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!

Political Justice was published in the same month that England declared war on Revolutionary France, and Caleb Williams burst on a reading public that was being systematically terrorised by bloodcurdling descriptions of what the Jacobins were doing in Paris. Publishing anything critical of the British Government or favourable to the French was already a dangerous business. Political Justice was not prosecuted – it sold at one pound 16 shillings a copy and was therefore thought unlikely to get into the hands of the sort of people who were reading Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Caleb Williams was not prosecuted, on the grounds that it was a novel and decent people did not take novels seriously. But Godwin’s friend and fellow freethinker Thomas Holcraft, along with other members of the London Corresponding Society, were prosecuted for treason (opposing the government) – and were found not guilty after Godwin himself, at great risk, published a pamphlet attacking the prosecution as corrupt and politically motivated. Holcraft and his colleagues were luckier than their brilliant and courageous comrade Joseph Gerrald, who argued the case for freedom of republican speech in an Edinburgh court and was promptly despatched to Botany Bay, where he died within a year.

As the post-Revolutionary repression rose to a crescendo many of the 1793 revolutionaries fled the field. Godwin himself identified 1797 as the year of the great turn. Perhaps the most decisive events were the failure of the French Army to land in Ireland in December 1796 (success would certainly have cut the British tyranny short) and the subsequent collapse of the Naval mutiny at the Nore. From 1797 onwards, at any rate, Godwin found himself deserted by former allies and benefactors, James Mackintosh, Thomas Wedgwood, Samuel Parr. In his magnificent open letter to Parr in 1801 he mused on the phenomenon of political apostasy, and restated his faith in the ‘progressive nature of man’, and in the fundamental notions of the much revised Political Justice.

Even by 1801, however, Godwin was embarked on what St Clair properly calls a ‘long slow retreat’. It was to go on, with incessant ‘retractations’, for the rest of his life. As early as 1795 he shamefully attacked the opposition to the Government’s Two Acts, which banned political meetings and ‘seditious’ publications. Yet by the time he wrote ‘The Reply to Parr’, he was a symbol of everything the King, his courtiers and their government found disgusting about Jacobins. This was partly because of his views on politics but mostly because of his attitude to women’s rights, marriage and sex. In his early writings, perhaps under the monastic influence of his upbringing, Godwin suggested that in the great scheme of things relations between men and women were a ‘trivial matter’. Mary Wollstonecraft soon put paid to that notion. When he met her first at dinner in 1792, Godwin was irritated by her bubbling assertiveness. But he met her again, and his tempestuous relationship with her in 1796 and 1797, their brief life together as husband and wife, and Mary’s quite unnecessary death during the birth of her daughter Mary profoundly affected his writing. The exposition of women’s rights in Political Justice was rather dry. After Mary’s death he set to work to write a tribute to her, and it was these Memoirs which earned him the full fury of the anti-Jacobin hysteria. Then as now, it was much easier for reactionaries to attack the personal behaviour of their opponents than to argue with their politics. The Jacobins, it was said, were all loose-living libertines. Mary Wollstonecraft had conceived her daughters out of wedlock. No doubt that had something to do with her most appropriate death. It was a short step from exposing these ‘loose morals’ to denouncing the philosophy which inspired them – indeed the very word ‘philosophy’ became, in those dreadful days, a word of abuse. It was better not to think at all, since any thought could lead to having children out of wedlock.

Godwin was first pilloried, then forgotten. By 1810, though he was still writing third-rate plays, novels and even Bible stories, few people who admired Political Justice knew that its author was still alive. He had married again, started a children’s bookshop, and was absorbed, almost to the end of his life, in finding money to keep out of the debtors’ prisons.

One such admirer was the young Shelley. He had read the first edition of Political Justice and much preferred it to all the others. Shelley was a revolutionary. He revelled in the ‘spirit of 1793’. As soon as he heard (in 1812 from the apostate poet Southey) that Godwin was alive, he was impatient to meet him and to correspond with him. The two men immediately plunged into argument. Shelley wanted to form a political association, a party of like-minded revolutionaries. Godwin angrily cautioned him against any such scheme. Each person should arrive at his opinions individually, he insisted. Political associations only inflamed the passions and dimmed the light of reason. Shelley replied, equally angrily, that in the twenty years since Political Justice had been written not much had been achieved by all the individually thinking men and women who agreed with it. Now, surely, was the time for action to implement the ideas. Godwin nagged on and on, and finally dissuaded Shelley from his purpose.

