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Anarchist Thinker

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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.