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.

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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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Important Update: MLA 2017 Special Session on Godwin and Shelley

A Special Session to be held at the 2017 MLA Annual Convention (Philadelphia, 5-8 January) on Thursday 5 January, 1:45-3:00 p.m., 104B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Owing to the sad demise on 20 November 2016 of our colleague, the distinguished and much loved scholar Charles E. Robinson, this Special Session will now be made up of the first two papers listed below. It will be chaired by Stuart Curran.

Reloading the Romantic Canon: New Texts and Contexts from Godwin, Shelley, and Hazlitt

Until the last two decades of the twentieth century, the canon of British Romantic authors installed by the Victorians looked fixed, though its boundaries were constantly debated. It gave primacy to the ‘big six’ poets — Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley — the most significant modern adjustment being the replacement of Sir Walter Scott by the tradesman-class visionary Blake. Things could not go on like that for much longer. Since the 1980s, there has been recovery, recontextualization, and rehistoricization of both established and previously little-known authors on a grand scale. Many new texts have appeared in the classroom. Study of the literary past continues to yield a constant stream of discoveries, providing evidence and new angles of interpretation which disturb existing certitudes. The subject of this session is work in progress by scholarly editors, based on new finds of archival and rare printed material, which is further reshaping the Romantic canon. It is hoped that the session will catalyse the interest of younger members of the profession, helping to nurture the next generation of textual scholars. The session will comprise three fifteen-minute presentations, leaving ample time for discursive synergies.

Presiding: Pamela Clemit, Queen Mary University of London

‘The Signal of Regard: William Godwin’s Correspondence Networks’ — Pamela Clemit, Queen Mary University of London

godwin-lawrence-15Pamela Clemit takes as her subject new letters emerging from the archive and being published in her Oxford University Press edition of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. in progress (2011-). She seeks to recover the culture of reciprocity which was sustained by letter-writers in an era without email or telephone. She argues that the letter is a gift of attention, in which the writer seeks to communicate regard by means of a signal crafted uniquely for the recipient. The concept of ‘regard’ (as developed by the economic historian Avner Offer) overlaps with its dual common meaning, indicating both attention and approbation. David Hume and Adam Smith took it to be the driver of human exchange in emotions as much in commerce. The exchange of regard is a key which captures the logic of a prodigious correspondent like Godwin. The personalisation of the gift-signal confers an obligation to reciprocate. Godwin was self-conscious about this obligation and worked hard to fulfil it — with varying degrees of success. His correspondence encompassed just about every significant literary and political figure on the political left from the era of the French Revolution to the 1832 Reform Act, and was nourished by bonds of reciprocity. His letters embodied a larger conversation, allowing intimacy to be preserved at a distance. This conversation is so rich and intense that, in many cases, Godwin’s letters might be considered as substantive additions to the literary canon.

Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things: A Newly Recovered Poem by Shelley and its Contexts’ — Michael Rossington, University of Newcastle

1024px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint-25.jpgMichael Rossington, one of the lead editors of The Poems of Shelley in the Longman Annotated English Poets series, 5 vols. in progress (1989-), focuses on a previously unknown, newly published poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. This poem, composed by Shelley at the age of eighteen and published in 1811, just before he was expelled from University College, Oxford, invites a reconfiguration of the canon of Shelley’s poems. The only copy known to exist came to light in 2006, but it was not made public until it was published on the Bodleian Library’s website in 2015. Rossington examines the text and contexts of Poetical Essay. He explores its overtly political content, including its publication (as declared on the title-page) to raise funds for the Irish war correspondent Peter Finnerty, then imprisoned for libelling Castlereagh, and its alignment with the reformist politics of Sir Francis Burdett. He situates the poem in relation to Shelley’s earliest published works of 1810 and 1811, and to the manuscripts of Shelley’s earliest writing in the Bodleian Library, the Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library, and other archives. This newly published poem invites a far-reaching reassessment both of Shelley’s early thought and of his oeuvre as a whole.

