A Family Romance

The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family

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

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 …

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