Sophia Gent’s 1832 watercolor portrait of William Godwin was donated to The New York Public Library by the great-great-granddaughter of Mary Jane Godwin. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

This copy of Godwin’s Political Justice bears markings and annotations by Shelley and by Lady Mount Cashell. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

In the margin, Shelley comments on Godwin’s assertion that an act of government should only be submitted to if it is just. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

James Gillray’s 1798 “New Morality” is populated by, among others, William Godwin as a diminutive ass (in the foreground, just left of center). NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

John Opie’s 1797 portrait of Wollstonecraft, in a copy commissioned by one of her American admirers, Aaron Burr. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

In her revolutionary polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft argued women were — or ought to be — autonomous beings with lives, minds, and identities of their own. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Sunday, November 13, 1791: Godwin records in his journal that he dined at the home of radical publisher Joseph Johnson with Thomas Paine and “Wolstencraft.” Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

More Views

Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft writes to a friend that she is “very well, only a little impatient to regain my activity.” NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece to Godwin’s memoir of his late wife; it brought not fame, but infamy, to author and subject alike. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Following Fanny’s suicide, Godwin writes to Shelley, imploring him to “avoid any thing that leads to publicity.” Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

More Views

Frontispiece to the Juvenile Library’s Dramas for Children, “imitated from the French” most probably by Mary Jane Godwin. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Godwin considered Northcote’s portrait, painted between 1801 and 1802, the “principal memorandum of my corporal existence that will remain after my death.” NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

William Godwin: Revolutionary Father

share

Anarchist Thinker

Seeds of Antagonism

Marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft

“Stripping His Dead Wife Naked”

Mary Jane Godwin and the Juvenile Library

William Godwin (1756–1836) is often remembered as a supporting cast member in the lives of more famous British Romantic figures: as the husband of the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft; as the father-in-law of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; or as the father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. But, during the political turmoil in England precipitated by the French Revolution, Godwin made a name for himself both as a novelist and as an innovative, radical thinker with his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), considered the first expression of modern anarchist philosophy.

The views Godwin espoused in Political Justice — atheism, faith in human perfectibility, and a belief that government and marriage are inherently evil — elicited praise and public derision alike. The most popular of his novels, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), further developed his political ideas. Despite the success of Caleb Williams, which has been called the first “psychological thriller,” Godwin’s name came to stand for radical political extremism and, in the minds of many, immorality. When he began writing and publishing children’s books in the early years of the 19th century, he thus took on pseudonyms; few conservative parents would have willingly exposed their impressionable young to the works of William Godwin.

During the 20 years that Godwin and his second wife, Mary Jane, operated the Juvenile Library imprint, they produced an impressive line of titles in the increasingly competitive field of children’s book publishing. Much of their appeal stemmed from Godwin’s conviction that children’s literature should, above all, inspire the imagination. Many still believed that a child’s imagination was dangerous, and that inborn sinfulness needed to be squelched early on through discipline. Tales that overtly taught morality were the standard of the day, but books under Godwin’s imprint often enabled young readers to draw the moral of a story on their own.

The seeds of Godwin’s antagonism to government were sown in his youth. He was born in the small English town of Wisbech to a family of Dissenters, Protestants who had broken from the Anglican Church and were consequently deprived of many political rights. As a young man, Godwin followed his father into the ministry, but after a brief and disappointing stint as a clergyman, he left in 1783 for London, where he managed a meager existence as a writer and journalist.

Growing disdainful of the oppressive status quo, and inspired by reformist works such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–92), Godwin published his masterpiece, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1793. Written during the French Revolution, it argued that man and society were perfectible. If individuals were allowed to follow their own reason and private judgment, unconstrained by law or custom, then their actions would naturally be benevolent, maximally beneficial both to themselves and to others, allowing repressive institutions to fade away — government would be unnecessary. Because of these ideas, Godwin is known as the father of philosophical anarchism.

Godwin’s polemic brought him real fame, striking a chord with British advocates of social reform whose excitement and hopes had been roused by the revolution in France. The optimism of Political Justice also exerted a powerful influence on Percy Bysshe Shelley, who read the work avidly as a young man and returned to it regularly, annotating the copy shown here in 1820.

