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Kenneth W. Graham. William Godwin Reviewed: A Reception History, 1783-1834. New York: AMS Press, 2001. ISBN 0 404 64450 3. Price: US$122.50.

  • Pamela Clemit

…plus d’informations

  • Pamela Clemit
    University of Durham/Harris Manchester College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

Seamus Deane, in his review of the Pickering and Chatto Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin ( TLS, 24 July 1992), regretted that the bibliography of Godwin's works included by the editors had not been supplemented by a list of contemporary reviews. Kenneth W. Graham has done much more than simply to provide a list. In William Godwin Reviewed he seeks to reprint 'every traceable review published in Britain of every traceable book, acknowledged, anonymous, or pseudonymous, written by William Godwin during an active publishing life extending from 1783 to 1834' (p. 1). The purpose of this edited compilation, Graham argues, is two-fold: to present an examination of cultural change in a momentous period of British history by documenting the vicissitudes of critical reception of a single writer, who 'throughout his life … remained firm in increasingly unpopular opinions'. Though Graham's choice of the self-confessedly protean Godwin as an example of 'constancy' in a 'changing world' is open to question, this is a useful collection of secondary materials that would be hard to find, and even harder to bring together, outside a copyright library. It not only sheds light on the life and career of a leading intellectual of the British Romantic era, but also adds to our understanding of the role of the review as a medium for shaping opinion in a highly politicized literary culture.

Graham's compilation is at the same time a comprehensive critical reappraisal. Reviewing Godwin's first book, History of the Life of William Pitt (1783), the Gentleman's Magazine playfully emphasized the author's versatility as 'a poet, a painter, a philosopher, a friend to freedom, and a lover of mankind' (p. 21). Yet even this reviewer would perhaps not have predicted the astonishing variety of Godwin's works in the decade prior to An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793). In these years Godwin published, to largely benign reception, a prospectus for an imaginary school, two political pamphlets, a collection of literary parodies, three novels, a volume of sermons, and a history of the Dutch Patriot Revolution. Reviews of this last work, which highlight the author's support for the democratic cause and opposition to the Stadtholder, William V, Prince of Orange, suggest just how many of Godwin's leading ideas were in place prior to Political Justice. Yet if the significance of a work can be measured by column inches, the future philosophical anarchist's most notable early production was The English Peerage (1790), which presented 'a compendious view of the distinguished persons … who acquired honours for themselves, and made them hereditary in their families' (p. 46), complete with heraldic engravings.

Reviews of Godwin's publications through the revolutionary 1790s may seem to cover more familiar ground. Even so, when read as a series, they encourage a more discriminating view of the reception of his major works than is usually found in modern criticism. For example, reviews of the first edition of Political Justice, with the exception of the government-funded British Critic, are revealed to be largely sympathetic to Godwin's programme of gradual reform. The Tory Critical Review, for instance, declared the work 'well deserving the perusal of every philosophical politician' and full of 'important practical hints' for legislators (p. 64). Yet by the time that the second edition of Political Justice appeared in November 1795 (dated 1796), the public mood had changed: even the formerly liberal English Review felt impelled to denounce 'so wild and wrong-headed a system' (p. 82). Again, reviews of Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), a work often regarded by modern critics as the cause of the nineteenth-century backlash against Wollstonecraft's proto-feminist theories, were by no means unremittingly hostile. Of the thirteen reviews printed by Graham, six contain some expression of appreciation of Wollstonecraft's writings or of sympathy for Godwin's project.

Later parts of Graham's book demonstrate how much rumours of Godwin's disappearance below the critical horizon in the first three decades of the nineteenth century have been exaggerated. For example, James Mackintosh's celebrated piece on Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton (1815) in the Edinburgh Review , which includes a sympathetic account of Godwin's publications of the 1790s, is only one of several reviews which gave respectful attention to Godwin's scholarly undertaking. Similarly, Shelley's letter to the Examiner, praising the author of Mandeville (1817) as 'one of the most illustrious examples of intellectual power in the present age' (p. 356), was by no means an isolated statement. John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood's EdinburghMagazine, and Mackintosh, in the Scots Magazine, also paid Godwin the compliment of lengthy, thoughtful discussions of his latest novel, emphasizing his skill in the depiction of exceptionally disturbed states of mind, 'which nevertheless command the most powerful of our human sympathies' (p. 340). Yet the most remarkable achievement of Godwin's later career was undoubtedly his History of the Commonwealth of England (1824-8). The seventy-two pages of long, detailed reviews printed here make a substantial contribution to our understanding of both the work itself, as it developed across four volumes, and the changing times in which it was written.

Though Graham has performed an important service in making these contemporary materials available, some of his editorial procedures make the book of limited value as a work of scholarly reference. For example, the policy of omitting extended quotations of Godwin's writings from all of the reviews is understandable, given space constraints, but the decision to give generalized summaries of the missing passages, rather than appropriate page references, leaves the reader very unsure as to what is being cited. Again, it would have been helpful to include some explanation of the principles of inclusion of materials. For example, seven reviews of the first edition of Political Justice are printed, one of the second edition, and none of the third: it is unclear whether this tailing-off represents a decline of interest in the work, or an inability to locate the original texts. Though Graham accuses other modern critics of 'lazy scholarship' (p. 12), his own critical commentary contains a regrettable number of mistakes. For example, An Account of the Seminary is mistakenly described as Godwin's 'first published work' (p. 2), displacing the earlier Life of William Pitt ; Godwin is said to have died in '1835' (p. 5), when he died in 1836; Samuel Parr is described as 'for many years headmaster of Harrow' (p. 197, n. 79), when he merely taught there as an assistant from 1767 to 1771; Godwin's books for children are described as uniformly measuring 'about 3 inches by 5 inches' (p. 200), dimensions that fit none except, very roughly, The Looking-Glass (1805). In fine, Graham's book provides convenient access to critically significant materials, but readers may wish to look elsewhere for historical accuracy and nuance.