The Reading Room

OLL’s March Birthday: William Godwin (March 3, 1756 – April 7, 1836)

March’s OLL Birthday essay is in honor of the English journalist, novelist, and radical political philosopher William Godwin.  A pioneering figure in Utilitarianism and anarchist thought, Godwin had a profound influence in the subsequent development of both liberalism and socialism.  
Godwin was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, son of John and Anne Godwin, the seventh of thirteen children. Both of his parents were Calvinists, and came from old Dissenting families, and John was a Nonconformist Minister.  With such a family history, he was destined for the ministry and after a childhood being tutored as a strict Calvinist in 1771 he went to the Dissenting Academy in Hoxton, a center of liberal learning.  Besides Locke and Newton, he was exposed to Rousseau and Diderot, and by the time he graduated in 1778 was a liberal republican. Upon graduation he served as a minister in several parishes, although he found himself in frequent arguments with his fellow pastors over matters of doctrine and church administration.  He finally, in 1782, left the ministry and moved to London, seeking to support himself through writing.  For the next several years he eked out a living writing pieces for various newspapers and journals, as well as pamphlets, and a romantic novel.  His radical predisposition began to manifest itself in his writings, which included attacks on the legitimacy of government, and even on the authority of God.
In 1789 Godwin emerged as a staunch supporter of the revolution in France and quickly became the center of the radical circles in England.  His informal leadership of the Radicals sprang from two books, both part of what became known as the Revolution Controversy.  This term describes the vigorous debate, carried out through pamphlets, books, and lectures following the outbreak of the French Revolution.  It began in 1790 with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (which defended the Bourbon Monarchy), followed by Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man.  Godwin contributed to this debate with his publication of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), which became one of his most enduring works.  Rather than explicitly examine particular aspects of the French Revolution, its theoretical and philosophical approach amounted to the first modern exposition of Anarchism (though Godwin himself did not use the term).  It was tremendously popular among Radicals and Romantics (often the same people). An Enquiry was followed in 1794 by his novel Things as they Are; or the Adventures of Caleb Williams.  Set as a kind of murder mystery, the story traces the unfortunate life of Caleb Williams, a poor but decent man, who is beset by a corrupt, venal, and violent society dominated by the rich and powerful.  Together, these two books secured Godwin’s reputation among the Radicals and other supporters of the French Revolution.  His circle of friends and admirers included Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Blake, among many others. They were all frequent guests of the famous London publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), a supporter and benefactor of numerous radicals and dissenters, who was famous for his dinners and parties.  
It was at one such gathering that Godwin made the acquaintance of Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1796.  They had actually met briefly years before (also at one of Johnson’s parties, as it happened) shortly before she left for France in 1794.  When they met again, she had just returned to London after harrowing adventures in the midst of the revolution, and still heartbroken from an affair with an American adventurer.  Godwin and Wollstonecraft had long admired each other’s work (Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman had caused a sensation), and this professional admiration quickly grew into friendship and then romantic attraction.  When Wollstonecraft became pregnant they decided to get married, which shocked many of Godwin’s admirers, as he had previously condemned the institution of marriage as barbaric and tyrannical.   
Despite the loss of many of their friends and admirers because of their marriage, their relationship was loving and happy.  It was also tragically brief, as Wollstonecraft died shortly after delivering her baby, a girl, also named Mary, who later married Percy Bysshe Shelly (of whom more to follow) and became famous in her own right as the author of Frankenstein.  Godwin was deeply grief stricken.  Determined to immortalize his deceased wife, he wrote her biography, Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (published 1798).  It was a remarkably, even shockingly, candid work in which Godwin’s pain and anguish over Mary’s death is palpable.  At the same time, he spares the reader no details about her tumultuous love life, illegitimate child, and suicide attempts. 
Having lived most of his life as a bachelor, Godwin now found himself a widowed father of two small children (Mary and Fanny Imlay, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft by her American lover Gilbert Imlay).  By all accounts, Godwin was a loving father, and did everything he could to make the children comfortable, in the face of his mounting debts and the constant threat of impoverishment.  As they got older, he took special care of their education as well.
In 1801, Godwin married again, this time to a neighbor named Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841), who brought with her two (illegitimate) children.  Relations within the new mixed family were fraught, as Mary Jane doted on her own children while ignoring Fanny and Mary who, in turn, came to loathe their stepmother.  Godwin and his new wife, for their part, opened a publishing house, The Juvenile Library, which, as its name implies, specialized in children’s books.  Godwin himself authored several books of stories (including a version of the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk) under the pen name “Edward Baldwin” (fearing that using his own name would be too controversial for their intended customers).  It was moderately successful and for years was the main source of income for the family, which otherwise teetered precariously on the verge of poverty.
In 1812 Godwin got a fan letter from a young man named Percy Bysshe Shelly, and he responded with an open invitation to visit.  Over the next years Shelly became a frequent visitor at the Godwin house and Godwin became his valued friend and mentor.  Things took a much different turn when Shelly fell in love with Mary (then 16).  Though Godwin had come to like Shelly, he strongly disapproved of their affair (not least because Shelly was, rather inconveniently, already married).  The two eloped in 1814 (accompanied by Jane Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister), nevertheless.  
For the next several years, Godwin was beset by financial and personal problems.  He refused to see Mary and Percy until they got married (though he accepted periodic gifts of money from Shelly).  The Godwin home became a tense and gloomy place, not helped by Godwin’s mounting financial problems.  Fanny, Mary Wollstonecraft’s first daughter, became increasingly lonely and depressed and committed suicide in 1816.  Shortly thereafter came the news that Shelly’s wife, Harriet, had killed herself as well.  Her death, however, enabled Mary and Percy to marry, at least making possible a rapprochement between Godwin and his daughter.  Their relationship deepened further when Mary, following the death of Shelly in 1822, moved back to England with their son.  
Godwin continued to write, including a four volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1828)But in the meantime, his debts finally caught up with him and he declared bankruptcy in 1825.  The Juvenile Library closed and the Godwins had to move to more modest accommodations.  Godwin continued to write and publish, however, and the family scraped by.  In 1833 the new Whig government gave Godwin a position as a custodian in the Palace of Westminster, i.e., the British parliament building.  It included a modest pension and a residence.  Though a rather ironic sort of position for an anarchist, it at least provided a modicum of security for him and Mary Jane.  
Godwin died a few years later and was buried in Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St. Pancras.  When Mary Shelly died, in 1851, her son had Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft’s remains transferred to her grave in Bournemouth, where they all rest together.