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A Family Romance

The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family

by William St. Clair
Norton, 572 pp., $32.50

William Godwin
William Godwin; drawing by David Levine

If William Godwin had never written his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, the history of philosophy would have been unaltered. If he had never written his novel Things As They Are: or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, the history of English literature would have been much the same. Yet in 1793 and 1794 these two books made Godwin the most famous literary figure of the day. As Hazlitt recalled in 1814,

No work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Tom Paine was considered for the time as a Tom Fool to him, Paley an old woman, Edmund Burke a flashy sophist. Truth, moral truth, it was supposed, had here taken up its abode; and these were the oracles of thought.

Before this meteoric rise to fame, Godwin was a hard-up literary hack, and a failed Dissenting minister; after it, he returned to poverty and obscurity. Admired in 1794, he was reviled in 1798, and forgotten five years later. “The world makes a point,” Hazlitt commented, “of taking no more notice of him than if such an individual had never existed; he is to all intents and purposes dead and buried.” As an unrepentant radical, Hazlitt enjoyed reminding Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge how they had swallowed the moral and political radicalism of Political Justice before they set their pens to the defense of conservatism. But Godwin remained submerged. When remembered by anyone other than historians of the Romantic period, it was as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and thus as father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Perhaps because of his relation to these early feminists, Godwin has suddenly come back to life, and William St. Clair’s engaging and entertaining biography is the most recent addition to recent work on him.* Its title is a shade misleading, for interest in Mary Wollstonecraft and “the Shelleys” is confined to Mary’s activities as Godwin’s wife, and to Percy Shelley’s role as seducer, money lender, and disturber of the Godwin family’s peace; but readers lured by the prospect of learning more about Shelley will have no cause to feel shortchanged by this account of his astonishing father-in-law.

Mr. St. Clair is a senior official in the British Treasury, and an amateur in the old and best sense of the literary and cultural life of the England of the 1790s and early 1800s. The biographer of Shelley’s friend Trelawny, he has been able to identify a dozen previously unattributed works as part of Godwin’s output, and he has such a firm understanding of the enigmatic Journal that Godwin kept as a private aide-mémoire that he can print as an appendix a meticulously unprurient and fascinating reconstruction of every detail of Godwin’s sexual relations with Mary Wollstonecraft.

The result is deeply satisfying. Mr. St. Clair is a humane and sympathetic chronicler who may gently mock his hero from time to time, but whose sympathies are never in doubt. He is properly indignant about the critics who savaged Godwin’s memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, and he does not let admiration for Shelley’s poetry stand in the way of his distaste for Shelley’s treatment of Godwin. He is also a self-conscious chronicler, pausing more than once to remind his readers of how many characters his story must have left out because they do not appear in the written record. But he is neither a philosopher nor a literary theorist; and readers who want to know much about the content of Godwin’s Political Justice, or about Godwin’s place in the anarchist tradition, or about just why critics have been so engrossed with Caleb Williams will have to turn elsewhere. On none of these subjects is Mr. St. Clair misleading; indeed, his passing remarks are almost always well taken—but they are not central for him. What he gives us is a family romance, and it is wonderfully well done.

William Godwin entered the world on March 3, 1756. Four siblings had died already, three more died after him, and he was a sickly baby. He was born in Wisbech, a small, grim town on the edge of the Fens, where rheumatic fever made short work of the population. His father was a Dissenting minister who preached a cheerless Calvinism to match the joyless life of the Fens. But Dissent encouraged strong convictions, and ministers and congregations frequently parted company on doctrinal grounds. When William was two, his father moved to Debenham in Suffolk, then two years later to Guestwick, near Norwich.

He was reared on James Janeway’s Token for Children—its full title was A Token for Children, Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of several young children—and works of a similarly improving sort. No harm seems to have come from this. As St. Clair observes, “The boy who lay weeping and praying as Janeway recommended wanted passionately to die, but, as he himself was already aware, mainly in order to outshine in holy dying the children in the stories.” He came nearer death when attacked by smallpox after his father forbade vaccination on religious grounds.

William was clever and vain, so it was thought that he should be educated for the ministry to employ the cleverness and break the vanity. He was entrusted to the Reverend Samuel Newton of Norwich, a fierce follower of the theologian Robert Sandeman. Godwin said that after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of the human race, Sandeman had “contrived to damn ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin.” His doctrine was ruthlessly intellectual. He did not hold merely that mankind could not attain salvation by good works—that was standard Calvinist doctrine; for the Sandemanians damnation lurked in every doctrinal slip. Given the complexities of Christian theology, it seemed all too likely that only one in ten thousand would survive.

