This article explores William Godwin’s work in his novels to expose ways in which traditional conceptions of masculinity foster aggression and rivalry between men. For Godwin, the destructiveness of such interactions profoundly threatened the potential he saw for the perfectibility of human nature and social relationships. From his early novel Imogen to the deeply psychological Caleb Williams, Fleetwood, and Mandeville, Godwin frequently illustrates the injurious potential of homosocial and homoerotic desire. In many of these instances, such desire is depicted through the use of subtle allusions to classical conceptions of friendship. In the case of Cloudesley, Godwin carries this project further, developing a persona in the hero Julian, whose gentle, feminized personality works to soften the more traditionally masculine and destructive men around him. As a new conception of the male personality, Julian exemplifies Godwin’s argument that “disinterested affection” is the only means towards a more perfect global society. In Godwin’s career as a novelist, therefore, we see an early suggestion that social progress demands a redefinition of traditional conceptions of gender.
Throughout his career William Godwin saw the novel as an effective tool for illustrating and disseminating the political philosophy he first developed in his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. Although it is his first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, who is remembered for her groundbreaking work towards dismantling conventional gender roles, Godwin clearly shared her dedication to this project. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and in her unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman: or, Maria (1798), Wollstonecraft exposes a wide variety of ways in which women were imprisoned by rigid social conventions and expectations associated with their gender. But while he has not been credited for doing so, Godwin took a similar approach in his fiction, attacking the issue from the opposite side. It can be argued of nearly all of his novels that Godwin consistently worked to expose ways in which traditional conceptions of masculinity foster aggression and rivalry between men. For Godwin, the destructiveness of such interactions profoundly threatened the potential that he saw for the perfectibility of human nature, and for the ultimate development of a universal social polity based upon individual sincerity and benevolence in all social relationships.
Godwin wrote his novels in a political atmosphere characterized by an excessively virulent homophobia. Homosexual acts between men had been a capital offence since the sixteenth century, and convicted “sodomites” were routinely pilloried or hanged in England in the decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While his contemporaries were perhaps not ready to rethink their stereotypical conception of the sodomite, Godwin nevertheless regularly focused his attention on the question of same-sex bonds between men. In his three earliest novels, all published in 1784, he devoted himself to analyzing homosocial bonding: that is, the aggression and rivalry between two men, usually involving a particular woman, and the potential harm that can result from the intensity of the desire between them.
Certainly Godwin most effectively illustrates such an intensely destructive relationship between two men in his most famous novel, Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). In this work Godwin’s confessional narrator becomes embroiled in a relationship with his employer that is characterized by extremes of both affection and enmity. In Godwin’s depiction of the futility of Caleb’s situation in both admiring and struggling to rebel against the powerful aristocrat Falkland, he perfectly illustrates the inequities of the British class system that he wished to expose. Yet from a psychological standpoint, the intense homosocial desire depicted here between master and servant clearly demonstrates the degree to which injurious male rivalry stems from antiquated and tenaciously guarded notions, not only of social class, but also of manhood and masculinity. Here, and in Godwin’s next novel, St Leon (1799), unusually strong, yet socially inappropriate expressions of desire between men serve as markers of destructive social relationships.
In two of his later novels, Fleetwood: or, The New Man of Feeling (1805) and Mandeville (1817), Godwin devotes himself to even more complex analyses of the human psyche than he had before. The subtitle of Fleetwood indicates his concern with the man of high sensibility, a widely popular figure in late-eighteenth-century British fiction. In his exploration of this character type, he studies the degree to which external circumstances, particularly problems in social interactions in childhood, can lead to abnormal thinking and destructive social behaviour in later life. Godwin conducts a similar study of the effects of external circumstances on child psychology in Mandeville, and here again he exposes the degree to which feelings of love and benevolence towards others can become distorted and misplaced. Both Fleetwood and Mandeville manifest social pathologies characterized by a deep distrust of their fellow man. Moreover, in both cases profound emotional insecurity results in their passionate jealousy of another man—a jealousy that is signified by an obsession even with the rival’s physical attractiveness.
