‘Watching a good plot,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote in the LRB (21 February 1980),

is like watching something alive, or if it is adroit and sinuous enough, something struggling for life. Between the once-born and the twice-born plot (which makes the reader, even if he is reading it for the twentieth time, want to interfere at every stage), the difference, of course, is great. But I am easily satisfied in this respect. The test lies in the plot’s independence of characters, and even of names: only relationships are necessary, as in rhythm without music.

Among the plots she placed ‘very high’ (there were five, and for the others you’ll have to read her piece) was that of William Godwin’s Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, published in 1794. Hazlitt would have agreed. ‘We conceive no one ever began Caleb Williams that did not read it through,’ he declared in 1825. Here, as a test, are the opening lines, delivered by Caleb, the narrator:

My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to entreaties, and untired in persecution. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim. Every one, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name. I have not deserved this treatment.

Godwin’s book actually has two plots. Almost the entirety of what was originally the first of three volumes (around a hundred pages in my edition) is given over to the relation by Caleb, a ‘poor country lad’, of a story told to him by someone else, in which he plays no part at all. It is a (genuinely) gripping narrative, describing the interactions between two county squires, Mr Falkland, who is now Caleb’s master, and Mr Tyrrel. Falkland is the epitome of polite 18th-century masculinity – ‘Such dignity, such affability, so perpetual an attention to the happiness of others, such delicacy of sentiment and expression! Learned without ostentation, refined without foppery, elegant without effeminacy!’ – and Tyrrel its opposite. Rough and domineering, Tyrrel is used to lording it over local society, and is put out when Falkland returns from a long spell abroad and supersedes him. Tyrrel falls out with one of his tenants, Mr Hawkins, and drives him and his son into destitution and eventually outlawry. He then decides to punish his young cousin, the charming and ingenuous Miss Melvile, who has fallen for Falkland, by making her marry Mr Grimes, a loutish farmer. Miss Melvile refuses and is locked up. She succeeds at last in escaping, with the assistance of her friend Mrs Hammond, but falls back into Tyrrel’s clutches, is foully treated, and dies. Falkland, who nobly remonstrated with Tyrrel on behalf of both Hawkins and Melvile, takes the leading part in ostracising him from society. Tyrrel then attacks him at an assembly, inflicting a grave humiliation by kicking him on the floor in front of the county set. Shortly afterwards Tyrrel is found dead in the street. Falkland is tried on suspicion of murder, but defends himself passionately, and is acquitted to general jubilation. Later, Hawkins is discovered to have been the killer, and both he and his son are hanged. End of story.

It is a wonderful piece of writing. The characters are well delineated and the language has plenty of vim and poke. Tyrrel is pleasingly villainous: ‘As long as I find you thrust into my dish every day, I shall hate you,’ he tells Falkland, and later announces that ‘I should be glad … to grind his heart-strings with my teeth.’ Melvile is brave and resilient, and there is real comedy in her horror of Grimes – ‘He is like for all the world a great huge porpuss’ – and his rough wooing (‘your ways are enough to stir the blood of my granddad’). Caleb describes the way the story made him feel:

There was a connection and progress in this narrative, which made it altogether unlike the little village incidents I had hitherto known. My feelings were successively interested in the different persons that were brought upon the scene. My veneration was excited for Mr Clare [a poet whom Falkland nurses on his deathbed], and my applause for the intrepidity of Mrs Hammond. I was astonished that any human creature should be so shockingly perverted as Mr Tyrrel. I paid the tribute of my tears to the memory of the artless Miss Melvile. I found a thousand fresh reasons to admire and love my master.

Until this point, the reader has been in the same position: we too have been told the story and have been transported by it. But now Caleb, like a good literary critic, asks us to snap out of the trance of narrative, and look again:

At first I was satisfied with thus considering every incident in its obvious sense. But the story I had heard was for ever in my thoughts, and I was peculiarly interested to comprehend its full import. I turned it a thousand ways, and examined it in every point of view. In the original communication it appeared sufficiently distinct and satisfactory; but, as I brooded over it, it gradually became mysterious.

