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.

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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.