Review: The Letters of William Godwin, edited by Pamela Clemit

2 Apr|Tom Hodgkinson

William Godwin by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1795 (copyright Trustees of the British Museum)

Two meticulously edited and annotated volumes of letters by Romantic philosopher William Godwin give great insights into the Romantic movement and the trials of the literary life in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The Letters of William Godwin Volume 1: 1778-1797; The Letters of William Godwin Volume 2: 1798-1805. Both edited by Pamela Clemit, OUP. Hardback, 306pp, 424pp

WHAT A VERY handsome and scholarly pair of volumes this is! It’s not customary to open a book review by talking about the paper and the binding, but it is a joy to see such determinedly uncommercial and high quality design, typesetting and printing these days. The greatest care has been taken.

And inside the covers: what joys! What we have here are 700 pages of meticulously chosen, prepared and annotated letters, a triumph of scholarship from Professor Pamela Clemit, an expert on the Romantic period.

Vol Two of Godwin's Letters

If you have not been paying close attention to the Idler lately, you may not know who William Godwin is. But you should.

Godwin was a towering figure in intellectual London in the late 18th and early 19th century. Often cited as one of the first proponents of what is called “philosophical anarchism” by academics, meaning a thoughtful, non-violent kind of anarchism of a Gandhi-esque kind, he shot to fame thanks to two books: a novel called Caleb Williams, and a long anti-authoritarian essay called An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. I’ve been a fan since reading this second work while researching my book, How To Be Free.

What is forgotten today is that Godwin was a central figure in the Romantic movement. He was older than the main players (though around the same age as the nation’s favourite visionary engraver, William Blake) but a huge influence on their politics and thinking. He met Wordsworth and Coleridge in the 1790s, corresponded with them, and became friends with Coleridge.

Godwin’s own personal story was romantic and tragic in the extreme. In 1797, he married the radical feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. She was famous for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and her 1788 book for children had been illustrated by none other than William Blake. In 1797 she gave birth to a daughter, Mary, who would marry Percy Shelley, following the suicide of Shelley’s first wife, and write the best known of all Gothic horror stories, Frankenstein. But just nine days after giving birth to Mary, Wollstonecraft died.

(It is not too much of a stretch, I reckon, to say that without William Godwin, there would have been no Robert Smith, the Damned or Ian Astbury. Godwin’s daughter invented Goth.)

In 1801, Godwin later married again, this time to writer and mother of two, by two previous fathers, Mary Jane Clairmont. Now finding himself impecunious, having enjoyed literary celebrity and a good income from his work in the 1790s, he opened a children’s bookshop and publishing house called The Juvenile Library, and struggled on with this enterprise for some years.

Later Mary’s daughter Claire would join the 18 year old Mary Shelley in a daring jaunt across Europe to go and visit Lord Byron, with whom she had an affair.

Godwin’s life and the lives of his circle are almost unbelievably intense by modern standards. We forget just how much death, divorce, remarriage and elopement there was during this time.

The two volumes of letters cover the period 1778-1805, and see Godwin’s star rise and fall, at least in terms of his public and financial success. Both volumes read like a thriller or a love story. There is the excited beginning of the relationship with Wollstonecraft and his sweet, intellectual letters to her. This was a real meeting of minds. Then her tragic death and the realisation that Godwin will be looking after a baby and Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Fanny Imlay, from a previous affair, with American businessman Gilbert Imlay.

Godwin makes strenuous efforts to woo another intellectual of the day, Harriet Lee, writing thirteen letters to her, finally rejecting her offer of a “friendly farewell”, in a passage which reminds me of Lou Reed’s line: “You said we could be friends, but that’s not what I want”:

“I sought you first for your merits. You were gratified by my good opinion. Perhaps by this time you hold that opinion cheap, because, as you seem to think, I have respected you too much, & sought you too perseveringly… You will have in me a friend, perhaps useless, perhaps undesired, certainly one whose heart is too fervent ever to utter a friendly farewel, without anxiously desiring that it may be the forerunner of a friendly intercourse.”

Godwin recovers from this rejection and goes on to marry the fiery Clairmont. True love does not always run smooth as this gently admonishing extract from a letter written in 1803 shows:

“In our conversation this morning you expressed a wish to separate…. It is not my wish; because I know that here you have every ingredient of happiness in your possession, & that, in order to be happy, you have nothing to do, but to suppress in part the excesses of that baby-sullenness, for every trifle.”

The letters are full of exciting moments. As a poor independent scholar myself, my heart goes out to him when he writes begging letters to rich friends like Thomas Wedgwood, the literary son of pottery pioneer Josiah Wedgwood, and even worse, when he writes to say that he cannot pay back the money he owes:

“But regret is now vain; it cannot fill up the deficiency I abhor to recollect; & I can only subscribe myself, your mortified and disappointed friend, W Godwin.”

That was in 1800: earlier that year Godwin had put on a play in Drury Lane which had been the most almighty flop: “Damned with universal consent” was Charles Lamb’s inscription on his playbill. The failure had left Godwin something like £500 out of pocket. Lamb, who nicknamed Godwin “the Professor”, wrote movingly of the crestfallen playwright: “The Professor has won my heart by this his mournful catastrophe.”

The volumes are full of fascinating details about 18th and 19th century life. A wider picture emerges. It’s a bit like keeping bees: the study of this one small insect leads to discovery of his wider world, including the weather, the secret life of plants, cultural history and even shamanism. So it is with Prof Clemit’s study of Godwin. Every name that might be unfamiliar merits a voluminous footnote. We learn a lot about history while enjoying the triumphs and tragedies of Godwin’s life. So for example we find out about the very many bluestockings of the day, about marriage practices, the Pitt government, the French Revolution, and characters like Horne Tooke, Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, the radicals John Thelwall and Thomas Paine, among very many others.

In letters home while travelling, he instructs a babysitting friend to pass on a few words to his daughter and step-daughter:

“Tell Mary, I will not give her away, & she shall be nobody’s little girl, but Papa’s: papa is gone away, but papa will soon come back again, & look out at the coach-window, & see the Polygon across two fields, from the trunks of the trees at Camden Town. Will Mary and Fanny come and meet me?”

I have spent many a happy hour immersed in the great man’s letters, “conversing with the dead”. Over the next few months we are going to be reprinting selections from the letters, and will also be publishing blog posts on Godwin by Pamela Clemit. This is all part of what we are calling “The Godwin Project”: an attempt to bring the great man’s life and work to a wider audience.

It is wonderful to know that this is just the beginning: four more volumes of letters are planned. I can’t wait to line them up on my bookshelf.

Like the Idler Academy, Godwin dreamed of a world where the proper use of leisure, to read, study and be creative took the place of humdrum toil for money. He believed, says Clemit in one of the two masterly introductions, in “intellectual cultivation as the best means of accelerating progress of mind”.