Featured Event: ‘Revisiting the Juvenile Library’, BSECS 2016

A panel entitled ‘Revisiting the Juvenile Library: William Godwin, Mary Jane Godwin, and Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature’ was held on 7 January 2016 at the 45th Annual Conference of BSECS. It concentrated on the writing and publishing activities of the Juvenile Library, run by William Godwin and his second wife Mary Jane from 1805 to 1825, which traded under the name of M. J. Godwin & Co.

The speakers and topics were:

  • Jenny McAuley, ‘Mary Jane Godwin and the Juvenile Library’
  • John-Erik Hansson, ‘Exalting the Superiority of a Heathen Morality?’ Religion(s) in William Godwin’s Children’s Books’
  • Matthew Grenby, ‘William Godwin and the Beauty-Book’

The panel was chaired by Pamela Clemit.

Here is a brief report:

The rise and fall of the Juvenile Library might seem like a textbook case of ‘growth, expansion, and contraction’ (the theme of BSECS 2016), as the celebrated philosophical anarchist turned small businessman in response to the buffets of an emerging market economy. Our panel offered a more complex view.

The use of Mary Jane Godwin’s initials in the trading name, Jenny McAuley reminded us, was intended to shield the business from the controversy that the name of William Godwin would have attracted in a period of anti-Jacobin backlash. Nonetheless, the company name reflected Mary Jane Godwin’s practical authority and agency in the running of the business. Drawing on correspondence in the Abinger papers, McAuley surveyed Mary Jane Godwin’s activities and experiences as a self-described ‘managing woman’ at the Juvenile Library. Mary Jane Godwin’s areas of concern included book production, the shop premises, and, above all, ‘the produce of the till’, which Godwin reported to her daily whenever she was absent. McAuley argued that Mary Jane Godwin brought to the Juvenile Library particular qualities of ‘streetwise’ intelligence and practicality formed during her earlier experiences of imprisonment for debt, negotiation of maintenance payments for her illegitimate daughter, Claire Clairmont, and earning an independent living in the children’s book market. McAuley’s paper provided a wealth of new perspectives on Mary Jane Godwin as biographical subject, author, translator, publisher, and businesswoman.

John-Erik Hansson examined two of Godwin’s pseudonymous children’s books, Bible Stories (1802), published by Richard Phillips for private use, and The Pantheon (1806), published by M. J. Godwin & Co. for use in schools. In Bible Stories (initially called ‘Jewish History’ in Godwin’s diary), Hansson drew attention to Godwin’s privileging of episodes demonstrating human agency over supernatural or divine events. In The Pantheon, he considered the extent to which Godwin sought to restore respectability to Graeco-Roman pagan religious and moral ideas, which were commonly denigrated in schoolbooks of the time. For Hansson, both books were best understood in the light of Godwin’s 1818 essay ‘Of Religion’. They exemplified a move away from overt moralising that was in keeping with Godwin’s defence of private judgement. Hansson ended with a question: if Godwin’s schoolbooks were subversive, why were they so commercially successful? One possibility is that the message did not get across; another is that their subversiveness fitted with local morality. A further point made in discussion was that Godwin tells good stories, which are not overtly tendentious: they speak for themselves across the generations.

In Matthew Grenby’s paper, the focus turned to book history. He concentrated on one Juvenile Library publication, Beauty and the Beast, or, A Rough Outside with a Gentle Heart: A Poetical Version of an Ancient Tale (1811), tracing its history from commissioning and production to publication and sale. Godwin originally proposed the project of the ‘Beauty-book’ to William Wordsworth, who declined to write it, and in the nineteenth century it was commonly attributed to Charles Lamb. However, Grenby, using the correspondence he is currently editing for the Oxford University Press Letters of William Godwin, Volume III, 1806-1815, was able to identify the author as the miscellaneous writer Samuel Jackson Pratt (1749-1814), an advocate of animal welfare. Grenby argued that the book’s multiple points of appeal (it included delicate illustrations and a fold-out musical score), together with the pricing, demonstrated Godwin’s business acumen. More broadly, the variety of publications offered by the Juvenile Library, ranging from luxury items to chapbooks, reflected Godwin’s ambition to encompass the whole market for children’s books.

nypl.digitalcollections.782fd24c-343c-3d2d-e040-e00a18063abc.001.rAll three papers challenged the received view of the Juvenile Library as a financially disastrous episode in William Godwin’s declining career. They offered more diverse perspectives on the work of the Juvenile Library, ranging from its management, its literary outputs, its clientele, and the philosophical spirit in which it was conducted. M. J. Godwin & Co. appears a more dynamic and profitable enterprise than many commentators have allowed.