Digitising Godwin’s Manuscripts (1): Writing Two Masterpieces

Images of the manuscripts of Godwin’s Political Justice and Caleb Williams are now available to view on The Shelley-Godwin Archive, together with descriptive and contextual commentary. This is the fruit of a collaborative project led by Pamela Clemit, which brought together complementary expertise from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH).

The publication was launched at the V&A on 11 December 2017, at which three short talks were delivered by representatives of each of the collaborating institutions, introduced by the V&A’s Director, Tristram Hunt. This blog post is the first of a series of three, publishing the texts of the presentations in the order in which they were given.

To read the second presentation, click here; to read the third presentation, click here.

Here is the text of the first talk, by Pamela Clemit:

Political Justice and Caleb Williams: Writing Two Masterpieces

The last decade of the eighteenth century in Britain was a time like our own: riches and poverty; ostentation and indigence; meaningless violence, cruelty, and heartlessness.

But in one respect it was different. Across the Channel, in France, there had been a revolution. The people had risen, and had overthrown the monarchy and the aristocracy. It was possible, briefly, to envisage a better future.

William Godwin, a London journalist and former nonconformist minister in his mid-thirties, imagined what that future life should be. He began to write An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. When this massive book was published in 1793, he became the most celebrated public intellectual of his time. He married Mary Wollstonecraft, the early advocate of women’s rights, but she died shortly after the birth of their daughter Mary (who grew up to marry Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to write Frankenstein). Godwin’s heyday was brief, but his reputation revived from the 1880s onwards, when he was claimed as the father of philosophical anarchism, and it is now surging again.

The Quest for a Just World

He is worth reading today for his sense that things might be different from how they are. Godwin was engaged in a quest for a just world. It was self-evident to him that we all share the same need for subsistence and dignity. Until everyone’s needs are met, no-one has a claim for anything above these basic needs. That is simple justice. This bedrock of human dignity requires property to be shared equally.

Must we sacrifice all that is colourful and pleasurable in life to satisfy some abstract notion of justice? Not at all, thought Godwin. Equality is going to be fun. Intellectual improvement comes first. Imagine what opportunities for creativity and social progress will open up once everybody is educated. People will be naturally far-sighted. They will crave lives of experiential fulfilment, not the baubles of the marketplace. As people become wiser, government will gradually wither away. The rule of law will be replaced by the rule of reason. Godwin rejected all forms of political authority. He envisaged a society based on justice, equality, tolerance, and mutual moral accountability.

Writing Political Justice

‘When a man writes a book of methodical investigation’, Godwin declared in 1797, ‘he does not write because he understands the subject, but he understands the subject because he has written’. He formulated his ideas as he went along. We know this because the sole surviving manuscript of Political Justice is full of revisions. There are numerous cancellations of words, sentences, and longer passages, with revisions between the lines, in the margins, and sometimes on separate leaves or scraps of paper. Godwin’s diary shows that he worked slowly and meticulously: drafting, reading widely, consulting with friends, and then redrafting until he got it right.

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Portion of leaf from Political Justice (V&A MS/1876/Forster/222/2), showing authorial revisions and printer’s marks

Godwin’s method of writing—two steps forward, one step back—was also a response to changing historical events. Over the sixteen months in which he was engaged on Political Justice, the French Revolution descended into violence and terror. The British government began a campaign against reformers at home and tried to suppress freedom of speech. The trial of Thomas Paine (in absentia) for seditious libel in Part Two of Rights of Man (1792)—a work which Godwin believed shared a common purpose with his own—indicated just how carefully he had to choose his words.

Godwin noted in his diary on 4 January 1793: ‘Call on Davis [his printer], best book that ever was published’. This suggests that the main text of Political Justice was substantively complete and printed by this date. On 7 January he turned his attention to the Preface. He continued to make final adjustments over the next fortnight, probably seeking to forestall prosecution for authorship of the work.

These last-minute revisions were made at a time when Britain was preparing for war with France. On 17 January, Louis XVI of France was sentenced to death by the French National Convention; the news broke in London on 21 January, the same day as his execution. Godwin reached for his pen and added a final paragraph to the Preface:

It is the fortune of the present work to appear before a public that is panic struck, and impressed with the most dreadful apprehensions of such doctrines as are here delivered.… But it is the property of truth to be fearless, and to prove victorious over every adversary.