Newton’s beatings and catechisings stopped when Godwin was fourteen. He went back to Guestwick and taught in the village school for a couple of years, then, his father having died in 1772, he went on to New College, Hoxton, a Dissenting academy in east London. There he got an education, which as St. Clair reminds us was much superior to anything offered at Oxford or Cambridge:

Lectures started at six or seven in the morning and the work of each day was carefully prescribed. Vacations were brief and examinations tough. The emphasis of the teaching was on classics, theology, and philosophy, but Godwin appears to have acquired, besides Greek and Latin, usable quantities of French, Italian, German, and Hebrew.

Godwin’s tutor, the Reverend Andrew Kippis, was a relaxed liberal who enjoyed the skepticism of David Hume’s philosophy, and looked forward to the day when political life in England would no longer be confined to professed members of the Anglican Church.

At twenty-two, Godwin had to leave Hoxton and earn a living. For the next five years he searched vainly for a congregation. Shyness, unorthodoxy, and a determined intellectual independence set him at odds with prospective colleagues and prospective congregations alike. In 1782, he gave up and headed for London to earn his living in Grub Street—in those days an actual street behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, inhabited by “the fair-copyists, the translators, the indexers, the ghost-writers, the hacks, and the unrecognized geniuses” who eked out their precarious living. William St. Clair provides a vivid picture of the personalities, politics, and finances of the trade Godwin had joined. James Lackington’s bookshop in Finsbury Square, he notes, “contained a selling space round the circular counter on the ground floor so large that he arranged for the Exeter stagecoach with its four horses to be driven round on opening day.”

Godwin’s output of justly forgotten essays, reviews, and chapters was enormous. William St. Clair has identified many unrecognized items from Godwin’s hand by observing a curious stylistic quirk—Godwin deplored the redundant doubling of the final consonant of English names, and “there is scarcely any work written by Godwin on any subject which does not sooner or later mention his failed hero, Oliver Cromwel,” a surer aid to identification than most features of literary style.

Godwin’s chief occupation was writing reviews for John Murray’s English Review, at a guinea a sheet—or two dollars for sixteen printed pages. A fringe benefit of such work was that it allowed Godwin to puff his own work—to little effect, for his three earliest novels, Damon and Delia, Imogen, and Italian Letters, were so unsuccessful that until fifteen years ago it was thought that no copies whatever had survived. He combined his attempts at novel writing with a career as a political journalist. His old tutor, Andrew Kippis, recommended him to George Robinson, the largest publisher in London, as a suitable contributor to The New Annual Register. This was, as the name suggests, an annual survey of the year’s notable events, issues, personalities, and books. It was intended to steal some of the market created by The Annual Register, started twenty-five years earlier, and was to be written from the standpoint of Dissenters who looked for the repeal of the Test and Corporation acts that kept them out of Parliament and ancient universities, and the learned professions.

This work brought Godwin into contact with the Whig opposition, and with the Dissenters hoping to press their claims to emancipation and enfranchisement. But besides Burke, Fox, and Sheridan, he met Priestley, Bentham, David Williams, and Dr. Parr, radical republicans such as John Horne Tooke and Tom Paine, and the playwright Thomas Holcroft. Like everyone else in his circle he became, by the end of the decade, caught up in the intellectual backwash of the French Revolution.

The New Annual Register hailed the belated arrival of philosophical truth in the seats of power:

From hence we are to date a long series of years, in which France and the whole human race are to enter into possession of their liberties, when the ideas of justice and truth, of intellectual independence and everlasting improvement, are no longer to remain buried in the dust and obscurity of the closet, or to be brought forth at distant intervals to be viewed with astonishment, indignation, and contempt, but to be universally received, familiar as the light of day, and general as the air we breathe.

As events in France grew more alarming, so did the reaction to them in England. Burke turned to relentless criticism of the Revolution. Radicals and Dissenters became objects of superstitious terror. Joseph Priestley’s house was burned down with the connivance of the local magistrates. Tom Paine was prosecuted in his absence for his Rights of Man. Godwin’s reaction was characteristic. The times plainly needed no more pamphlets like Rights of Man—or even pamphlets on a larger scale like Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. He would write a comprehensive treatise on political principles. Since he had always thought that men erred through intellectual error rather than willful guilt, he would do more for truth and justice by setting out their philosophical basis than by adding to the political clamor.