Nevertheless, attraction between men in Godwin’s novels is not always depicted as a sign of social aberration. In his ambitious late novel Cloudesley (1830), Godwin moves beyond his earlier exposés of the destructiveness of homosocial rivalry and presents the embodiment of a new and improved modern man. Cloudesley makes it clear that Godwin’s earlier treatments of male-male desire were not merely the products of contemporary homosexual panic, but rather aspects of an ongoing dedication to the idea that traditional definitions of masculinity should be challenged and refigured. His depiction here of the gentle, noble, and highly idealized Julian clearly illustrates how his perfected male would live and behave. Julian’s personality bears a number of similarities to the modern conception of the homosexual male. Thus, it can be argued that in his effort to transform conventional notions of men and masculinity, Godwin dedicated himself to a social project that distantly anticipated the queer politics of later periods.
One of the most interesting aspects of Godwin’s work in this vein involves the manner in which he repeatedly evokes the example of the classical world. In his 1784 Imogen, Godwin makes the extent of his antagonist’s villainy clear by subtly alluding to same-sex desire in carefully chosen allusions to Greek mythology. In Mandeville, the narrator’s association of his rival with the legendary Sirens provides a glimpse of the erotic nature of his obsession. In Cloudesley, however, classical literature plays a distinctly different role. In several key passages Julian expresses a particular devotion to the classical ideal of friendship depicted in such famous tales as those of Theseus and Pirithous, Achilles and Patroclus, and Damon and Pythias. In his relationships with other men, Julian strives to embody this ideal of friendship. Ancient conceptions of friendship thus become not merely a signpost of same-sex desire, but a constructive example of strong same-sex bonds between men, and one that offered late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century readers a familiar and socially acceptable model. Because British education of the period was rooted in the study of Greek and Latin literature, examples of friendships from Greek mythology and folklore were familiar not only to all university-educated gentlemen, but to every British schoolboy.
I. Homosocial Triangles in Godwin’s Earliest Novels
It is interesting to note the frequency with which Godwin explored in nearly all of his novels the potential destructiveness of particular expressions of masculinity and emotional attachments between men. Godwin’s first experiments with the novel resulted in the publication of three short, anonymously published works, all of which appeared in 1784. The first of these, Damon and Delia, is a rather predictable recasting of a typical sentimental plot line of its day: boy meets girl; girl is the dowerless daughter of a former tradesman and is promised to a foppish but wealthy peer; boy is forbidden to marry girl, but does so after rescuing her from an attempted rape by the foppish peer. The second novel, Italian Letters, is an epistolary tale of the noble Count de St Julian, whose bosom friend deceives and marries his beloved fiancée Matilda while St Julian is out of the country. As would any proud Italian aristocrat of his day, St Julian resolutely kills his friend in a duel, still hoping to regain the hand of his beloved.
The third novel, Imogen, is a thinly veiled rehashing of Milton’s Comus, in which the powerful sorcerer Roderic abducts and attempts to seduce the virtuous maiden Imogen, only to be destroyed by Imogen’s noble shepherd-lover, Edwin. Interestingly, the plots of all three of these novellas are founded in the simple situation of the contest between two men for a particular woman. It is important to note that in each of these three early novels tragedy results from an inappropriate expression of masculine sexual aggression. The roots of this aggression in Eve Sedgwick’s definition of homosocial desire are most clearly traced in Imogen.
In Imogen, Godwin takes pains to convey the particular beauty of each of the three main characters. His rather detailed description of the beauty of the young and well-built sorcerer Roderic, however, is concluded in a rather peculiar manner. “There was something so delicate and enchanting in his whole figure,” Godwin writes, “as to tempt you to compare it to the unspotted beauty of the hyacinth; at the same time that you rejoiced, that it was not a beauty, frail and transient, as the tender flower, but which promised a manly ripeness and a protracted duration” (215).
