William Godwin facts for kids
Quick facts for kids
Portrait by Henry William Pickersgill
3 March 1756|
Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England
|Died||7 April 1836
Westminster, London, England
(m. 1797; died 1797)
Mary Jane Clairmont
William Godwin (3 March 1756 – 7 April 1836) was an English journalist, political philosopher and novelist. He is considered one of the first exponents of utilitarianism and the first modern proponent of anarchism. Godwin is most famous for two books that he published within the space of a year: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, an attack on political institutions, and Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, an early mystery novel which attacks aristocratic privilege. Based on the success of both, Godwin featured prominently in the radical circles of London in the 1790s. He wrote prolifically in the genres of novels, history and demography throughout his life.
In the conservative reaction to British radicalism, Godwin was attacked, in part because of his marriage to the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and his candid biography of her after her death from childbirth. Their daughter, later known as Mary Shelley, would go on to write Frankenstein and marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. With his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, Godwin set up The Juvenile Library, allowing the family to write their own works for children (sometimes using noms de plume) and translate and publish many other books, some of enduring significance. Godwin has had considerable influence on British literature and literary culture.
- Early life and education
- Early writing
- Marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft
- Second marriage and book publishing
- Later years and death
- Legacy and memorials
- Works and ideas
- Major works
- Family tree
- See also
Early life and education
Godwin was born in Wisbech, Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, to John and Anne Godwin, becoming the seventh of his parents' thirteen children. Godwin's family on both sides were middle-class and his parents adhered to a strict form of Calvinism. Godwin's mother came from a wealthy family but due to her uncle's frivolities the family wealth was squandered. Fortunately for the family, her father was a successful merchant involved in the Baltic Sea trade. Shortly following William's birth, his father John, a Nonconformist minister, moved the family to Debenham in Suffolk and later to Guestwick in Norfolk, which had a radical history as a Roundhead stronghold during the English Civil War. At the local meeting house, John Godwin often found himself sitting in "Cromwell's Chair", which had been a gift to the town by the Lord Protector. John never inspired love or much regret in his son; but in spite of wide differences of opinion, tender affection always subsisted between William Godwin and his mother, until her death at an advanced age.
William Godwin came from a long line of English Dissenters, who faced religious discrimination by the British government, and was inspired by his grandfather and father to take up the dissenting tradition and become a minister himself. At eleven years old, he became the sole pupil of Samuel Newton, a hard-line Calvinist and a disciple of Robert Sandeman. Although Newton's strict method of discipline left Godwin with a lasting anti-authoritarianism, Godwin internalized the Sandemanian creed, which emphasised rationalism, egalitarianism and consensus decision-making. Despite Godwin's later renunciation of Christianity, he maintained his Sandemanian roots, which he held responsible for his commitment to rationalism, as well as his stoic personality. Godwin later characterised Newton as, "... a celebrated north country apostle, who, after Calvin damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin." In 1771, Godwin was finally dismissed by Newton and returned home, but his father died the following year, which prompted his mother to urge him to continue his education.
At seventeen years old, Godwin began higher education at the Dissenting Academy in Hoxton, where he studied under Andrew Kippis, the biographer, and Dr. Abraham Rees, who was responsible for the Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. A hotspot for classical liberalism, at the Academy, Godwin familiarized himself with John Locke's approach to psychology, Isaac Newton's scientific method and Francis Hutcheson's ethical system, which all informed Godwin's philosophies of determinism and immaterialism. Although Godwin had joined the Academy as a committed Tory, the outbreak of the American Revolution led him to support the Whig opposition and, after reading the works of Jonathan Swift, he became a staunch republican. He soon familiarised himself with the French philosophes, learning of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's belief in the inherent goodness of human nature and opposition to private property, as well as Claude Adrien Helvétius's utilitarianism and Paul-Henri Thiry's materialism.