On 1 February the French National Convention declared war on Britain and Holland, urging the British people to rise against their oppressors—just three days after Godwin had recorded in his diary, ‘Finish Pol. Justice’.

Political Justice was published on 14 February 1793. Godwin dodged prosecution by presenting the work as ‘by its very nature an appeal to men of study and reflection’—though it was probably its high price (£1.16s) that convinced the government it was not worth prosecuting.  Ten days later, Godwin began writing Caleb Williams, in which he dramatized his ideas for a wider audience.

A Real-Life Story of State Persecution

Caleb Williams—originally titled ‘Things As They Are’—was one of the first ‘condition of England’ novels, and is a thrilling tale of detection and pursuit. The story is told by the servant Caleb, who is driven by a fatal curiosity to probe his master Falkland’s secret past. When he discovers that Falkland is a murderer, he runs away. Falkland hunts him across the length and breadth of the country until, finally, the two men confront each other and confess their mutual errors. The novel went through five editions in Godwin’s lifetime and has never been out of print.

Caleb Williams draws power from a darkening world. The war with France led to ‘Pitt’s Terror’: judicial prosecutions, repressive legislation, and the use of spies and informers to stamp out the British reform movement. Godwin worked steadily through all this, revising as he went along, just as he had done with Political Justice, until the first two volumes were complete.

In October 1793 he started Volume III—and ground to a halt. Only a few weeks earlier, the Scottish radicals Thomas Muir and Thomas Fyshe Palmer, educated men just like himself, had been tried for sedition and sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. Godwin visited them in the hulks at Woolwich, where they laboured as ‘felons like the rest’—and he took the measurements of the Newgate cell of another middle-class radical, Joseph Gerrald, as he awaited transportation. When, at the start of April 1794, he picked up his pen again, it was to tell a real-life story of state persecution.

Godwin completed Volume III within the month. But as soon as he finished, he saw that the ending of the book as originally planned did not fit with the novel as it had developed in the process of writing. From 4 to 8 May he composed a ‘new catastrophe’, which reflected his response to the plight of victims of judicial persecution. This ending appeared when the novel was published on 26 May 1794.

Getting it Right

In each case, all the work was done on one manuscript: drafting, writing, correcting—and marking up for printing. Godwin was so confident he was getting it right that he began to send portions of each manuscript to the printer when only half of it was completed. This became his customary practice, as he later wrote to Archibald Constable:

It has been my habit … to write with so much deliberation & thought, that I have never hesitated to send my work to the press by the time the half of it was completed; & and as it drew to its conclusion, the printer & the author generally finished within three days of each other.

These manuscripts are the closest we can get to Godwin’s original intentions. They contain the evidence of his quest for clarity and purpose—in the words of his great progenitor, John Milton, ‘still searching … still closing up truth to truth as we find it’. They bear witness to years that tried men’s souls—and the message they convey is as timely as it has ever been.

This project was supported by the QMUL Humanities and Social Sciences Collaboration Fund.


New Post: Mary Wollstonecraft in the Idler

This piece by Pamela Clemit was first published in the Idler, No. 54 (May-June 2017):

Quite Contrary: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) thought that a woman’s place was in the resistance. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), anticipated most of the ideas of modern feminism. Revolutionary thinker, Romantic traveller, citizen of the world, lover, wife, and mother: she packed a huge range of experiences into a short life.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797

She made up her life as she went along, testing out new roles. She was born in Spitalfields, London, into a middle-class family of declining fortunes. The family moved from place to place. Her mother did not seem to care for her daughters and her father was violent. She learned to read and write at a day school in Yorkshire, and had no other formal education. In her late teens, she left home to become a lady’s companion.

‘I am not born to tread in the beaten track’

At the age of twenty-four Wollstonecraft and her sisters opened a school at Newington Green, then a village north of London. Here she met the luminaries of rational dissent, the troublemaking, heterodox wing of English religious nonconformity (later known as Unitarians). These dissidents included the philosopher Richard Price, who became a friend and guide. The rational dissenters were excluded from full civil rights and advocated a new morality of tolerance, equality, and reason.