St Clair describes this as a ‘debate between the younger Godwin and the older Godwin’. Shelley took his stand on the first edition of Political Justice, and in his youth, when writing for a Whig Party paper, Godwin himself had strenuously defended the rights of men and women with similar opinions to associate with one another. Here was the old philosopher warning his protégé against the enthusiasms of his own youth. But there was a further, deeper difference between the two men which St Clair has also detected. Godwin was an egalitarian in thought, but ‘in action only a Whig’. He was frightened by and suspicious of all forms of collective action. At every political meeting he had ever attended he had seen ‘how the enthusiasm was lighted up, how the flame caught from man to man, how fast the dictates of sober reason were obliterated by gusts of passion.’ These were precisely the flames of revolution which excited Shelley.

St Clair is firmly on Godwin’s side in the argument. Of Shelley, he does not really approve at all, though he can’t help but admire his poetry. The characterisation of Shelley here is the crude early 19th-century stereotype. Shelley was a ‘spoilt young man’, ‘a fanatic’. He took up causes and dropped them at will. He ‘never liked history’. He was ‘never in doubt’. At one stage St Clair guesses (this strange episode has never been satisfactorily explained) that Shelley adopted a child from a Naples street in order to replace his own dead baby daughter – and then placed the adopted baby in a convent where he never visited her. Shelley, it is suggested, was heartless and selfish with those close to him, and after he married Godwin’s daughter, especially with his poor old father-in-law. In an extraordinary appendix, St Clair suggests that Shelley did not write the notes, or essays, which illuminate Queen Mab. The pirated editions of the poem in the early 1820s print at the head of each note the picture of a small hand. This illustration St Clair suggests, indicates that someone else wrote the notes. He even names the author as Erasmus Perkins, a Shelley admirer, who helped to circulate Queen Mab among the pirates.

The stereotype nowhere fits the reality. Shelley’s political ideas remained consistent throughout his short life. He was not spoilt – he was cut off from his family’s fortune as soon as he was expelled from Oxford. ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’, the pamphlet he wrote in 1820 (it wasn’t published for a hundred years) starts with a brilliant short history of the world and its culture which could hardly have come from a history-hater. He was not a fanatic – he was always listening and learning from what others had to say. He constantly doubted and tested even his most fervent convictions (a single reading of the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is enough to prove that). He was a generous man, especially to Godwin, to whom he gave thousands of pounds for nothing, and whose praises he never stopped singing. ‘You will see,’ he wrote in his poem to Maria Gisborne, Godwin’s former admirer,

That which was Godwin – greater none than he
Though fallen – and fallen on evil times – to stand
Among the spirits of our age and land,
Before the dread tribunal of To-Come
The foremost ...

As for the notes to Queen Mab, William St Clair’s theory can quickly be refuted. One of the notes (accompanied, like the others, by the tell-tale ‘hand’) is a slightly-edited version of ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, which Shelley wrote at university. Its authorship is not in any doubt at all, unless William St Clair would have the ubiquitous Erasmus Perkins at Shelley’s elbow at Oxford in 1811. This refutation is, in any case, hardly necessary since the style of the notes is so obviously Shelley’s – there are so many phrases which can be found in so many of his other pamphlets – (‘A Letter to Lord Ellenborough’, for instance) that no one who admires Shelley’s prose as much as his poetry could doubt for a moment that he wrote the Queen Mab notes.

If St Clair is irascible and sometimes patronising towards the Shelleys, he is nothing of the kind on Godwin. The Great Philosopher would have been delighted to know that his life would be written by such a devoted biographer who records his subject, his times and his books with the enthusiasm of a writer who does not have to make his living or his reputation from any of them. Before I read this book I had Godwin down as a dry old opportunist. I agreed with the American visitor who spoke of his ‘great head’ full of ‘cold brains’. This marvellous book has banished that picture for ever. Godwin, for all his ‘long slow retreat’, did not sell the pass. He defended Robespierre in 1794 and Napoleon in 1815. He preferred the gains of the French Revolution to the feudalism it replaced. His ideas were too firmly held to be rejected because the times changed or the money ran out. He enjoyed conversation and argument every bit as much as books. He was loved by all his children, Mary most of all. It was right and proper that he should have lived even for such a short time with Mary Wollstonecraft. His Political Justice and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman ‘stand together on the shelf’, in St Clair’s memorable metaphor, ‘like a colossal Pharaoh and his consort; enduring monuments of the spirit of the age’.