William Godwin

W. B. Morgan, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 5 (June 1836) 666-70.

April 7. In New Palace Yard, Westminster, aged 81, William Godwin, esq.

(For the leading biographical facts in the following memoir, we are chiefly indebted to an account of Mr. Godwin, prefixed to an edition of his "Caleb Williams," forming a volume in Mr. Bentley's series of "Standard Novels.")

He was born at Wisbeach, in Cambridgeshire, 3rd March 1756. His father was a dissenting minister, as had been his grandfather before him. In 1760 Mr. John Godwin, the father, removed his family to Guestwick, a village north of Norwich, where he presided over a congregation. William was one of many children, neither the oldest nor the youngest. Having received the first rudiments of his education under the care of a schoolmaster in the neighbourhood, he was placed with a private tutor in Norwich, whom he left in 1773 for the Dissenting College, Hoxton. At this seminary he studied above five years under the tuition of Doctors Rees and Kippis. Young Godwin had been bred a Calvinist, and the opinions of his present teachers were inclined to Unitarianism; but his persuasions were so firmly fixed, that opposition only made him more tenaciously adhere to them.

At a very early age he shewed a more than ordinary intelligence about common matters, an avidity and craving after general knowledge, with an observation so acute, that be might not erroneously have been called man in infancy. The mind thus prematurely formed is often dangerous to its possessor, who, fancying he has already learned what Nature has to teach, casts a gloom over the treasures she has given him, and vainly seeks after something more.

On leaving the abovenamed college he was, in 1778, admitted a member of the non-conforming church, and entrusted with the care of a congregation near London; but he shortly after became minister of a meeting-house at Stowmarket, in Suffolk. In a few years (1782) he gave up the office and duties of a preacher, and repaired to London; resolving to gain a livelihood and subsistence by literature alone.

His first publication, on arriving there, was a series of six sermons, called "Sketches of History," which appeared in 1784. He soon managed to get himself engaged as a principal conductor of the "New Annual Register," a situation from which he derived a small but certain income. In the historical part of this work he had occasion to treat of the affairs of the United Provinces, at the time when the Dutch endeavoured to throw off the yoke of the Stadholder. The sketch which appeared in the Register, and contained arguments very forcible and much to the purpose, he reissued separately.

Mixing amidst the violent and democratic politicians of the day, Mr. Godwin's name fast hastened into notoriety. He was particularly noticed by Fox and Sheridan, who, finding the opinions he expressed in unison with theirs, courted and recompensed his natural bias, by enlisting him as one of their advocates. The French Revolution breaking out in 1789, when he was yet hot-headed and bepraised and flattered, gave an impetus to the great and undoubted powers of his mind, which nourished and produced an extraordinary work called "Political Justice," put forth in 1793. This was a bold and astounding piece of writing, a very master-stroke of levelization, pardonable only as having been conceived in the madness of a distracting period in the history and affairs of Europe. We are told it became so popular, that the poorest mechanics were known to club subscriptions for its purchase, and thus was it directed to mine and eat away contentment from a nation's roots. In a very short time the author himself saw he had transgressed the bounds of prudence, and in what was called a second edition, recanted many of the most erroneous and alarming doctrines of the first. A laugh was consequently turned against him; but the spirit of Godwin was unquenchable, and the next year he burst forth as the author of "Caleb Williams," perhaps the most powerful novel in our language. Even this was written with a political design, to exhibit "things as they are," — to draw what Mr. Godwin considered to be the then "existing constitution of society" — "a study and delineation of things passing in the moral world" — "a general review of the modes of domestic despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man:" this he meant to have stated in the preface (and has since done,) but his publishers becoming alarmed, he withdrew it in compliance to their entreaties.

