New Post: Thomas Love Peacock in the Idler

This piece by Pamela Clemit was first published in the Idler, No. 57 (Nov.-Dec. 2017):

Wine, Love and Song: Thomas Love Peacock

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) was the original idler. He worked for thirty-seven years at the East India Company, and wrote about his daily routine:

From ten to eleven, ate a breakfast for seven:
From eleven to noon, to begin ’twas too soon;
From twelve to one, asked, ‘What’s to be done?’
From one to two, found nothing to do;
From two to three began to foresee
That from three to four would be a damned bore.

In reality, like many other idlers, he worked at full pelt. When he wasn’t writing official correspondence, he was composing satirical novels, poems, and essays. His published writings didn’t make enough for him to give up the day job. As he rose through the ranks of the East India Company, he imagined the life of the wealthy, idling classes in his stylish and witty conversation novels.

How should we live? What would the good life be like? It is tempting to believe that happiness eludes us because of lack of money. The lives of the rich can be instructive because they do not experience this constraint. In his novels, Peacock sent up the idea that wealth breeds content, and set out his own view of the summum bonum.

The ‘idle trade’ of poetry

Peacock never thought that things would turn out this way. He wanted to live the dream, not just write about it. His first ambition was to be a poet. An only child, he was brought up in genteel poverty by his widowed mother. He was removed from school at the age of twelve, owing to financial hardship, and educated himself in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, writing occasional poems while working as a clerk in the City of London.

After publishing his first volume, Palmyra, and Other Poems (1806), he just about managed to live semi-independently as a poet and scholar for a while. He settled with his mother at Chertsey in the Thames Valley, walking or boating in the summer, studying and writing when the weather held him indoors, falling in and out of love. When the money ran out, he became the Captain’s clerk on a 74-gun warship, HMS Venerable, then moored in the Downs. But life aboard ‘this floating Inferno’, he wrote to a friend, got in the way of ‘the “idle trade” of writing verses’, and he gave up the job after a year.

By 1810 Peacock was in full flight from the rapacity of commerce. ‘England is the modern Carthage’, he declared in an early letter: ‘The love of gold, “the last corruption of man”, pervades the whole state.’ He flew as far as North Wales, spending fifteen months on the outskirts of a small village in the Vale of Ffestiniog, Merionethshire, like Thoreau in his cabin at Walden Pond, a mile from any neighbour.

Here he pursued his solitary studies, fell in love with a parson’s daughter, Jane Gryffydh (whom he later married), and took long country walks. ‘On the top of Cadair Idris, I felt how happy a man may be with a little money and a sane intellect, and reflected with astonishment and pity on the madness of the multitude.’ Then a family financial crisis called him home.

The Marlow coterie

Two years later, Peacock met another idling poet called Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his life changed. Shelley, too, was interested in the good life, and had the means to pursue it—he was heir to a massive estate. Hadn’t his mentor, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, suggested (quite wrongly) that if wealth were spread more equally, half an hour’s labour a day would be enough to feed, clothe, and house everyone? The rest of the time could be devoted to cultivated leisure.

Peacock and Shelley hit it off immediately, sharing ideas, books, and work in progress. When in July 1814 Shelley, a married man, eloped to the Continent with Godwin’s daughter Mary (and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont), he asked Peacock to take charge of his financial affairs. Back in England, he redistributed some of his wealth, paying Peacock an annual pension of £120 to act as his agent. Peacock settled with his mother at Marlow, on the Thames, where the Shelley party eventually joined him, taking a large house nearby in the spring of 1817.

The Marlow summer of 1817 was an idler’s dream. ‘The Conchoid’ (Peacock’s nickname for Shelley) and Mary were now married, with Mary expecting a third child. They attracted a stream of visitors, including Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Leigh Hunt, and the paterfamilias William Godwin. They took long walks in all directions from Marlow, within a radius of about sixteen miles. They studied the classics, read the latest literary publications, and wrote their own (including Frankenstein, which appeared on 1 January 1818). Peacock wrote in a letter: ‘Perhaps a due mixture of tea Greek & pedestrianism constitute the summum bonum.’ But something was missing. At the end of the year he proposed marriage to Claire Clairmont, who had been living with the Shelleys with her baby daughter by Lord Byron. She turned him down.

After the Shelley party left England for Italy in March 1818, Peacock spent the next summer idling alone. ‘For the most part my division of time is this’, he wrote to Shelley: ‘I devote the forenoon to writing: the afternoon to the river the woods and classical poetry: the evening to philosophy … My reading is as usual at this season somewhat desultory.’ But it wasn’t the same. Without Shelley’s companionship, he was ‘as melancholy as a gib cat’. When opportunity knocked, he needed little persuasion to give up his independent life. His entry into the East India Company in 1819, at the recommendation of a schoolmate, gave him a secure income, and the means to marry and settle down.

The good life

In his novels, Peacock tried to sustain the thought of what the good life might be like. He pioneered the novel of talk, a form of modern Socratic dialogue, in which intellectuals and well-heeled idlers come together at a country house party, or on a journey. They tackle the big questions—the nature of society, whether it promotes happiness, how to live—while eating good dinners and tossing back bumpers of wine. Discussions are inconclusive—‘The schemes for the world’s regeneration evaporated in a tumult of voices’—or end with a glee.

