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.


Featured Publication: A New Edition of William Godwin’s Mandeville

William Godwin’s Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century was  published 198 years ago today. The first paperback edition is now available from Broadview Press, edited by Tilottama Rajan, Canada Research Chair and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Western Ontario. The edition (500 pages) includes a wealth of historical and contextual materials, together with a stimulating and provocative introduction.

Thanks to Tilottama for providing this account of her new publication:

Broadview MandevilleMandeville (1817) is the fourth in the sequence of William Godwin’s major novels to be published by Broadview Press. In 1817 Godwin wrote to Shelley, ‘I think it will be better than St Leon, and will take next place after Caleb Williams’. Shelley thought it his best novel: ‘Caleb Williams never shakes the deepest soul like Mandeville’. Begun one year after the Battle of Waterloo, Mandeville is set in the revolutionary period between the execution of Charles I and the Restoration (the only period when Britain was not a monarchy). It is a novel of literal and psychological warfare that differs from Sir Walter Scott’s version of the historical novel in not being able to put the past in the past.

At the start of the novel, the narrator Charles Mandeville is orphaned during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. His story proceeds from his early education by a fanatical Presbyterian minister in the castle of his reclusive uncle Audley, through his wrongful persecution for disloyalty to the king at Winchester College and his bitter rivalry with the unimpeachably virtuous Clifford, to his confinement for insanity. His sister and soulmate Henrietta, who is miraculously untroubled by the events of the time, becomes engaged to Clifford, and this exacerbates Mandeville’s paranoid tendencies.

The novel is book-ended by two rebellions, the Irish Rebellion and the personal rebellion of Mandeville. Its shocking climax, on the threshold of the Restoration, defaces endings based on settlement and reconciliation.

Mandeville is, on one level, a claustrophobic history of what Adorno calls a ‘damaged life’. But its title character is also a cultural symptom, through whom we experience the contradictions that have not been resolved in Britain’s lost republican moment. Though subtitled ‘A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England’, the novel has many resonances in Godwin’s own time.

In my Introduction, I explore the novel’s setting in a period when political government was being renegotiated through church government. I present a new reading of the textual status and rhetorical effect of an ending that some see as leaving the novel unfinished. I consider the novel alongside Godwin’s History of the Commonwealth of England (1824-8), which can be seen as a revisiting of his celebrated An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). The fanaticism of the seventeenth century is connected to its mutation into the misanthropy that so fascinated Godwin the novelist as a vehicle of unfocused dissent.

The historical appendices include Godwin’s 1809 ‘Fragment of a Romance’ (which he described as the germ of the novel);  contemporary reviews; extensive materials relating to the novel’s religious and political backgrounds in England and Ireland, both in the seventeenth century and in Godwin’s own time; together with nineteenth-century writings on war, madness, and trauma.

For full publication details of Tilottama Rajan’s new edition, click here.




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

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

The speakers and topics were:

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

The panel was chaired by Matthew Grenby, Newcastle University.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured Publication: Nineteenth-Century Prose Special Issue on William Godwin

Rowland Weston, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Waikato, has guest-edited a special double issue of Nineteenth-Century Prose (41: 1/2, Spring/Fall 2014). The volume devotes 424 pages to new Godwin scholarship, and includes a stimulating and provocative introduction by the editor.

Thanks to Rowland for providing this summary of the volume’s contents:

This special issue of Nineteenth-Century Prose brings together the latest writing on Godwin from emerging and established scholars. It comprises twelve essays analysing texts from across the whole of Godwin’s career, and beyond (including a posthumous publication of 1873). Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer, in ‘Godwin’s Citations, 1783-2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor’, provide some surprising and significant data concerning Godwin’s reception. Their work is certain to establish important new directions in Godwin studies. While Godwin’s reception across time has been misunderstood, even less is known about his reception outside the Anglophone world. Begoña Lasa Álvarez, in ‘William Godwin and the Spanish Enlightenment’, provides a timely addition to this subject, exploring Godwin’s reputation as a pedagogue as well as a philosopher.

