1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Godwin

William Maginn, "Gallery of Literary Characters: William Godwin, Esq." Fraser's Magazine 10 (October 1834) 463.



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 he 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 Lord Byron; "we should have another St. Leon."

But it was not to be. There is power, and stirring thought in Fleetwood, Mandeville, and Cloudesley; but they are not what Lord Byron called for. The promised Seven Sleepers, which was to be the conclusion of a new series of St. Leon, has never come; and of Godwin the novelist we suppose there is an end. Of Godwin the politician we have little good to say. He started in opposition to the received views of the world on all the most important affairs in which that world is concerned; and it is perfectly unnecessary to add, that the world beat in the end, as indeed in his case it deserved to beat. The principles of his "Political justice," derived as it 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. Godwin himself, as he confesses in his preface to St. Leon, was sorry for having insulted, in that cold-blooded and, we must say, absurd book, those charities and duties which are the links of life: we should be much surprised if he has not since repented of all the work. In his answer to Malthus, he shewed that true feelings were prevalent in his mind, though he failed in producing the fit refutation of the desperate quackery which he opposed, and which was destined to fall to destruction before the hand of Sadler. His Thoughts on Man, containing much that is eloquent, contain but little that is profound; and we are sorry to find, that though his scepticism on the most vital points is not so recklessly urged as in former days, it is scarcely abated. His historical work on the Commonwealth is a failure; it in reality is not superior to the schoolboy-histories which he published under the name of Edward Baldwin, — in one of which (that of Rome) he was so careful as to omit the defeat of the Cimbri by Marius.

His personal history is not fortunate. He was originally, we believe, a preacher in some heterodox sect; but when "the lion was to lie down with the lamb," as was so beautifully brought to pass by Robespierre, and other tender-hearted dispensers of the mercies of Jacobinism, he forsook his divinity for politics. He was afterwards a bookseller, on Snow Hill, but not lucky in trade. The circumstances of his connexion with Mary Woolstonecroft his marriage and its consequences, his children and their several histories, are too well known to render it necessary that we should do more than allude to them. We may say, however, that in no man's fate was the evil of acting on wrong principles so manifested to the destruction of all that could in any relation of life confer happiness or conduce to honour. In writing The Life of Mary Woolstonecroft, he has done more good unintentionally than it ever could have, intentionally or otherwise, done evil. We shall not have any such lady in our literature again.

He has now taken his place in our world of authors; and we incline to think, that Caleb Williams and St. Leon are the only books of his which will be remembered. His mind is not productive, — therein singularly differing from that of Sir Waiter Scott, with whom alone, as a novelist of power, he of all our contemporaries can be compared. There is a want of invention even in his best books; and we can believe the current story, that Caleb Williams was written to illustrate a system, or to prove that a novel might be composed without reference to the passion of love. Once fairly embarked in his book, he forgot his systems; but the idea of so originating them proves that there is a deficiency in the mind. The phrenologists inform us, that the organ of veneration is wholly and most singularly absent in his head; — we do not exactly believe in phrenology; but his works prove to us, that there is some want in his intellect which operates to control the impulses of his genius.

The Whigs have had the kindness to give him a hundred a-year in some place in Somerset House, which props his declining days. They gave Mr. T. Macauley 10,000. It is well.