Public intellectual, political radical, author: William Godwin was one of the most significant thinkers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His philosophical anarchism continues to engage and inspire political activists and scholars. Volume II of his letters, edited by Pamela Clemit, was published by Oxford University Press on 13 November 2014. It sheds new light on Godwin’s life and career, and on many of the literary, artistic, and political figures of his times.
Godwin knew or corresponded with almost everyone of note on the political left from the era of the French Revolution (1789) to that of the Great Reform Bill (1832) – including nearly all the major literary figures of the Romantic era.
Volume I of Godwin’s letters, published in 2011, reflected the origins and impact of his great philosophical work, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793), and showed him at the height of his influence and reputation.
The letters in Volume II, dating from to January 1798 to 21 December 1805, reveal a less familiar person in different surroundings: a man still well-connected, attracting new friends and disciples, but increasingly embattled as a public intellectual, as a political radical, and as an author. This is Godwin on the back foot – but fighting on.
‘I have fallen (if I have fallen) in one common grave with the cause and the love of liberty: and in this sense have been more honoured and illustrated in my decline from general favour, than I ever was in the highest tide of my success.’
(Godwin, Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr’s Spital Sermon, 1801)
The volume includes scores of texts newly transcribed from the original manuscripts and given scholarly annotation for the first time. Godwin was not only a speculative philosopher but also a risk-taking entrepreneur. The letters show him responding to changes in public mood, seeking compromise in his philosophical commitments, and remaking himself as the author of novels, plays, biographies, and children’s books. They trace the fragmentation of his intellectual circle of the 1790s and the building of new alliances. They include an eye-witness account of the condition of Ireland on the eve of the 1800 Act of Union. They follow his quest, in the wake of the death of his first wife Mary Wollstonecraft, to find a new life-companion and mother for his two young children. Godwin’s letters reflect the cultural history of his times, and throw light on many other literary, political, and artistic figures. They record irreplaceable losses, both public and private, and trace new beginnings in his intellectual and literary development, in his commercial ventures, and in his social and domestic life.
Volume I was acclaimed as a ‘magnificent, definitive edition’ and a ‘dazzling first volume’. This second volume of the letters is the latest of six projected volumes that Pamela Clemit is working on, as General Editor of the series, and as Editor of Volumes I, II, and IV.
The Letters of William Godwin Volume II: 1798-1805 is available now, published by Oxford University Press.
Volume II, together with Volume I, will be available in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online from May 2015.
Coming soon to this blog. Volume II was launched at a colloquium held at Wolfson College, Oxford, on 18 November 2014. Look out for the posting of the podcast early in the New Year, featuring contributions by Mark Philp, Jenny McAuley, Jon Mee, Jacqueline Baker, and myself.