While conversations stall, real life takes a comic turn. Typically the male suitors dither between two women (‘Celinda—Marionetta—either—both’) and the heroines hesitate between men. Some characters and situations are replayed in successive novels. The figure of a young man with a Shelleyan passion for reforming the world, but undecided how to do it, crops up several times, with names like Sylvan Forester or Scythrop Glowry. Others perform solo turns. Sir Oran Haut-ton, the civilized orang-utan who is elected MP for the rotten borough of Onevote in Melincourt (1817), is an original. Dignified and silent, he has learned to imitate the manners of a polished gentleman—though, after a glass too many, may be glimpsed uprooting trees on his patron’s estate.

Men talk and push the bottle round. Women read the Greek classics or Italian romance, and keep up with London opera, novels, and art. The good life choices facing women idlers are at their starkest in Crotchet Castle (1831), a satire on the rich governing classes and their culture of acquisitiveness.

Lady Clarinda Bossnowl has embraced her destiny as a commodity in the marriage market. She seeks a husband with ‘a town and country-house, and plenty of servants, and a carriage and an opera box … You do not think I would take him for himself’. Susannah Touchandgo, the daughter of a bankrupt paper money manufacturer, takes a different path. When her father melts into thin air, she finds a simpler way of life, inspired by Rousseau, in Peacock’s old haunt, Merionethshire. There she lives en famille with the humble Ap Llymrys, teaching the children in exchange for hearty suppers and home-brewed ale—until Mr Chainmail, who yearns for feudal social harmony, claims her as his bride. The Welsh idyll works a change in Lady Clarinda too. She realises that true happiness lies with her impoverished artist lover, Captain Fitzchrome, not in the baubles of the marketplace.

The satisfied guest

Peacock’s most accomplished exposition of the good life is Gryll Grange (1860-1), his last satire, written in the leisure of retirement from the East India Company. By this stage of life, he had lost his wife, two of his children, most of his friends, and the political dreams of his youth. Perhaps he could now speak with authority on the question of how to live. The tone of this work is mellow and convivial, like genial conversation among friends.

Just about everybody in Gryll Grange is rich enough to live in his or her own way. Gregory Gryll, proprietor of a large estate, is ‘Epicuri de grege porcus’ (‘A pig from the herd of Epicurus’), like Peacock himself, devoted to simplicity and the pursuit of tranquil happiness. He is so wedded to quiet dining and his after-dinner bottle of port that he has never married. He plans to leave his fortune to his niece Morgana, who is besieged by unsuitable suitors. His neighbour, the Reverend Dr Opimian, shares many of his tastes: ‘a good library, a good dinner, a pleasant garden, and rural walks’.

On one of these walks, Dr Opimian discovers a wealthy young man, Algernon Falconer, living alone in a tower fitted up with a dining room, a wine cellar, a library, and seven beautiful, chaste young women to wait on him (‘Homeric damsels’, Dr Opimian says). Falconer explains:

I have aimed at living, like an ancient Epicurean, a life of tranquillity … With what classical studies, and rural walks, and a domestic society peculiarly my own, I led what I considered the perfection of life: ‘days so like each other they could not be remembered.’

Is this the perfection of life? Dr Opimian, a comfortable married man, thinks not. He plots to draw the young man into the ambit of Gryll Grange, where a large party is assembled. At Gryll Grange the good life is social. Scenes are dedicated to mutual enjoyment: a large company over dinner or two lovers tête-à-tête. The guests engage in all the pastimes of wealthy nineteenth-century idlers:

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Miss Niphet and Lord Curryfin dancing the Minuet de la Cour, from Gryll Grange, illustrated by F. H. Townsend (1896)

After luncheon there was walking in the park, rowing or sailing on the lake, riding or driving in the adjacent country, archery in a spacious field; and in bad weather billiards, reading in the library, music in the drawing-rooms, battledore and shuttlecock in the hall.

Like the ancient Greeks, the characters delight in bodily exercise: Lord Curryfin is seen taming a horse, Miss Niphet running like Atalanta; their courtship flourishes in shared activities like skating and dancing, where they are matched in ‘poetry of motion’.

The book ends with the communal festivities of Christmas. Nine couples—surely a record for Peacock—are united. As well as Morgana and Falconer, Lord Curryfin and Miss Niphet, the seven Homeric damsels pair up with seven suitors, led by Harry Hedgerow. Pining for love of one of them, he brings along six friends for her sisters. These earthy partners are, Harry says by way of recommendation, ‘all something to do with the land and the wood: farmers, and foresters, and nurserymen, and all that.’ Each finds a distinct favourite among the seven vestals.

Gryll Grange rejects the way of the hermit and celebrates living life to the full. For one of his epigraphs, Peacock translates a fragment from the Greek comic poet Alexis’ Tarantinoi:

As men who leave their homes for public games,
We leave our native element of darkness
For life’s brief light. And who has most of mirth,
And wine, and love, may, like a satisfied guest,
Return, contented, to the night he sprang from.

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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.

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.