In choosing to compare Roderic’s beauty to the hyacinth, Godwin alludes to the Greek myth in which Apollo falls in love with the beautiful youth Hyacinthus, thus introducing a subtle homoerotic subtext. One might recall that Byron used the term “hyacinth” in his personal letters to refer to the young boys he pursued sexually during his travels in the east. To go one step farther, at the story’s climax, when Roderic attempts to subdue the wrath of the virtuous Edwin, Roderic appears, as Godwin writes, in the “habit” of a cupbearer (263). “The beauty of his person was worthy of the synod of the Gods,” he writes. “His features had all the softness of woman without effeminacy; and in his eye there sat a lambent fire which bespoke the man, without roughness, and without ferocity” (263). Here we are meant to recall the figure of Ganymede, Zeus’s beloved and cupbearer to the gods. The cup that Roderic offers to the shepherd, of course, is poison; the shepherd dashes if from him in the nick of time and proceeds to snatch and shatter Roderic’s phallic magic wand.
Although the contest between Roderic and Edwin appears to be a typical one in the tradition of male competition for the honour of a particular woman, there is something unusual about what Godwin is doing with the allusions he makes to Greek myth. Roderic is depicted throughout the novel as a sexual reprobate—a hedonist in search of every pleasure of the flesh. By recalling to the reader’s mind myths of homosexual love—Apollo’s love for Hyacinthus, Zeus’s love for and abduction of Ganymede—Godwin subtly suggests the broad range of Roderic’s sexual license in a manner acceptable for the times. The goblet that Roderic offers to Edwin Godwin describes as being “full of every enchantment, and which rendered him who drank for ever a slave to the most menial offices and the most wanton caprices of his seducer” (263). The language of this passage, and the particular myths Godwin calls to our minds in association with Roderic, make it fairly clear what those most menial offices must include.
II. Contention and Affection in Caleb Williams and St Leon
The plots of all three of Godwin’s first novellas are based in the simple situation of the contest between two men for a particular woman. Similarly, Godwin begins Caleb Williams with a full volume recounting the antipathy between the aristocrat Ferdinando Falkland and his hated rival and neighbour Barnabas Tyrrel, an antipathy that predictably becomes centred around a woman: Tyrrel’s cousin, Emily Melville. Tyrrel’s mistreatment of Emily and Falkland’s repeated attempts to rescue her rise to a climax when Tyrrel is murdered. Homosocial rivalry has done its worst, and a complex history of destructive male competition becomes a thematic backdrop for the rest of the novel.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the latter two volumes of Caleb Williams lies in Godwin’s appropriation of the suspenseful plot of flight and pursuit from the widely popular contemporary gothic novel. As relentless sexual predators tirelessly pursued Ann Radcliffe’s innocent heroines, Caleb’s former employer Falkland, a man driven to silence Caleb for uncovering the fact that he had murdered Tyrrel, persistently tracks Godwin’s Caleb. Yet in contrast to the gothic tradition from which it borrows its suspenseful plot line, Godwin’s novel is a political work intended not merely to titillate and entertain, but to illustrate the extreme contemporary abuses of the British class system. To this end, one of its most notable departures from the gothic tradition lies in the fact that both pursuer and pursued in Godwin’s tale are male.
Interestingly, even in this context of altered gender, clear traces of the sexual nature of the gothic narrative of flight and pursuit survive in the oddly intense bond that draws Caleb and Falkland together. In a fit of passion Caleb tells an accusing Falkland, “I could die to serve you! I love you more than I can express. I worship you as a being of a superior nature” (109). Later Caleb recalls his feelings in emotional terms that partake of the erotic: “I thought with astonishment, even with rapture, of the attention and kindness towards me I discovered in Mr. Falkland, through all the roughness of his manner” (109). And as he begins to unravel Falkland’s secret, he reports of this newfound intimacy that “my blood boiled within me. I was conscious to a kind of rapture for which I could not account. [. . .] In the very tempest and hurricane of the passions, I seemed to enjoy the most soul-ravishing calm. [. . .] I was never so perfectly alive as at that moment” (117).
