Contents Index

William Godwin

William Godwin was born 3 March 1756 in Cambridgeshire, England, and was educated, beginning in 1773, at Hoxton Academy, a liberal Presbyterian college in London. Though he was trained for a career as a dissenting minister, Godwin remained in that profession for less than four years, preaching in Ware, Stowmarket, and Beaconsfield. Over time he became plagued by doubts, first embracing the heresy of Socinianism (Unitarianism), and by 1787 declaring himself a "complete unbeliever."

His most famous work, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, appeared in 1793, inspired to some extent by the political turbulence and fundamental restructuring of governmental institutions underway in France. Godwin's belief is that governments are fundamentally inimical to the integrity of the human beings living under their strictures, and he propounds an enlightened anarchism as the key to individual development. The radicalism of the work concerned authorities in the British government, but partly because of its expense it was not deemed threatening enough to warrant prosecution. Godwin did, however, catch the attention of more radical thinkers for whom his work became an essential text. These included the poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, also, later, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Political Justice was followed by his most enduring novel, Things as They Are; or, Caleb Williams, in 1794. Also in 1794, on the political front, Godwin became highly active in the cause of the members of the radical London Corresponding Society, defending them against charges of high treason in a series of strongly argued, well-circulated pamphlets. His activities were thought by many to have ensured the acquittal of these radicals and to have sustained fundamental legal protections in the face of a determined governmental assault upon them.

Godwin met Mary Wollstonecraft at a dinner given by his publisher Joseph Johnson on 13 November 1791. The principal guest was Thomas Paine, and Godwin was somewhat irritated at having to converse with Wollstonecraft rather than the revolutionary polemicist he came to meet. Their infrequent meetings in later months were interrupted by Wollstonecraft's daring removal to Paris in December 1792, where she remained several years in a relationship with an American businessman Gilbert Imlay with whom in 1794 she had a child they called Fanny. Deserted by Imlay, however, Wollstonecraft returned to London late in 1795, when she again met Godwin at the home of her friend Mary Hays. Within a few months they had become deeply attached, though in characteristic fashion they spent the daytime hours pursuing their separate intellectual and social obligations. It was during this period that Godwin wrote his influential collection of essays known as The Enquirer, published in 1797. By early in this year it was clear that Mary was pregnant, and the two lovers were finally married in St. Pancras church on 29 March 1797. The child, to whom they gave both their names, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was born on 30 August. Ten days later her mother died.

Truly griefstricken, Godwin devoted himself for the next year to writing a biography, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which he published along with the fragments of Wollstonecraft's novel Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman in 1798. In the Memoirs his extreme candor concerning the events of her life unfortunately served to make Wollstonecraft a commonly cited example of the fallen woman, a portrait that was successfully advanced to undermine the claims of the intellectual feminism she had championed.

Four years after Wollstonecraft's death, in 1801, Godwin became remarried to Mary Jane Clairmont, herself a widow who brought to the household two children, Charles and Claire Clairmont. In 1803 they saw the birth of their only child together, William Godwin, Jr., an event that brought the family (which included Fanny Imlay) to a total of five children involving five different parents. Mary Jane Clairmont was a successful publisher of children's books through the imprint of the Juvenile Library, and Godwin contributed several volumes to this series under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin. His sense of educational mission extended as well into the home, where he undertook responsibility for the instruction of the children, pursuing it with characteristic energy and allowing little difference in curriculum on the basis of gender. All five children were widely educated, and the extraordinary engagement of Frankenstein with other texts and extra-literary contexts may be said to testify richly to the extent and integration of this educational program. In the meantime, two further novels, St. Leon, a Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799) and Fleetwood: or The New Man of Feeling (1805) secured Godwin's mainstream literary reputation.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, Godwin was overextended financially and, though as always vigorous in pursuing the life of an intellectual within the brilliant constellation of London, no longer a major star himself, instead spending most of his energies on staving off a total financial collapse. Early in 1812, however, a precocious poet and intellectual wrote in fervent admiration to introduce himself, and thus began a new career for Godwin as the intellectual patron of Percy Bysshe Shelley, then nineteen. In turn, Shelley, despite his own financial problems, borrowed large sums on the strength of his expected inheritance to relieve Godwin of the accumulated pressure of his debts. He also became a frequent visitor at the Godwin household, and, in the midst of his collapsing marriage contracted in adolescence, developed a warm attachment with Mary. The two of them, with the connivance of Claire Clairmont, eloped to the Continent in late July of 1814. Although an intellectual free spirit, Godwin reacted with horror at the spectacle of his sixteen year-old daughter running away with a married man. When they returned to London in September, he endeavored to put the best face he could upon the arrangement. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was his most secure source of income, need as well as parental affection influenced a reconciliation. The marriage of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, after the death of his first wife Harriet in November 1816, removed that obstacle to intimacy, but Godwin's relations were never totally easy with either his daughter or son-in-law. On the other hand, it is hard to overstate the intellectual bonds they all shared. The fact that Frankenstein is dedicated to William Godwin should remind us of how deeply Godwin was revered by the two young lovers.

Indeed, after the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont emigrated to Italy in 1818, Godwin became Mary's literary agent. Perhaps disturbed by the subject matter (father-daughter incest) he declined to see to the publishing of her novella Matilda, written in 1819. He did, however, arrange for the printing of her second novel, Valperga (whose title he, in fact, supplied) in 1823 and the same year supervised the republication of Frankenstein in what would seem to be a concerted attempt to solidify her position in the literary world of London before she herself returned there. In both publishing ventures Godwin took it upon himself to edit the texts, an act probably attributable more to his long career as a professional writer than his heavyhandedness as a father.

That career had twice made him attempt the stage, first with an unsuccessful tragedy, Antonio, mounted in 1800 and again with a tragedy, Faulkener, written in 1807. He wrote many biographical pieces, as well as the full-scale Life of Geoffrey Chaucer of 1803 and Lives of Edward and John Philips of 1815; a response to Malthus, Of Population in 1820; and a monumental History of the Commonwealth of England in four volumes, published between 1824 and 1828. Godwin's fourth novel, Mandeville, a Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England, appeared in 1817; his fifth, Cloudesley in 1830; and his final novel, Deloraine, in 1833. His last work of philosophical prose was Thoughts on Man, published in 1831.

In these late years Godwin's financial state once again was worsening, and, though it seems a paradoxical act for the proponent of philosophical anarchism who wrote An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, he gratefully accepted a government sinecure as Yeoman-Usher of the Exchequer that was awarded him by the liberal Whig ministry in 1833. Godwin died on 7 April 1836 in London.