And so begins the second plot. It is a delicious metatextual moment: Caleb is no longer outside the narrative, but within it, in charge of it. His questions about the story he and we have been told – Is it likely that Mr Hawkins, a good man, would have turned to violence? Might Falkland, who since his acquittal has been anxious and depressed, be the real murderer? – prompt him to seek out the truth. First, he tries to engage Falkland, not very subtly, on topics that might throw a light on these events, and then he begins to snoop around. Finally, in a frenzy, he attempts to break into a chest he thinks might contain evidence and is caught in the act by Falkland. ‘Curiosity,’ Caleb says, ‘so long as it lasted, was a principle stronger in my bosom than even the love of independence. To that I would have sacrificed my liberty or my life.’ Falkland confesses: he did murder Tyrrel, and allowed Hawkins and his son to hang. The price of his confession is Caleb’s silence, which he sincerely pledges, but Falkland’s obsession with his spotless reputation – ‘the idol, the jewel of my life’ – leads him to become increasingly paranoid and despotic: ‘He stretched his power beyond the limits of policy and prudence, and thus brought its very existence into question.’ Caleb escapes him, intending to make a fresh start in London, but is caught and agrees to return to defend his actions; instead, he is framed for theft, and put in prison.

What happens next may be summarised as disaster ever after. Caleb breaks out of prison, but Falkland pursues him mercilessly, and the two are locked in the sort of relationship Fitzgerald describes as ‘rhythm without music’: escape and punishment, punishment and escape. When things start to look a bit brighter for Caleb, we know to look out for a ‘but’. Some of these are literal: ‘But I did not believe that it was of the nature of those actions which can be brought under legal censure.’ (It was.) Others whisper between the lines: ‘I thought that by this time the most formidable difficulties of my undertaking were surmounted.’ (But they weren’t.) ‘What I saw of her spleen had not power sufficient to disturb my tranquillity.’ (But it should have done.) Reading the novel is a bit like watching the type of movie – The Revenant or 1917 – where a man is chased by a bear only to fall off a cliff into the rapids, or a plane is shot out of the sky only to plummet towards a beleaguered Tommy. What makes it, for all its predictability, wholly involving, isn’t just the vigour of the telling, or the varied nature of the drama, but something to do with the predictability itself. ‘Before everything a story must convey a sense of inevitability,’ Ford Madox Ford once wrote,

that which happens in it must seem to be the only thing that could have happened. Of course a character may cry: ‘If I had then acted differently how different everything would now be.’ The problem of the author is to make his then action the only action that character could have taken. It must be inevitable, because of his character, because of his ancestry, because of past illness or on account of the gradual coming together of the thousand small circumstances by which Destiny, who is inscrutable and august, will push us into one certain predicament.

Applied to Caleb Williams, ‘Society’ might replace ‘Destiny’, excepting that, for Godwin, society was scrutable and certainly not august. The novel was written the year after he published his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, which Hazlitt described as absolving ‘man from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private and local attachment, in order that he may devote himself to the boundless pursuit of universal benevolence’. Political Justice went off like a bomb in the heightened atmosphere of 1790s Britain, at war with revolutionary France and with a government intensely suspicious of radical activity at home. ‘No work in our time gave such a blow,’ Hazlitt recalled. ‘Tom Paine was considered for the time as a Tom Fool to him.’ The book was exorbitantly expensive at one pound sixteen shillings (it wasn’t banned because it was assumed the mob couldn’t afford it), and with Caleb Williams Godwin hoped to disseminate his ideas among ‘persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach’.