Even before the publication of Political Justice, Godwin’s other writings had drawn him into the circle of London’s radical political and literary elite. At a dinner with Thomas Paine, in 1791, Godwin met the woman who changed his life: Mary Wollstonecraft, who would soon become known for her groundbreaking Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an impassioned call for equality between the sexes. Upon their first meeting, Wollstonecraft thought Godwin argued too much; Godwin thought Wollstonecraft talked too much.

When Godwin and Wollstonecraft met again in 1796, they fell in love. Godwin found his world of reason breached by the irrationality of passion. Furthermore, after Wollstonecraft became pregnant, he compromised his own views on marriage to spare her from the then-crippling stigma of unwed motherhood, and the couple quickly legitimized their relationship. Wollstonecraft already had one child, Fanny Imlay, who many correctly suspected was born out of wedlock; two bastard children would have damaged her reputation beyond repair.

For 48 years, Godwin kept a daily journal, briefly and methodically recording his unvarying routine of reading, writing, and dining out. His circle of friends and acquaintances was enormous, and the journal is an invaluable record of the political and cultural life of the time. It is also possible to trace his relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft in its pages (the first page in the diary to mention her — her name misspelled — is seen here). Their evenings and nights together are marked “chez moi” and “chez elle,” and the sexual nature of these occasions is recorded using a system of dashes and dots.

Things seemed to be going well for William Godwin: he had achieved the status he had yearned for his entire life; was in love with a beautiful, brilliant woman; and their child was on the way. But, like many great romances, this one was tragically short-lived. Just 10 days after the birth of their daughter, the future Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever.

Published only four months after Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been called the first modern biography. At the time, however, its frankness and emotional candor provoked general outrage. Godwin did not hesitate to include the most painful and scandalous episodes of Mary’s life: her brutal, drunken father; her affair with Gilbert Imlay and the birth of their illegitimate daughter, Fanny; her two suicide attempts; her unconventional religious faith; and the ghastly details of her death. The poet Robert Southey condemned Godwin for “stripping his dead wife naked.”

Fanny Imlay committed suicide in Swansea in October 1816, aged 22. Her quiet character had attracted little attention, and her reasons for taking her own life remain obscure. Before taking an overdose of laudanum, she composed a final note: “I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series [source?] of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare.” Fearing scandal, a distraught Godwin urged Shelley to say nothing of the tragedy, writing to his son-in-law, in the letter shown here, that Fanny’s death was to be kept a secret.

Some three years after Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, a widow who came with two children, Charles and Jane (later Claire). Their own son, William, was born in 1803. Godwin continued to write books of all kinds, producing histories, essays, and novels.

In 1805, as a moneymaking venture, Godwin and Mary Jane began a bookshop and publishing business, which was formally established as the Juvenile Library under Mary Jane’s name. Writing under a number of pseudonyms, Godwin produced a series of books for children. His friends also contributed to the enterprise, among them Charles and Mary Lamb, who wrote Tales from Shakespeare (1807), one of the Juvenile Library’s most successful titles. Mary Jane, who, before her marriage to Godwin, had worked as a translator from the French and as an editor of children’s books, also contributed titles to the list, including the instructional Dramas for Children; or, Gentle Reproofs for Their Faults (1817). Although the publishing venture proved successful, Godwin was nevertheless perpetually in and out of debt.

Godwin was in his early fifties when he sat for the portrait painter James Northcote, in July 1801 and May 1802. He considered Northcote’s portrait the “principal memorandum of my corporal existence that will remain after my death.” An acquaintance, William Austin, wrote: “Imagine to yourself a man of short stature, whose ruddy, thoughtful, yet open countenance discovers both the temperature of health and philosophy: of manners remarkably mild, unassuming, rather reserved; in conversation cautious, argumentative, frequently doubtful, yet modestly courting reply, more from a desire of truth, than a love of contending.” Originally issued in 1802, the mezzotint version of the Northcote portrait (seen here) was reissued soon after Godwin’s death, aged 80, in April 1836.

 

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.

Patrons who contribute comments are asked to read our Policy on Patron-Generated Web Content.

View our privacy policy