‘William Hazlitt and his Liber Amoris Letters to Peter George Patmore’ — Charles E. Robinson, University of Delaware

1024px-william_hazlitt_portrait-25Charles E. Robinson turns the spotlight on a text deplored by the Victorians and by early twentieth-century critics, but accepted into the Romantic canon in the early 1980s: William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris; Or, The New Pygmalion (1823). This epistolary narrative tells the story of the author’s sexual obsession with his landlady’s daughter, Sarah Walker. Robinson is preparing a comprehensive new edition of Hazlitt’s letters, which corrects and augments The Letters of William Hazlitt, ed. Herschel M. Sikes et al (New York, 1978). Robinson presents findings arising from his re-editing of the texts of the sixteen letters written in 1822 to Peter George Patmore which formed the basis of Hazlitt’s book. He provides a new sequence and dates for those letters; restores omitted passages, including sexual references to Sarah Walker that were heavily cancelled by both Hazlitt and Patmore; and provides new evidence of the manner in which Hazlitt prepared printer’s copy for John Hunt’s 1823 edition of the anonymously published Liber Amoris. Such evidence raises new critical questions about a text that we thought we knew well, showing (for the first time) how it came into being, and complicating its canonical status.

The texts to be discussed in this session form part of a flow of discoveries from the archives (and from the book dealers). They place canonical creation in an entirely new light. They make possible many new critical questions, explorations, and interpretations. They shift attention away from Romantic texts as singular, individual responses to external stimulation. New archival findings constitute a different medium for the Romantic sensibility: they reveal dense networks of obligation and interaction, for which the mode of transmission is handwritten words on paper. We are not dependent solely on print to capture the content and experience of a cultural movement. A printed text can be lost to its own time — as Shelley’s poem was — and rediscovered in ours. For those engaged full-time with the Romantic canon and its classroom application, whether as teachers or scholars, such findings make passing on the torch of knowledge a pleasure as well as a duty.

Announcement: MLA 2017 Special Session on Godwin, Shelley, and Hazlitt

A Special Session to be held at the 2017 MLA Annual Convention (Philadelphia, 5-8 January) on Thursday 5 January, 1:45-3:00 p.m., 104B, Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Reloading the Romantic Canon: New Texts and Contexts from Godwin, Shelley, and Hazlitt

Until the last two decades of the twentieth century, the canon of British Romantic authors installed by the Victorians looked fixed, though its boundaries were constantly debated. It gave primacy to the ‘big six’ poets — Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley — the most significant modern adjustment being the replacement of Sir Walter Scott by the tradesman-class visionary Blake. Things could not go on like that for much longer. Since the 1980s, there has been recovery, recontextualization, and rehistoricization of both established and previously little-known authors on a grand scale. Many new texts have appeared in the classroom. Study of the literary past continues to yield a constant stream of discoveries, providing evidence and new angles of interpretation which disturb existing certitudes. The subject of this session is work in progress by scholarly editors, based on new finds of archival and rare printed material, which is further reshaping the Romantic canon. It is hoped that the session will catalyse the interest of younger members of the profession, helping to nurture the next generation of textual scholars. The session will comprise three fifteen-minute presentations, leaving ample time for discursive synergies.

Presiding: Pamela Clemit, Queen Mary University of London

‘The Signal of Regard: William Godwin’s Correspondence Networks’ — Pamela Clemit, Queen Mary University of London

