“The Judgment of Solomon,” from William Godwin’s Bible Stories. Only a few copies of the book are known to exist. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

“Esther,” from William Godwin’s Bible Stories. His having young daughters perhaps influenced his giving female characters near equal attention. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

An illustration from William Godwin’s biography of Lady Jane Grey. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Front cover to Lady Jane Grey, which features an engraving of the Juvenile Library storefront. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece from The Looking Glass, a biography of William Mulready, William Godwin’s teenaged illustrator. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

From The Looking Glass, childhood doodles of William Godwin’s illustrator William Mulready, later a painter admired by Queen Victoria. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

An illustration from William Godwin’s History of Rome, showing the incorruptible Fabricious, unable to be bribed by the gift of an elephant. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

An illustration from William Godwin’s History of Rome, showing Scipio of Rome battling Hannibal of Carthage, in the Second Punic War. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

British monarchs of the houses of Tudor and Stuart, an illustration from William Godwin’s History of England. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Cameo portraits of eminent Greeks, an illustration from William Godwin’s History of Greece. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

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

An illustration from Mary Jane Godwin’s Dramas for Children, translated from French by L. F. Jauffret. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

A letter by Robert Southey that says of Mary Jane Godwin: “She is a very disgusting woman says Lamb, & wears green spectacles.” NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

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An illustration from The Swiss Family Robinson, perhaps the most enduring work that the Godwins published. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Charles Lamb at age 23, the year after Samuel Taylor Coleridge included his poems in a book of poetry. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

A selection from Charles Lamb’s “Elia” essays, illustrated by Walter Crane in an early 20th-century volume. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

An illustration from Beauty and the Beast. The first English version appeared when William Godwin was one year old; he found it exciting. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece from Charles Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses: “Ulysses obliges Circe to restore his companions to their shapes.” NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Illustration from Charles Lamb’s Prince Dorus. Raised by sycophantic courtiers, Dorus was never told he had a monstrously large nose. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Illustration from Charles Lamb’s Prince Dorus in which a monster abducts Dorus’s love, the fair Claribel. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Illustration from Mary Lamb’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Illustration from Charles Lamb’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Illustration from Charles Lamb’s adaptation of Macbeth. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Illustration from Charles Lamb’s adaptation of Othello. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Illustration from the Lambs’ Mrs. Leicester’s School, a collection of fictional stories about schoolgirls from different backgrounds. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece depicting the Lambs’ “The Boy and the Snake,” from their Poetry for Children. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Thomas Holcroft, a close friend of Godwin’s in the 1790s who was arrested for treason, from whom Godwin later became estranged. The men reconciled on Holcroft’s deathbed in 1809. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

An illustration from Gaffer Gray, the text of which debuted within Thomas Holcroft’s novel Hugh Trevor. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The liberal thrust of Holcroft’s Gaffer Gray, which points out the hypocrisy of greedy priests, must have appealed to his friend Godwin. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Only the poor man takes pity on the destitute in Holcroft’s Gaffer Gray. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

A portrait of Lady Mount Cashell, dating to 1802, through physionotrace, a process which actually traced the contours of the sitter’s face. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

This 1834 portrait of Lady Mount Cashell was made by her sister, who also found herself in Italy after a bad marriage. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Stories of Old Daniel was based on a real man, in his 90s, who told stories to Lady Mount Cashell when she was a girl. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece from Lady Mount Cashell’s Continuation of the Stories of Old Daniel. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece from The Mermaid at Home, published by the Godwins’ competitor John Harris. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The anthropomorphic animals in The Mermaid at Home and other early 19th-century books presaged works published later in that century such as Alice in Wonderland. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Eliza Fenwick pioneered product placement in her Visit to London by depicting the characters visiting her own publisher’s shop. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Another scene from Fenwick’s Visits to the Juvenile Library. Fenwick later worked in Godwin’s shop. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

From Eliza Fenwick’s book for very young readers, in one- and two-syllable words, Six Stories for the Nursery. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

An illustration from The Fisher Boy of Weymouth, written by Caroline Barnard, who some scholars once thought was Mary Shelley. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece from Caroline Barnard’s The Parent’s Offering, or Tales for Children, published by the Godwins. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frontispiece from The Young Travellers, just the kind of fact-based narrative that William Godwin did not like. (Perhaps publishing it was Mary Jane Godwin’s choice.) NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The Godwins’ Juvenile Library

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Shaping Younger, Malleable Minds

Mary Jane: “The Bad Baby” with Business Acumen

The Lambs of London

A Treasonous “Gaffer Gray”?

A Freer Life for a Woman

Beyond the Juvenile Library

William Godwin (1756–1836) was best known at the turn of the 19th century for his anarchist philosophy tract Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). By that point, however, his popularity was waning as a wave of conservatism swept England. But Godwin’s determination to improve the world through his writings remained unshaken and so, while he continued his efforts to influence adults through ideological novels, he also began attempting to shape younger, more malleable minds.

Philosophers of the Enlightenment gave new importance to the concept of childhood, recognizing it for the first time as a distinct phase of psychological development. By the late 18th century, publishers began to market works for children. Most of these books aimed to improve a child’s moral character, offering realistic stories in which characters learned useful facts or lessons in good behavior. Godwin, looking for books to give his own daughters, found such works repulsive and dull. He felt that they avoided what was most important to emphasize in a child’s development: the imagination. Accordingly, Godwin decided to write books that would nurture young readers’ imaginations, which he believed would foster their capacity for sympathy and help develop moral autonomy.