Hurried on in the cause of revolution, an avowed freethinker and despiser of religion, the companion and the friend, nay the dupe, of a party amongst whom were Holcroft, Thelwall, Hardy, and Horne Tooke, Mr. Godwin had wound himself in an intricate and irrevocable web, and brought a stain upon his character, which not even the calm repentance of his after-life could entirely obliterate. Secret and illicit associations had been formed by the above-named parties (his friends), the chief and most daring of whom were, in the latter part of the year 1794, arrested by the policy of Mr. Pitt, accused of high treason, and imprisoned in the Tower. Their trials came on in October, when Judge Eyre delivered a charge to the jury which excited considerable attention, and was immediately answered by a pamphlet from Mr. Godwin, containing cursory strictures upon it, which severely handled the Judge's opinions. The Government vainly endeavoured to prevent the circulation of thin pamphlet. Hardy, Horne Tooke, and Thelwall having been put on their trials, and acquitted, the other prosecutions were abandoned. Had Mr. Pitt succeeded in convicting them, Godwin very probably would not have escaped.

He now still more frequented the society of Lauderdale, Fox, and Sheridan, who caressed and made much of the man who had endangered his very life by an excess of ardour in their mutual cause. He likewise busied himself by preparing for the press a third edition of his "Political Justice." Several others followed.

Well satisfied for the present with the reputation he had earned, Mr. Godwin did not appear again as an author till 1797, when he published a series of essays under the title of "The Enquirer," chiefly following up and illustrating the political tenets of his former works.

In this year he was united to the celebrated Mary Wolstonecraft, authoress of a "Vindication of the Rights of Woman," whose independent and more than masculine spirit of defiance to the authority of man, he most ardently admired. He had lived with her for some short time before their marriage, and "the principal motive (he says) for complying with the ceremony was the circumstance of Mary's being in a state of pregnancy." His wife likewise brought with her a natural daughter, then about three years of age, the consequence of a former connection. A few months after her (lawful) marriage, Mrs. Godwin died in giving birth to a daughter, a child, of genius, now widow of the poet Shelley, and authoress of "Frankenstein."

The following year Mr. Godwin wrote and published the Memoirs of Mary Wolstonecraft, a work disreputable to his name as well as that of his wife she appeal's to have been grossly irreligious, indelicate, and dissolute. He also edited her Posthumous Works.

The feelings of a lover tend to soften the human breast; marriage will produce in us emotions stronger than aught else to render this life pleasing; the bereavement from us of the object we most dearly prize, though it may wound at first, subdues the imagination to meditate on other, happier, and better worlds, wherein we may hope to meet again; the love a father bears the child of his lost partner, can only be conceived by a widower and a parent, — all these sensations Mr. Godwin could now feel: they calmed his soul. His next work, the romance of "St. Leon," published in 1799, proves an amendment had been wrought, and, though it may appear strange to readers unacquainted with his general musings, presents a more pleasing picture in a whole, than most of Mr. Godwin's works. Many laughed at his title "St. Leon;" some cried "Satan might change his name," and one went so far as to write a witty counterpart, entitled St. Godwin!

The revolutionary fire was subsiding in the kingdom, and Mr. Godwin had rendered himself so conspicuous as a fanner of its flames, that in the year 1800 he was glad enough to beat a retreat to Ireland, where he resided a short time with Curran, and associated with Grattan and other Irish patriots. During his absence, a tragedy he had written, called "Antonio, or the Soldier's Return," was represented at Drury-lane Theatre, and performed only one night.

In 1801 Mr. Godwin again married; his second choice was a widow of considerable charms, both personal and mental. In this year he published "Thoughts on Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon," being a reply to the attacks made on him by Dr. Parr, Mr. Mackintosh, and others, a clever though disordered composition.

He now in a great degree laid aside politics in favour of polite literature, and the next publication to which we find his name attached is a "Life of Chaucer, 1803," a work of great and interesting information concerning the times in which the poet lived, but discovering little or no original elucidation of his actual biography. This was followed in 1804, by a third novel entitled "Fleetwood," an almost rival to its predecessors.

