhere of Miss Benger, the novelist, making a pilgrimage of some miles to the graveyard of St. Pancras, and there throwing herself on the tomb of the ill-starred woman, pouring forth, as she did so, a rapturous eulogy on the departed.

That those who are born to be hanged will never be drowned is one of those universal affirmatives, which, like the 5th Proposition of Euclid's first book, admits of a simple converse. There seems a hydropathic fatality, if I may so call it, in the awful series of calamities in which this unfortunate woman and her immediate connections were involved. She, herself, when neglected or abandoned by her first lover, Gilbert Imlay, attempted suicide by drowning from Putney Bridge; her daughter, Fanny, by this same Imlay, actually destroyed herself by the same method of death; Harriet (Westbrook), the deserted wife of Shelley, who married her daughter by Godwin, also accomplished her death by drowning; and finally Shelley himself, as by a stroke of retributive justice, was drowned, as we have seen, in the Bay of Spezia!

In 1801, the widower remarried. His new wife was a Mrs. Clairmont, who had two children, — Clara and Charles, — by her former husband. By this wife, he had one son, who died in 1832 of Asiatic cholera, leaving behind him an unfinished novel, entitled Transfusion, the publication of which was superintended by the distressed father.

In early life, Godwin was a bookseller on Snow Hill; and at this time was an industrious compiler of school histories of very meagre and unsatisfactory character, under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin. One of these is a Pantheon, or Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome, etc. For the Use of Schools and Young Persons of both Sexes (London, 1806 8vo). The book is remarkable: (1) as containing plates by William Blake, and not recorded by Gilchrist; and (2) as being spoken of in a State Paper, preserved in the Record Office, as "an insidious and dangerous publication," which "professes to exalt the purity and show the superiority of Christianity over Heathen morality, ... and then through the whole work improperly excites the curiosity of young persons to read the grossest stories on the subject, and artfully hints the wisdom of the morality of the heathen world."

From the same "officina" also emanated a little tome, once only worth a few pence, but now of considerable curiosity and value. It is entitled The Looking Glass: a True History of the Early Days of an Artist. Calculated to awaken the Emulation of Young Persons of both Sexes in the Pursuit of every laudable Attainment; particularly in the Cultivation of the Fine Arts. By Theophilus Marcliffe. London: Printed for Thomas Hodgkins, at the Juvenile Library, Hanway Street (Opposite Soho Square), Oxford Street, and to be had of all Booksellers (1805, 18mo, pp. 118). I have been thus minute in my description of the lilliputian volume, because it was written by William Godwin, — because the artist whose "early days" it portrays is William Mulready, R.A. — because the illustrations are from youthful drawings by that artist, engraved by Blake, — and because, whereas it was published at one shilling and sixpence, it would now be cheap at a guinea!

The following, from the Horace in London of the "Adelphi" Smiths, is a happy adaptation of the Ode, "Parcius junctas quatiunt fenestras":—

Our Temple youth, a lawless train
Blockading Johnson's window-pane
No longer laud thy solemn strain
My Godwin!

Chaucer's a mighty tedious elf
Fleetwood lives only for himself
And Caleb Williams loves the shelf,
My Godwin!

No longer cry the sprites unblest
'Awake! Arise! stand forth confess'd!
For fallen, fallen is thy crest,
My Godwin!

Thy muse for meretricious feats
Does quarto penance now in sheets
Or cloathing parcels roams the streets
My Godwin!

Thy flame at Luna's lamp thou light'st,
Blank is the verse that thou indit'st
Thy play is damn'd, yet still thou writ'st,
My Godwin!

And still to wield the grey goose quill,
When Phoebus sinks, to feel no chill,
"With me is to be lovely still,"
My Godwin!

Thy winged steed (a bit of blood)
Bore thee like Trunnion through the flood,
To leave thee sprawling in the mud
My Godwin!

But carries now, with martial trot
In glittering armour, Walter Scott
A poet he — which thou art not,
My Godwin!

Nay nay, forbear these jealous wails,
Tho' he's upborne on fashion's gales,
Thy heavy bark attendant sails
My Godwin!

Fate each by different streams conveys,
His skiff in Aganippe plays,
And thine in Lethe's whirlpool strays,
My Godwin!

The latter years of William Godwin were rendered easy by an appointment which he received during the administration of Earl Grey, to the quasi sinecure office of Yeoman Usher of the Exchequer. "The last time I saw him," records Sergeant Talfourd, "he was heaving an immense key to unlock the musty treasures of which he was guardian, — how unlike those he had unlocked, with finer talisman, for the astonishment and alarm of one generation, and the delight of all others!" I think Maginn — who contrasts Godwin's modest stipend with the 10,000 given by the Whigs to Thomas "Babbletongue" Macaulay, — and S. C. Hall, undervalue the emoluments of this appointment, which I fancy were nearer 200 than 100 per annum. There was a residence attached to the office, adjoining the Speaker's Gateway, in New Palace Yard, Westminster; and here Godwin died, in the eighty-first year of his age, on April 7th, 1836, and was buried in Cripplegate Churchyard.

For his most elaborate work, the Enquiry into Political Justice, he received from Johnson, the publisher, 700; for Caleb Williams only 84, and for St. Leon no less than 400 guineas. He was painted by Northcote, R.A., in 1800; and at a later period by Sir Thomas Lawrence, who also made a spirited sketch of Godwin and Holcroft, sitting together, side by side, after the trial of the latter for High Treason.

There is an interesting biography, William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries. By C. Kegan Paul (1876, 2 vols. 8vo), of which a review will be found in the Temple Bar Magazine for March in the same year.