One recent development in Godwin studies is a long overdue focus on his voluminous historiographical outputs. The topic receives further attention in this collection. Eliza O’Brien, in ‘“The most inconsistent of men”: William Godwin and the “Apology” of Sir Thomas More’, provides the first critical analysis of Godwin’s manuscript essay, ‘On the Composition of History, An Occasional Reflection’. Tilottama Rajan, in ‘Between Individual and General History: Godwin’s Seventeenth-Century Texts’, addresses Godwin’s extensive forays into one of the most volatile and consequential periods of English and Irish history. Both essays demonstrate Godwin’s inventive and often radical departures from contemporary historical interpretations and historiographical orientations.

A point of perplexity shared by radicals from Godwin’s day to ours is the philosopher’s rejection of mass politics. Godwin’s position derived from his belief that sympathy tended to undermine the personal intellectual independence which, in his early writings, he regarded as the sine qua non of fully developed humanity. At times, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), Godwin appears to suggest that any form of human cooperation is detrimental to this independence.  Michael Edson, in ‘Godwin’s Anti-Mass Politics Revisited: Sympathy, Retirement, and Epistemic Diversity’, expands our understanding of this central issue in Godwin’s thought. Edson shows that while Godwin remained suspicious of mass politics, he retained a commitment to the Rational Dissenting ideal of group discussion and that this entailed an acceptance and celebration of intellectual diversity.

The tension between unreflective sympathy and rational independence is evident throughout Godwin’s writing, and is complicated by his adoption of moral sense philosophy from the second edition of Political Justice (1796) onwards. Suzie Asha Park, in ‘Caleb Williams and the Smithian Spectator: Reading the “Reasonable Demand”’, explores the difficulties Godwin experienced in accommodating the notions of sympathy and impartial spectatorship posited by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). If unreflective sympathy was always carefully to be scrutinized, excesses of feeling or sensibility were to be unequivocally condemned. One of Godwin’s starkest depictions of the latter occurred in his novel Fleetwood: or, The New Man of Feeling (1805). Colin Carman, in ‘Godwin’s Fleetwood: Shame and the Sexuality of Feeling’, reveals the full extent of the protagonist’s excessive emotionalism. Godwin’s writings are invariably designed to provoke thought, discussion, and gradual social change. These objectives are often explicitly stated in his prefaces. Eric Leuschner, in ‘The Prefaces of William Godwin and the Literary Public Sphere’, shows how Godwin’s prefaces engage rapidly changing audiences in debates about, for example, the nature of fiction and its capacity to represent psychological truth and inculcate virtue.

Caleb Williams (1794), Godwin’s most popular novel, has received the lion’s share of scholarly attention in recent years. A spirited indictment of late eighteenth-century Britain’s political, social, and legal corruptions, the novel continues to attract critical interest. Sophie Coulombeau, in ‘“Men whose glory it is to be known”: Godwin, Bentham, and the London Corresponding Society’, uncovers the cultural, societal, and existential anxieties played out in celebrated legal cases of the day. Godwin’s engagement with the law and the legal profession is further analysed by Mark Crosby in ‘“Till all law is annihilated”: Godwin versus the Bar’. Crosby particularly addresses Godwin’s rhetorical skills, a topic further examined by Victoria Myers (Emerita Professor of English at Pepperdine University) in her exploration of Godwin’s pedagogy, ‘William Godwin’s Enquirer: Between Oratory and Conversation’.

The volume concludes with Gary Handwerk’s study of Godwin’s last work (posthumously published in 1873). In ‘Unspeakable Truths, Unutterable Sincerity: Godwin’s The Genius of Christianity Unveiled’, Handwerk reads the Genius of Christianity in terms of a characteristic Godwinian concern, evident as early as Caleb Williams, that sincerity of intention might not always guarantee the discovery of truth, or its recognition by the public.

An emphasis on the sceptical, complex, and conjectural nature of much Godwinian thought provides an appropriate conclusion to this volume. We have come a long way from the early scholarly caricature of Godwin as a dogmatic and naïve fantasist of reason, and critical analysis is no longer limited to his two best-known works. More than two hundred years after Political Justice took the intellectual world of the 1790s by storm, Godwin remains fascinating company.

Featured Event: ‘William Godwin’s Middle Years’, BSECS 2015

A panel entitled ‘William Godwin’s Middle Years (1785-1805): New Letters, New Directions, New Critical Perspectives’ was held on 7 January 2015 at the 44th Annual Conference of BSECS. It highlighted the variety of critical work made possible by the recent publication of The Letters of William Godwin, Volume II: 1798-1805.

