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.

Godwin frequently writes as if it is, or should be, the addressee’s chief purpose in life to deserve his admiration and esteem. After the trial of Thomas Paine, in absentia, for publishing the second part of Rights of Man, Godwin addressed an open letter to Thomas Erskine, who had defended him at considerable personal cost, accusing him of mishandling the defence. In the event it was never published: perhaps Godwin came to realise that he had misunderstood Erskine’s tactics in the trial. ‘You are not without some share in my esteem,’ he tells him, ‘& my esteem, when given, is liberally given, though it must be severely purchased … Take warning.’ Two years later he wrote to Lord Chief Justice Eyre, who, before the notorious treason trials of 1794, had delivered to the grand jury a shocking account of the law of treason which Godwin had mauled in a sparky pamphlet. In the second of the trials, however, that of Horne Tooke, Eyre summed up for an acquittal, and Godwin now wrote to tell him: ‘you have … justly earned my approbation’; if he carried on down the same path, ‘you may go on to deserve the applause & esteem of/An impartial honest man’ (the last phrase in lieu of a signature).

It goes without saying that in issuing his reproofs Godwin had only the best interests of his correspondents at heart. His letters to Amelia Alderson, later Amelia Opie, afford a particularly striking example of his disinterestedness. In August 1794 Alderson left Norwich to spend a few months with the family of a Unitarian minister, George Cadogan Morgan, at Southgate in Middlesex. She called on Godwin, who reproved her for residing outside London and foregoing ‘the society & advantages of the metropolis’, and Alderson replied that in staying with the Morgans she was ‘governed’ by her ‘affections’: she stayed with them because she liked them. ‘With a melancholy regret’, Godwin wrote to chide her for this answer. ‘To be governed by our affections, in the company we keep,’ he told her, ‘most usually means, to discard our understanding.’ It was her duty to take every possible opportunity to improve her mind, and to ‘exercise a penetrating scrutiny into the persons you see’, discarding those whom she merely liked in favour of those who could help her improve. ‘Let me not be misunderstood,’ he concludes. ‘I mean no more than that you are wretchedly deceived if you take Mr Morgan for a great genius.’ In short, Godwin was very much cleverer than Morgan, and was rightly disappointed in her for not preferring his company to that of a dunce. He acknowledged he had conceived an ‘uncommon esteem’ for Alderson’s ‘merits’, but it was an entirely rational esteem. He was far beyond being influenced by his affections, and in writing as he did to the beautiful young novelist he was not for a moment influenced by the fact that he fancied her.

Godwin was justified in writing these reproofs in part by his exceptionally clear-sighted and rational judgment of character, evident especially perhaps in his estimate of Robespierre. In late September 1793 he went after his friend Alexander Jardine, an artillery officer, political theorist and feminist, who had incautiously told Godwin of his view that Robespierre was a ‘dangerous wild beast of prey’. This was a colourful but not an unreasonable view to take of the seagreen incorruptible at the time, however much his actions can be seen as a desperate reaction to the twin threats of invasion by the despotic kingdoms to the east and counter-revolution in the west of France. It was a few weeks after the National Convention had issued its declaration that ‘terror is the order of the day,’ and just as it was passing the notorious Law on Suspects, though its passage may not yet have been reported in Britain. The Terror was just starting; most of the Girondists were already proscribed, and by the end of the following month almost all of them would be dead. But Godwin was keen to put Jardine right. ‘Do not exclaim so bitterly upon Robespierre!’ he exclaimed. ‘I, like you, will weep over his errors; but I must still continue to regard him as an eminent benefactor of mankind. The French, you say, must remain the prey of despotism. I answer you in the words of Agamemnon: “Prophet of plagues, for ever boding ill!”’

But Godwin was justified too by his belief in the necessity of being unflinchingly honest in his relationships with others. His watchwords are ‘candour’ and ‘ingenuousness’, the virtues by which he is guided in every address he makes, whether to friends or to those he does not know at all personally. In a brilliant insight Gregory Dart has pointed out how much Godwin resembled Robespierre, both of them committed to an ethics of perfect transparency. Letters to Joseph Gerrald, on trial for sedition in Edinburgh at the start of 1794, and to John Thelwall, on trial at the end of that year for high treason, urged them, too, to speak with complete candour when they came to address their juries. Neither had anything to hide, and the juries, packed as they were, would surely believe in the purity of their intentions if they spoke as ingenuously as Godwin advised. Thelwall was persuaded by Erskine to leave him to address the jury, and was acquitted. Gerrald seems to have taken Godwin’s advice, was transported to Australia and died within two years. To be fair, nothing he said could have spared him from the certainty of that sentence, and Godwin may have been writing more to stiffen Gerrald’s resolve than to persuade him of the possibility of being acquitted. It was perhaps less than totally ingenuous of him, however, to tell Gerrald that he ‘almost’ envied him the opportunity the trial would give him to speak truth to power. If ever he found himself in a similar situation, he told Gerrald, he would ‘consider that day as a day of Triumph’. Things might have seemed different, of course, on the day after, which may explain why Godwin only ‘almost’ envied his friend.