The school failed and Wollstonecraft went to Ireland as governess to an aristocratic family. Here she wrote her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), drawing on her own experiences. When she encouraged the eldest daughter to rebel against her parents, she was dismissed. ‘I am … going to be the first of a new genus’, she wrote to her sister Everina: ‘You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track—the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on’. She was signed up by Joseph Johnson, the leading radical publisher of the day, to write for the Analytical Review.

Johnson acted as a surrogate parent to Wollstonecraft. She joined a circle of progressive writers, artists, theologians, and political reformers who met for afternoon dinners above his shop. Most of them welcomed the French Revolution of 1789 as the start of the millennium promised in scripture. Richard Price distilled their euphoria into a sermon, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789), which provoked Edmund Burke’s counter-attack in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Within a month Wollstonecraft published a reply, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. She poured scorn on Burke’s ‘pampered sensibility’ and condemned hereditary riches. Suddenly she was famous.

A proper education for women would be transformative

In September 1791, the French National Assembly proposed a new system of education which excluded women from civic life. Wollstonecraft responded with her most celebrated work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, completed in six weeks. Middle-class women, she argued, were degraded by the attitudes of pleasure-seeking men, and by the unnatural distinctions of social rank. A proper education for women would be transformative. It would equip them to be better wives and mothers, to enter civic and professional life—and to reform the world. ‘These may be termed Utopian dreams’, she wrote. They went viral. By the end of 1792 her fame had spread across Europe.

Wollstonecraft began to experience the tensions between ideas and life. In the summer of 1792 she planned to travel to Paris with Johnson and his intimate friend Henry Fuseli, the painter, to witness the French Revolution at first hand. Wollstonecraft was attracted to Fuseli, who stoked her romantic feelings. When the Paris plan fell through, she visited Fuseli’s wife Sophia and asked to move into their house as her husband’s spiritual spouse. Sophia threw her out, and Wollstonecraft travelled alone to Paris.

She stayed in France for two years, through the start of the war with England and the Terror, writing a history of the French Revolution. In Paris she joined a group of British and American radicals at White’s Hotel, and imbibed a cocktail of politics, espionage, and bohemian living. She fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, a former American army officer seeking easy profits from the war in Europe. By the end of the summer of 1793, she was pregnant. ‘I have felt some gentle twitches’, she wrote to Imlay in November, ‘which make me begin to think, that I am nourishing a creature who will soon be sensible of my care.—This thought has … produced an overflowing of tenderness to you.’

In the autumn of 1793 English residents in Paris became vulnerable to arrest as enemies of the Revolution, but Imlay was shielded by his American passport. He registered Wollstonecraft as his wife at the American Embassy, and the pair began to live together openly. Imlay left for Le Havre to run the British naval blockade, shipping goods in and out of France via the neutral Baltic ports. Wollstonecraft bombarded him with reproachful letters, followed by herself. They set up house in Le Havre as a conventional married couple.

In May 1794 Wollstonecraft gave birth to a daughter, Frances (Fanny) Imlay, and became absorbed in motherhood: ‘My little Girl begins to suck so manfully’, she reported to a woman friend, ‘that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R—ts of Woman.’ Imlay moved on, this time to London, leaving Wollstonecraft alone in Paris with her baby daughter and French nursemaid, Marguerite.

Mary rowed to Putney Bridge and threw herself in the Thames

The exiled Irish radical Archibald Hamilton Rowan became a loyal friend. He wrote to his wife: ‘“What!”, said I within myself, ‘this is Miss Mary Wollstonecraft, parading about with a child at her heels, with as little ceremony as if it were a watch she had just bought at the jeweller’s. So much for the rights of women,” thought I.’ In the spring of 1795 Wollstonecraft joined Imlay in London and found he had been unfaithful. She took an overdose; he saved her life.

Imlay held out the promise of reconciliation if she would go to Scandinavia to sort out a failed shipping exploit. He had tried to run a cargo of French silver bullion (made from the melting down of church ornaments) through the naval blockade to Gothenburg in Sweden, where it could be used as payment for grain. The ship never arrived and the silver went missing, prompting a judicial enquiry. Wollstonecraft’s mission was to seek compensation for Imlay, either informally or through the courts. In June 1795 she embarked with the thirteen-month-old Fanny and her French maid. She spent the next four months on lonely sea-journeys to provincial Nordic towns, bargaining with officials, recording her impressions of Scandinavian scenery, and of how women occupied their time in different countries.

