The Professor

Marilyn Butler

  • A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin by Don Locke
    Routledge, 398 pp, £13.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0387 0

William Godwin is a man who cries out to be the subject of a life. He has everything: a repressed personality, ripe for psychoanalysis; a role in the high dramas of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, his daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his son-in-law Shelley and the infant grandchildren; a circle of interesting friends, many of them articulate enough to leave written records, and famous enough to have their letters preserved. It is impossible to tell such a tale and not to be read to the end.

The richest, most variously important time of his life is the decade he spent in the limelight. From being an obscure hack writer, Godwin managed for a while to become, as far as anyone ever does, a household name. Yet by nature he was a born academic, absorbed in his armchair analysis of morals and social institutions, and Charles Lamb got his temperament right when he dubbed him ‘the Professor’. The book which made him, Political Justice (1793), was certainly not meant to emulate Tom Paine’s Rights of Man in whipping up the political passions of the man in the street. It was written for posterity as well as for the moment, unlike most other radical retorts to Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Admittedly, the topic, which turned upon the shortcomings of the present social order, had considerable resonance in the year in which England went to war with revolutionary France. Godwin’s treatment was, all the same, relentlessly theoretical. His dislike of constraints upon the individual led him in principle towards anarchism, but in practice his gaze rarely dropped to contemplate the mob in the streets of Paris. Even his glimpses of a better order of things were far from exhilarating, since he scrupulously insisted that a citizenry moulded by injustice would find it hard to create a just society. The careful reader was certainly not led to suppose that anything so irrational as revolution would bring utopia about.

Fairly slowly, over two or three years, wartime jitters worked to make Godwin famous. At this point, consideration of his book as an academic exercise ceases to be quite appropriate. The book and its author became notorious, among people who had never read a work of philosophy in their lives, and did not read this one. He actually acquired an image, which was fostered by the 1790s media, especially by a host of more or less funny novels which featured him performing appropriate professorial actions. As Mr Vapour, he was made to illustrate his doctrine of perfectibility with an experiment to train sparrows to swarm like bees. As Dr Stupeo, he set out to establish a just community in America, only to be cooked by ignoble savages: the Indians ‘perfectly reduced the great philosopher, metaphysician and politician to the idea of a few cinders’. Godwin attracted satire because in the strongly conservative English mood of the late 1790s he had become a stage villain, the opponent of marriage, of sacred human affections, of the state, the law and the Christian religion. The high level of abstraction on which he operated actually made him look more and not less of a threat. By 1798, the conservative satirical journal The Antijacobin had created an unmistakably Godwinian caricature, Mr Higgins of St Mary Axe, who was supposed to be the author of several of the dissident classics of the last five years. At a time when alarmists believed that the anciens régimes were being brought down by international subversion, by cells of treasonous intelligentsia, it was no small thing to be England’s most salient radical intellectual.

Godwin could in no circumstances have acted the part of a Robespierre, still less of a Professor Blunt, but he was quite willing to see himself as a public figure. A belief in his national importance led to his refusal in 1794 to visit his radical friend John Thelwall – when Thelwall was in Newgate charged with treason – on the grounds that Godwin must not jeopardise his own life, ‘this treasure which does not belong to me but to the public’. It is hard not to be reminded of the passage Jane Austen had recently written in Love and Freindship: ‘Oh! no, no, (exclaimed Sophia) I cannot go to Newgate; I shall not be able to support the sight of my Augustus in so cruel a confinement – my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the recital of his Distress, but to behold it will overpower my Sensibility.’ On this occasion it is hardly fair to suspect Godwin’s sincerity or his courage. Later in the year he published a pamphlet, ‘Cursory Strictures on the charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury’, which, though anonymous, certainly took risks by its outspoken line on the prosecution of Thelwall and his friends. He also wrote a powerful novel of social protest, Things As They Are, or Caleb Williams, in which the central characters, Falkland and Caleb, master and man, act out the mutually destructive relationship forced on them in their hierarchical society. Godwin’s academic personality and style are misleading, for the revolutionary years at any rate. He believed in the millennium and he believed that intellectuals would be in the van in bringing it about.

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