Nineteenth-Century Prose

Home » Vol. 41 (Spring/Fall 2014)

Vol. 41 (Spring/Fall 2014)

Special Issue on William Godwin; guest edited by Rowland Weston

Rowland Weston, “Introduction: William Godwin and Political Justice” (1-26)

William Godwin burst on to the British intellectual scene in 1793 with his anarchist critique of contemporary moral and political discourse EnquiryConcerning Political Justice. Along with his novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), Political Justice has attracted the bulk of subsequent scholarly interest. This essay explores the dominant themes and concerns of Political Justice. It stresses how these were critiqued, refined, developed, and defended in his numerous and generically varied later writings. Special attention is given to Godwin’s grappling with the twin claims of sympathy and reason, to his consistent and unrepentant commitment to individual autonomy, and to his abiding determination to provoke the discussion requisite for intellectual and social change.

Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer, “Godwin’s Citations, 1783-2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor” (27-52)

The reception of writers has long been studied. The emergence of citation analysis makes it possible to be more precise about the intensity, timing, and quality of an author’s impact. We examine Godwin’s citations using two sources, one from the outset of his career to 1967, and the other starting in the late nineteenth century. The earlier source makes it possible to investigate the content of the citations, and we divide them crudely into favourable and critical. Godwin’s peak of citation renown occurs later than might have been expected, in 1801, and is mostly negative. When in deep disfavour, at least he was highly visible. Overall, Godwin’s reception was U-shaped, at its lowest in the 1870s. His flame never went out entirely, and has surged again in recent decades.

Begoña Lasa Alvarez, “William Godwin and the Spanish Enlightenment” (53-78)

This article aims at analyzing Godwin’s presence in Spain, first among the Spanish ilustrados, a privileged élite who had access to forbidden foreign authors, such as Godwin. The case of Jovellanos, one of the most relevant Spanish writers of the period, is particularly meaningful. In his constant search for new approaches to improve the circumstances of his country he obtained and carefully read Enquiry concerning Political Justice, which deeply impressed him, as can be observed in his personal writings. Secondly, the translation into Spanish of part of Godwin’s The Enquirer in a miscellaneous journal is examined. The relevance of this text lies in its contribution to the ongoing debate on one of the hot issues of the moment: the necessary improvement of education in order to develop and modernize Spanish society.

Eliza O’Brien, “‘The most inconsistent of men’: William Godwin and the ‘Apology’ of Sir Thomas More” (79-110)

 Godwin’s discussion of “The Apology of Syr Thomas More, Knight” in the manuscript essay “On the Composition of History: An Occasional Reflection” (MS. Abinger c.29, undated, watermarked 1808) explores Godwin’s theories of historical biography, historians’ methodology, and the authority of sources. Beginning with a brief survey of historians’ accounts of More’s punishment of James Bainham, Godwin presents More’s apology as a sincere and reliable source amidst accusations of inconsistency and savagery. From this starting point for an investigation into historiography, authority, and party bias, Godwin develops a reading of More’s character and actions situated within the framework of his theory of memorialization in “Essay on Sepulchres” (1809). The subject of “reasonable expectation” arises, and with it questions of agent-centered and authorial judgment, moral consistency, and historical understanding. Drawing upon recent scholarship on the subject of character and agent-centered history, this article addresses questions of how Godwin positions himself as an historian in relation to Hume, and how he uses testimony, evidence, and sympathetic engagement to reconstruct the past.

Tilottama Rajan, “Between Individual and General History: Godwin’s Seventeenth-Century Texts” (111-160)