The speakers and topics were:

  • Amy Garnai, ‘ “Godwin has been several times attacked … and probably myself”: Holcroft and Godwin in 1798-1799: Letters, Diaries, Reaction’
  • Eliza O’Brien, ‘ “The pledge of my perpetual imprisonment”: William Godwin and the Fiction of the Confined Self’
  • Jenny McAuley, ‘ “The Most Stupendous Sight I Ever Saw”: Godwin’s Sublime Encounters in Ireland, July-August 1800’

The panel was chaired by Pamela Clemit.

Thanks to Fiona Price for this report on the event:

‘Why does a man feel any degree of eagerness to expose his character to the world?’ Godwin asks in an ‘Analysis of Own Character’, written in 1798. ‘For the most part it is a disclosure made to enemies’ (Collected Novels and Memoirs, i. 55). Living through a period of hostile public reaction to his work, Godwin had good reason to say so. Yet the panel showed that he was right to say that such a disclosure is ‘of high value’ (ibid). The session was designed to showcase new research inspired by the 243 letters included in The Letters of William Godwin, Volume II. It demonstrated the range and liveliness of Godwin’s correspondence, and the continued vigour of his intellectual project.

Amy Garnai argued that the letters, read alongside Thomas Holcroft’s journal, give valuable testimony to the lived experience of a radical intellectual during a time of political reaction. Garnai explored the complex relationship between public allegiance and private emotion in the interaction between the two writers up to the moment when their twenty-year intimacy faltered and broke down. Sharing an emphasis on truth, candour and mutual sincerity, the two friends read and criticized each other’s work. However, private emotion alone was not enough to warrant correspondence. ‘Some subject on which to discourse’ was necessary to Godwin. ‘What could I have said’, he wrote to Holcroft on 13 September 1799, apologising for a three-month silence: ‘I bear you the highest regard; I think of you continually; I felt the loss of you an irreparable one! This, & no more, however honest and cordial, discovering itself in the folds of a letter, would have looked dry & repulsive: it would have been still worse, if I had made you pay postage for it a second time.’ The wit of the final remark counterpoints the frank expression of attachment in the opening lines. Nonetheless, the need for rational subject-matter, not only to sustain emotional exchange but to bring it into true being, is suggestive.

In the preface to St Leon (1799), Godwin praised the domestic affections, but the potential dangers of exclusive emotional ties continued to haunt him. However, as Eliza O’Brien argued, isolation represented a threat of at least equal magnitude. Repeated periods of physical imprisonment and mental confinement structure St Leon, mirroring the pressures of political censorship and persecution documented in Godwin’s letters. Curiously, too (as lively discussion drew out), the doubling which is characteristic of Godwin’s fiction, particularly in the imprisonment of St Leon by Bethlem Gabor, hints at a fear of internal censorship, that the self might become complicit in oppression. In Eliza’s reading, the torturous moments of solitude provoke meditation on the need to write – and to write for an audience. It is when St Leon is locked in the dungeons of the Portuguese Inquisition, condemned to solitary confinement for fifteen years, that Godwin refers directly to the events of 1798 and 1799.

Godwin experienced the aftermath of the 1798 Irish Rebellion during his visit to Ireland in the summer of 1800 as the guest of the Irish Patriot (anti-Union) MP John Philpot Curran. Jenny McAuley demonstrated that the letters written during this visit show a particular generic flexibility. Godwin took the conventional Wicklow tour, McAuley argued, but his letters are informed by his particular perspective as an English observer in sympathy with the Irish Patriot cause at the time of the passage of the Act of Union. They contain rapid shifts from the aesthetic to the political, as his topographical descriptions are often shadowed by anniversaries of the events of the Rebellion, or by his association with Mary Wollstonecraft. Moreover, Godwin was a spectator of Irish places and people who found himself an object of widespread public regard and attention in Ireland. While these letters may be read as texts in the ‘confidential’ mode of manuscript composition, questions remain about the extent of their likely circulation and recirculation.

All in all, Volume II shows Godwin still corresponding with some of the most significant intellectuals of the day, still engaging with tenacity in his revolutionary project, still impressing with the vigour and brilliance of his writing. Even when attacked for his philosophical views and saddened by the dissolution of social ties, Godwin in these difficult, transitional years is not, as we once assumed, in retreat.