When she got back to London, Imlay was living with an actress. Wollstonecraft took a boat and rowed to Putney Bridge, walked up and down in the rain to drench her clothes, and threw herself into the Thames. She was saved by two watermen. George Eliot wrote to her friend Emmanuel Deutsch in 1871:

Remember, it has happened to many to be glad they did not commit suicide, though they once ran for the final leap, or as Mary Wolstonecraft did, wetted their garments well in the rain hoping to sink the better when they plunged. She tells how it occurred to her as she was walking in this damp shroud, that she might live to be glad that she had not put an end to herself—and so it turned out.

Wollstonecraft did not make the final break with Imlay until March 1796. She wrote in her last letter to him: ‘I part with you in peace.’

Wollstonecraft kept on working. She recast her private letters to Imlay in Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), a mixture of travel narrative, sociological analysis, and personal reflection:

When a warm heart has received strong impressions, they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments; and the imagination renders even transient sensations permanent, by fondly retracing them. I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not to be forgotten,—nor looks I have felt in every nerve which I shall never more meet.

The book melted hearts. ‘She has made me in love with a cold climate, and frost and snow, with a northern moonlight’, wrote the poet Robert Southey. William Godwin, author of the anarchist magnum opus An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), later observed: ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’

Wollstonecraft and Godwin first met in 1791 and they quarrelled. They were reintroduced in January 1796. In April she defied etiquette and called on him unchaperoned and uninvited. They began to see each other. In July, while Godwin was visiting friends in Norfolk, Wollstonecraft moved with Fanny to Judd Place West on the edge of Somers Town, close to Godwin in Chalton Street (near what is now the British Library in St Pancras). In mid-August, they became lovers.

‘We did not marry’, wrote Godwin, who had objected to marriage in Political Justice: ‘We felt alike in this, as we did perhaps in every other circumstance that related to our intercourse.’ Their letters record an enlightened intimacy, with up to three exchanges a day, as they tried to live out their most deeply held convictions. They lived and worked apart, read and criticized each other’s works in progress, and ‘woo[ed] philosophy’ together—for, Wollstonecraft declared, ‘I do not like to lose my Philosopher even in the lover.’ She began a second novel, The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, and discovered she was pregnant again.

Wollstonecraft and Godwin married quietly at Old St Pancras Church on 29 March 1797. To their surprise and chagrin, some of their women friends took offence. Lawful wedlock confirmed that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay, and that her daughter Fanny was illegitimate. They settled together at 29 Polygon Buildings in Somers Town, caring jointly for ‘little Fannikin’, while Godwin took a separate room for work nearby.

When he went off to visit his rich friend Thomas Wedgwood at the family pottery works in Staffordshire, Wollstonecraft sent cheerful reports of ‘Master William’, and of herself: ‘I begin to love this little creature, and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie—Men are spoilt by frankness, I believe, yet I must tell you that I love you better than I supposed I did, when I promised to love you for ever … You are a tender, affectionate creature; and I feel it thrilling through my frame giving, and promising pleasure.’

Back in his study, on 30 August 1797, Godwin received three notes from Wollstonecraft which reported on labour pains heralding the birth of a daughter, Mary (future author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley). The child was healthy, but eleven days later Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever.

‘I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again’, Godwin wrote to Thomas Holcroft, his closest friend. He gave her a Christian funeral, but was too distressed to attend. She was buried in Old St Pancras Churchyard on 15 September.

Godwin’s friends raised money for a plain monument to the ‘Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. It is still in the churchyard today, but when Mary Shelley died in 1851, Wollstonecraft’s remains, along with Godwin’s, were moved to St Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth, and reburied in the Shelley family tomb with their daughter’s.

Wollstonecraft’s death brought her life into the public domain. In January 1798 her grieving husband published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a candid depiction of every phase of Wollstonecraft’s life. Godwin wrote for posterity and believed that the story of Wollstonecraft’s career would inspire future reformers. But counter-revolutionary sentiment was running high by 1798. His exposure of Wollstonecraft’s unconventional way of living scandalized conservatives and entrenched hostility to women’s rights.