Alex Gold has published an insightful psychoanalytic study of Caleb Williams in which he explains the love-hate relationship between Caleb and Falkland in terms of homoerotic desire. Gold analyzes the language of intense passion and exhilaration that Caleb uses in describing his peculiar relationship with Falkland, and he argues ultimately that it is Caleb’s sexualizing of the social instincts that leads to “disastrous consequences” (153). Despite the abuses he suffers, it is Caleb’s enduring love and respect for Falkland that work to perpetuate his oppression. Thus, the obsession and paranoia that stem from his passionate bond with Falkland are a means by which Godwin shows that particular kinds of emotional attachments can grow to threaten the health of the social polity (153). In Gold’s reading, Godwin transcends the boundaries of the traditional heterosexual love plot in order to explore the means by which “‘government’ designates its chosen classes as the proper objects of various sorts of love and then instills the emotions which confirm and perpetuate the unequal relations of superior and inferior, protector and protected, venerated and owned.” “Love,” Gold writes, “can be tyranny’s greatest weapon, for through love vested inequality can enlist its victims in their own oppression” (145).
For Godwin, Caleb’s adulation of his master and his inability to see Falkland as anything other than his moral superior signify the means by which the class system is perpetuated. And, significantly, Godwin’s recasting of the gothic convention of flight and pursuit allows him to infuse this relationship with a degree of erotic desire that greatly amplifies its emotional effect on the reader. Caleb is doomed by his subscription to the very system that oppresses him, and his affection for his oppressor makes his struggle all the more poignant. Homoerotic language points to the fact that as the powerless entity in a conventional master-servant relationship, Caleb’s own manhood is subjected to that of Falkland, a man whose notions of what it is to be a man, and more particularly a gentleman, derive from Medieval conventions of chivalry and honour. The fact that Godwin could so easily slip these two male characters into a plot line typically characterized by the aggression of a man towards a woman suggests a compelling parallel between the utter powerlessness of the lower classes and that of women.
Godwin recycles much of the language of Caleb’s depiction of his relationship with Falkland in his next novel, St Leon. Driven by his lust to make use of two powerful supernatural gifts, the philosopher’s stone and an elixir vitae that restores his youth, Reginald de St Leon consistently makes choices that isolate him both from his wife and family and from society at large. In his loneliness he longs passionately for a close male friend. Having unnaturally preserved his youth, he ultimately finds such a compatriot in none other than his own grown son, Charles, of whom he writes:
I looked into him, and saw a man; I saw expansive powers of intellect and true sensibility of heart. To be esteemed and loved and protected by such a man; to have him to take one by the hand, to enquire into one’s sorrows, to interest himself in one’s good fortune and one’s joys; this and this only deserves the name of existence.362
Once he befriends Charles, St Leon reports that “the blood that slept in my heart, circulates, and distends every vein; I tread on air; I feel a calm, yet ravishing delight” (362). These emotional descriptions are certainly informed by conventions of affection between men that belong to another age; nevertheless the passive and even effeminate nature of St Leon’s characterization of himself in this relationship, as well as his emotional response to it, is hard to overlook. His depiction of his emotional state echoes Caleb’s language in describing his feelings for Falkland, and surely these words resonate with the language of romantic love in any time period.
Of course, St Leon’s expression of such delight in being loved by Charles is complicated by the fact that Charles is his own son. Here, Godwin focuses on the inappropriateness of a particular affection between two young men in order to illustrate St Leon’s failure in accepting the limitations of his humanity. St Leon’s obsession with overreaching the scope of human life to obtain eternal youth and boundless wealth prevents him from being a proper parent to his son. Clearly St Leon served as an important influence on Mary Shelley’s equally obsessive and equally irresponsible Victor Frankenstein. As in Caleb Williams, Godwin again depicts an unusually strong relationship between men in order to showcase the manner in which such a relationship can reveal elements of social pathology. While the rivalry of Falkland and Tyrrel typifies the homosocial triangle, it is in the psyches of Caleb and St Leon that Godwin is doing something new; that is, focusing on misplaced affection rather than on antipathy in order to highlight inappropriate and potentially destructive social bonds.