In 1778, Godwin graduated from the academy and was quickly appointed as a minister in Ware, where he met Joseph Fawcett, one of his main direct influences. By 1780, he had been reassigned to Stowmarket, where he first read Paul-Henri Thiry's System of Nature, adopting his philosophies of determinism and materialism. But after a conflict with other dissenting ministers of Suffolk over the administration of the eucharist, he stepped down and left for London in April 1782, resigning his career as a minister to become a writer.
Throughout 1783, Godwin published a series of written works, beginning with an anonymously-published biography of William Pitt the Elder, followed by a couple of pro-Whig political pamphlets. He also briefly attempted to return to ministerial work in Beaconsfield, where he preached that "faith should be subordinated to reason". A few months later, during the opening of a seminary in Epsom, Godwin gave a politically-charged speech in which he denounced state power as "artificial" and exalted the libertarian potential of education, which he believed could bring an end to authoritarian governments. Godwin then worked for a spell as a satirical literary critic, publishing The Herald of Literature, in which he reviewed non-existent works by real authors, imitating their writing styles in lengthy quotations.
His work on the Herald secured him further work as a critic for John Murray's English Review and a commission to translated Simon Fraser's memoirs. In 1784, he published the romantic novels Damon and Delia and Imogen, the latter of which was framed as a translation of a found manuscript from ancient Wales. That same year, he also published Sketches of History, which compiled six of his sermons about the characters of Aaron, Hazael and Jesus. Drawing from John Milton's Paradise Lost, which depicted Satan as a rebel against his creator, Godwin denounced the Christian God as a theocrat and a tyrant that had no right to rule.
As his early works were financially unsuccessful, Godwin started writing for well-paying Whig journals on Grub Street, starting work as a political journalist for the New Annual Register after being introduced to Georgie Robinson by Andrew Kippis. Godwin's work was then picked up by the Political Herald, where he wrote under the pseudonym of "Mucius" in order to attack the Tories. He subsequently reported on the Pitt ministry's colonial rule in Ireland and India; penned a history of the Dutch Revolt and predicted the outbreak of a revolutionary wave in Europe.
After the death of the Political Herald's editor, Godwin turned down Richard Brinsley Sheridan's offer of succeeding to the editorship, out of concern that his editorial independence would be compromised by a direct financial connection to the Whig Party. But it was through Sheridan that Godwin became acquainted with a life-long friend Thomas Holcroft, whose arguments convinced Godwin to finally reject Christianity and embrace atheism. At the same time, Godwin took up a side job as a tutor for the young Thomas Abthorpe Cooper. After a fractious relationship between the two, Godwin eventually became the orphaned boy's adoptive father, which altered his style of pedagogy to one that emphasised "an open and honest relationship between tutor and pupil."
With the outbreak of the French Revolution, Godwin was among the Radicals that enthusiastically welcomed the events as the spiritual successor to Britain's own Glorious Revolution of 1688. As a member of the Revolution Society, Godwin met the political activist Richard Price, whose Discourse on the Love of Our Country espoused a radical form of patriotism that controversially upheld freedom of religion, representative democracy and the right of revolution. Price's Discourse ignited a pamphlet war, beginning with Edmund Burke's publication of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which defended traditionalist conservatism and opposed revolution. In response to Burke, Thomas Paine published his Rights of Man with the help of Godwin, who declared that "the seeds of revolution it contains are so vigorous in their stamina, that nothing can overpower them."
But Godwin's voice remained largely absent from the Revolution Controversy, as he had started writing a work of political philosophy that developed on his radical principles. With George Robinson's financial support, Godwin quit his work at the New Annual Register and committed himself wholly to his magnum opus, which he hoped would condense the "best and most liberal in the science of politics into a coherent system". After sixteen months' work, while the revolution in France had culminated with the execution of Louis XVI and the outbreak of war, Godwin published his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in February 1793.
Marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft
Godwin first met Mary Wollstonecraft at the home of their mutual publisher. Joseph Johnson was hosting a dinner for another of his authors, Thomas Paine, and Godwin remarked years later that on that evening he heard too little of Paine and too much of Wollstonecraft; he did not see her again for some years. In the interim, Wollstonecraft went to live in France to witness the Revolution for herself, and had a child, Fanny Imlay, with an American adventurer named Gilbert Imlay. In pursuit of Gilbert Imlay's business affairs, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia, and soon afterwards published a book based on the voyage. Godwin read it, and later wrote that "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book."
When Godwin and Wollstonecraft were reintroduced in 1796, their respect for each other soon grew into friendship and love. Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be considered legitimate by society. Their marriage revealed the fact that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay, and as a result she and Godwin lost many friends. Godwin received further criticism because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in Political Justice. After their marriage at St. Pancras on 29 March 1797, they moved into two adjoining houses in Somers Town so that they could both still retain their independence; they often communicated by notes delivered by servants.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in Somers Town on 30 August 1797, the couple's only child. Godwin had hoped for a son and had been planning on naming the child "William." On 10 September 1797 Wollstonecraft died of complications following the birth. By all accounts, it had been a happy and stable, though brief, relationship. Now Godwin, who had been a bachelor until a few months before, was distraught at the loss of the love of his life. Simultaneously, he became responsible for the care of these two young girls, the new-born Mary and toddler Fanny.
When Mary was three years old, Godwin left his daughters in the care of James Marshall while he travelled to Ireland. Godwin's tone in his letters demonstrates how much he cared about them. His letters show the stress he placed on giving his two daughters a sense of security. "And now what shall I say for my poor little girls? I hope they have not forgot me. I think of them every day, and should be glad, if the wind was more favourable, to blow them a kiss a-piece from Dublin to the Polygon.. but I have seen none that I love so well or think half so good as my own."
In December 1800 his play Antonio, or the Soldier's Return was put on at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane without success.
Second marriage and book publishing
In 1801, Godwin married his neighbour Mary Jane Clairmont. She brought two of her own children into the household, Charles and Claire. Journalist H.N. Brailsford wrote in 1913, "She was a worldly woman, thoroughly feminine, and rather inclined to boast of her total ignorance of philosophy." While Fanny eventually learned to live with Clairmont, Mary's relationship with her stepmother was tense. Mary writes, "As to Mrs Godwin, something very analogous to disgust arises whenever I mention her", "A woman I shudder to think of".
In 1805, the Godwins set up a shop and publishing house called the Juvenile Library, significant in the history of children's literature. Through this, Godwin wrote children's primers on Biblical and classical history, and using the pseudonym Edward Baldwin, he wrote a variety of books for children, including a version of Jack and the Beanstalk, and a biography of the Irish artist William Mulready, who illustrated works for them. They kept alive family ties, publishing the first book by Margaret King (then Lady Mount Cashell), who had been a favoured pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft. They published works never since out of print, such as Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. The Juvenile Library also translated European authors. The first English edition of Swiss Family Robinson was translated (from the French, not the German) and edited by them. The business was the family's mainstay for decades.
In 1807 his Tragedy Faulkener was performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane without more success than his earlier play.
The eldest of Godwin's children was Fanny Imlay (1794–1816), who died as a young woman. Charles Gaulis Clairmont ended up as Chair of English literature at Vienna University and taught sons of the royal family; news of his sudden death in 1849 distressed Maximilian. Mary Godwin (1797–1851) gained fame as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Half a year younger than her was Claire Clairmont, Mary Jane's only daughter, to whom she showed favouritism. The youngest, and the only child of the second marriage, was William Godwin the Younger (1803–1832). Godwin sent him first to Charterhouse School and then to various other establishments of a practical bent. Nonetheless, he eventually earned his living by the pen. He died at 29, leaving the manuscript of a novel, which Godwin saw into print. All of Godwin's children who lived into adulthood worked as writers or educators, carrying on his legacy and that of his wives. Only two of them had children who in turn survived: Percy Florence Shelley, and the son and daughter of Charles. Godwin did not welcome the birth of Allegra Byron, but Claire's only child died aged five.
