“Five-and-twenty-years ago,” wrote of his friend and mentor, “he was in the very zenith of a sultry and unwholesome popularity; he blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation; no one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after... . Now he has sunk below the horizon, and enjoys the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality.” William Godwin’s immortality is still in doubt, but William St. Clair’s superb new biography should help. Though capacious enough to include a great deal about Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft, “The Godwins and the Shelleys” is centered on Godwin from beginning to end. Even Shelleyans will be grateful for this focus: it’s novel and satisfying to see Shelley drawn to human scale, rather than as a Promethean hero, or a specimen of romantic narcissism. Godwin was born in 1756 to a poor family of Dissenting clergymen in the ____, physically and culturally the gloomiest region of England. Young William also studied for the ministry, but wherever he took up a post, his unworldly, almost fanatical candor alienated either the neighboring clergy or his own congregation. Eventually he came upon D’Holbach, Helvétius, Diderot, and Priestley. That was the end of his Calvinism.
He moved to London and became a Grub Street hack, churning out book reviews and political pamphlets as well as several volumes of biography, history, and translation, trashy novels and plays, and even a collection of parodies. The French Revolution made his heart quicken, and he was outraged by Burke’s attack on it. In response he wrote “An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness” (1793), a summa of Enlightened thought on just about every subject.
The first edition of “Political Justice” was, epistemologically and politically, the most radical. Godwin gave the 18th-century associationist psychology an unflinchingly materialistic formulation. Mental processes were causally determined; the “chain of necessity” excluded free will, eternal punishment, and similar superstitions. The equivalent political superstitions were hereditary authority and natural law: institutions, especially governments but also families and schools, should not be presumed legitimate but must justify themselves rationally, as conducive to the general welfare.
All this sounds a bit musty now, but then, delivered with Godwin’s incomparable ardor and eloquence, it was a bombshell. In later editions, under the influence of Coleridge, Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft, he conceded greater importance to domestic affections and the imagination. But in the early 1790s, Godwin and his book seemed like emanations of pure Reason.
“Political Justice” and his subsequent, enormously successful novel, “Things As They Are”, or the “Adventures of Caleb Williams” (1794), made Godwin the best- known author in England. Then came the anti-Jacobin reaction. The English ruling class was terrified of the broad popular sympathy for the French Revolution. Repression was ferocious. Anti-sedition laws gave the government nearly absolute discretion. Several of Godwin’s friends were put on trial together in an attempt to crush the opposition at a blow. Godwin wrote a brilliantly effective pamphlet at tacking both the indictment and the laws and helped bring about an acquittal.
But the reaction ground on. One of the many virtues of “The Godwins and the Shelleys” is that it reminds contemporary readers of just how ruthless ruling classes are when challenged. The “Anti-Jacobin Review” sounds uncannily like William F. Buckley’s “National Review” in its unctuous rationalizations of cruelty and neglect. At the nadir of the reaction, Godwin’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” and possibly the most unpopular woman of her generation, died. Godwin published a passionate memoir in her defense. So fierce was the outrage it provoked that his own popularity vanished, never to revive.
Today most literary types probably know Godwin mainly as the old fart who gave his son-in-law, Shelley, a hard time. St Clair shows that their relationship was a bit more complicated. Shelley was truly feckless, an incorrigible dabbler, irresistible but unreliable. For 10 years Godwin barely managed to stay out of debtor’s prison, while Shelley hopped around Europe, unable to concentrate on Godwin’s financial problems long enough to rescue him. And because Shelley had already (and rather impetuously) married some one else, Godwin’s beloved daughter, still in her teens, had to live abroad—a real hardship for her aging father.
Shelley, at any rate, did not consider Godwin an old fart. In the first draft of “The Revolt of Islam”, he described Godwin’s effect on his own generation and Shelley’s:
A voice went forth from that
Which was the echo of three
And the tumultuous world stood
mute to hear it,
As some lone man who on a sudden
The music of his home...
The music has faded, probably forever. Politically and philosophically, Godwinism is as dated as perukes. But he helped keep the lamp of Enlightenment lit through dark times. Those times, and that luminous, not always unshaken Spirit, come alive again briefly in St Clair’s fine book.