Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 10. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; Political Justice; Caleb Williams; St. Leon; Vindication of the Rights of Woman

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 10. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; Political Justice; Caleb Williams; St. Leon; Vindication of the Rights of Woman

One of the butts of The Anti-Jacobin who was treated with a tolerant good-humour which he well deserved, was “Mr. Higgins of St. Mary Axe.” In real life, he was the most extreme of the English revolutionary philosophers, William Godwin. This amiable commonplace man, who, however, possessed a marvellous capacity for reasoning without regard to experience, was born in 1756, a younger son of a dissenting minister. He obtained his education, first at a Norfolk grammar school, and then at Hoxton academy in London. In 1778, he became, in his turn, a minister, but he never stayed long at one place and soon adopted the more congenial profession of authorship. Much conscientious, ephemeral work was done by him in history and literature; but he was brought into sudden prominence by a book of startling opinions, Political Justice, published in 1793. The influence of this book was great among the younger generation, which, indeed, Godwin was naturally able to attract and advise in private life as well as by political speculation. His kindly sympathy and almost boyish optimism were never better applied than in his friendships with young men. Bred a Calvinist, he had become a believer in materialism and necessity, passing, in 1792, to atheism, and renouncing it somewhere about 1800. He was, above all things, a system-maker; philosophy and politics were, for him, indistinguishable; and, of his views on both, he was an eager advocate in public and private, whenever he had the opportunity. Meanwhile, he was obliged to earn a living besides propagating his opinions. So, we find him writing proselytising novels, Caleb Williams and St. Leon, which he hoped would insinuate his views in the public mind. During these years, he met and married another writer of innovating beliefs. Mary Wollstonecraft, to use her maiden name, is a far more attractive person than her placid husband. She was of Irish extraction, and had the misfortune to be one of the children of a ne’er-do-well. In 1780, at the age of twenty, Mary Wollstonecraft took up the teaching profession, as schoolmistress and governess. She was almost too successful, for, in 1788, she lost her post as governess for Lady Kingsborough, in consequence of her pupils becoming too fond of her. The next four years she passed as a publisher’s hack, till, at last, her Vindication of the Rights of Woman made her name known in 1792. Shortly after its publication, she made the mistake of her life by accepting the “protection” of Gilbert Imlay, an American, during a residence in France. Marriage, in her eyes, was a superfluous ceremony, and it was not celebrated between her and Imlay, who, in the end, became unfaithful beyond endurance. Thus, in 1796, she began single life again in London with a daughter to support. She had written, in 1794, a successful account of the earlier period of the French revolution, and her literary reputation was increased by letters written to Imlay during a Scandinavian tour. Very quickly, she and Godwin formed an attachment, which, in accordance with their principles, only led to marriage in 1797 in order to safeguard the interests of their children. But the birth of a child, the future wife of Shelley, was fatal to the mother, in September, 1797. She had been a generous, impulsive woman, always affectionate and kind. Godwin’s second choice of a wife was less fortunate and conduced to the unhappy experiences of his later years, which fill much space in the life of Shelley. Pursued by debt, borrowing, begging, yet doing his best to earn a living by a small publishing business, and by the production of children’s books, novels, an impossible play and divers works in literature, history and economics, he at last obtained a small sinecure, which freed his later years from pecuniary anxiety. He died in 1836.

While both Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were rebels against the established order, and contemned the traditional usages of mankind, not only as obsolete and calling for improvement, but as, in themselves, of no account, Godwin was, by far, the greater visionary of the two. Mary Wollstonecraft, in spite of the pompous energy of her expressions in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was essentially an educational reformer, urging schemes all of which were, possibly, practicable, if not necessarily advisable. Girls should be educated in much the same way as boys, and the two sexes should be taught together. Thus, she says, women would become genuine companions of men, and would be fitted to share in the rights, both civil and political, of which they were deprived. The opposition which the book aroused, however, was not only due to its definite proposals, but, also, to the slashing attack on her own sex, as she conceived it to be, and to the coarseness with which she described certain social evils. But it reveals an amiable spirit, characteristic of the writer, and its fire and somewhat shrill enthusiasm make some amends for the lack of exact reasoning and the excess of unrestrained, glittering rhetoric. As a landmark in the evolution of social ideas, and a sign of revolt against a then prevailing sexual cant, it has an importance which it cannot be said to possess in literature or, perhaps, as a statement of historical facts: there was, at the time, much more education of women, both separate and in conjunction with the male sex, than she was willing to allow. As a governess, she had had too vivid an experience of the fine lady and the conventional miss of the eighteenth century.

