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.

He was a member of a stirring circle of middle-class radicals, and Political Justice can be read not merely as an exercise in solitary reasoning but as the expression of the ethos of a group. Together, they tried to practise a reformed social morality, less oppressive than the existing one and juster in that it put the general good before self and loved ones – though this last precept may have borne hard on their children. Holcroft’s 16-year-old son and Godwin’s 22-year-old stepdaughter Fanny Imlay both committed suicide after running away from home. Godwin made his own daughter Mary Shelley wretched with his exhortations after the deaths of her infants Clara and William: ‘We seldom indulge long in depression and mourning except when we think secretly that there is something very refined in it, and that it does us honour.’ But he also suffered himself from the socially suicidal frankness with which the intellectual radicals believed in addressing one another.

The practice of plain speech grew up in radical circles well before Political Justice advocated sincerity. Thomas Day, author of Sandford and Merton, who died in 1789, caused far more havoc than ever Godwin did by acting the noble primitive in the drawing-room. But Godwin’s journal also notes a succession of temporary estrangements, after excoriating scenes which he tersely describes as ‘démêlé’. Through most of his best years, the 1790s, he seems to have lived as vulnerably as Matt Bramble in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, like a man without a skin. Unswerving truth is all very well in exemplary radical fiction. In Elizabeth Inchbald’s Nature and Art the noble young Henry, brought up in uncivilised Africa, entertainingly floors his clerical uncle and pliant cousin by regularly subjecting their conversation to a Socratic dialectic. In real life, Mrs Inchbald’s triumphs in this vein must have been no fun to experience. She arrived at a high point of republican sincerity when in 1801 she wrote to thank Godwin for a complimentary copy of his play Antonio, which had recently been taken off at Drury Lane after one night: ‘I most sincerely wish you joy of having produced a work which will protect you from being classed with the successful dramatists of the present day, but which will hand you down to posterity among the honoured few who, during the past century, have totally failed in writing for the stage.’ Even the duns the postman brought him in later life cannot have been worse than that.

Don Locke has been sufficiently amused by the life and impressed by the philosophy to try to forge the two together in a ‘philosophical biography’. An academic philosopher himself, he regards Godwin’s one formally philosophic book, Political Justice, as by far his most important production, discussing it first in a chapter on its own, and afterwards never allowing it to go out of sight. Godwin’s principles, as set out in his 38th year, become the tool for exploring the whole life. The Political Justice which Don Locke opts for is not the book that was perceived by Godwin’s contemporaries, from the radicals to the alarmists, but a work that might have been generated in a sealed room, away from history and away from the misprisions of readers. It is, in a word, very much ‘the Professor’s’ book.

Don Locke’s reading of Political Justice is one in which the justice of the title matters more than the politics. He sees it as an exploration of just or moral behaviour, with a central proposition, that true justice consists in our acting in the interests of humanity as a whole. Carried out to the letter, such a creed subverts marriage and other family ties, friendship, and personal bonds such as gratitude. A promise to repay a debt has no binding force: first because a promise is suspect, as a commitment to act in future in a way that may be unjust, and second, because no man has a right to property if it would do more good in hands other than his own. Contemporaries in the revolutionary decade noticed particularly the social implications of such doctrines. The personal implications are important too, since it is clear that anyone who attempts to live in existing society in strict accordance with the Godwinian ideal is likely to run into considerable difficulties. Professor Locke’s biographical theme is the series of problems which indeed befell Godwin in his own life, an existence represented here as a long series of illustrations, revisions and addenda to Political Justice.

The unexpected virtue of the Locke angle on Godwin is that it generally makes good light reading. The theme has a strong if presumably accidental resemblance to a classic tradition of high comedy: the man of thought who becomes a buffoon as he tries and fails to carry his theories into real life. This, of course, is just how Godwin appeared to his ideological enemies, to the creator of Dr Stupeo, and to the orthodox moralists who crowed over the anti-matrimonialist’s hasty marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft. Though Don Locke seldom uses the vast body of contemporary ridicule of Godwin, he is near it in spirit when he examines Godwin’s later relations with his creditors in the light of his earlier theories on property, and concludes that here the philosopher was not altogether consistent.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the shadowy presence of Political Justice is more sad than funny. The writer who never again matches an early success can be a poignant figure, and loyalty to youthful precept more disturbing than a change of mind would have been. One of the biography’s most imaginative passages describes the public hanging, immediately in front of Godwin’s bookshop in Skinner Street, of the sailor John Cashman. A war veteran, still owed his pay, Cashman got drunk during the Spa Fields riots of 2 December 1816 and joined a mob which broke into the gunshop opposite Godwin’s home, enroute to attack the Tower of London. The Government decided to make an example of him at the scene of his crime, but Cashman was too sympathetic a type. He achieved a highly popular end, crying out to the applauding crowd, ‘Now you buggers, give me three cheers when I trip,’ and cheering himself as he dropped. Godwin drily noted the riot in his diary, but was silent on the execution. To have stayed indoors cerebrating that day could have been consistent with the principles of Political Justice, though a more positive response would have been equally appropriate from the author of Caleb Williams.