Godwin had high hopes for Mary, giving her a more rigorous intellectual experience than most women of her period, and describing her as "very intelligent." He wished to give his daughter a more "masculine education" and prepared her to be a writer. However, Godwin withdrew his support as Mary became a woman and pursued her relationship with Percy Shelley. Mary's first two novels, Frankenstein and Mathilda, may be seen as a reaction to her childhood. Both explore the role of the father in the child's socialisation and the control the father has on the child's future. Shelley's last two novels, Lodore and Falkner, re-evaluate the father-daughter relationship. They were written at a time when Shelley was raising her only surviving child alone and supporting her ageing father. In both novels, the daughter eludes the father's control by giving him the traditional maternal figure he asks for. This relationship gives the daughter control of the father.
Later years and death
Godwin was awarded a sinecure position as Office Keeper and Yeoman Usher of the Receipt of the Exchequer, which came with grace and favour accommodation in New Palace Yard, part of the complex of the Palace of Westminster, i.e. the Houses of Parliament. One of his duties was to oversee the sweeping of the chimneys of these extensive buildings. On 16 October 1832, a fire broke out and most of the Palace burned down. Literary critic Marilyn Butler concluded her review of a 1980 biography of Godwin by comparing him favourably to Guy Fawkes: Godwin was more successful in his opposition to the status quo.
In later years, Godwin came to expect support and consolation from his daughter. Two of the five children he had raised had pre-deceased him, and two more lived abroad. Mary responded to his expectations and she cared for him until he died in 1836.
Legacy and memorials
Godwin was buried next to Mary Wollstonecraft in the graveyard of St Pancras, the church where they had married in 1797. His second wife outlived him, and eventually was buried there too. The three share a gravestone. In the 1850s, Mary Shelley's only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, had the remains of Godwin and Wollstonecraft moved from what had become a run-down area of the capital to the more salubrious surroundings of Bournemouth, to his family tomb at St Peter's Church.
The surviving manuscripts for many of Godwin's best-known works are held in the Forster Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A's manuscripts for Political Justice and Caleb Williams were both digitised in 2017 and are now included in the Shelley-Godwin Archive.
His birthplace, Wisbech, has two memorials to him. A cul-de-sac was named in his honour Godwin Close, and a wall plaque adorns a building adjacent to the Angles Theatre in Alexandra Road.
Works and ideas
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Caleb Williams
In 1793, while the French Revolution was in full swing, Godwin published his great work on political science, Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. The first part of this book was largely a recap of Edmund Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society – a critique of the state. Godwin acknowledged the influence of Burke for this portion. The rest of the book is Godwin's positive vision of how an anarchist (or minarchist) society might work. Political Justice was extremely influential in its time: after the writings of Burke and Paine, Godwin's was the most popular written response to the French Revolution. Godwin's work was seen by many as illuminating a middle way between the fiery extremes of Burke and Paine. Prime Minister William Pitt famously said that there was no need to censor it, because at over £1 it was too costly for the average Briton to buy. However, as was the practice at the time, numerous "corresponding societies" took up Political Justice, either sharing it or having it read to the illiterate members. Eventually, it sold over 4000 copies and brought literary fame to Godwin.
Godwin augmented the influence of Political Justice with the publication of a novel that proved equally popular, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. This tells the story of a servant who finds out a dark secret about Falkland, his aristocratic master, and is forced to flee because of his knowledge. Caleb Williams is essentially the first thriller: Godwin wryly remarked that some readers were consuming in a night what took him over a year to write. Not the least of its merits is a portrait of the justice system of England and Wales at the time and a prescient picture of domestic espionage. His literary method, as he described it in the introduction to the novel, also proved influential: Godwin began with the conclusion of Caleb being chased through Britain, and developed the plot backwards. Dickens and Poe both commented on Godwin's ingenuity in doing this.