III. Male Aggression and Rivalry in Fleetwood and Mandeville
In his next two novels, male rivalry and sexual aggression continue to figure prominently. Like Caleb Williams and St Leon, Fleetwood and Mandeville also exhibit a preoccupation with intense rivalry between two men. In these novels, however, Godwin pushes further in exploring the psychological aspects of antipathy and desire by characterizing homosocial bonds with a more powerful undertone of homoerotic attraction. William Brewer has shown the degree to which Godwin’s confessional narrators Casimir Fleetwood and Charles Mandeville, much like St Leon, express an intense longing for male companionship. Fleetwood’s deep-seated misogyny causes him to feel that only another man can satisfy his longing for human contact. He speaks of his desire for “a friend, who is to me as another self, who joys in all my joys, and grieves in all my sorrows” (148). “The desire to possess it, was one of the earliest passions of my life,” Fleetwood tells us, “and, though eternally baffled, perpetually returned to the assault” (149). Fleetwood’s use of a metaphor of aggression here in a statement indicating his desire for companionship indicates much about the nature of his personality problem.
Godwin’s Charles Mandeville similarly traces a longing for a mentor or friend to an early age, his social ostracism at school making him more and more a misanthropist as time goes on. Mandeville chooses friends who mirror his hatred for his fellow man: first, his schoolmate Waller, who “knew not what it was to love any creature but himself” (96), and later a sympathetic colleague at Oxford named Lisle, of whom he says, “We found a social pleasure in looking in each other’s faces, and silently whispering to our own hearts, Thank God, I have a companion that hates the world as I do!” (127). The irony that Mandeville takes social pleasure in a shared hatred for social interaction is profoundly important to an understanding of his pathology.
In both Fleetwood and Mandeville, Godwin takes time to point out the destructive potential of the traditional bonds between schoolboys in the British public school system. The cruel ostracism that Mandeville suffers at the hands of his peers fuels an already destructive penchant for misanthropy. Fleetwood explores the potential destructiveness of schoolboy psychology and behaviour much more fully. Prior to his formal education, the young Fleetwood had nobly devoted himself to the care of the peasants on his father’s estate and had even bravely rescued one man from drowning. At school, however, Fleetwood’s incipient cruelty is brought to the fore by a horrible practical joke in which he and his friends humiliate a fellow student with catastrophic results.
Godwin introduces us to the earnest student Withers, and even provides the text of the boy’s unintentionally mock-heroic ode on the Fifth Labour of Heracles, the cleaning of mountains of manure from the filthy Augean stables. By including the humorous poem itself in his narrative, Godwin invites classically informed readers to join in the laughter at the pathetic Withers’s expense. Withers’s classmates get him drunk and then humiliate him by impersonating an enraged and reprimanding schoolmaster. The distraught boy is driven to suicide. Unfortunately, the lesson of this extreme case is lost on Fleetwood. Thus, although he is a perpetrator rather than a victim of ostracism like Mandeville, Fleetwood is socialized with other men at school in a manner that fails to prepare him for the life of a responsible citizen and instead lays the groundwork for deeply troubled relationships in his life to follow.
As Fleetwood and Mandeville grow older, the homoerotic aspect of their intense longing for male companionship becomes even harder to ignore when each character becomes consumed by a hatred for another man that cannot entirely be separated from their physical attraction to that man. Fleetwood’s paranoia concerning his much younger wife’s fidelity is fueled in part by his obsession with the physical beauty of his presumed rival, his young nephew Kenrick. Fleetwood describes the “florid and beautiful” Kenrick as follows: “There was a brilliancy in his eye, a modest blush in his cheek, and a sensibility in his accent, that, all together, constituted one of the most interesting objects that can be imagined” (226). The focus on purely physical features is noteworthy.