godwin-lawrence-15Pamela Clemit takes as her subject new letters emerging from the archive and being published in her Oxford University Press edition of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. in progress (2011-). She seeks to recover the culture of reciprocity which was sustained by letter-writers in an era without email or telephone. She argues that the letter is a gift of attention, in which the writer seeks to communicate regard by means of a signal crafted uniquely for the recipient. The concept of ‘regard’ (as developed by the economic historian Avner Offer) overlaps with its dual common meaning, indicating both attention and approbation. David Hume and Adam Smith took it to be the driver of human exchange in emotions as much in commerce. The exchange of regard is a key which captures the logic of a prodigious correspondent like Godwin. The personalisation of the gift-signal confers an obligation to reciprocate. Godwin was self-conscious about this obligation and worked hard to fulfil it — with varying degrees of success. His correspondence encompassed just about every significant literary and political figure on the political left from the era of the French Revolution to the 1832 Reform Act, and was nourished by bonds of reciprocity. His letters embodied a larger conversation, allowing intimacy to be preserved at a distance. This conversation is so rich and intense that, in many cases, Godwin’s letters might be considered as substantive additions to the literary canon.

Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things: A Newly Recovered Poem by Shelley and its Contexts’ — Michael Rossington, University of Newcastle

1024px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint-25.jpgMichael Rossington, one of the lead editors of The Poems of Shelley in the Longman Annotated English Poets series, 5 vols. in progress (1989-), focuses on a previously unknown, newly published poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. This poem, composed by Shelley at the age of eighteen and published in 1811, just before he was expelled from University College, Oxford, invites a reconfiguration of the canon of Shelley’s poems. The only copy known to exist came to light in 2006, but it was not made public until it was published on the Bodleian Library’s website in 2015. Rossington examines the text and contexts of Poetical Essay. He explores its overtly political content, including its publication (as declared on the title-page) to raise funds for the Irish war correspondent Peter Finnerty, then imprisoned for libelling Castlereagh, and its alignment with the reformist politics of Sir Francis Burdett. He situates the poem in relation to Shelley’s earliest published works of 1810 and 1811, and to the manuscripts of Shelley’s earliest writing in the Bodleian Library, the Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library, and other archives. This newly published poem invites a far-reaching reassessment both of Shelley’s early thought and of his oeuvre as a whole.

‘William Hazlitt and his Liber Amoris Letters to Peter George Patmore’ — Charles E. Robinson, University of Delaware

1024px-william_hazlitt_portrait-25Charles E. Robinson turns the spotlight on a text deplored by the Victorians and by early twentieth-century critics, but accepted into the Romantic canon in the early 1980s: William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris; Or, The New Pygmalion (1823). This epistolary narrative tells the story of the author’s sexual obsession with his landlady’s daughter, Sarah Walker. Robinson is preparing a comprehensive new edition of Hazlitt’s letters, which corrects and augments The Letters of William Hazlitt, ed. Herschel M. Sikes et al (New York, 1978). Robinson presents findings arising from his re-editing of the texts of the sixteen letters written in 1822 to Peter George Patmore which formed the basis of Hazlitt’s book. He provides a new sequence and dates for those letters; restores omitted passages, including sexual references to Sarah Walker that were heavily cancelled by both Hazlitt and Patmore; and provides new evidence of the manner in which Hazlitt prepared printer’s copy for John Hunt’s 1823 edition of the anonymously published Liber Amoris. Such evidence raises new critical questions about a text that we thought we knew well, showing (for the first time) how it came into being, and complicating its canonical status.

The texts to be discussed in this session form part of a flow of discoveries from the archives (and from the book dealers). They place canonical creation in an entirely new light. They make possible many new critical questions, explorations, and interpretations. They shift attention away from Romantic texts as singular, individual responses to external stimulation. New archival findings constitute a different medium for the Romantic sensibility: they reveal dense networks of obligation and interaction, for which the mode of transmission is handwritten words on paper. We are not dependent solely on print to capture the content and experience of a cultural movement. A printed text can be lost to its own time — as Shelley’s poem was — and rediscovered in ours. For those engaged full-time with the Romantic canon and its classroom application, whether as teachers or scholars, such findings make passing on the torch of knowledge a pleasure as well as a duty.