In an intriguing correspondence with the rich, brilliant, generous and sickly Tom Wedgwood, who occasionally ‘lent’ him money on the easiest possible terms, Godwin apologises at one point for having behaved as if infected by the ‘reserve’ that generally governs social behaviour, and acknowledges that he has ‘in some instances given way to a criminal cautiousness’. Perhaps both of them, he suggests, have inclined ‘to a vicious reserve’, instead of the ‘unmixed confidence & frankness’ that ought to govern their relationship. Here he desires his own candour to be matched by that of his correspondent, but at other times, while he maintains that duty obliges him to speak frankly on every occasion and that if others choose to be offended they are missing an opportunity to be improved, he by no means expects them to address him as candidly as he does them. Replying to a letter from a woman he does not know, a disciple of his who wrote to charge him with failing in some way to live up to his own principles, he complains:

You begin in a high style, prescribing to me my duty, telling me what I ought to do, & laying down your rights. This I have no doubt is the style in which morality ought to speak to men … But this is not the style in which one human being ought to speak to another. The speaker is no more infallible than his hearer. He may expostulate, but he must not dictate.

In a letter to Mary Hays, Godwin writes that Gulliver’s voyage to the Houyhnhnms was ‘one of the most virtuous, liberal & enlightened examples of human genius that has yet been produced’. By the end of the 18th century that voyage was generally regarded as the least virtuous, as well as the most disgusting, of Swift’s productions, painting in the Houyhnhnms a picture of unattainable perfection ‘tending to make us odious to ourselves’, as the soldier dramatist John Burgoyne put it, ‘and to extract morose mirth from our imperfections’. Godwin however seems to have wanted to be a Houyhnhnm, utterly incapable of saying ‘the thing that was not’; he did not demand that others act as Houyhnhnms in their behaviour towards him, but rather as human beings.

In this volume, perhaps his own most serious fall from high equine perfection occurs in his relationship with Thelwall. In late 1795 the government introduced into Parliament two ‘gagging’ bills, one of which was known to be directed squarely at the political lectures in which Thelwall was maintaining the case for universal manhood suffrage. Godwin responded by publishing a pamphlet critical of the proposed legislation but extremely critical also of Thelwall, who, though he had always spoken against the use of violence in the cause of parliamentary reform, ran the risk, so Godwin believed, of losing control of his own eloquence and inciting his uneducated audiences to the violence he claimed to deplore. When Thelwall angrily remonstrated with him, Godwin wrote to reassure Thelwall that his ‘favourable sentiments’ towards him were not ‘in the smallest degree altered’, and when Thelwall defended himself in his periodical, the Tribune, Godwin wrote to say that he had ‘always entertained an opinion more than usually favourable’ of Thelwall’s character. In between writing these two letters, however, Godwin was corresponding with Samuel Parr, telling him that as a result of the pamphlet he had been deserted by his friends among the reformers. But these, he tells Parr, ‘had never been much valued by me’; they were mere ‘summer flies’, and their break with him was a ‘trivial matter’. Perhaps Godwin is sincere in his professions of esteem to Thelwall, and is being less than candid to Parr in the hope that Parr will admire him for his independence. Perhaps he is telling Parr his real feelings and telling Thelwall the thing that is not, attempting either to claim the high ground of disinterested benevolence or, with motives more human than equine, to soothe his feelings. Whichever it is, he does not show himself in this transaction to be the ‘transcendent pattern of candour’ that, according to Thelwall, he believed himself to be.