Political Justice was the result. It took him some fifteen months to write, and appeared early in 1793. William St. Clair gives a good impression of its astonishing success. Coleridge wrote a rather poor sonnet to it, Wordsworth advised a young friend to throw away all his books and read Godwin. The book was a best seller—three thousand quarto copies were sold at thirty-six shillings each, a price that was rather more than Godwin’s father had received as a week’s stipend. Groups of readers who could not afford it bought a copy between them and read it together. Every subscription library in the provinces had to have a copy.

Two things struck Godwin’s readers. One was his adherence to the doctrine of necessity, which might today be called social and psychological determinism. “The assassin,” he wrote, “can no more help the murder he committed than the knife in his hand.” The other is an account of justice that insisted on the absolute duty to treat everyone, on all occasions, with the strictest impartiality. The only consideration that should enter our minds was whether a proposed course of action would make for the greatest possible happiness.

The belief in necessity was surprisingly liberating. Since “man is a passive not an active Being,” his errors come from the environment. Cure these, and perfection is within reach. Instead of original sin, the causes of harmful actions are human frailty and the evil influence of what Godwin referred to as “positive institution”—government, the system of property, conventional morality, marriage, and the family. All had deplorable effects and all ought to be abolished. “The euthanasia of government” would allow humanity to become all that it might be at its best.

While Godwin was thus a thorough-going anarchist in his political theory, he believed that the moral standard by which progress toward perfection was to be judged was utilitarian. “All men will grant that the happiness of the human species is the most desirable object for human science to promote” was one of the axioms of the system. But what struck Godwin’s readers were the astonishing conclusions he drew from this commonplace. They discovered that gratitude was a vice; everyone ought to give away whatever they had to give on the basis of how much good it did. If you give me fifty dollars, and it is rightly given, you have only done your duty and there is no call for gratitude; if it is wrongly given, you have done wrong and there is even less call for gratitude. Some of the funniest pages of The Godwins and the Shelleys are devoted to Godwin’s practice of this principle; since he was permanently hard up, he spent most of his life borrowing money—but tried to do so on the basis that those who lent it were only doing their duty by mankind and were more in his debt than he in theirs.

Just as gratitude was an error, so was marriage; it was “an odious monopoly.” For if it was less in the general interest that a woman should remain with me than with somebody else, it followed that she should leave me, unhampered by the law. This struck most of Godwin’s readers as shocking enough. The most shocking of all his inferences from impartial justice, however, was his assault on the ties of family affection illustrated in what St. Clair calls “his famous fable of Archbishop Fénelon and the fire.”

Suppose the house is on fire, and there is time to save Fénelon or a chambermaid, but not both. Which should it be? It has to be Fénelon, says Godwin, for Fénelon is the more valuable. But, asks Godwin,

Supposing the chambermaid had been my wife, my mother or my benefactor? This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fénelon would still be more valuable than that of the chambermaid; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable.

The mere fact that the chambermaid is my wife or mother makes no difference. “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my,’ to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth?”

William St. Clair treats Political Justice as a piece of revolutionary literature, Godwin’s own “reflections on the revolution in France.” But this is at odds with the book’s magisterial calmness of tone. It is written as if no immediate political consequences flowed from it at all, and that is probably how Godwin saw it. For the other great doctrine of Political Justice is what Godwin himself called “the unspeakably beautiful” doctrine of “the right of private judgement.” Even more deeply entrenched than the pursuit of the general good was the principle that each person must make up his or her own mind about how to pursue it—besides being a monopoly, marriage involved “cohabitation,” which Godwin deplored as inimical to independence of judgment.

This was the final legacy of the Dissenting emphasis on individual salvation, and it overwhelmed all practical conclusions one might otherwise draw. Groups such as the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information—though Godwin attended their dinners—were threats to this independence of judgment. Godwin did not apologize for the French Revolution; it was necessitated by the mismanagement of the ancien régime. But this was a far cry from advocating the forcible abolition of government. “Euthanasia” was what was wanted; when mankind learned to do without government it would vanish. Insurrection was far from his thoughts.

Godwin became embroiled in the politics of the day. He was a central figure in the British government’s attempt to judicially murder its radical opponents in the fall of 1794. Horne Took, Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall, and Godwin’s closest friend, Thomas Holcroft, were accused of high treason, the penalty for which was death. Since high treason was defined by the statute of 1351, which still governs it in terms of killing the king or making war on him within his realm, it was plainly stretching things to apply it to victims whose only influence was to demand parliamentary reform. Lord Chief Justice Eyre claimed that all demands for change in the form of government should be construed as treasonable, and the attorney general was reputed to be looking forward to seeing two hundred radicals hanged.

