1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Godwin

S. C. Hall, in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 62-63.



WILLIAM GODWIN, the close associate, if not the friend, of Lamb, I met in the company of Elia more than once. But I remember him when he kept a bookseller's shop on Snow Hill. I was a schoolboy then, and purchased a book there — handed to me by himself. It was a poor shop, poorly furnished; its contents consisting chiefly of children's books, with the old coloured prints that would strangely contrast with the art-illustrations of to-day.

He was the husband of Mary Wolstoncroft. They had lived together in loose bonds, believing, or at least arguing, that wedlock was an unbecoming tie. They changed their minds, however, in course of time, yielding probably to the persuasions of friends, and married. Their daughter was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley. She wrote several works of fiction, the only one of which that is not quite forgotten is "Frankenstein." Although he continued to adore Reason all his life, his conduct was not so offensive as to forbid occasional association with good men like Coleridge, and genial men like Lamb. In person he was remarkably sedate and solemn, resembling in dress and manner a Dissenting minister rather than the advocate of "free-thought" in all things — religious, moral, social, and intellectual; he was short and stout; his clothes loosely and carelessly put on, and usually old and worn; his hands were generally in his pockets; he had a remarkably large, bald head, and a weak voice; seeming generally half asleep when he walked, and even when he talked. Few who saw this man of calm exterior, quiet manners, and inexpressive features, 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.

Eventually he obtained a sinecure in the Exchequer; and on a comforting stipend of 200 a year he passed the later years of his life. He died in 1836, in the eighty-first year of his age, and was buried in Cripplegate Churchyard.

Lamb called him "a good-natured heathen." Southey said of him, in 1797, He has large noble eyes, and a nose — oh! most abominable nose;" and he is thus pictured by Talfourd: — "The disproportion of a frame which, low of stature, was surmounted by a massive head which might befit a presentable giant, was rendered almost imperceptible, not by any vivacity of expression (for his countenance was rarely lighted up by the deep-seated genius within), but by a gracious suavity of manner which many 'a fine old English gentleman' might have envied." Haydon tells us that, in 1822, Godwin was "in distress," "turned out of his house and business, and threatened with the seizure of all he possessed in the way of stock and furniture." Lamb and others made a subscription for him; and among the subscribers was Walter Scott, who subscribed anonymously, as "he dissented from Mr. Godwin's theories of politics and morality, although an admirer of his genius."