Featured Event: ‘Instruction and Communication in the Godwin Circle’, BSECS PG/ECR Conference 2015

A panel entitled ‘ “The Collision of Mind with Mind”: Instruction and Communication in the Godwin Circle’ was held on 15 July 2015 at the annual BSECS Postgraduate and Early Career Scholars’ Conference, Queen’s University Belfast and Armagh Public Library.

The speakers and topics were:

    • John-Erik Hansson, European University Institute, ‘The Domestic Republic? The Tutor-Child Relationship in William Godwin’s Thought’
    • Grace Harvey, University of Lincoln, ‘ “Vel hic, vel hæc”: “Paternal” Friendship and the Female Mentor in Robert Bage’s Hermsprong (1796) and Thomas Holcroft’s Anna St Ives (1792)’
    • Jennifer Wood, University College, Oxford, ‘Godwin’s Revolutionary Letters: A New Form of Discourse’

The panel was chaired by Matthew Grenby, Newcastle University.

Thanks to John-Erik Hansson for this report on the event:

There are worse ways to begin a conference on ‘connections’ in the long eighteenth century than with a panel on William Godwin—though some may say that a panel on ‘sex and illegitimacy’, which concurrently launched the conference, is an enticing alternative.

If anything can be said of Godwin, it is that he was very well connected, as a short exploration of his Diary and Letters immediately shows. The panel explored some of Godwin’s personal and epistolary connections, as well as the different ways in which Godwin and some of his acquaintances thought and wrote about interactions between individuals. It revealed a wealth of directions for creative research on Godwin, his circle, and late-eighteenth century British culture in the intersecting fields of history, philosophy, and literary studies.

The session opened with John-Erik Hansson’s paper, which dealt with a connection that Godwin thought about throughout his career: the relationship between a child and their tutor or parent. Hansson did not pursue a historical account of Godwin’s practice as a parent and teacher—though this came up in discussion—but approached the subject from a more ‘political-theoretical’ point of view. He focused on Godwin’s collection of essays, The Enquirer (1797), and specifically on Godwin’s description of the dynamics of power in the tutor-child relationship. He argued that Godwin’s recommendations in the educational realm are best understood both as a recognition of the inherently despotic element in the tutor-child relationship, and as an attempt to mitigate and limit the operation of arbitrary power in that relationship. Hansson concluded that Godwin was trying as best he could to mimic republican social relations in a situation where that possibility is fundamentally compromised.

Shifting the focus from Godwin to his circle, Grace Harvey cast an original glance at two English Jacobin novelists. Robert Bage’s Hermsprong (1796) and Thomas Holcroft’s Anna St Ives (1792) are frequently read as ‘feminist’ novels, with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) as backdrop. Harvey chose instead to highlight the traces of Bage and Holcroft’s Godwinism. She explored the perfectibility of the novels’ protagonists, and traced their progress through self-improvement and politicised conversation. Harvey suggested in her conclusion, and in her responses to questions, that, for these two novelists, a Godwinian ideal of rationality and individual autonomy seems to trump gendered power relations. In the end, it is a holistic (political) education that enables the protagonists to overcome their oppressors. Holcroft seems to agree with Bage: ‘vel hic, vel hæc [whether man or woman] – no matter’.

Jennifer Wood brought the focus back to Godwin and specifically to the letters he wrote in the 1790s. She emphasised the need for literary critics to give to unpublished material the same attention given to published texts. She provocatively described the letters as Godwin’s true masterpieces, and, during discussion, advocated their study in order to overturn some of the myths surrounding Godwin and his work. Wood’s paper called our attention to Godwin’s experiments in letter-writing and forced us to reconsider the intentions and effects of Godwin’s breaks from late eighteenth-century epistolary protocol. The letters Godwin wrote during the ‘Revolution Controversy’ are revolutionary from two perspectives. On the one hand, they express Godwin’s support for the radical changes initiated in France, and which he believed ought to be brought to England. On the other, they advocate and enact a revolution in interpersonal communication, which, Godwin believed, was necessary for the progress of mankind.

This panel showed a diversity of original ways to tackle Godwin, his work, and its contemporary reception. Harvey demonstrated the necessity of pursuing the different facets of Godwin’s influence on the development of the English Jacobin novel, while Hansson suggested that contemporary thinkers dealing with education might find challenges, and new directions, in Godwin’s political-psychological treatment of the tutor-child relationship. Finally, as Wood showed, the wealth of information in Godwin’s experimental letters has yet to be adequately integrated in the study of his thought and its reception. Re-connecting Godwin to his world as well as to our own appears to be both a worthwhile and a substantial task.

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