 From early in his career Godwin was involved in writing a world-history in bits and pieces, unconcluded rather than totalized, because he viewed it through the optics of genres as different as novels, children’s books, and histories. But he was particularly interested in the period of the Stuarts and the English Revolution as one that opened up, in ways parallel to his own time, “the unavailability” to Britain of “its own revolutionary moment.” This essay argues that if Political Justice and Caleb Williams form a textual pair in which the latter complicates the former’s utopianism, a similarly doubled and doubled-back relationship exists between Mandeville (1817) and The History of the Commonwealth (1824-1828). I begin by sketching Godwin’s various forays into history, and explore the critical-dialectical apparatus he constructs in his essay “Of History and Romance.” Godwin’s multi-genre historical corpus forms what Deleuze and Guattari call a “burrow” or “rhizome” with “multiple entrances” that have “rules of usage” and connect in different ways, thus allowing the “map of the rhizome” to be “modified” by the point at which one enters it. “Of History and Romance, I suggest, is also just such a burrow whose overlapping and mutually deconstructing binaries give us a variety of terms through which to consider history. Most significantly, though the essay begins by privileging individual over “general” history, it ends by seeing a value in a history that is not total but general history as Foucault uses the word to describe a “grey and meticulous” traversal of differences and contingencies. Building on the terms of “Of History and Romance,” the remainder of the essay looks at how Mandeville and The History of the Commonwealth stage this traumatic and promissory period in England’s past in two different series: general and individual history, prose and literature. On the one hand, The History of the Commonwealth opens the story of a minor character who never emerges from the closet of his psyche into a series of events with a wider and longer horizon. On the other hand, in the background of Mandeville’s story is another minor history: what Christopher Hill calls the “third culture” of religious sectarianism, which brings to light a body of ideas and an emotional register missed by progressive histories like Thelwall’s or even Godwin’s History of the Commonwealth. It is through this minor history that the unfinished project of political justice also emerges, warped and dis- figured by fanaticism, yet for that reason persisting beyond its normalization and betrayal by the more straightforward conflict of King and Parliament co- opted by the career of Cromwell. As he moved between Enlightenment prose and Romantic literature, Godwin became increasingly interested in fanaticism but in the secular form of misanthropy as something not yet made good that pushes its essence forward. It is this fanaticism of character in Mandeville which, despite the failure of the English Revolution and his maladroit uprising against the union of Clifford and Henrietta as a figure for the Restoration, gives a particular urgency to the unfinished project of deconstruction with which the novel’s ending leaves us.

Michael Edson, “Godwin’s Anti-Mass Politics Revisited: Sympathy, Retirement, and Epistemic Diversity” (161-194)

This essay revisits Godwin’s opposition to mass politics in light of his overlooked commitment to intellectual diversity. More than class bias or individualism, Godwin’s wariness of London Corresponding Society meetings springs from a conviction that rationality arises through intellectual conflict and therefore requires the presence of heterogeneous opinions within and between groups. Understanding sympathy in spatial terms, Godwin assumes that LCS crowds standardize opinions; the larger the group and the closer the participants in space, the more quickly opinions standardize through sympathy. Not surprisingly, then, he dismisses political collectives, insisting that the most effectual discussions instead arise in smaller, more diverse circles because small groups better maintain diversity over time. Even if impractical, Godwin’s rejecting of mass meetings represents an attempt to defy Enlightenment views of the rational and the social as mutually exclusive. This effort to socialize reason also establishes Godwin as a theorist of what modern philosophers of science term “epistemic diversity,” the idea that exposure to diverse perspectives improves reasoning over what persons can achieve in isolation.

Suzie Asha Park, “Caleb Williams and the Smithian Spectator: Reading the ‘Reasonable Demand’” (195-224)

William Godwin’s Caleb Williams brings together the discourse of impartial spectatorship with the impassioned language of sentiment, revealing just how intimate the ties can be between demands for convincing narratives and the cultural championing of sympathy. The essay argues that Godwin’s novel problematizes Adam Smith’s claim in The Theory of Moral Sentiments for the centrality of the question, “What has befallen you?” to any discussion of sympathy. Caleb’s and Falkland’s competitive claims both to impartiality and spontaneous benevolence gently veil the coercive aspects of the call to sympathize. The essay draws upon Frances Ferguson’s compelling account of the late-eighteenth-century stress upon the power of the “displayed value” of action. Actions counted in a new way, Ferguson argues, when individuals could see the relative value of their actions within the framework of an artificial grouping. Such new systems of ranking provided individuals access to hitherto unavailable forms of recognition. They also help explain Caleb’s obsession with occupying a higher station in Falkland’s eyes. More generally, the essay examines the romantic era’s troubled privileging of the supposedly liberating aspects of not only disclosing one’s own inner life, but also laying claim to knowing another’s.

