The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VI. Fiction I

§ 9. Brown’s Indebtedness to Godwin

It is characteristic of Brown that, while two of his notable romances recall his most vivid personal experience, all four of them wear the colours of Calbe Williams, From Godwin, Brown had his favourite subject, virtue in distress, and his favourite set of characters, a patron and a client. Perhpas he comes nearest to his master in Ormond. Constantia Dudley won the passinate regard of Shelley, to whom she was the type of virtuous humanity oppressed by evil customs. She is Brown’s picture of feminie perfection, learned, self-reliant, pure, priggish. Ormond is quite clearly the child of romance and revolution, a hero who is a villain, a creature of nature who is the master of many destinies, a free will which must act as the agent of inevitable malice. All this seems pure Godwin, but it has a certain spirit of youth and ardour which Godwin lacked. In Arthur Mervyn the hero has to undergo less than the cumulative agony of Caleb Williams, for the simple reason that Brown worked too violently to be able to organize a scheme of circumstances all bearing upon a single victim. At least in the second part of the book, the plot frays helplessly into flying ends which no memory can hold together, and the characters and “moral tendency” of a story rich in incident suffer a sad confusion. Brown was no match for Godwin in the art of calm and deliberate narrative, partly because of his vehement methods of work, partly because he lacked Godwin’s finished and consistent philosophy of life. The leaven of rationalism stirs in his work, but it does not, as with Godwin, pervade the mass.