Similarly, Mandeville conceives a hatred for one of his schoolmates, Clifford, that eventually consumes his ever more delusional mind. “There was something about him perfectly fascinating and irresistible,” Mandeville tells us:
His countenance was beautiful, and his figure was airy [. . .]. There was a vivacity in his eye, and an inexpressible and thrilling charm in the tone of his voice, that appeared more than human [. . .]. For a short time envy itself was disarmed; and I, like the rest, admired a spectacle, so new to me, and so beautiful in itself, that I was wrapt in self-oblivion, and possessed no faculties, but an eye to remark his graces, and an ear to drink in every sound he uttered. The illusion lasted for days, and I returned to the feast with an appetite that seemed as if it would never be sated.82-3
One might think at first glance that the narrator is describing here the experience of falling in love, particularly in the sentiment that his appetite is fuelled rather than satisfied by the object of his interest. Again, an expression of what should be love is distorted.
Later in the novel, while weighing Clifford’s charms, Mandeville again betrays a fixation on his physical beauty in asking “‘is Clifford any thing of that extraordinary nature, that he gives him out to be? [. . .]. It is true, his skin is smooth, and the contour of his body is sleek: but this is not the index of real salubrity’” (173). And, as the novel comes to a close, when Mandeville learns that Clifford intends to marry his sister Henrietta, he uses extreme language in empathizing with her weakness to Clifford’s charms: “Nor is it to be counted for nothing, that Clifford stood before her, Clifford in all the radiance of youthful beauty, Clifford, who had first won her virgin heart, and in whose behalf all its weaknesses pleaded, with an insinuation beyond that of the Sirens, which even ‘the man for wisdom’s various arts renowned’ could not have resisted” (319). It is hard to deny the presence of an unusually strong attraction, and even obsession, in each of these ardent professions. In particular, Mandeville’s reference to Odysseus and the Sirens from Homer’s Odyssey in the last of these statements introduces an unmistakably erotic element. As he substitutes Henrietta in the place of Odysseus and Clifford in that of the temptress Sirens, Mandeville likewise reveals the nature of his own feelings towards his rival.
Gary Handwerk has offered a reading of Fleetwood that gets to the heart of what Godwin is doing with the obsessiveness and misogyny of that novel’s narrator. Handwerk outlines the degree to which Fleetwood articulates Godwin’s objections to Rousseau’s educational theory as professed in Émile. Here Rousseau demonstrates the necessity by which the tutor must deceive the pupil in order to arrange for him to educate himself through his own experience. Rousseau makes no correspondent recommendations for the education of Émile’s companion Sophie. In fact Handwerk reads Rousseau’s characterization of women as being “naturally deceptive” as a key element of his educational strategy. Ultimately the tutor’s depiction of women as deceptive serves as an effective distraction to divert the pupil’s potential resentment of his tutor’s manipulation. Thus, in Handwerk’s reading, Fleetwood’s mistrust of women reflects his repressed anger at being manipulated by the Rousseauvian influences in his life, particularly his mentor Ruffigny. Clearly this overweening misogyny and distrust also prevents Fleetwood from being able to establish constructive relationships with other men. As in Caleb Williams, an obsessive tendency leads to paranoia, with tragic results for the individual and for those around him who suffer from his actions.
In Mandeville Godwin moves away from Fleetwood’s attention to the domestic affections and focuses instead on religious fanaticism. In Political Justice he had argued that the characters of men originate in their external circumstances. Casimir Fleetwood suffers from too much freedom in his early childhood, and from the absence of an effective adult guide early on, and an overly manipulative one in the person of Ruffigny. Likewise, Charles Mandeville suffers from a lack of appropriate early guidance. Mandeville’s loss of his parents in the slaughter of Protestants in Ireland in 1641, his dependence on an ineffectual and reclusive uncle, and the destructive influence of a rabidly Puritanical tutor foster in him a deep capacity for hatred. Mandeville’s obsessive hatred of Catholics, and in particular the Catholic Clifford, becomes a paranoia and madness that increasingly prevents his integration into society. Significantly, in both novels Godwin indicates how love for one’s fellow man can be distorted by external circumstances, thus leading to inappropriate and highly destructive expressions of feeling and desire.