Within half a century of Wollstonecraft’s death, suffragist feminists in America and Europe began to champion her. The suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett wrote an introduction to the 100th anniversary edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1891). In the early twentieth century, left-wing thinkers such as Eleanor Marx and Emma Goldman were drawn to her fusion of political, social, and emotional rebellion, while Virginia Woolf, the progressive modernist writer, applauded her ‘experiments in living’. The feminist movement of the 1960s appropriated Wollstonecraft as their founding mother, and enlisted her in their cause of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal pay.

Mary Wollstonecraft lives on. She stands for a society based on equality, toleration, and humanity, and free from misogyny and sexual injustice. She saw that the tyranny of commercial wealth could be as destructive as that of rank and privilege. ‘She is alive and active’, as Virginia Woolf said, ‘she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.’

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Announcement: Digitising William Godwin’s Manuscripts

Pamela Clemit is leading a new project to digitise the manuscripts of William Godwin’s two most celebrated works.

From the press release (London, 3 April 2017):

For the first time, the sole surviving manuscripts of the most celebrated works of William Godwin (1756-1836) will be digitised and made freely available on the Shelley-Godwin Archive as part of a collaborative project announced today by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH).

Manuscript of William Godwin’s Political Justice (1793), showing authorial revisions. Image courtesy of the V&A.

William Godwin was an English radical political philosopher of the French Revolutionary era. He married Mary Wollstonecraft, the early advocate of women’s rights, but lost her shortly after the birth of their daughter Mary, who grew up to marry Godwin’s disciple, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to write Frankenstein.

Godwin shot to fame with a massive book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), now seen as a founding text of philosophical anarchism. He rejected all forms of political authority in favour of justice, equality, and mutual moral accountability. The rule of law would be replaced by the rule of reason. Godwin’s greatest novel, Caleb Williams (1794), was the first detective thriller in the European narrative tradition. A study in power relations, it dramatised the impact of tyrannical government on the ordinary individual.

Under the leadership of Pamela Clemit of QMUL’s School of English and Drama, one of the world’s most renowned Godwin scholars, the original handwritten manuscripts of these two epochal works will be digitised for the first time and made freely available worldwide.

These  treasures are held at the V&A in London, in a vast archive of literary manuscripts. The V&A will undertake conservation and photography, and will host a public event in September 2017 to launch the new electronic publication.

MITH, one of the world’s leading digital humanities centres, will publish images of the manuscripts on the Shelley-Godwin Archive. This electronic resource is making freely available the digitised manuscripts of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley, reuniting online the handwritten legacy of one of England’s most important literary families.  “MITH is excited to be working on this project with two such distinguished partners, and we look forward to publishing images of these momentous texts,” said Neil Fraistat, Director of MITH and a General Editor of the Shelley-Godwin Archive.

Pamela Clemit said: “Digitising the manuscripts of Godwin’s most celebrated works will make it possible for everyone to experience the thrill of using the original documents without visiting the archive. Both manuscripts contain extensive revisions, providing a unique record of what was sayable at a particular historical moment.

“These are works of political protest, written during a government crackdown on freedom of speech in the aftermath of the French Revolution. One of them imagines a better future; the other dramatises the experience of living in a world of inequality, hardship, and injustice. They have a special appeal in turbulent times like our own.”

Manuscript of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), showing authorial revisions and printer’s marks. Image courtesy of the V&A.

Bill Sherman, the V&A’s Director of Research and Collections, said: “We are delighted by this partnership between the world’s largest museum of art, design, and performance, and academic leaders in the fields of literature and digital humanities. The project will introduce new readers to two of the most powerful and enduring literary texts in the V&A’s manuscript collections.”

The project is supported by the QMUL Humanities and Social Sciences Collaboration Fund.

Online Publication: ‘Revisiting William Godwin’

An essay by Pamela Clemit, ‘Revisiting William Godwin’, has just been published on Oxford Handbooks Online.

