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'The Late But Lasting Award of Posterity'Pamela Clemit, ed., Lives of the Great Romantics III - Volume I: Godwin. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999. ISBN: 1 85196 5122. Price: £225 (for 3 vols. set, also including volumes on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley).

  • A. A. Markley

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  • A. A. Markley
    Penn State University, Delaware County

Editor's Note

For more information on this volume, and order online, please visit Pickering&Chatto's website.

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In this long-needed volume, Pamela Clemit has uncovered and assembled a wealth of source materials that together provide the first judicious and balanced view of Godwin from contemporary accounts. In her lucid introduction, Clemit explains the extent to which the often radical viewpoints of Godwin's contemporaries tended to emphasize one aspect of his life, works, or personality over the others. Dissenters, for example, heartily supported Godwin's philosophical principles; Tories characteristically trivialized him as an outmoded and ineffectual radical; Victorian moralists harped on his financial failings. Regardless of their particular viewpoints, his many critics together managed an effective marginalization of Godwin and his works throughout the nineteenth century. In addition, Clemit explains how the Shelley family's attempts to establish a socially acceptable account of his life by commissioning Charles Kegan Paul's William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries (1876) also contributed to an inaccurate perception of Godwin and his reformist colleagues by downplaying their roles as agents of political change. Clearly the image of Godwin that we have inherited has been in dire need of revision.

Clemit explains the degree to which the intellectual diversity to which Godwin was deeply committed made it difficult for his contemporaries to establish a definitive interpretation of his life's work. His critics tended to see his 'revolutions of opinion' as a sign of weakness and inconsistency rather than as proof of a dedication to remaining open to his own error and to his potential for personal improvement. In a perfect case in point, an excerpt from Charles MacFarlane's Reminiscences of a Literary Life recounts an evening in the home of painter John Martin, in which a frustrated Martin repeatedly attempted to engage Godwin in supporting an argument based on fundamentals stated in Political Justice. Annoyed at being interrupted at a game of whist, Godwin ultimately cried, 'Principles and opinions! opinions and principles! perplexing things! When I really know what or which I am to stick to, I will think about making up my mind. It is very easy to stick when, like a mussel, one sticks to the side of a rock, or a copper-bottomed ship; when one doesn't think' (p. 286). In one of the volume's laudatory excerpts, William Hazlitt sees the virtue of this characteristic, crediting Godwin as having a 'cellerage in his understanding' and acknowledging that 'he changes his opinions, and changes them for the better' (p. 63).

Clemit sheds new light on the breadth and scope of Godwin's lifelong devotion to his reformist project, based upon his fundamental belief in the potential of literature, education, and private discussion as a gradualist approach towards political reform. Contrary to traditional views of the post-1790s Godwin as a spent and failing mental giant, the selections that Clemit provides us indicate that Godwin never abandoned his work towards reform, but constantly revised and augmented his program by responding to changing political movements and literary tastes, and moving resiliently back and forth amongst a host of genres—from political pamphlets to the essay, from the novel to biography, from drama to children's literature.

Of equal importance is the light this volume sheds on the degree to which Godwin shared his ambition for political reform through literature with his daughter Mary Shelley. In the 1820s and early 1830s, the two shared a strongly supportive relationship in which each encouraged and aided in the literary endeavors of the other. Mary Shelley's dedication to her father's program of reform is made clear in this volume in the manner in which she casts his life in selections from her unfinished biography of her father. Never before published, the inclusion of these fascinating materials marks a significant contribution to the scholarship of the Romantic era.

Clemit provides interesting and thoroughly researched headnotes to each excerpted selection, helpful textual notes, and a useful biographical glossary of important figures in Godwin's life. And the selections in the edition provide a fascinating range of reading. We see Godwin parodied in contemporary novels, as Elizabeth Hamilton's 'Mr. Vapour' and as the gentle advisor of Mary Hays' Emma Courtney. A fascinating excerpt from G. S. Mackenzie's Illustrations of Phrenology joins the remarkable number of other accounts that include a mention of the appearance of Godwin's head and brow. Most importantly, we glimpse moments of Godwin's life that challenge the characterization we have inherited of Godwin as emotionally cold, or as what Graham Wallas called a 'prince of spongers' (p. 278). Clemit shows us a Godwin who is socially poised, and one who contributed passionately to debates amongst reformist circles throughout his life. To some he spoke too much: John Binns recalled the Philomathean Society's having to buy two 'fifteen minute glasses' to keep speakers to a time limit—devices needed only when Godwin or Thomas Holcroft rose to speak (p. 165). To others he spoke too little: Carlyle is soundly disappointed with his few contributions at a dinner party; T. J. Hogg derides him for his narcolepsy after eating. We see Godwin as an old man at his post as Yeoman Usher of the Receipt of the Exchequer who delightedly escorts visitors into the Star Chamber of the old Houses of Parliament (just months before they were destroyed by fire). We see a Godwin who receives visitors in red slippers, green coat, and red waistcoat. We see a Godwin who relishes a game of whist and a cup of strong gunpowder tea.

If we are to understand today a mind as multi-dimensional and as continually active as that of William Godwin, then a host of contemporary accounts are needed to construct a truly balanced image of who he was. Clemit's beautifully edited volume allows us to do just that. Hazlitt wrote that 'he whose mind is of no age or country, is seldom properly recognised during his life-time and must wait, in order to have justice done him, for the late but lasting award of posterity' (p. 42). For Godwin that award at last has come.