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.
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.
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.