IMG_0363 (3) (640x480) (340x255)Since the 1970s, when paperback editions of Political Justice and Caleb Williams became available, Godwin has been approached in various ways: as a literary writer, a guru, and a serious philosophical thinker. Broadly speaking, these perspectives were united by the first wave of historical critics (often associated with the “old” New Left), split apart by the rise of postmodernism, and welded together again by new historicists, who often drew on other innovatory critical trends, such as the history of the book. A number of tropes surface periodically in Godwin criticism, testifying to the enduring power of his ideas.

To read the full essay, go to Oxford Handbooks Online. This is a subscription database accessible via most research libraries. Please encourage your library to subscribe if you are unable to access it.

Guest Post: Ann Farrant, ‘The Different Faces of Amelia Opie’

Amelia Opie, née Alderson (1769-1853), the Norwich-born novelist and poet, is probably best known for her friendships with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. But her creative milieu included many other writers, as well as thespians, musicians, politicians, judges, and artists.

Amelia Opie double-cropped (2)In 1798 Amelia married the portrait artist John Opie (1761-1807), who painted nine portraits of his attractive wife. One of the most intriguing is this double portrait (reproduced by kind permission of the Lander Gallery, Truro). Amelia is shown full face on the left and in profile on the right. The date is not known, but Amelia’s black dress and hairband suggest she may have been in mourning, possibly for Opie’s mother who died in 1805.

Opie’s decision to portray Amelia holding a harp lute is significant, for she was an accomplished musician and had a fine singing voice. Harriet Martineau wrote in her obituary of Amelia Opie that those who heard her sing Thomas Campbell’s Ballad of Lord Ullin’s Daughter would never forget it. Amelia also enjoyed writing lyrics for well-known airs, and many of her published poems were set to music by Edward Biggs.

The gregarious Amelia Opie was the daughter of James Alderson, a physician who gave his services free to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, which was set up for ‘the deserving poor’.  He and his wife Amelia, née Briggs, encouraged their only child to respect others and introduced her to the anti-slavery movement.  Her campaigning included writing poems for children; The Negro Boy’s Tale, written in 1790, was published in her first volume of poems.

After her mother’s death in 1784, Amelia Alderson took charge of her father’s household. James Alderson was active in Norwich reform movements, and he and his daughter attended the Octagon Presbyterian Chapel, where the congregation included many Unitarians. As well as hosting her father’s radical friends, including the Norfolk-born William Godwin, Amelia was a regular contributor to The Cabinet, a periodical begun in Norwich in 1794 by a group of reformers calling themselves ‘A Society of Gentlemen’.

Amelia Alderson and John Opie met some time after Amelia started to spend time in London in the early 1790s. Here Godwin introduced her to his circle of literary and political friends, including Thomas Holcroft, Elizabeth Inchbald, and, later, Mary Wollstonecraft.

In London she attended the 1794 treason trials, in which the government tried to suppress the reform movement. A rumour persisted that when her friend John Horne Tooke was acquitted, Amelia scrambled over benches and seats to give him a kiss. Outraged to read this anecdote in William Beloe’s The Sexagenarian (1817), she wrote to Archibald Constable, publisher of the Edinburgh Review, asking that this ‘positive falsehood’ might be refuted, should the magazine review the Beloe memoir.

When Opie and Amelia first became acquainted, he was in the process of divorcing his first wife, who had eloped with another man. Amelia appreciated Opie’s portraits of her friends, including Wollstonecraft (whom he painted twice), but she was indifferent to his personal qualities at first. Opie persisted and she succumbed.

The marriage worked well. The couple visited Paris in 1802, and met leading literary and political figures including Helen Maria Williams, Charles James Fox, and the Polish war hero Thaddeus Kościuszko, who asked Amelia to write some verses for him. Opie encouraged his wife’s literary ambitions. Her first novel as Mrs Opie, The Father and Daughter (1801), was an immediate bestseller, and was followed by Poems (1802), which was well received.  Then came Adeline Mowbray (1805), a fictionalised treatment of the ideas of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, and Simple Tales (1806).

Amelia was a popular guest at soirées, balls, and breakfast parties, while her husband got on with his work. She also had a passion for the theatre: one of her ambitions was to become a playwright. In 1791 her tragedy ‘Adelaide’ was staged at Norwich in a private theatre, with herself playing the leading role. She offered drafts of other plays to Godwin for his opinion. None were staged, but L’Agnese, an opera based on an Italian adaptation of The Father and Daughter, was performed at the King’s Theatre in London in 1817.