After this period Mr. Godwin was for some time little to be seen or heard of in general society. He had, as it were, departed from the busy and the bustling scene of life. He was however still in London; and in one of its most populous parts, Skinner-street, had opened a bookseller's shop, where, under the assumed name of Edward Baldwin, he was peaceably ushering forth little works for the instruction and entertainment of young people: many of these were written by himself, under the name already mentioned, and bear the following titles: Pantheon, or the History of the Gods of Greece and Rome. A History of England. Outlines of English History, for very young children. History of Rome. History of Greece. Outlines of English Grammar; and Fables, Ancient and Modern. These little books are still on sale, and some of them have passed through several editions. In this employment Mr. Godwin lived for many years, unknown but to his friends, in straitened circumstances, yet too proud to own it. In 1807 he made another unfortunate dramatic attempt in producing "Faulkner," a tragedy, at Drury-lane Theatre. The year following he published, an "Essay on Sepulchres," or "a proposal for erecting some memorial of the Illustrious Dead in all Ages, in the spot where their remains have been interred," a happy and beautiful idea, and creditable to his taste and feelings. After a short relief, Mr. Godwin again came forth with "The Lives of Edward and John Philips," Milton's nephews and pupils. (4to, 1815.) This work is written in a pleasing style, and is a valuable acquisition to literary history. He also communicated some letters to the Morning Chronicle newspaper under the signature Edax, "on the assumed grounds of the War," which were collected and republished in the same year.

In 1816 he paid a visit to Edinburgh, where he was introduced to Sir Walter Scott and other celebrated Scottish writers. While there he entered into an agreement with Constable, the bookseller, for the composition and sale of a novel. "Mandeville" was the result of this treaty, published in 1817. The announcement of a new work of fiction by the author of "Caleb Williams," was enough to send the reading world distraught; but "Mandeville" did not answer its expectations, and is much inferior to his former efforts.

His next work was the memorable controversial essay on Population (1820), repelling the theories of Malthus on that subject. Mr. Godwin's opinions, however many errors they possessed, certainly claim the merit of consistency; they had been oftentimes before expressed and were well known, and from them in great measure originated the Malthusian and opposing system. In this instance Mr. Godwin's deeply-rooted and long-digested arguments rendered his essay of much importance, and few can find fault with the skilful exposition and dethronement of many of his opponent's doctrines.

He was now busily engaged in writing a History of the Commonwealth of England, from its Commencement to the Restoration of Charles the Second; the first volume of which came from the press in 1824; the others followed annually, the last appearing in 1828. The pains and extensive research evidently bestowed in the construction of these volumes, might have placed Godwin's name high as an historian of his country, had they not been tinged with a partial and democratic colouring, which must ever detract from the character and the value of his work.

In 1830 he published "Cloudesley," a dull though clever novel; and in 1831, "Thoughts on Man; his Nature, Productions, and Discoveries, interspersed with some particulars respecting the Author," — a series of essays in the style and manner of his earlier works — full as irreverent and almost equally as noxious, like the serpent venomous but enticing.

His last work, "The Lives of the Necromancers," appeared in 1834; little need be said of it either in praise or blame.

Thus Mr. Godwin went on writing incessantly through a long, eventful, but little varied life, trying all subjects and investing all in one peculiar garb. He had always enjoyed good health, which may be considered a reason that the power and faculties of his mind were preserved so fully and so clearly to the last; he could not have been happy had he laid aside his pen, nor would he willingly have deprived his fellow-creatures of what he himself considered to be the advantages arising from his labours. His last few years were rendered comfortable to him by an appointment, which he received during the administration of Earl Grey, to the sinecure office of Yeoman Usher of the Exchequer. He resided latterly in the residence attached to this office, adjoining the Speaker's gateway in New Palace Yard, and which was pulled down only a few months ago.

In person, Mr. Godwin was rather under the middle stature, and compactly built; his countenance was of a particularly mild and pleasing cast, and when not excited, few would believe him to be the violent politician and astounding novelist who could make thousands tremble at his name.