IV. Cloudesley and a New Image of Masculinity
For Godwin, human society is perfectible. Its progress, however, depends upon a system of education that fosters a sense of personal duty and private judgment in the individual—the qualities necessary for being a productive member of society. In Caleb Williams, St Leon, Fleetwood, and Mandeville, Godwin shows how particular deficiencies in childhood and education can lead to the distortion of particular character traits in adulthood, distortions that can predictably result in the detachment of the individual from his social context, as in Mandeville’s case, or in the injury of others, as in Fleetwood’s abuse of his innocent wife Mary. Unbridled or misdirected homosocial and homoerotic desire in his novels serve as markers of one way by which such a tragedy can be brought about.
It is clear, however, that Godwin did not intend to publish indictments against strong bonds between men that reflected the homosexual panic of his day. On the contrary, the manner in which he depicts the destructiveness of aggressive machismo in his novels suggests his support of a redefinition of the traditional conception of masculinity. This fact is clarified by his late novel Cloudesley in which Godwin develops a young hero, Julian, who might be identified by a modern reader as embodying the characteristics of the modern homosexual male. As modern readers we must be careful about constructing such binaries as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” in approaching these texts from a distinctly different cultural point of view, but the fact remains that the character of Julian exemplifies a set of values concerning ideal manhood that set him in stark contrast to Godwin’s more traditional, if exaggerated, male characters who cling to age-old conventions of aggression and rivalry.
As in his earlier novels, Godwin’s focus on the character of the individual is central to his didactic aims in Cloudesley. In his preface to the novel, Godwin repeats an assertion that he earlier expressed in his essay “Of History and Romance” (1797), that true history consists of the chronicles of individual lives. “The study of individual man,” he writes, “can never fail to be an object of the highest importance. It is only by comparison that we come to know any thing of mind or of ourselves. [. . .] It is the most fruitful source of activity and motive” (455-56). Similarly, “fictitious history,” he writes in the preface to Cloudesley, “is more to be depended upon, and comprises more of the science of man, than whatever can be exhibited by the historian” (8). Godwin continued to devote himself to the idea that the chronicle of the individual life, even that of a fictitious character, was the best means of instructing and transforming his reading audience.
Cloudesley is concerned with the birth and childhood of Julian—the child of an Irish nobleman and the daughter of a famous Greek leader in the struggle against the Turks. Julian’s Greek heritage certainly plays a role in his depiction as an idealized male, modeled in part on the classical Greek ideal and playing on the general sympathy the British felt in the early nineteenth century for the cause of the Greeks in establishing their independence from Turkey. Julian’s Irish ancestry likewise contributes to his heritage of oppression, but his being half Greek links him to a long cultural history characterized by a broader conception of same-sex friendships and romantic relationships than that of the limited British model of the early nineteenth century.
As an infant Julian is deprived of his rightful place in the British peerage by his wicked uncle, Lord Danvers, and instead is given what Godwin presents as an ideal upbringing in the simple peasant life of northern Italy. Julian is portrayed as the ideal child—he succeeds at everything he undertakes, from his schooling in the classics and English poetry to his horsemanship. Julian wins sympathy from everyone he meets. His devotion to his parents is devout; he is impervious to the distinctions of class in the village where he is raised; he nurses his adoptive father Cloudesley back from smallpox; he rescues two of his friends when they nearly drown in a terrible squall.
Interestingly, like other Godwinian protagonists, Julian consistently expresses a desire for an intense male bond; his only female friend is said to be his adoptive mother (168). At age eighteen, and immediately following his mother’s death, Julian becomes infatuated with his friend Francesco Perfetti. “His mind was fresh from the histories of Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias,” Godwin writes, “and he persuaded himself that there could be no true felicity but in the ardours of a romantic friendship” (169). Godwin writes of the two boys that “By collision they raised the first sparks of friendship into a brilliant and mighty flame,” swearing that they “would build a temple of attachment and love, in comparison of which all the examples of antiquity should fade into nothing” (169). Julian later repeats such a resolve to be Pylades to Francesco’s Orestes, and Pirithous to Francesco’s Theseus (208); interestingly, in these instances Julian chooses for himself the more passive role of the lesser known figure, placing his beloved Francesco in the dominant position of the hero.
