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 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.