His remains were deposited in the churchyard of St. Pancras, in St. Pancras-road, where his first wife Mary Wolstonecraft was buried. They were followed to the grave by his grandson young Shelley, son of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet, whom Godwin's daughter married; by Thomas Campbell the poet, Dr. Uwins, and the Rev. J. H. Caunter.

By his second wife Mr. Godwin had one child, a son, who a few years since fell a victim to the Asiatic cholera. He left behind him an unfinished work of fiction, the publication of which it was his father's painful duty to superintend. The title of his novel is "Transfusion;" it partakes of the family wildness and irregularity of genius. The mother of this youth has been left a widow in indifferent circumstances.

In reconsidering the character of the man whose life we have been writing, in weighing well his merits with his moral imperfections, it is melancholy to discover how far the latter preponderated, and we are led to the very painful though certain conclusion, that it might have been better for mankind had he never existed. Whilst it is true that not a soul is sent into this world but for some wise purpose, and that even the most timid, the most harmless and retiring man, has an allotted part to fulfil in the general designs of Providence; it is no less certain that with the orator, the statesman, or the public writer, the responsibility is immeasurably increased, and he is accountable both to God and man for his sentiments and the influences which remain to lead the many in the paths of good or evil, when the material reality of life is gone.

Eccentric notions are alluring, and the wildest theories are too often mistaken for the grandest and the deepest. The opinions maintained by Mr. Godwin, on the existing state of society and actions of mankind, are sour and unhealthy. Pride was the basis and the root of his philosophy: his knowledge was that of unadvised thought, proceeding from no teacher, but engendered in himself; he wished to strike out new opinions of his own, and would believe nothing without investigating it by his peculiar argumentation. His reasonings were pompous and imposing, and he esteemed those to be of necessity the best which were most directly opposed to the established and long respected rights of order and usage.

As a novelist Mr. Godwin is to all intents original; he has taken no model, but has been himself a model to the million. He heads that voluminous class of writers, whose chief, nay whose only aim, is to excite the painful sensibilities by displaying, in a rigid depth of colouring, the darkest and the blackest passions which corrupt mankind. But his novels have not the moral effect of Hogarth's pictures, which reform vice by holding it to view; they rather contaminate the young and eager, by familiarising them with scenes and characters which it would be better that they never knew even in works of fiction, however artfully glossed over.

Mr. Godwin's language is vivid and striking, but not very eloquent or classical; he throws himself into his conceptions, and works his reader into a perfect fever by the intensity and individuality of his embodiments; but he has depicted little variety of characters, all are cast in the same mould — the terrible; none are absolutely pleasing, none humourous. In "Caleb Williams" the name of Godwin will principally live; every one reads it, some extol, many admire, all wonder, and most agree that it is the work of a clever but strangely perturbed imagination.

Of his political writings enough has probably been said; as a dramatist he has already been forgotten. His two tragedies are heavy and unpoetical; beside this, they want all moral tendency. We understand that Mrs. Shelley is about to edit the posthumous works of her father; amongst these is an Autobiography, for the publication of which he has himself left instructions.

Of the portraits of Mr. Godwin, the best and most approved is by Northcote, painted in 1800; this Mr. Godwin had retained in his own possession. Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait, now in the possession of Dr. Batty, is good — it is the head of an enthusiast — but excelled by his very spirited sketch of Godwin and Holcroft, taken as they were sitting side by side after the trial of the latter. Their heads form a fine and effective contrast; and the sketch, exclusive of its merits as a work of art, will ever be considered an interesting memorial of these two remarkable and powerful men.

From an interesting and valuable catalogue of Mr. Upcott's MS. treasures, we find that Mr. Godwin received for his great work on "Political Justice," 700: for "Caleb Williams," 84; and for "St. Leon," 400 guineas. This is a curious illustration to his history, shewing the comparative consequence of Godwin's name at different periods of his life.