Benevolent Mr Godwin

E.P. Thompson

  • Political Justice by William Godwin, introduced by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Woodstock, £150.00, November 1992, ISBN 1 85196 019 8
  • The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin edited by Mark Philp
    Pickering & Chatto, £395.00, March 1993, ISBN 1 85196 026 0
  • Political Writings by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Janet Todd
    Pickering & Chatto, 411 pp, £39.95, March 1993, ISBN 1 85196 019 8
  • Memoirs of Wollstonecraft by William Godwin, introduced by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Woodstock, 199 pp, £8.95, April 1993, ISBN 1 85477 125 6

A feast for the Godwinians. First comes the handsome facsimile of the quarto first edition of Political Justice (1793) in the series edited by Jonathan Wordsworth for Woodstock Books. This series makes available facsimiles of works which were significant to the Romantic poets, and in particular to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Jonathan Wordsworth’s breezy and unpedantic introduction seeks to bring the leader into that circle at that time, so that s/he can place the two heavy volumes on a desk and be drawn into the self-satisfied philosophical benevolence and contempt for all received opinion and custom which inspired those young enthusiasts. We open them beside the solicitor’s clerk, Henry Crabb Robinson, who later recalled: ‘It made me feel more generously. I had never before, nor ... have I ever since felt so strongly the duty of not living to one’s self, but of having for one’s sole duty the good of the community.’ The 1793 edition sold 3000 copies at the high price of three guineas – too pricey for the Government to worry about a prosecution. Woodstock Books will count itself fortunate if it can sell as many. At £150 it will also not be prosecuted.

Mark Philp has given himself a more difficult task. He has edited the new seven-volume edition of the Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, having edited previously, with some help from Marilyn Butler, all of Godwin’s novels. Philp is undoubtedly the country’s leading Godwinian, having established his authority with his study of Political Justice. He has perhaps become over-committed to the role, although he has also edited an interesting collection of essays on the French Revolution and British popular politics. The present series is a selection and not the complete output, and we may be thankful for that. It could have been pruned down more. I find Volume I – Political Writings I – superfluous, apart from the editor’s general introduction to the series; as are Volumes VI, Essays, and VII, Religious Writings. These will be useful to the close scholar of Godwin’s evolution, who might, however, have found the texts by other means. Most are dull texts.

My main complaint is that Dr Philp might have given more thought to the problems of editing and to the needs of his intended readership. The editing is not pedantic: indeed, compared with some series, such as the Bollingen Coleridge, it is lightweight. Each text has a two or three-page introduction: when it was published, where, what was the immediate response in reviews. Anything with a capital letter gets a footnote in explanation: thus we are told who Guy Fawkes was (twice), who was Caligula, Nebuchadnezzar, who were Goths and Vandals, what was the Inquisition, Pandora (box of) and Procrustes (bed of). We may live in a multicultural society but this is taking things a bit far. Readers who open these volumes will come with some preparation. But in any case Godwin is using all these terms as commonplace figures of speech and not as part of a historical enquiry. The volume from which most of these examples come – Volume II, Political Writings II – suffers from editorial brevity in other respects. It includes three significant interventions: the ‘Cursory strictures on the charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury’, Godwin’s strong public protest – perhaps his most courageous literary act – against the nonsensical construction of the law of treason by Eyre (which has recently attracted renewed ironical attention from John Barrell) which was hurled into print on the very eve of the notorious Treason Trials of 1794. The second piece is the ‘Considerations’ on the Two Acts (1795), in which Godwin seemed to come forward (anonymously) to condone legislation against popular organisations like the Corresponding Societies and assemblies judged to be tumultuous (such as John Thelwall’s public political lectures), while moaning on and on about Bills so loosely drawn that they might even touch benign philosophers like himself. The third piece, ‘Thoughts occasioned by the perusal of Dr Parr’s Spital Sermon’ (1801), is more honourable. The intellectual tide had turned strongly against Godwin since 1797 and he had remained silent. Now at last he responded to some major critics, including Dr Parr, Mackintosh and Malthus.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in