Amelia was a friend of the actress Sarah Siddons, née Kemble, who was painted by Opie and whose sister Fanny was married to the theatre critic Francis Twiss. His parents were both from Norwich; he and Fanny, another friend of Amelia’s, lived for some time in Norfolk. Opie’s portrait of Fanny inspired a poem by Amelia, published in the Monthly Review (1800), paying tribute to the artist and the sitter: ‘Thus pride and friendship war with equal strife, / And now the friend exults, and now the wife.’

Amelia sought commissions for her husband and welcomed sitters to their London house in Berners Street.  Mary Russell Mitford, then aged twelve, accompanied her father when he went to sit to Opie.  Years later, in a letter to Cecilia Lucy Brightwell, she recalled Amelia Opie as having been ‘kind and charming to the poor little schoolgirl’. Opie’s marriage brought him many commissions from the great and good in Norfolk.

When John Opie died in 1807 Amelia left London and made her home with her widowed father. Although she often wrote of her soul-searching about religion, her long widowhood was far from being a plain life. She continued writing novels, short stories, and poetry and travelled extensively both at home and abroad. She took her cousin Henry Perronet Briggs under her wing and helped to promote his career as an artist.

Dr Alderson’s Norwich clients included the Gurneys, a prominent Quaker banking family, who became Amelia’s longstanding friends. Her decision to become a member of the Society of Friends in 1825 was encouraged by Joseph John Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer. Thereafter Amelia undertook much philanthropic work, and in 1840 she attended the first world Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

Amelia returned to Paris on her own in 1829 and 1830; here she was befriended by Lafayette, the veteran soldier and statesman of the American and French Revolutions. The sculptor and medallist David d’Angers admired her writing and wanted to meet her. They became instant friends; he made a medallion of her and later created a bust of her in marble.

Amelia Opie never lost her zest for life. At the age of eighty-one, she took her last trip to London, where, in a wheelchair, she visited the Great Exhibition. Confined to her house during her final months, she received a stream of visitors and, almost to the end, continued to write witty, informative, and entertaining letters to her friends.

Ann Farrant is the author of Amelia Opie: The Quaker Celebrity (Norfolk: JJG Publishing, 2014), which is available from www.jarrold.co.uk; or contact ann@amelia-opie.co.uk

Review: Kenneth R. Johnston on The Letters of William Godwin

Kenneth R. Johnston is the author of, most recently, the acclaimed monograph, Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). His review-essay on The Letters of William Godwin: Volume II, ed. Pamela Clemit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) has just been published in Review 19.

HI-Bod. MS Abinger c. 6 fol. 24vIf the first volume of Pamela Clemit’s magisterial edition of the letters of William Godwin reads like a Jacobin novel, this second volume, produced to the same high standard, reads inevitably like an anti-Jacobin one…. Godwin’s Letters constitute a meta-novel wherein the evil is Godwinism itself – the thoughts not the actions – and the tragedy is both personal and national.

To read the full review, click here.

To read Kenneth R. Johnston’s review-essay on The Letters of William Godwin: Volume I (2011), click here.

Online Publication: ‘Godwin’s Citations, 1783-2005’

An essay by Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer, ‘Godwin’s Citations, 1783-2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor’, published in Nineteenth-Century Prose (41: 1/2, Spring/Fall 2014), 27-52, is now available online.

Most scholars agree that Godwin enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in the 1790s, but sank into obscurity after 1800. Analysis of Godwin’s citations allows for a more nuanced view of his reputation, and holds a few surprises as well.

fig1Godwin’s reputation, measured by citations, fell into several different periods. The first phase did not peak in the early 1790s, but in 1801 (admittedly for negative reasons). This was followed by a precipitate loss of interest, down to 1811.  A slow recovery of interest began in 1812, peaking in 1831, and declining gradually, touching bottom a few years after his death.  Godwin’s reputation was low during the mid-Victorian period, but began to revive again in the 1880s. Since then, his reputation has increased and continues to do so.

To read the full essay, click here.