Featured Publication: Nineteenth-Century Prose Special Issue on William Godwin

Rowland Weston, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Waikato, has guest-edited a special double issue of Nineteenth-Century Prose (41: 1/2, Spring/Fall 2014). The volume devotes 424 pages to new Godwin scholarship, and includes a stimulating and provocative introduction by the editor.

Thanks to Rowland for providing this summary of the volume’s contents:

This special issue of Nineteenth-Century Prose brings together the latest writing on Godwin from emerging and established scholars. It comprises twelve essays analysing texts from across the whole of Godwin’s career, and beyond (including a posthumous publication of 1873). Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer, in ‘Godwin’s Citations, 1783-2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor’, provide some surprising and significant data concerning Godwin’s reception. Their work is certain to establish important new directions in Godwin studies. While Godwin’s reception across time has been misunderstood, even less is known about his reception outside the Anglophone world. Begoña Lasa Álvarez, in ‘William Godwin and the Spanish Enlightenment’, provides a timely addition to this subject, exploring Godwin’s reputation as a pedagogue as well as a philosopher.

One recent development in Godwin studies is a long overdue focus on his voluminous historiographical outputs. The topic receives further attention in this collection. Eliza O’Brien, in ‘“The most inconsistent of men”: William Godwin and the “Apology” of Sir Thomas More’, provides the first critical analysis of Godwin’s manuscript essay, ‘On the Composition of History, An Occasional Reflection’. Tilottama Rajan, in ‘Between Individual and General History: Godwin’s Seventeenth-Century Texts’, addresses Godwin’s extensive forays into one of the most volatile and consequential periods of English and Irish history. Both essays demonstrate Godwin’s inventive and often radical departures from contemporary historical interpretations and historiographical orientations.

A point of perplexity shared by radicals from Godwin’s day to ours is the philosopher’s rejection of mass politics. Godwin’s position derived from his belief that sympathy tended to undermine the personal intellectual independence which, in his early writings, he regarded as the sine qua non of fully developed humanity. At times, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), Godwin appears to suggest that any form of human cooperation is detrimental to this independence.  Michael Edson, in ‘Godwin’s Anti-Mass Politics Revisited: Sympathy, Retirement, and Epistemic Diversity’, expands our understanding of this central issue in Godwin’s thought. Edson shows that while Godwin remained suspicious of mass politics, he retained a commitment to the Rational Dissenting ideal of group discussion and that this entailed an acceptance and celebration of intellectual diversity.

The tension between unreflective sympathy and rational independence is evident throughout Godwin’s writing, and is complicated by his adoption of moral sense philosophy from the second edition of Political Justice (1796) onwards. Suzie Asha Park, in ‘Caleb Williams and the Smithian Spectator: Reading the “Reasonable Demand”’, explores the difficulties Godwin experienced in accommodating the notions of sympathy and impartial spectatorship posited by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). If unreflective sympathy was always carefully to be scrutinized, excesses of feeling or sensibility were to be unequivocally condemned. One of Godwin’s starkest depictions of the latter occurred in his novel Fleetwood: or, The New Man of Feeling (1805). Colin Carman, in ‘Godwin’s Fleetwood: Shame and the Sexuality of Feeling’, reveals the full extent of the protagonist’s excessive emotionalism. Godwin’s writings are invariably designed to provoke thought, discussion, and gradual social change. These objectives are often explicitly stated in his prefaces. Eric Leuschner, in ‘The Prefaces of William Godwin and the Literary Public Sphere’, shows how Godwin’s prefaces engage rapidly changing audiences in debates about, for example, the nature of fiction and its capacity to represent psychological truth and inculcate virtue.

Caleb Williams (1794), Godwin’s most popular novel, has received the lion’s share of scholarly attention in recent years. A spirited indictment of late eighteenth-century Britain’s political, social, and legal corruptions, the novel continues to attract critical interest. Sophie Coulombeau, in ‘“Men whose glory it is to be known”: Godwin, Bentham, and the London Corresponding Society’, uncovers the cultural, societal, and existential anxieties played out in celebrated legal cases of the day. Godwin’s engagement with the law and the legal profession is further analysed by Mark Crosby in ‘“Till all law is annihilated”: Godwin versus the Bar’. Crosby particularly addresses Godwin’s rhetorical skills, a topic further examined by Victoria Myers (Emerita Professor of English at Pepperdine University) in her exploration of Godwin’s pedagogy, ‘William Godwin’s Enquirer: Between Oratory and Conversation’.

The volume concludes with Gary Handwerk’s study of Godwin’s last work (posthumously published in 1873). In ‘Unspeakable Truths, Unutterable Sincerity: Godwin’s The Genius of Christianity Unveiled’, Handwerk reads the Genius of Christianity in terms of a characteristic Godwinian concern, evident as early as Caleb Williams, that sincerity of intention might not always guarantee the discovery of truth, or its recognition by the public.

An emphasis on the sceptical, complex, and conjectural nature of much Godwinian thought provides an appropriate conclusion to this volume. We have come a long way from the early scholarly caricature of Godwin as a dogmatic and naïve fantasist of reason, and critical analysis is no longer limited to his two best-known works. More than two hundred years after Political Justice took the intellectual world of the 1790s by storm, Godwin remains fascinating company.