Featured Event: ‘William Godwin’s Middle Years’, BSECS 2015

A panel entitled ‘William Godwin’s Middle Years (1785-1805): New Letters, New Directions, New Critical Perspectives’ was held on 7 January 2015 at the 44th Annual Conference of BSECS. It highlighted the variety of critical work made possible by the recent publication of The Letters of William Godwin, Volume II: 1798-1805.

The speakers and topics were:

  • Amy Garnai, ‘ “Godwin has been several times attacked … and probably myself”: Holcroft and Godwin in 1798-1799: Letters, Diaries, Reaction’
  • Eliza O’Brien, ‘ “The pledge of my perpetual imprisonment”: William Godwin and the Fiction of the Confined Self’
  • Jenny McAuley, ‘ “The Most Stupendous Sight I Ever Saw”: Godwin’s Sublime Encounters in Ireland, July-August 1800’

The panel was chaired by Pamela Clemit.

Thanks to Fiona Price for this report on the event:

‘Why does a man feel any degree of eagerness to expose his character to the world?’ Godwin asks in an ‘Analysis of Own Character’, written in 1798. ‘For the most part it is a disclosure made to enemies’ (Collected Novels and Memoirs, i. 55). Living through a period of hostile public reaction to his work, Godwin had good reason to say so. Yet the panel showed that he was right to say that such a disclosure is ‘of high value’ (ibid). The session was designed to showcase new research inspired by the 243 letters included in The Letters of William Godwin, Volume II. It demonstrated the range and liveliness of Godwin’s correspondence, and the continued vigour of his intellectual project.

Amy Garnai argued that the letters, read alongside Thomas Holcroft’s journal, give valuable testimony to the lived experience of a radical intellectual during a time of political reaction. Garnai explored the complex relationship between public allegiance and private emotion in the interaction between the two writers up to the moment when their twenty-year intimacy faltered and broke down. Sharing an emphasis on truth, candour and mutual sincerity, the two friends read and criticized each other’s work. However, private emotion alone was not enough to warrant correspondence. ‘Some subject on which to discourse’ was necessary to Godwin. ‘What could I have said’, he wrote to Holcroft on 13 September 1799, apologising for a three-month silence: ‘I bear you the highest regard; I think of you continually; I felt the loss of you an irreparable one! This, & no more, however honest and cordial, discovering itself in the folds of a letter, would have looked dry & repulsive: it would have been still worse, if I had made you pay postage for it a second time.’ The wit of the final remark counterpoints the frank expression of attachment in the opening lines. Nonetheless, the need for rational subject-matter, not only to sustain emotional exchange but to bring it into true being, is suggestive.

In the preface to St Leon (1799), Godwin praised the domestic affections, but the potential dangers of exclusive emotional ties continued to haunt him. However, as Eliza O’Brien argued, isolation represented a threat of at least equal magnitude. Repeated periods of physical imprisonment and mental confinement structure St Leon, mirroring the pressures of political censorship and persecution documented in Godwin’s letters. Curiously, too (as lively discussion drew out), the doubling which is characteristic of Godwin’s fiction, particularly in the imprisonment of St Leon by Bethlem Gabor, hints at a fear of internal censorship, that the self might become complicit in oppression. In Eliza’s reading, the torturous moments of solitude provoke meditation on the need to write – and to write for an audience. It is when St Leon is locked in the dungeons of the Portuguese Inquisition, condemned to solitary confinement for fifteen years, that Godwin refers directly to the events of 1798 and 1799.

Godwin experienced the aftermath of the 1798 Irish Rebellion during his visit to Ireland in the summer of 1800 as the guest of the Irish Patriot (anti-Union) MP John Philpot Curran. Jenny McAuley demonstrated that the letters written during this visit show a particular generic flexibility. Godwin took the conventional Wicklow tour, McAuley argued, but his letters are informed by his particular perspective as an English observer in sympathy with the Irish Patriot cause at the time of the passage of the Act of Union. They contain rapid shifts from the aesthetic to the political, as his topographical descriptions are often shadowed by anniversaries of the events of the Rebellion, or by his association with Mary Wollstonecraft. Moreover, Godwin was a spectator of Irish places and people who found himself an object of widespread public regard and attention in Ireland. While these letters may be read as texts in the ‘confidential’ mode of manuscript composition, questions remain about the extent of their likely circulation and recirculation.

All in all, Volume II shows Godwin still corresponding with some of the most significant intellectuals of the day, still engaging with tenacity in his revolutionary project, still impressing with the vigour and brilliance of his writing. Even when attacked for his philosophical views and saddened by the dissolution of social ties, Godwin in these difficult, transitional years is not, as we once assumed, in retreat.