In 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont (1766–1841), who had experience in children’s book publishing. She encouraged him to write Bible Stories (1802), his first book for younger readers. Godwin wrote his children’s books under pseudonyms because he could not afford to have them tainted by his radical name. In 1805, the Godwins borrowed enough money to start their own bookshop and publishing company, formally established as the Juvenile Library under Mary Jane's name. Godwin eventually wrote ten books for the imprint, including biographies; histories of England, Greece, and Rome; a collection of fables; and a guide to Greek mythology called The Pantheon.

Little is known about the life of Mary Jane Clairmont before the day in 1801 when, according to legend, she approached her neighbor, asking: “Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?” Godwin’s ego was stroked by the pretty French émigré’s less-than-subtle flattery, and the two were soon married. While Mary Jane was a happy match for Godwin, she is often cast as the wicked stepmother in biographies of Mary Shelley, and she was disliked by several of Godwin’s friends. She was especially loathed by Charles Lamb, whose work Godwin often published: he referred to her in letters variously as “that bitch,” “a disgusting woman,” and “the Bad Baby.” Few people, in fact, had nice things to say about Mary Jane aside from Godwin himself, who adored her until the end and recognized his dependence on her. It was Mary Jane’s business acumen that kept the impoverished Juvenile Library running for 20 years. She also produced the first English translation of The Swiss Family Robinson. A major innovation in the development of the adventure genre, the story was wildly popular and endlessly imitated.

Godwin often sought contributions from his literary friends. After William Wordsworth turned down the opportunity to write a verse translation of the fairy tale La Belle et la Bête, the task was taken up by the poet and essayist Charles Lamb, who became the biggest contributor — sometimes in collaboration with his sister, Mary — to the Juvenile Library aside from Godwin himself.

Lamb had been a childhood friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who published some of Lamb’s verses in his own first books of poems in 1796 and 1797. The boost helped bring Lamb into London’s literary spotlight, but he didn’t find his niche as a writer until the 1820s, when his essays under the name “Elia” began appearing in London Magazine. Long since eclipsed by many of his literary contemporaries, Lamb’s confessional, sometimes sentimental essays remained popular throughout the Victorian era and early 20th century. For Godwin he wrote several picture books and an abridgement of The Odyssey, called The Adventures of Ulysses (1808), which, despite the pleadings of Godwin, he refused to sanitize (although he did agree to cut a graphic description of the Cyclops’s vomit).

All of Mary Lamb’s published works were contributions to the Juvenile Library. Remembered as a warm, kind, and cheerful hostess in the accounts of friends, only the most intimate knew that Mary, in the grip of one of her intermittent bouts of insanity, killed her mother with a carving knife in 1796. Charles had agreed to live with her for the rest of her life, lest she be locked away in an asylum. The Lambs thereafter became life partners, even adopting a child together, in what Charles would refer to as a “double singleness.” Tales from Shakespear: Designed for the Use of Young Persons (1807), their most enduring collaboration, retold a selection of the Bard’s most popular tragedies and comedies in simple prose.

The Godwin firm also published the notable novelist and playwright Thomas Holcroft, whose poem “Gaffer Gray” was used as the text for a socially critical picture book in 1805. Holcroft, who was believed to have aided in the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, was arrested and indicted for treason in 1794. Godwin might also have met such a fate if he had not shrewdly priced his tract Political Justice so high as to be deemed unthreatening to the masses.

One Juvenile Library book, Stories of Old Daniel (1808), was popular enough to warrant a sequel. Its author was Margaret King Moore, Lady Mount Cashell, an Irish noblewoman who, as a child, had Mary Wollstonecraft as a governess. The young Margaret King was the inspiration for one of the characters in Wollstonecraft’s own children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), in which a rational and rather starchy teacher named Mrs. Mason instructs two unruly girls in lessons of morality. Lady Mount Cashell idolized her former governess and sought to model her own life on her teachings; when she abandoned her unhappy marriage for a freer life in Italy, she even adopted the name “Mrs. Mason.” Her interest in medicine led her to dress as a man to attend medical lectures forbidden to women, and she later ran a clinic for the poor in Pisa. When Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, moved to Italy, she became an invaluable friend to the young couple.

Throughout the lifespan of Godwin’s Juvenile Library, 1805 to 1825, the children’s book trade in London remained heavily influenced, as it had been in the previous century, by the legacy of John Newbery, the first publisher to focus specifically on children. In 1792, some 25 years after his death, publisher Darton & Harvey purchased the rights to many of his books from his heirs, and kept his works in print well into the second decade of the 19th century. Newbery’s own business was bought around 1802 by John Harris, who took the company to new heights with lavishly produced picture books that Godwin’s undercapitalized firm could not hope to match.

Godwin’s sales and output were dwarfed by such major publishers and, as a result, his Juvenile Library is usually a mere footnote in larger histories of English children’s books. Yet two of the books Godwin published — Tales from Shakespear and The Swiss Family Robinson — have never gone out of print, a distinction unmatched by any of his competitors.

Often, books for children are written as a means to an end: as a tool to instill morality, teach something useful, or simply to keep the little monsters quiet. For this reason, they rarely stand the test of time. Today, we largely appreciate children’s books of the early 19th century for their rarity, for their illustrations, and perhaps for the occasional charms and antiquated prose. But their true value lies in their reflection of the beliefs and anxieties of an age. In Godwin’s time, as in our own, anyone interested in knowing what society deemed important, what it thought dangerous, and how it believed a person should behave and dream, need look no further than to the books we put into the hands of children.

 

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