Colin Carman, “Godwin’s Fleetwood, Shame and the Sexuality of Feeling” (225-254)

The principal point of this argument is that William Godwin’s Fleetwood, or the New Man of Feeling should be read as a queer work of fiction not simply because it chronicles a bad marriage and the failure of heterosexual love to fully flourish and solidify normative bonds, but because the three- volume structure of Fleetwood circles back on itself, ouroboros-like, in keeping with the cyclicity of male shame. Just as gender is the result of certain mannerisms and acts of cloaking, shame is another performative forged, as it were, by and through a continuous process of accepting and resisting the social roles assigned to us. An ancillary aim is to trace Godwin’s depiction of shame as a queer kind of affect in Fleetwood to the literature of sensibility in eighteenth-century Britain, particularly the Man of Feeling at his most ashamed state, which this writer exploited for his own literary and cultural objectives. His depiction of shame intersects in remarkable ways with later attempts to assimilate the history of shame into the history of homosexuality.

Eric Leuschner, “The Prefaces of William Godwin and the Literary Public Sphere” (255-276)

 The preface as a genre exists in a liminal stage between non-fiction and fiction. Here the author, whether to an historical account, philosophical treatise, or novel, writes in a voice that the reader assumed to be sincere and genuine. However, the preface has historically been a participant in the nexus between marketplace and public sphere. The literary career of William Godwin, poised as it is in a period that witnessed the establishment and entrenchment of the novel as a genre and the appearance of the critic accompanying the burgeoning critical journal, provides a significant position to witness the development of a nineteenth-century literary public sphere. Godwin himself is caught between these two movements, and thus his prefaces are complicated and not always what they seem. If his periodical writings are primarily political in nature, his prefaces can be seen as a proto- poetics of the novel, concerned not only with the ontological nature of the genre but with pragmatic concerns as well. As David McCracken concisely states, Godwin “consider[s] the relation between reason and imagination, the status of the novel as a genre, its potential effects on the novel-reading public, its elements and construction, and the hazards of combining political philosophy and fiction.” The preface was the platform for these considerations. First drawing on the conventional rhetoric of the preface, he aligns his work with the mechanics of the marketplace, but read in concert with the reviews, it is clear that he has in mind the more idealized nature of the literary public sphere. This paper analyzes the rhetoric in Godwin’s prefaces, primarily of his novels, and contextualizes them within the discourse of the critical reviews to demonstrate how Godwin posits a literary public sphere in which his novels can function as political documents.

Sophie Coulombeau, “‘Men whose glory it is to be known’: Godwin, Bentham, and the London Corresponding Society” (277-312)

This essay addresses the circulation and mutation of the personal name in Godwin’s Caleb Williams, and considers the relationship between notions of the ‘name’ as a unit of orally or verbally transmitted language and as a publicly-constructed and contested reputation. Arguing that the narrative tempo of Caleb Williams is controlled by pivotal moments at which Caleb’s name is exposed, modified, or concealed, I read Godwin’s novel as a consideration of the name’s potential to act as either disciplinary or emancipatory apparatus. I locate the novel within a network of broadly contemporary discourses that also address the relationship between naming and identity, notably Jeremy Bentham’s Indirect Legislation and the self- fashioning practices of the London Corresponding Society. These texts engage a cultural discourse of anxiety about the relationship between anonymity and lower class crime. They suggest that ownership of the unique personal name benefits men of property, ‘men whose glory it is to be known,’ but that assimilation into group names or titles might prove more advantageous for the unpropertied.