Given our present taste for anti-heroes, the professorial Godwin has much to commend him as a central figure. Don Locke is willing to attribute domestic virtues to him, representing him as an affectionate husband and a well-meaning if reticent father. But he also makes effective use of the contrast between this seedy, desiccated intellectual, this Casaubon, and the Dorothea type he first married. Mary Wollstonecraft’s lingering death after the birth of their child is deeply moving in all renderings of it, from Godwin’s own Memoirs in 1798 to Locke’s now, and the effect seems greater, not less, because she is more heroic and vivid than he.

It is a more routine effect, virtually domestic comedy, that can be wrung out of Godwin’s bathetic second marriage to Mary Jane Clairmont, who, legend records, introduced herself to her victim by calling to him on his balcony: ‘Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?’ Locke is at his best on this second marriage, describing the Skinner Street shop with Dickensian relish and fairmindedly qualifying Lamb’s judgment of Mary Jane: ‘the Professor’s rib is come out to be a damned disagreeable woman.’ Godwin at this point dwindled into a nonentity, but it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, for his decline is necessary if the possibilities of his biographer’s scheme are to be realised. Henceforth, with Godwin achieving little new that is important, Locke is able to develop his chosen character-study, that of the frequently perplexed theorist, and his intellectual pattern, of the ironic relationship between moral theory and behaviour.

In the first half, which deals with Godwin in his heyday, the limitations of the scheme are far more apparent. Up to about 1802 Godwin was a prolific writer in a number of different genres. He pursued his theoretical vein not only in Political Justice but in his collection of essays, The Enquirer (1797). He wrote at least two effective polemical pamphlets, the ‘Cursory Strictures’ and ‘Thoughts occasioned by Dr Parr’s Spital Sermon’ (1801). Two novels, Caleb Williams (1794) and St Leon (1799), are imaginative and innovatory, certainly among the most interesting performances in their kind that decade. Four-fifths of Godwin’s significant writing was achieved in this short period, and it must be a strong reservation about Professor Locke’s method that his approach is singularly unhelpful about every book but Political Justice.

Any reader of intellectual biography will sympathise with the technical problem. Telling the story of a life is like telling any story: it sets up a forward impetus, a curiosity about the people, their relationships, what happens next, and the reader may resent endless interruptions for the sake of a series of difficult, disparate books. The trouble here is the low quality of the return when the interruptions come. Don Locke has strictly limited talents as a literary critic, and his method of dealing with Godwin’s novels is to narrate the plots and then, as ever, to consider the relationship to Political Justice. Now literary biographers seldom go in for much discussion of their own methodology, but their adherence to chronology of itself implies that they are working on certain premises. It suggests, among other things, that a book is more fully known when set in its context, and that a sense of context normally embraces both the writer’s inner life and his social and intellectual environment. In preferring to concentrate on the link between the novels and Political Justice, Locke drastically cuts down the normally complex, continuous interplay between criticism and narrative. The result is a sadly thin performance on the novels, a discussion which makes less sense of the connections between people, books and ideas than Gary Kelly achieved for the same group in The English Jacobin Novel, 1780-1805 (1976).

In fact, the most striking thing about this ‘philosophical biography’ is that its logic excludes whole areas which other intellectual biographers would probably think central. It is a strategy which can accommodate biographical trivia, while topics of large intellectual significance do not rate a mention. Apparently, it is philosophical to tell us that in the late 1820s, according to Godwin’s health-obsessed diary, he voided a large worm, but not to deal with Coleridge’s intellectual struggles with Godwinism in 1795-6. The enhanced importance Godwin allows to the domestic affections in his novel St Leon can be explained in the context of his love affair with Mary Wollstonecraft, but not in the context of other popular novels and polemic in 1797-9, which, in the darkest days of the war, express a strikingly similar consciousness of the sanctity of hearth and home.

Don Locke saves himself much difficult speculation by his claim that no one now takes Godwin intellectually seriously. ‘As a living political theorist, he is unquestionably dead,’ and the rest of his books are scarcely now read for their own sakes either. We know him, Locke suggests, in the pages of other biographies, by implication less philosophical than this one. ‘His reputation has become that of a shadowy figure who wanders into the stories of Coleridge, Lamb and Hazlitt, the whining scoundrel who haunts the romance of Shelley and Mary, the shameless sponger, the butt of the literary anecdotalists.’ Reading this, the literary scholar feels a bit like the Polynesian who encountered Captain Cook upon the beach. Being discovered is unrewarding if you do not think of yourself as lost. It seems that moral philosophers have been reading Bentham rather than Godwin, while literary scholars have been reading Godwin rather than Bentham. And while some of the preoccupations of the literary can be put aside by a moral philosopher, other work demands at least acknowledgment.

