May I come to your house to philosophise?

John Barrell

  • The Letters of William Godwin Vol. I: 1778-97 by Pamela Clemit
    Oxford, 306 pp, £100.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 956261 9

Over the last few months two publications have made it possible, as never before, to attempt to understand the enigmatic William Godwin, the author of one of the great novels of the 18th century and of the founding text in the philosophy of anarchism, the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the father of Mary Shelley, and the friend or acquaintance of almost everyone on the liberal left over 50 of the most intellectually exciting years in British history. In November last year his voluminous diary, immaculately edited by a team led by Mark Philp, went live on the internet (godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk), and this year saw the publication of the first of six volumes of his letters, also immaculately edited by Pamela Clemit. The volume starts in 1778, when Godwin took up his first post as a dissenting minister, through the publication of An Enquiry concerning Political Justice in 1793 and The Adventures of Caleb Williams the following year, and ends shortly after the death in September 1797 of Mary Wollstonecraft, six months after their marriage, during the darkest period of his mourning.

The volume includes letters to Joseph Priestley, Thomas Lawrence, John Thelwall, Samuel Parr (‘the Whig Dr Johnson’), the great liberal advocate Thomas Erskine, R.B. Sheridan, Charles James Fox, the novelists and dramatists Elizabeth Inchbald, Thomas Holcroft, Amelia Alderson, Mary Hays and Charlotte Smith, as well as Godwin’s publisher George Robinson and a number of dissenting ministers who, largely forgotten now, were important public intellectuals in the 1790s. The last third is largely taken up by letters to Wollstonecraft, and the volume at that point seems to make a new beginning. So completely, Godwin believed, did Wollstonecraft transform his character and behaviour that he seemed to himself to have become a different man in the year they were together. There is much in this volume to support that belief, which is accentuated by the fact that his correspondence with other friends almost dries up in that year. The Godwin who appears in the first two thirds of the book is a stern figure, or is trying to be; the Godwin thereafter, at least until Wollstonecraft’s death, is tender, warm-hearted, as near as he had ever come to being at ease with himself. The difference will make any review of these letters fall into separate halves, and mine will do so for another reason too, in that the impression of Godwin that we get from his early letters is a very partial one, quite different from the way he appears in the correspondence of others and in the diary, devoid though it appears to be of any trace of his personality.

As I read through these letters, I could not help wondering how it felt to be numbered among Godwin’s correspondents. Many of them, I imagine, coming home after an enjoyable or an exhausting day, must have started back in alarm on seeing a letter addressed in Godwin’s hand waiting on the hall table, and deferred opening it until they had steadied their nerves with a glass of something. For among the various kinds of letter included in this volume, invitations, thank-you letters, discussions of politics and theology, those that most stand out are letters of rebuke and reproof, in which Godwin ticks off people who thought he was their friend. He ticks them off – or gives them, sometimes, a thorough scolding – not just for something or other they have done wrong or failed to do, but for having the defective moral character that led them into such errors of commission or omission. A sentence setting out the mistakes in their behaviour will be followed by another which explains why Godwin cannot possibly be mistaken in his judgment of them. In the course of this collection, he manages to tick off most of his correspondents in this way.

Imagine Thomas Lawrence, aged 26, already the king’s Painter-in-Ordinary and a full academician, the rewards for single-minded devotion to his profession, opening his first ever letter from Godwin to read:

Dear sir

Among a thousand qualities that I love & admire, you have one that I do not entirely approve, a want of inflexibility of purpose. I have observed this in some instances where I think I cannot be mistaken, & therefore I conceive I am not in danger of being put to shame for the assertion.

Lawrence had apparently promised to make a portrait of the linguist and political activist John Horne Tooke and had fallen behind, as painters who were much in demand, like builders nowadays, almost always did. Without Godwin’s help, however, he would probably not have realised that this delay went to the very heart of his moral character.

Probably in 1799, Godwin wrote to his best friend Thomas Holcroft, after the latter charged him – correctly, as Godwin acknowledged – with a lessening of his regard. Godwin replied listing four reasons for the change. Holcroft was extravagant, and his continual financial problems were making him less useful to society than he should have been. His resentments were unduly bitter. He was selfish, in particular in his belief that at £300 Godwin had been overpaid for Caleb Williams, and that he himself had been underpaid, at £1000, for his novel Hugh Trevor. There was an austerity, finally, in his behaviour, ‘an imperiousness of tone & personality of accusation’, entirely different, apparently, from Godwin’s manner of addressing people. Indeed, Godwin wasn’t sure, he told Holcroft, whether he had the right to speak to him so frankly about his ‘defects’, but there, he had discovered them, and had no doubt that it was his ‘duty’ to ‘modify the estimate’ he had previously formed of his friend. The letter survives among Godwin’s manuscripts in no fewer than three copies – perhaps he was proud of it and had it copied for the benefit of his friends – but, thankfully, it was never sent.

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