Mark Crosby, “‘till all law is annihilated’: Godwin versus the Bar” (313-334)

 In Political Justice, Godwin expresses his distrust of English common law, which he describes as a system of endemic indeterminacy, and his dislike of the profession of legal advocacy: “a lawyer can scarcely fail to be a dishonest man.” Shortly after the publication of Political Justice, Godwin argued in print with Lord Chief Justice James Eyre over the interpretation of 25 Edward III, the statute codifying treason, and later with Lord Grenville and William Pitt’s legislative response to the failure of the 1794 treason trials. While contemporaries such as John Horne Tooke lauded Godwin’s arguments, particularly against Eyre, during the build up to and the immediate aftermath of the treason trials, recent scholarship has noted that Godwin’s tracts were, from a legal standpoint, largely ineffective due to his ignorance of black-letter law. In Cursory Strictures and Considerations Godwin grounds his arguments around the valorization of 25 Edward III, yet in doing so he confuses substantive treason for constructive treason. Part of the problem for Godwin was that he needed to lionize 25 Edward III in order to attack what he considered the government’s misinterpretation of the statute. This essay examines how Godwin’s arguments depart from black-letter law in Cursory Strictures and Considerations to reconstruct ‘imaginatively’ the government’s lawyers in line with his depiction of legal advocacy in Political Justice.

Victoria Myers, “William Godwin’s Enquirer: Between Oratory and Conversation” (335-378)

 Late eighteenth-century Britain’s nostalgia for the ancients’ oratorical eloquence competed with its fear of oratory’s demagogic power. Instantiated in David Hume’s turn from oratory to conversation as the site of cultural power, this quarrel also appeared in the work of William Godwin, but in a deeply creative melding of the two. Godwin had already invoked the civic eloquence-liberty link in his 1783 biography of Lord Chatham, turning it to analytical use in evaluating the career of great men of the Walpole era, and in the 1793 Enquiry Concerning Political Justice he had discovered a way to replace traditional institutions of governance and oratory with conversation as a civic institution, incorporating ardent eloquence in rational thinking and speaking and meaning eventually to spread participatory power from a small enlightened coterie to an increasingly educated populace. Believing that the intelligent exercise of private judgment was pre-requisite to political independence, Godwin hoped that individuals would improve themselves through reading and civic-oriented conversation, and he thought his conversational scheme would avoid the dangers of addressing crowds. In his 1797Enquirer, Godwin directly confronts the problem (not treated in Political Justice) that individuals do not spontaneously exercise any private judgment worthy of the name, and therefore do not only need to resist encroachments on it, but rather need to become capable of making judgments that are their own. Recasting the participants in enlightenment discussion as preceptor and child, Godwin attempts to work out the implications of inequality in rhetorical (and ethical) situations. From Cicero’s De Oratore, a multi-sided conversation teaching the nature of oratory, Godwin took hints for training the citizen through the adaptation of philosophy to everyday language and employing the power of persuasive speech acts in the pedagogical mission. Like Crassus and Mucius in this dialogue, Godwin advocates using conversation and ardent rhetoric to arouse desire for learning and to activate the pupil’s independent efforts. In this process, the preceptor must allow a degree of combativeness alloyed by the cooperative character of intellectual friendship. To effect this change, Godwin re-enlists the techniques of oratory to transform the adult into a conversational partner with the child, raising the imagination and desire of his parental and preceptorial readers for a difficult but exalted mission. Godwin’s revision and redirection of eloquence changes his view of speech acts as well, from emphasis on constatives, which match words to the way the world is, to emphasis on persuasives, which enlist the imagination in disciplining the mind for freedom.

Gary Handwerk, “Unspeakable Truths, Unutterable Sincerity: Godwin’s The Genius of Christianity Unveiled” (379-410)

Still incomplete at the time of Godwin’s death in 1836, The Genius of Christianity stands as his epitaph, his final contribution to the intellectual debates of his era. Serving as a companion piece to Political Justice, Genius would complete Godwin’s labor of freeing the human mind from enslavement to prejudice, accomplishing the same task with respect to religion as Political Justice had done – or had sought to do – for politics. Genius gives us a window on to a persistent tensions of Godwin’s life, his intermittent awareness of the ways in which truth and sincerity do not perfectly coincide. Having parted company with the Enlightenment, Genius pauses at the threshold to Romanticism, caught between both, party to neither, prey still to a skepticism that unsettles both. It is not only a meditation upon, but itself a demonstration of, the mind’s capacity to resist truth.

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