There may have bean some justification for leaving out the part played by Godwinism in the intellectual make-up of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and Thelwall too, though it seems odd to try to sum up the impact of Political Justice solely in terms of what it meant to later generations. With Shelley, it is a different matter. Don Locke’s treatment of Godwin’s relations with his poet son-in-law occurs deep in the domesticated second half of his book, and is heavily angled in order to bring two issues to the fore. Shelley, influenced by the doctrines against matrimony advanced in Political Justice, fell spectacularly into the same trap as Godwin himself, as he was obliged to marry, successively, Harriet Westbrook and Mary Wollstonccraft Godwin. Since he was the eldest son of a wealthy baronet, he was also under some obligation to consider whether justice did not oblige him to supply his father-in-law – as, on the whole, he concluded it did.

The decidedly elegant discussion of whether Godwin had a right to demand and Shelley a duty to pay epitomises what, for Don Locke, his book is about. Readers with a more developed interest in human psychology may meanwhile find themselves wondering about the Godwin-Shelley encounter on other terms. Was Godwin, disappointed, neglected, financially desperate, now harbouring an obsession about his famous book? A man who lives twenty years in the past, or persists in trying to act out his fantasies – even if they are fantasies of reason – could be an even more woeful spectacle than the ‘venerable horseleech’. But no, it rather looks from the evidence as though Godwin by now remembered Political Justice mainly when it suited him – that is, particularly when blackmailing his son-in-law. He had become less single-minded and much less high-minded about his philosophy than Don Locke, who in the closing stages of the narrative looks like the one genuine professor the reader still has to reckon with.

But that is on the assumption that, intellectually, Shelley is not to be taken seriously. Locke must have suspected that for him an excursian into such a difficult corpus of poetry as Shelley’s was hardly prudent, and he sidesteps challenge, on the grounds that in the new medium, poetry, the ideas themselves undergo so great a transformation that sustained comparison is pointless. ‘Where Godwin intellectualised, Shelley romanticised; what appealed to him was the moral vision, not the logical argument; and his poetry presents us with a world of political justice without the proofs of Political Justice. To know Godwin only through Shelley, is not to know him at all.’ But this is not adequate, since it enables Locke to skirt the issue of what in Shelley derives strictly from Godwin (as Shelley read him) and what is also if more loosely Godwinian. Professor Locke might have found the result of such an analysis inconveniently broad and (in modern terms) unacademic, but it is hard to see how he can avoid it if he is to get right the question of Godwin’s influence.

In Queen Mab (1813) Shelley is still virtually parroting Godwin. Later his debts are bolder and more approximate. His hero Prometheus sheds his chains when he revokes his curse on his enemy, and so breaks the circuit of mutual oppression, tyrant locked with victim, which Godwin in Caleb William made his image of Things As They Are. Shelley’s heroine Beatrice Cenci murders her father and brings about her own destruction because she feels ashamed and soiled after his rape of her; unfree in her own mind, she contributes involuntarily to the cycle of oppression. The central themes of these mature works derive essentially from Godwin’s social criticism, and from the dramatic situations he invented in his novels to convey imaginatively the constraints of society. What is striking is the relative absence in Shelley’s work of the personal moral issues which for Locke are the essence of Godwin. Instead, it is a public message, social criticism, though linked always (as it is in Political Justice) with the perception that ‘imposition’ works above all through its conditioning of the mind.

One of the most unmistakably Godwinian themes for the literary radicals of the next generation is the notion that the significant revolution is not on the streets but in the head. Godwin himself made this doctrine the justification of a withdrawal in later life from immediate political concerns. But in the hands of his disciple Shelley, Godwinian intellectualism became the basis, equally logically, for active intervention in politics, through ideas and the printed word rather than by joining a political movement. Probably Professor Locke is justified in observing a little resentfully that, reworked by this acolyte of genius, the characteristic quality of Godwin’s own thought has tended to disappear. Yet it merged with a literary tradition which lived on in literary life – even in J.S. Mill himself – and always in fruitful, humanising tension with the less individualistic liberal tradition derived from Bentham. Shelley had no political influence, at least in his lifetime, but posthumously he aquired more significance as a type. Godwin sat silent when Cashman was hanged; on hearing of Peterloo, Shelley wrote ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, a poem addressed to the masses Godwin never wrote for, and urging them to a clearer understanding of their polity, on the one hand, of true justice, on the other. And that would probably have struck Shelley, like some of the radicals of 1793, as a fair approximation of what Political Justice as a political book was all about.

One of Don Locke’s biographical details makes an intriguing footnote to the question of Godwin’s shadowy after-life. In his seventies, Godwin was considered so harmless that he was given a pension by the Whig government. Inconsistently, as Locke of course remarks, he accepted in April 1833 the post of Office Keeper and Yeoman Usher of the Receipt of the Exchequer, and with it the obligation, among others, of overseeing the sweeping of chimneys in part of the Palace of Westminster. That October, while some ancient tallies in his portion of the Exchequer were being burnt, chimneys (presumably unswept) caught fire, with the result that the Houses of Parliament burnt down. Though Godwin is surely not in general as obscure as Locke suggests, it does seem a pity if his role in history as Yeoman Usher has been overlooked. He is a more apt opponent of existing institutions than Guy Fawkes, and it is satisfying to think of him as also more successful.