Godwin stopped the trial in its tracks. A newspaper article simultaneously reprinted as a pamphlet entitled “Cursory Strictures on the Charge delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury” meticulously destroyed Eyre’s interpretation of the treason statute. The prosecution blustered on for several weeks, but the jury had read its Godwin, and threw out all the charges. The British government was not to be allowed to follow the French in instituting a Terror.

This was the height of Godwin’s fame and success. Earlier in the year he had published Caleb Williams, one of the most remarkable novels ever written, and one that it is still impossible to put down once opened. It is a combination of morality tale and crime novel in which the obviously bad and cruel man, Squire Tyrell, is secretly killed by an apparently good man, Squire Falkland, who then persecutes his secretary, Caleb Williams, the truly good man who suspects that Falkland is guilty and who, after much suffering, finally forces him to confess. The book quickly became popular.

Almost forty years old, Godwin believed that he was now financially secure, that his passion for fame had been satisfied, and that a stream of well-regarded books, plays, and essays would keep him before an admiring public for the rest of his life. In fact, what followed, if not downhill all the way, was certainly downhill most of the way. None of his many subsequent novels has anything like the power of Caleb Williams, his revisions of Political Justice confused his readers without appeasing his critics, and his later defenses of its themes have little of its own engaging intellectual extremism. But what his life lacked in success at the time and intellectual interest thereafter, it more than made up for in emotional incident—to all of which William St. Clair does justice and in the most lavish detail.

It is when Godwin’s career begins to turn downhill that Mr. St. Clair’s account starts to earn its title as the “biography of a family.” For early in 1796 Godwin was reintroduced to Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he had met (and disliked) some years before; they became friends, then lovers. At the end of the year, she became pregnant. This was a disaster; Mary had already had an illegitimate daughter, Amy, from her affair with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, and was widely known to have been the mistress of the Swiss painter Fuseli. Not to marry was impossible, yet to marry was a breach with everything he had written about the “odious monopoly.” They married in March of 1797; in September, Mary died in childbirth, leaving Godwin to bring up Fanny Imlay and the new baby, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

Godwin’s liaison with Mary Wollstonecraft cost him many of his old friends, who shrank from so open a flouting of conventions; his marriage had made him seem ridiculous. He proceeded to pull the roof down on his head by publishing a memoir of his dead wife that most twentieth-century readers find immensely touching and every anti-Jacobin reviewer in 1798 denounced, using words such as “shameless,” “lascivious,” “obscene,” and “disgusting.” In the memoir Godwin admitted that Mary had had previous lovers, that they had not waited until the marriage banns were read to consummate their love, and that their daughter had been conceived out of wedlock. Occasional critics managed to make a joke out of the book: George Walker’s The Vagabond contains a scene where the hero stands before a burning house, deliberating whether to save his pregnant mistress or his father. Naturally the house burns down before he has finished calculating the utilities involved. Most of the critics were simply vile and brutal.

Anyone else would have been crushed. Godwin was not. Having had a taste of marriage, he looked about for a second wife. Nothing came of his own tentative advances to various old friends, but in 1801 Mary Jane Clairmont moved into the street where Godwin was now living, allegedly introducing herself with the words, “Is it possible that I behold the immortal Mr. Godwin?” St. Clair notes that none of the stories about their first meeting was current before 1878, and all appear to be part of the fantastic legacy of half-truths and untruths that Mrs. Clairmont passed down through her children. Mrs. Clairmont represented herself as the widow of a Mr. Clairmont who was never further identified; as to where she came from, the story varied on each occasion of its telling. She married Godwin twice, once as “Mary Clairmont, widow,” and once as “Mary Vial of St. Mary le Bone, spinster.” At all events, she was happy to become the second Mrs. Godwin, adding her two children, Claire and Charles Clairmont to his, and producing a son, William Godwin, Jr., early in 1802.

The marriage lasted the rest of Godwin’s long life, though it was never an easy one. Mary Jane and William opened a bookshop and went into business as writers and publishers of children’s books. They have some claim to being the first publishers of books that were more than moralizing tracts for children. Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare was among their successes. The business never had enough capital, and for many years they spent much of the time trying to stave off creditors. After they had been married for about ten years, Percy Bysshe Shelley dramatically irrupted into their lives. Shelley had read Godwin when he was barely sixteen years old and in revolt against school, parents, and religion; discovering that Godwin was not as dead as Rousseau and Voltaire, he wrote early in 1812 asking for an interview. Though he was only nineteen, he was already married—as he admitted with the embarrassment Godwin himself had felt in 1797.