That is a way of putting it, though not a very satisfactory one when we step back from the letters and see them in the context of other evidence, including Godwin’s diary. If the diary had any literary value, it would no doubt have been in print years ago. But it is a mere day-book, recording whom Godwin visited, who visited him, who met him for dinner, what he was reading, what he was writing, how much he did of both. No one would choose to read it through, but it is made for the internet, and is, in its searchable form, one of the most important resources available to us in understanding the literary and wider cultural and political life of London in the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the age of Romanticism. It is so important because Godwin was the most tireless socialiser it is possible to imagine, and because he socialised with almost everyone, at least on the half of the political spectrum, the liberal left half, that was transforming the culture of Britain. Its importance goes beyond Godwin’s social life, however. It tells us not just whom he knew, but about the literary, artistic and political circles of the metropolis, who knew whom, who met regularly, who was apparently rarely seen with whom, and so on.

The diary shows that Godwin spent a large part of almost every day talking and listening to people, often in large sociable gatherings. He believed in the necessity of having a room of one’s own and devoting time to solitary reading and writing, but he believed every bit as fully in the intellectually transforming power of conversation. It was our duty to expose ourselves to the influence of other minds, to take our part in conversation, not just as a source of wisdom and instruction but as an intent listener. He was as sincere in believing that Amelia Alderson owed it to herself to participate fully in the conversations of the metropolis as he was disingenuous in his assessment of her friend Morgan. He believed he could learn from people less smart than himself (though not perhaps Morgan) as well as from people smarter than he was, if any existed. He had very many good friends, and people liked him, so how did they deal with his relentless candour – at least with his relentless claim to speak with candour?

Some didn’t deal with it at all, and their relationships with Godwin broke down. Some just got over it: Thelwall and Godwin were friends again in six months, though not perhaps such good friends as before. Others may have found a correspondence conducted on Godwin’s terms challenging, exhilarating and liberating. Mary Hays cast Godwin as a character in her novel The Memoirs of Emma Courtney, in which she transcribed, verbatim, letters from him to her, as well as her own replies. Cast down by the collapse of her relationship with William Frend (Augustus Harley in the novel), Hays (Emma) turned to Godwin (Mr Francis) for comfort and advice. Godwin told her that it was ‘weak & criminal’ to have made her happiness ‘depend upon the precarious thread of another’s life or another’s pleasure’. ‘The principle by which alone man can become what man is capable of being, is Independence.’ Hays got the point entirely: Godwin was urging her to ‘be a man!’ ‘Why call woman,’ she exploded, ‘miserable, oppress’d & impotent, woman, crushed & then insulted – why call her to an “independence” which not nature, but the accursed & barbarous laws of society have denied her? This is mockery.’ And then, to show Godwin that his advice has not been entirely wasted: ‘Am I not sufficiently ingenuous?’ she demanded. However dismayed she may have been by Godwin’s inability to understand what it might mean to be a woman urged to be a man, his letter spurred her to address him with the same outspoken frankness that he had used on her. There were not many women who got to speak to men in that tone, and there were not many men who would have accepted, as Godwin did, her right to do so, and to publish their exchange.

Amelia Alderson, on the other hand, whom Godwin also urged to be more like a man, may have found something touching in Godwin’s all too transparent claim to speak with absolute transparency. She wrote to a friend in Norwich an account of the conversation with Godwin about why she chose to stay in Southgate: for all he knew, ‘her affections’, far from being unreasonable, were ‘the result of reason’.

He shrugged disbelief, and after debating some time, told me I was more of the woman than when he saw me last. Rarely did we agree, and little did he gain on me by his mode of attack; but he seemed alarmed lest he should have offended me, and apologised several times, with much feeling, for the harshness of his expressions. In short, he convinced me that his theory has not yet gotten entire ascendancy over his practice.

This account gives some idea of why Godwin’s most wounding letters often failed to wound, as if they testified to a struggle between a theory he could most easily maintain at a distance, through writing, and a practice which, face to face (perhaps especially face to face with the many women he desired), simply could not sustain the theory. However much, like Gulliver, he wanted to be a horse among horses, he kept acting like a human being among other human beings. His boasted frankness was read as a sign of vulnerability by many of those who knew him, but perhaps especially by women. It was certainly taken as that by Mary Wollstonecraft, for whom Godwin’s attempts to be utterly frank seemed touching and funny rather than improving or intimidating. She laughed him out of his imperiousness and he loved her for it, and she found in him ‘a tender affectionate creature’ who could help her recover from the despair that had led her to attempt suicide, for a second time, a few months before their relationship began.