Tyranny, seen as the restriction of individual liberty, takes different forms in the novel: Tyrrel and Falkland both prove to be monsters of ego and malice, exploiting all the advantages granted to them by their class. The most fundamental of these is the law, which is ‘better adapted for a weapon of tyranny in the hands of the rich, than for a shield to protect the humbler part of the community against their usurpations’. ‘Your innocence shall be of no service to you,’ Falkland says to Caleb. ‘I laugh at so feeble a defence.’ The theme of imprisonment was of clear contemporary relevance: Caleb notes that Falkland ‘exhibited … a copy of what monarchs are, who reckon among the instruments of their power prisons of the state’. Godwin was determined to expose as humbug the British claim that theirs was a land of liberty – even while his friends were being put on trial for sedition: ‘Go, go, 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!’

This is the novel at its crudest. But Godwin doesn’t merely point out the obvious, he encourages us to look deeper and see the way government ‘insinuates itself into our personal dispositions’. The original sin is inequality, which inhibits independence and fellow feeling. At one point Grimes, the pawn in Tyrrel’s schemes, is described as feeling reverence for ‘the inborn divinity that attends upon rank, as Indians worship the devil’; later it is said of him: ‘This fellow, who would not perhaps intentionally have hurt a worm, was fitted by the mere coarseness of his perceptions for the perpetration of the greatest injuries.’ The same is true of the jailers who treat Caleb inhumanly, simply because he is a prisoner. Again and again, the blind worship of rank foils Caleb’s attempts to assert his innocence. Accused of stealing from his master, he is placed beyond the pale, even in the eyes of his fellow servants. ‘I will never believe that a man conscious of innocence, cannot make other men perceive it,’ he remarks, but for much of the novel he is presented with evidence to the contrary. When, in desperation, he finally breaks his pledge and accuses Falkland of murder in front of a magistrate, he is disbelieved. ‘There would be a speedy end to all order and good government, if fellows that trample upon ranks and distinctions in this atrocious sort, were upon any consideration suffered to get off,’ the magistrate says. Of course, Falkland, too, is a victim. He worships rank as foolishly as anyone: his vanity of his reputation, after all, has driven him to murder and then to persecute Caleb. We might, though the novel doesn’t insist on it, regard Caleb as damagingly convinced of his own inferiority, determined to think the best of Falkland and continuing to admire his good qualities.

The novel is subtler still in its relationship to the ‘sense of inevitability’ Ford wrote about. Throughout, Godwin pays particular attention to the moments when a decision is made, or an action taken, with seemingly irreversible consequences. After Caleb has been discovered trying to open Falkland’s chest, he reflects: ‘One short minute had effected a reverse in my situation, the suddenness of which the history of man perhaps is unable to surpass.’ The ‘turbulence of curiosity had subsided’, but too late. It is important that, though his whole future is shaped by Falkland’s confession, he does not in fact share Falkland’s view of the grossness of his crime: ‘I felt, what I had no previous conception of, that it was possible to love a murderer … I conceived it to be in the highest degree absurd and iniquitous to cut off a man qualified for the most essential and extensive utility merely out of retrospect to an act which, whatever were its merits, could not now be retrieved.’ Later, he tries to persuade Mr Raymond, a robber, to abandon his profession. Raymond replies that ‘it is now too late … [The laws] leave no room for amendment, and seem to have a brutal delight in confounding the demerits of offenders … Am I not compelled to go on in folly, having once begun?’ At the end of the novel, Falkland comes to see that he has ‘spent a life of the basest cruelty to cover one act of momentary vice’.

In these examples Godwin is arguing for the rational consideration of all actions, as well as for repentance and reformation, the individual’s ability to break the dragging chain of circumstance and history. None of these things is possible in ‘the corrupt wilderness of human society’. But by making his characters’ decisions and their inevitable results the relentless drivers of his second plot, Godwin was doing something else too. His readers race to the end of the story, the playthings of curiosity (‘We conceive no one ever began Caleb Williams that did not read it through’), and are able to do what is no longer an option for Caleb: look again and ‘comprehend its full import’. The hero of the book can’t alter his actions, but its readers, who have been made to see ‘Things as They Are’, can, as Godwin intended, ‘examine whether they are … irremediable’. For them, there is still such a thing as a second chance.

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