Almighty Godwin

Paul Foot

  • The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family by William St Clair
    Faber, 572 pp, £20.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 571 15422 0

Don’t be deceived by title or subtitle. This is not the biography of a family and it is not about the Godwins and the Shelleys. Perhaps the publishers persuaded William St Clair against his better judgment to downgrade his hero in the title and to include the Shelleys, who are more famous. This rich, glorious book is, however, a biography of William Godwin – no more, no less. St Clair himself is described on the dust-jacket as a ‘senior Treasury official’, a horrifying disclosure which emerges elsewhere in the book only in parenthesis (the French monarchy was forced to appeal to the Third Estate, St Clair tells us, because it failed to ‘control the public sector borrowing requirement’ and the philosopher Malthus discovered in the early 19th century what HM Treasury has discovered in the late 20th – that the ‘great economic answer to social misery is to make it worse’). How St Clair gets on with his Malthusian colleagues at HM Treasury day by day is a perpetual wonder to the reader of this book, where, like his subject, he emerges as a genuine Whig, a creature not so much of the French Revolution as of the Enlightenment.

William Godwin was brought up in England’s bleakest countryside, the Cambridge-shire Fens, and in one of its bleakest religious traditions. By the time the people of Paris stormed the Bastille in 1789, he had thrown off all the superstitions and cruelties of his upbringing and his faith, and was writing the great work which was to make him, during the 1790s, at once the most famous and the most notorious of all the writers of that tempestuous decade. Political Justice took its theme from the Marquis de Condorcet, Baron d’Holbach, Volney, Diderot and the other great Enlighteners of pre-Revolutionary France. Human beings, it asserts, are above all perfectible. They need look nowhere else for improvement but to themselves. Women are equal to men. Religion is superstition, marriage an ‘odious monopoly’, riches and poverty unnecessary evils. People can and should live in harmony, happiness and relative equality, and the only obstacle which stands in their way is their own inability to think for themselves and to apply calm and reason to the chaos around them.

Political Justice is a rigorous, exciting and often ferocious attack on the established order in Britain in 1793, much of which is still with us two hundred years later. It was reinforced the following year by the more readable Caleb Williams, Godwin’s first novel. The tyranny of society in general is symbolised by the aristocratic monomaniac Lord Falkland, the good sense and misery of its common people by the aristocrat’s servant, the narrator, who spends much of the book in prison.

‘Thank God,’ exclaims the Englishman, ‘we have no Bastille! Thank God, with us no man can be punished without a crime!’ Unthinking wretch! Is that a country of liberty, where thousands languish in dungeons and fetters? Go to, ignorant fool, and visit the scenes of our prisons! Witness their unwholesomeness, their filth, the tyranny of their governors, the misery of their inmates! After that show me the man shameless enough to triumph and say, England has no Bastille!

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