Their correspondence, continued after their marriage often in the form of notes no longer than text messages, lovingly preserved by Godwin, is a delight to read: warm, erotic, humorous (on her part at least), wonderfully mutually supportive, life-giving. It has to be pieced together from Clemit’s volume and from Janet Todd’s edition of Wollstonecraft’s letters, but it needs to be republished as an exchange, as Ralph Wardle published it more than 30 years ago in an edition made obsolete by newly discovered letters. Only if we read it in that form can we fully enjoy the effect on Godwin of a love affair with a woman so frank about the pleasure she took in sex: how much that excited him, and how he struggled, though willingly, to keep up with the pace of self-liberation set by Wollstonecraft.

The two met in 1791, at a dinner for Thomas Paine, where they quarrelled; four and a half years later, boldly, brazenly even, Wollstonecraft called uninvited on Godwin, and their affair began. Godwin even wrote her a love poem, now lost, about which Wollstonecraft advised him, ‘when you write to me in verse, not to choose the easiest task, my perfections, but to dwell on your own feelings … Do not make me a desk “to write upon”, I humbly pray – unless you honestly acknowledge yourself bewitched.’ On the morning after a particularly warm night, in which she appears to have been the seducer (he was apparently not too well, and had intended an evening of quiet friendship), she writes: ‘If the felicity of last night has had the same effect on your health as on my countenance, you have no cause to lament your failure of resolution: for I have seldom seen so much live fire running about my features as this morning, when recollections – very dear; called forth the blush of pleasure, as I adjusted my hair.’ A week later, she promises him, ‘I mean then to dismiss all my frigid airs before I draw near your door, this evening,’ leaving him in a heat of anticipation of ‘how enchanting & divine you will appear this evening’. Literature and philosophy were part of it too – Godwin writes her, for example, a long didactic letter about the theory of fiction and how to improve the novel she left unfinished at her death – but they were delightfully entangled with sex. ‘Philosophising’ seems even to have become Wollstonecraft’s jocular euphemism for fucking: ‘What say you, – may I come to your house, about eight – to philosophise?’ she writes, looking forward to a night of love-making.

These notes and letters are of course as unbearably painful as they are delightful, for we read them knowing how little time the couple will have together before Wollstonecraft dies giving birth to her second daughter, the future Mary Shelley, whom, before she was born, Godwin had optimistically named ‘Will’. Wollstonecraft’s death devastated Godwin, and his grief led him to write some of his most violent letters of rebuke, in particular to Elizabeth Inchbald, ‘Mrs Perfection’, as Wollstonecraft liked to call her, not without a tinge of jealousy for yet another woman novelist with whom Godwin had tried flirting. When Wollstonecraft married Godwin it became for the first time apparent to many of their friends that she had not been married to Gilbert Imlay, the father of her daughter Fanny. She and Inchbald had a public quarrel in a box at Drury Lane, and the latter, who as a still attractive widow was extremely careful of her own reputation, refused to see her again. Godwin felt her treatment of his wife probably even more bitterly than Wollstonecraft herself, and on 10 September 1797 he wrote the first of two furious letters to Inchbald which frankly I wish had not survived: ‘My wife died at eight this morning. I always thought you used her ill, but I forgive you. You told me you did not know her. You have a thousand good & great qualities. She had a very deep-rooted admiration for you.’ He signed the letter ‘yours, with real honour and esteem’, as if that would put him in the right. By return Inchbald fired back: ‘I did not know her – I never wished to know her – as I avoid every female acquaintance who has no husband, I avoided her – against my desire you made us acquainted – with what justice I shunned her, your present note evinces, for she judged me harshly; she first thought I used her ill, or you would not.’ She wrote again two days later, a more kindly, less self-justifying attempt to offer consolation, but it did not cool his rage. His reply accused her of behaviour that was ‘unworthy’, ‘shuffling’, ‘dishonourable’. ‘I think your conversation with her that night at the play, base, cruel & insulting. There were persons in the box that heard it, & they thought as I do.’ Six weeks later, thinking better of all this but too proud to apologise, he wrote to reassure her that however bad her behaviour had been, it did not ‘obliterate’ his recollection of her ‘merits’; now that he had given vent to his displeasure, perhaps he might call on her? ‘With the most sincere sympathy in all you have suffered,’ Inchbald replied, ‘with the most perfect forgiveness of all you have said to me, there must nevertheless be an end to our acquaintanceship for ever.’ They seem not to have met again for four years, and rarely thereafter.

The death of Wollstonecraft led to a return also to Godwin’s old scolding ways with Hays, in a painful dispute about why Godwin had not admitted her to the bedroom of her dying friend. The next volume will begin about the time of his most thoroughgoing, most notorious exercise in candour, the Memoirs of the Author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’.