Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. Caleb Williams; St. Leon

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

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 6. Caleb Williams; St. Leon

Godwin, though he wrote three early novels of which even biographers have been able to say little or nothing, and which fail to leave the slightest effect on the most industrious searchers out of them, produced nothing of importance in this kind till long after Holcroft, who, indeed, was a much older man. But Caleb Williams (1794) is the most famous and St. Leon (1799), with all its misplanning and even unreadableness, the most original, of the group; so we may begin with Godwin.

Both the books mentioned are closely connected with Political Justice, to the account of which, elsewhere, reference must be made: their successors Fleetwood (1805), Mandeville (1817) and Cloudesley (1830), though they can hardly be said to be alien in temper, have far less distinction, and it is doubtful whether anyone now living has read them twice. The present writer, some years ago, found a first reading severe enough exercise to indispose him towards repetition of it, though Fleetwood, perhaps, is worth reading once. Caleb Williams, on the other hand, has been repeatedly reprinted and has, undoubtedly, exercised real fascination on a large number of well-qualified readers. It is, indeed, usual to praise it; and, in such work (for novels are meant to please, and, if they please, there is little more to be said), it is unnecessary and, indeed, idle to affect exception. The book is certainly full of ingenuity; and the doubles and checks and fresh starts of the criminal Falkland and his half unwilling servant and detective Caleb display that molelike patience and consecutiveness which distinguish Godwin’s thought throughout his work. To some tastes, however, not only is the “nervous impression (as Flaubert called it, in a phrase of great critical value) disagreeable, but there is an additional drawback in the total inability which they, at least, feel to sympathise with either master or man. If, at about half way in the length of the actual book, Falkland could have been made to commit a second murder on Caleb and be hanged for it, the interest would, to these tastes, have been considerably improved. Still, Caleb Williams has, generally, been found exciting. St. Leon, though some have thought it “terrible,” has more often incurred the charge of dulness. It is dull, and, yet, strangely enough, one feels, as, at least in the cases above referred to, one does not feel in respect of Caleb Williams, that it just misses being a masterpiece. It represents that curious element of “occultism” which mixed itself largely with the revolutionary temper, and is associated for all time in literature with the names of Cagliostro and Mesmer. It contains the best examples of Godwin’s very considerable, if rather artificial, power of ornate writing. The character of the heroine or part-heroine Marguerite (who has always been supposed to be intended for a study of the author’s famous wife Mary Wollstonecraft), if, again, a little conventional, is, really, sympathetic. Had the thing been more completely brought off, one might even have pardoned, though it would have been hardly possible not to notice, the astonishing anachronisms, not merely of actual fact, but of style and diction, which distinguish almost the whole group dealt with in this chapter, and which were only done away with by Scott in the historical or quasi-historical novel. And, it is of great importance, especially in a historical survey, to remember that, when the problem of the authorship of the Waverley Novels presented itself, persons of very high competence did not dismiss as preposterous the notion that Godwin might be “the Great Unknown.” In fact, he had, as these two books show, and as others do not wholly disprove, not a few of the characteristics of a novelist, and of a great one. He could make a plot; he could imagine character; and he could write. What deprived him of the position he might have reached was the constant presence of purpose, the constant absence of humour and the frequent lack, almost more fatal still, of anything like passion. The cold-bloodedness of Godwin and his lack of humour were, to some extent, sources of power to him in writings like Political Justice; they destroyed all hope of anything but abnormal success in novel-writing.