The visions of Godwin, however, were visions indeed. He dreamed of a new-made world, of perfect or nearly perfected beings with no government, scarcely any co-operation, no laws, no diseases, no marriage, no trade, only perfect peace secured by a vigilant, and, in truth, perpetually meddling, public opinion. This programme, in Godwin’s eyes, was rendered practicable by his views on human nature. Men’s actions were due to a process of reasoning founded on their opinions, which, in turn, were formed by a process of reasoning.

  • “When” a murderer “ultimately works up his mind to the perpetration, he is then most strongly impressed with the superior recommendations of the conduct he pursues.”
  • Free-will, he denied: thus, if a man’s reason were really convinced, no doubt remained as to his actions. The reformer, in consequence, was not to be a revolutionary; since, by means of revolution, he would only introduce measures to which he had been unable to convert his fellow-countrymen. The real way to change the world for the better was a continuance of peaceful argument, wherein truth, naturally having stronger reasons in its favour than error, would prevail. Incessant discussion would gradually alter the general opinions of men. Then, the changes he desired would be made. The obvious counter-argument, that, by his own theory, error had won in the contest with truth up to his time and that the actual course of human politics had been a mistake, did not occur to him; and the attractiveness of his optimistic outlook combined with the rigidity of his deductive logic, much incidental shrewdness and a singular force of conviction, to gain him a numerous following. His style, too, deserved some success. He was always clear and forcible; his sentences convey his exact meaning without effort, and display a kind of composed oratorical effect. In curious contrast to Mary Wollstonecraft, who advocated what might be described as a practical, if novel, scheme of education with the enthusiasm of a revolutionary, her husband outlined the complete wreck of existing institutions, with a Utopia of the simple life to follow, in a calm philosophising manner, which ignored even the lukewarm emotions felt by himself. The passion he lacked was to be supplied, later, by his son-in-law, Shelley.

    Godwin’s Political Justice escaped suppression owing to the small number of readers whom a costly book, even one which passed through several editions, could reach. He gained a larger audience for his novels, which were intended to lead to the same convictions. The only one of these which still finds readers is The Adventures of Caleb Williams, or, Things as They Are, published in 1794. Here, Godwin is concerned with two aspects of the same thesis; first, the oppression which a poor man could suffer under the existing institutions, and, secondly, the perversion of character in a member of the ruling class through his acceptance of the ideals of chivalry. With these ingredients, the tale, as a whole, is most bizarre. Its personages act in a very unlikely way. Falkland, the virtuous villain, who, because of a chivalric regard for his reputation, has allowed two innocent men to be executed for a murder he himself committed, shows a persistent ingenuity in harassing his attached dependent, Williams, who has guessed his secret, into accusing him; a brigand band, led by a philanthropic outlaw, establishes its headquarters close to a county town; Williams surpasses the average hero in prodigies of resource and endurance; Falkland, in the end, confesses his guilt in consequence of the energy with which his victim expresses the remorse he feels at making the true accusation. Yet, with all this, the story is put together with great skill. In spite of its artificial rhetoric and their own inherent improbability, there is a human quality in the characters, and Williams’s helplessness in his attempt to escape from his persecutor gives us the impression, not so much of the forced situations of a novel, as of unavoidable necessity. In fact, Godwin’s talent as a novelist lay in his remarkable powers of invention, which were heightened by his matter of fact way of relating improbabilities. He was partly aware of it, perhaps, and his other important novel, St. Leon, attempted the same feat with impossibilities. But, in spite of a temporary vogue, it is now only remembered for its portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, and the retractation of his theoretic abolition of “the charities of private life.”