New Post: Rachel Prescott, a Manchester Correspondent of William Godwin

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is working with The Letters of William Godwin, edited by Pamela Clemit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-), to bring new information about Godwin and his correspondence networks to a wider readership. To read more about the project, click here.

The first ODNB entry arising from this collaboration has now been published. The ODNB May 2016 update includes the biography of Rachel Prescott (1765/6-1824), the Manchester poet and philanthropist, co-authored by Pamela Clemit and Jenny McAuley.

512px-Manchester_from_Kersal_Moor_William_Wylde_(1857)
Manchester from Kersal Moor, by William Wylde, 1852.

Rachel Prescott was the daughter of a Manchester printer and newspaper proprietor. She is thought to have assisted her father in editing Prescott’s Manchester Journal.  She was an enthusiastic reader of the works of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her early writings included some stanzas praising Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Rachel Prescott was one of many people who read Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), and then wrote to the author for advice on  how to put his principles into practice in their lives. She wrote him two long letters in the spring of 1799, asking: ‘What are the individual, or reciprocal claims founded in marriage? and when this contract is discovered to be erroneously made, whether it is nevertheless to be irrevocable?’ (Letters of William Godwin, ii. 79, note 2.)

Rachel Prescott’s letter reached Godwin at a time when he was reconsidering his views on marriage (and seeking a second wife). His first wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in 1797, had introduced him to a ‘new language’ of feeling. His ill-fated courtship of the author Harriet Lee in 1798 had further tested his convictions (and her patience). On 17 April he wrote Prescott a carefully-worded, four-page reply:

I hold the institution of marriage, as explained by our authorities in church & state, to be unfounded & injurious.  I see no reason in nature or morality why a connection of two persons of different sexes should be treated as indissoluble … Yet I hold the exclusive attachment of man & woman … to be the dictate of taste, refinement & virtue … & to protect, the woman in particular, from misrepresentation & calumny, I should think it commendable to marry her in the established forms. (Letters of William Godwin, ii. 77-8.)

In the autumn of 1799 Rachel Prescott published a collection of poetry reflecting her progressive and humanitarian interests, which was reprinted in 1812. She died unmarried at Leigh, Lancashire, at the age of 58. Her will made provision for the founding of a local charity which lasted until 2011.

To find out more about Rachel Prescott and Godwin, see The Letters of William Godwin, Volume II: 1798-1805 (2014), now available in print, and, to subscribers, on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

Guest Post: John Bugg, ‘The Generosity of Joseph Johnson’

JosephJohnsonJoseph Johnson’s bookshop at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, London, served as a hub for some of the most important writers and artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. William Godwin’s diary records his attendance at Johnson’s monthly dinners from the mid-1790s to around 1810. (The tradition was continued, after Johnson’s death in 1809, by his great-nephew Rowland Hunter, who inherited a half-share of the business.)

Perhaps this is not surprising, given Johnson’s close personal and professional association with Godwin’s first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her tragic early death brought Godwin and Johnson closer together. Johnson, we know, helped Godwin with the funeral arrangements and supplied him with biographical notes on Wollstonecraft’s early years for his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, co-published by Johnson and G. G. and J. Robinson in 1798.

What might be more surprising is that about a decade after Wollstonecraft’s death, Johnson became not only Godwin’s friend but also his vocational adviser, as Godwin worked to get his own publishing venture up and running. Together with his second wife, Mary Jane Godwin, he launched a publishing imprint and bookstore dedicated to children’s and educational books, a subspecialty of Johnson’s and a lucrative market. The Godwins’ ‘Juvenile Library’ was located first in Hanway Street, a few blocks from the British Museum’s original Montagu House site, and later at 41 Skinner Street (near the present-day Holborn Viaduct), very close – perhaps too close – to Newgate Prison.