Between the letter and the meeting some months passed, during which Shelley made a brief foray into Irish politics. Godwin and Shelley were delighted with each other; Shelley’s wife Harriet, however, cared for none of the Godwins, and relations were less warm than they had expected. Still, within a few months Godwin was relying on Shelley as the answer to his creditors—an unreliable answer who always delivered less than he promised, but still better than nothing. But a few months after that, Shelley came around after dinner to announce to the Godwins that he had fallen out of love with Harriet, and that he proposed to live with Mary Godwin.

The tragicomic history of subsequent events is well known. Mary and Shelley eloped, accompanied by her half sister, the plain but kindly Fanny Imlay; they rattled around Europe and Britain pursued by creditors, desperately raising money on Percy Shelley’s expectations from his eventual inheritance. A couple of years later, Claire Clairmont threw herself at Byron, became pregnant, and joined a short-lived ménage à quatre in Switzerland with Byron, Shelley, and Mary. It was while they were in Switzerland that Mary wrote Frankenstein, initially published anonymously and in a tiny edition, but almost at once the success it has remained for the past 170 years.

Viewed from the financially stricken household in London, all this was simply more cause for anxiety. Shelley’s unfulfilled promises of financial rescue, Mary’s successive pregnancies and mis-carriages, Claire’s pregnancy, and the birth of her daughter Allegra threatened ruin, social ostricism, and misery. Paradoxically, matters mended when they reached rock bottom. After Shelley drowned in 1822, his family was obliged to take care of Mary, at least to the extent of providing her with an allowance to bring up young Percy Florence Shelley; after his half brother Charles died in 1826, he became the direct heir of the Shelley estates and fortune, and Mary was secure.

More surprisingly, so were William Godwin and Mary Jane. With Shelley dead, their hopes of staving off bankruptcy vanished; the crash of 1825 put an end to their business and to innumerable others. The result was much less than disastrous. They pacified their creditors, Godwin’s health improved, and although he was now almost seventy, his work kept them in modest comfort. The end of the story was both touching and droll. When a Whig government took power in 1830, Godwin’s friends began to press for a pension for the old man. In 1833, after the Reform Bill but before the great purge of sinecures, he was appointed “Officer Keeper and Yeoman Usher of the Receipt of Exchequer”; it gave him £200 a year and rooms in the old Palace of Westminster. He could entertain modestly and show off to visitors the enormous keys to the old Exchequer chests that had once contained the cash reserves of the kingdom. Here he died on April 7, 1836, a link between the unrespectable Enlightenment and a Victorian age that would carry out the Enlightenment’s reforms, in a grimmer and soberer frame of mind.

It is a story with many morals, and William St. Clair draws most of them. The risks of being right but guileless were illustrated over and over again in Godwin’s life both private and public; his code of absolute honesty made for wonderful friendships, but also for appalling rows—“démêlé” is one of the most frequent entries in the Journal. It laid him open to devastating attacks such as that of the entire anti-Jacobin press when he published his memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, and it was not the most useful of qualities when he turned it against his radical friends as impartially as against his official enemies.

That respectability can exercise a terrible tyranny is perhaps the dominant note of St. Clair’s book—his concluding chapter records Mary Shelley’s lifelong efforts to purge Shelley’s poetry of its politics, and to rewrite her own history to eliminate both her mother and her premarital life with Shelley; and St. Clair includes a ferocious appendix recording the efforts of the writers of books of advice to young ladies to undo all the efforts of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. From catalogs and what he aptly terms his “black museum” St. Clair estimates that at least 119 editions of various edifying tracts for young ladies appeared in Great Britain and Ireland between 1785 and 1820. It is no wonder that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman did not get back into print until the rise of the Chartists in the 1840s. Mr. St. Clair is never more suggestive about the effects of Godwin’s ideas and personality than when he writes of the women whose lives were so dramatically part of Godwin’s own.

  1. *

    For instance, John P. Clark’s The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin (Princeton University Press, 1977); Don Locke, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980); B.J. Tysdahl, William Godwin as Novelist (Athlone Press, 1981); Peter H. Marshall, William Godwin Philosopher (Yale University Press, 1984); and Mark Philip, Godwin’s ‘Political Justice’ (Duckworth, 1986).