1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Godwin

John Wilson Croker, Review of Godwin, Mandeville; Quarterly Review 18 (October 1817) 176-77.



This is, in our opinion, a very dull novel and a very clever book. Mandeville is one of those unhappy beings whose minds are so irritable and liable to disorder, as never to be clearly and securely rational, nor, except in occasional paroxysms, wholly and decidedly mad. We who enjoy, or flatter ourselves with thinking that we enjoy, our sober senses, cannot, of course, pretend to describe the internal operations of minds of this class, nor to explain, by what strange perversion of intellect they see in all mankind a conspiracy against them, and by what stranger ingenuity they account for and justify to their own glimmering reason the follies and crimes of their insanity. But the character is unfortunately but too frequent in this country, to leave an accurate observer in utter ignorance of what passes in the minds of these unhappy persons. We certainly have seen them in different stages of the malady, and from the best judgment which we are enabled to form of a subject, which we hope we understand but superficially, we should say that Mr. Godwin's delineation is admirable — faithful in its conception, forcible in its expression; and, in a word, the most lively and tangible image which we have ever seen of the waywardness of a selfish temper and the wanderings of a depraved understanding.

Our readers will easily believe, that we do not mean to trespass on their patience with any detail of the history, or any quotation of the prodigal rhapsodies of such a character. We could not do full justice to either, without following the minute and evanescent links by which the real events connect themselves with the infirmity of Mandeville; besides, the history of this gloomy spirit is, from the very ability and intimacy, if we may use the expression, with which it is drawn, not only unamusing but painful. Mandeville is the relater of his own story, and he indulges to its fullest extent the privilege of wearying his auditors with a detail of his own thoughts, hopes, fears, vanities, injuries and crimes: those who wish to know what it would be to live with such a being may consult Mr. Godwin; but those who have not that melancholy curiosity will abstain from his course of morbid anatomy.

It appears to us somewhat singular, that this gloomy style should have such charms for Mr. Godwin, that it should be, in fact, the one in which he seems to feel himself most truly in his element; but so it is; all the heroes of all his novels are infected with this malady. "Falkland," "St. Leon," and "Mandeville" are members of the same family, and their portraits are painted with the same melancholy force and disgusting accuracy; but Falkland is accompanied by rational beings, and it is a rational being who describes the scenes in which Falkland plays a part. — Here then is some relief to the mind; and the contrast between the innocence of some of the personages, the deep villany of others, and the insane and therefore almost pardonable atrocities of the hero, form altogether in "Caleb Williams," one of the most interesting stories amongst our British novelists. But when Mr. Godwin makes the Bedlamite not only the hero but the relater of the tale, it is evident that all contrast is lost, all interest vanishes, the characters are all seen by the same discoloured eye, and all described by the same rambling tongue; "they come like shadows, so depart," and nobody feels about them any thing but that they are the inventions and colourings of a madman's brain.

We are therefore obliged to pronounce this work intolerably tedious and disgusting, though its author has proved himself intimately skilled in the perversity of the human mind, and in all the blackest and most horrible passions of the human heart.