- 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!
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 20 · 26 October 1989
Paul Foot reiterates the tiresome left-wing myth ‘that England declared war on Revolutionary France’ (LRB, 28 September) when writing on The Godwins and the Shelleys. Revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain on 1 February 1793; she declared war on the Dutch Republic at the same time.
Vol. 11 No. 21 · 9 November 1989
Paul Foot is an excellent investigative reporter, but the numerous factual errors contained in his review of William St Clair’s The Godwins and the Shelleys (LRB, 28 September) shows that a rigorous approach deserts him when it comes to tackling literary criticism and history.
Godwin was not writing Political Justice ‘by 1789’ as Mr Foot says, for he only began it in September 1791. It was in the autumn of this year too that he met Mary Wollstonecraft for the first time and not, as Mr Foot states, in 1792. It is understandable how Godwin could have misspelt her unusual name when recording it in his diary along with those of others he had met at Joseph Johnson’s table that November evening. But one wonders what Godwin’s friend Thomas Holcraft has done to deserve having his name misspelt (twice) as Holcraft. We are then told that when another friend of Godwin’s, the leading LCS theorist Joseph Gerrald, was convicted for sedition, he was ‘promptly despatched to Botany Bay, where he died within a year’. Gerrald certainly was transported and did die within a year of his arrival at Botany Bay, but his ‘despatch’ from England was hardly ‘prompt’. Convicted in March 1794, he spent over a year in Newgate prison being visited by and giving dinners for visitors such as Godwin, Horne Tooke, Amelia Alderson and Thelwall, before being finally transported in May 1795. Mr Foot says that from 1797 onwards Godwin found himself ‘deserted by former allies and benefactors, James Mackintosh, Thomas Wedgewood, Samuel Parr’. Two out of three correct, here. If Foot cares to consult page 271 of St Clair’s book, he will find that, far from deserting him, Tom Wedgewood was still gladly lending Godwin money in 1804, indeed, asking him to consider him as his friend ‘in every honourable sense of the word’. To conclude this list of factual errors, it is interesting to note how when he comes to Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, we find Mr Foot promoting the character of Falkland from the status of squire to that of ‘Lord’. One wonders whether this has its source in the ultraleftist tendency to lump all ‘tyrants’ together.
This tendency certainly comes to dominate the second half of the review, which is devoted to defending the redness of Paul Foot’s beloved Red Shelley against what he conceives to be St Clair’s ‘Whiggish’ disapproval of his hero. Unfortunately, such defensiveness brings with it blunders that complement only too well the solecisms of the first half. To take just two of these, which occur when Mr Foot seeks to defend Shelley against St Clair’s assertions that the poet was a ‘spoilt young man’, and that he ‘never liked history’. We are told that he was not spoilt because he was ‘cut off from his family’s fortune as soon as he was expelled from Oxford’. Yet a few sentences further on Mr Foot informs us that Shelley was generous, especially to Godwin, ‘to whom he gave thousands of pounds for nothing’. How can a man without a fortune give away thousands of pounds? But it is with Mr Foot’s riposte to the charge concerning Shelley’s alleged dislike of history where I believe we find the effects of his ideological stance most neatly encapsulated. Shelley’s pamphlet ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’, Mr Foot’s argument runs, ‘starts with a brilliant short history of the world and its culture which could hardly have come from a history-hater’. Really? It seems to me like pretty good confirmation of St Clair’s point.
We are bound to note that Mr Hindle misspells the name Wedgwood (twice).
Editors, ‘London Review’