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William Godwin. A Political Life

Richard Gough Thomas
Pluto Press, 2019, ISBN 978 0 7453 3835 4 Paperback, £16.99

One of a series of books on radical figures, this is an easy and interesting read about the extraordinary life of William Godwin (1756-1836). Paradoxically, this is a man known by most modern readers because of his relationship with two women – his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men and his daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. But William Godwin was also a renowned radical philosopher. His most famous and influential book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, was written in 1793 during the French Revolution. In it he challenged authority, both of the state and within the family. This book is credited by many to be the foundation of the anarchist movement. Godwin also wrote The Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Men after the death of Wollstonecraft in 1797, which scandalised polite society with an account of her relationship with Gilbert Imlay, the father of her illegitimate daughter.

Like many radicals, Godwin was brought up as a dissenter and was educated at a Dissenting Academy. His career after was varied – a Calvinist minister, author and novelist, political journalist, book shop owner and publisher. Fortunately for biographers and modern readers he kept a diary meticulously, recording current events as well as his meetings with a wide variety of the most influential people of this period. Conversations with Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, Robert Owen, Thomas Malthus and many others are all noted. Godwin was a critic of Malthus’ theory on population.

After writing Political Justice, which was a large and expensive book, Godwin turned to fiction to illustrate his beliefs. The result was The Adventure of Caleb Williams, a novel exploring the abuse of authority in both domestic and employment spheres. This was cheaper than Political Justice and reached a wider audience.

Godwin met his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. She too was a novelist, and as a fluent French and Germans speaker she supplemented their income with translation work. As their family increased their financial situation deteriorated. They were always in debt, but eventually bought a house with borrowed money and set up a publishing business. Both were committed to improving education and their Juvenile Library was the first to publish Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare, and the first translation of Swiss Family Robinson. They also reproduced many classics of children’s literature, but sales and loans were never enough to keep them out of debt. Godwin continued to write novels to help their finances.

Godwin believed that girls should have the same education as boys, so he educated his daughters at home where they could learn mathematics and science, which would not be available to them in a girl’s school.

Godwin’s health deteriorated in 1818 when he had a stroke. So, the events of 1819 – Peterloo and the repressive Six Acts - brought no response from him, although his friend, the radical publisher and satirist William Hone, was openly critical of the authorities during this period.

As his health improved Godwin wrote his History of the Commonwealth, which was published in 1824. This was one of the first books to favour the Parliamentary cause in the Civil War. The book was published in stages, but didn’t make enough money for him to avoid bankruptcy in 1825.

Eventually, in 1833 Godwin’s old friend, the Prime Minister Earl Grey awarded him the sinecure of office keeper and yeoman usher of the receipt of the exchequer, which gave him an income of £200 a year for life plus a house. Godwin died in 1836.

Godwin’s influence on radical thought continued throughout the Chartist period. His works inspired many, including Friedrich Engels and the anarchist Kropotkin.
This biography is an excellent introduction to this fascinating period and to a man whose work helped to change society.

Chris Clayton