The market for children’s books was strong (and expanding), but Godwin was a first-time bookseller and publisher, and had not served a formal apprenticeship. He had understandable difficulties in the trade. His friends and acquaintances supported him, however, and, three years into his venture, in spring 1808, they rallied to provide him with a capital fund. Johnson was involved with this plan from the beginning, helping to sketch out a strategy for Godwin to move forward as a publisher and bookseller on a stronger footing.

A surviving letter from Johnson’s newly published correspondence gives us a window onto these plans. On 21 March 1808, prompted by a visit from Godwin, Johnson wrote to Richard ‘Conversation’ Sharp, a politically, and, as his nickname suggests, socially active London merchant and dissenter. Johnson explained that Godwin had just received a friendly enquiry from Whig MP William Smith about his financial situation. ‘This has brought him to me’, Johnson wrote to Sharp, ‘with a statement of his affairs & desiring my opinion, a very unpleasant office but I cannot refuse him’.

Johnson’s letter to Sharp addresses two issues: Godwin’s current stock and some practical actions that might now be taken to stabilize his finances. The first, Johnson noted, ‘consists principally of books composed by himself & a friend [i.e. Mary Jane Godwin] which have been well received, & bid fair to become stock books for children & young people’. Godwin published children’s books by other writers, perhaps most notably Tales from Shakespear (1807), by Charles and Mary Lamb, but Johnson had in mind Godwin’s own volumes, written under the pseudonym Edward Baldwin, Esq. These included Fables Ancient and Modern (1805), The Pantheon: or Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome (1806), and The History of England (1806) – books that received positive reviews from the British Critic, the Monthly Mirror, and even the Anti-Jacobin Review.

So much for Godwin’s assets, but what to do next? Johnson proposed a three-part plan to help to continue and expand the business. The current stock of books should first of all be advertised, and with ‘common attention’ Godwin could anticipate £300 per year from the sale of these and subsequent children’s books. The other facets of Johnson’s plan were more challenging. Godwin at this time stood £1500 in debt and Johnson was one of those who had already lent him money. Johnson wrote that, should Godwin’s other creditors agree, ‘I will put my bond into the fire’. But even with all of these debts cancelled, Godwin would still require fresh capital to move forward: Johnson estimated that ‘there should be raised from £1500 to 2000£ either as gifts or loans without interest for, say 10 years’.

The plan went ahead with the opening of a public subscription. The Whig peers Lord Holland and Lord Lauderdale took the lead, and Johnson made the arrangements. Promised contributions totalled £1,220 even before the lists were formally opened. There is no record of the total collected, but it was a very large sum.

Johnson clearly wished to see his old friend succeed in the book trade, where he might find a steady income, support his growing family (including Wollstonecraft’s two young daughters), and help to educate young readers. But Johnson’s intervention in the spring of 1808 was one of his last opportunities to help Godwin navigate the contemporary book trade. When Johnson died in 1809, Godwin was bereft of a loyal friend and a valuable guiding hand.

The rescue plan that Johnson outlined in his letter to Sharp is representative of his lifelong endeavours both to assist his friends and to promote the work of writers in whom he believed. This cocktail of common sense, kindness, and business acumen is on display throughout the letters published in The Joseph Johnson Letterbook.

John Bugg is Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, and the editor of The Joseph Johnson Letterbook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), from which all quotations are taken.

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.

 

 

 

The Idler Godwin Project: Walking with the Romantics

Across 2015, The Idler is publishing extracts from the first two volumes of The Letters of William Godwin, edited by Pamela Clemit, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-), together with short pieces on his anarchistic philosophy and its relevance to our own times.

Pamela Clemit continues the series with a post on walking with Godwin and the Romantics.

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Travelling on foot had a subversive edge in the age of the French Revolution. The educated classes aspired to the slow life and took to the road. … Meditative walking fed the needs that bodily effort out of doors can satisfy in those not compelled to do it for a living.

Read the full post at The Idler.

To read my other contributions to The Godwin Project, click here; and here. To read Tom Hodgkinson’s review of The Letters of William Godwin, Volumes I and II, click here.