In response to a treason trial of some of his fellow British Jacobins, among them Thomas Holcroft, Godwin wrote Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, 2 October 1794 in which he forcefully argued that the prosecution's concept of "constructive treason" allowed a judge to construe any behaviour as treasonous. It paved the way for a major victory for the Jacobins, as they were acquitted.
However, Godwin's own reputation was eventually besmirched after 1798 by the conservative press, in part because he chose to write a candid biography of his late wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, entitled Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Godwin, stubborn in his practice, practically lived in secret for 30 years because of his reputation. However, in its influence on writers such as Shelley, who read the work on multiple occasions between 1810 and 1820, and Kropotkin, Political Justice takes its place with Milton's Areopagitica and Rousseau's Émile as a defining anarchist and libertarian text.
Debate with Malthus
In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population in response to Godwin's views on the "perfectibility of society." Malthus wrote that populations are inclined to increase in times of plenty, and that only distress, from causes such as food shortages, disease, or war, serves to stem population growth. Populations in his view are therefore always doomed to grow until distress is felt, at least by the poorer segment of the society. Consequently, poverty was felt to be an inevitable phenomenon of society.
Malthus went on to argue that under such ideal conditions, the population could conceivably double every 25 years. However, the food supply could not continue doubling at this rate for even 50 years.
In Political Justice Godwin had acknowledged that an increase in the standard of living as he envisioned could cause population pressures, but he saw an obvious solution to avoiding distress: "project a change in the structure of human action, if not of human nature". In the 1798 version of his essay, Malthus specifically rejected this possible change in human nature. Godwin also saw new technology as being partly responsible for the future change in human nature into more intellectually developed beings. He reasoned that increasing technological advances would lead to a decrease in the amount of time individuals spent on production and labour, and thereby, to more time spent on developing "their intellectual and moral faculties". Instead of population growing exponentially, Godwin believed that this moral improvement would outrun the growth of population. Godwin pictured a social utopia where society would reach a level of sustainability and engage in "voluntary communism".
In July 1820, Godwin published Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind as a rebuttal to Malthus' essays. Godwin's main argument was against Malthus' notion that population tends to grow exponentially. Godwin believed that for population to double every twenty-five years (as Malthus had asserted had occurred in the United States, due to the expanse of resources available there), every married couple would have to have at least eight children, given the rate of childhood deaths. Godwin himself was one of thirteen children, but he did not observe the majority of couples in his day having eight children.
Interest in earthly immortality
In his first edition of Political Justice Godwin included arguments favouring the possibility of "earthly immortality" (what would now be called physical immortality), but later editions of the book omitted this topic. Although the belief in such a possibility is consistent with his philosophy regarding perfectibility and human progress, he probably dropped the subject because of political expedience when he realised that it might discredit his other views.
- Damon and Delia, A Tale (1784)
- Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793)
- Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794)
- The Enquirer (London: George Robinson, 1797; rev. 1823)
- Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798)
- St. Leon (1799)
- Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1804)
- Fleetwood (1805)
- The Pantheon: Or, Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome (1814)
- Lives Of Edward And John Philips, Nephews And Pupils Of Milton (1815)
- Mandeville (1817)
- Life of Lady Jane Grey, and of Lord Guildford Dudley, Her Husband (1824)
- History of the Commonwealth (book) (1824–1828)
- Cloudesley: A Tale (1830)
- Thoughts on Man, his Nature, Productions, and Discoveries, Interspersed with some particulars respecting the author (1831)
- Deloraine (1833)
- Lives of the Necromancers (1834)
- Transfusion (1835)
Source: Tomalin, Claire (1992). Shelley and His World. Penguin. p. 115. ISBN 0140171525.
In Spanish: William Godwin para niños
- Godwin-Shelley family tree
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