As the novel progresses, Julian forms a new attachment with the extremely charismatic banditto, known as “St Elmo.” Godwin describes the powerful allure of St Elmo’s physical beauty and personality, and writes that he “seemed formed for woman’s love” (207). St Elmo is a bandit of the Robin Hood variety: he robs only the rich and nobly shuns the violation of women. Julian’s attraction to this new man in his life is described in highly homoerotic terms: “Julian was instantly captivated with the attractions of [St Elmo], and felt that he had never before seen so perfect an example of the idea we may suppose to have been conceived by the Creator of the world, when he resolved to produce that crown of all his productions, man” (208). Perceiving St Elmo as possessing superhuman qualities in every sense, Julian devotes all of his time to his new friend, time that Godwin describes as “a perpetual series of pleasures” (210). As the novel progresses, Julian’s attachment to St Elmo increases. Godwin writes that:
The friendly yearnings of his heart to his protector rose to a degree which has rarely been paralleled [. . .]. He would have encountered any peril, and even had laid down his life, for his friend. A tie of this sort seemed necessary to his existence. He required something to look up to, something to cherish with even a filial affection, something to regard with mysterious reverence, and to contemplate as too high to be comprehended, and considered as governed by impulses of the most exalted kind, which he was unable to unravel.268
Julian’s inability to “unravel” the meaning of his desire for such a conception of filial affection points to what is distinctly different about his personality when he is compared to other Godwinian heroes, and indeed to other heroes of Romantic-era fiction. While obsessiveness and jealousy impede Fleetwood and Mandeville from developing constructive bonds with the objects of their desire, Julian instead imagines a new and exalted conception of companionship.
In this last example of Julian’s conception of ideal male friendship, we are for a third time told that Julian’s love for St Elmo parallels that of Theseus and Pirithous, Achilles and Patroclus, and Damon and Pythias (268). Thus, Godwin repeatedly recalls the classical ideal of friendship. In his final novel Deloraine (1833), Godwin would once again draw on classical literature in describing the idyllic friendship shared by the inseparable William and Travers, writing that:
Neither of the two had ever met with an individual of his own sex, with whom his ideas so thoroughly accorded. They were like twins, whom some strange event had separated, and cast on opposite sides of the globe, and who, when they met, then for the first time felt a kind of repose and entire contentment, as if half of himself had been torn away from each, and was now restored, so that he became perfect, equal to any encounter, and armed against every assault of nature or fortune.174
Here Godwin draws his metaphor from the famous Symposium of Plato, in which the character of Aristophanes accounts for heterosexual and homosexual love by theorizing that the gods long ago split each human being into two halves and that love involves a restoration of those halves to their original wholeness, whether they be male and female, female and female, or male and male. Again, an ancient conception of friendship provides Godwin with rich material in developing and analyzing same-sex bonds. This particular case is unusual, however, because here Godwin actually celebrates an instance of love between men by referencing a famous Greek definition of homosexuality.
In Cloudesley, Godwin pushes beyond the pattern of destructive homosocial desire that he had explored in his earlier novels in order to examine the social effects of a male character whose desire seems much more constructively focused on love than on competitiveness. Julian’s gentle, feminized personality works to soften the more traditionally masculine and highly destructive men around him. Godwin explains how the misanthropic personality of Julian’s foster father Cloudesley had been formed both by a neglected and defective education, and by the experience of being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Indeed, such a background led Cloudesley to accept the charge of deceptively raising Julian in Italy and to allow Julian’s uncle to usurp Julian’s proper place in English society. But Julian’s capacity for gentleness and love convert Cloudesley to a love for humanity and a desire to do right by others.
Similarly, the guardian Cloudesley chooses for Julian when he has to leave Italy, and after his own death, is the tough and brutal Borromeo, whose 20-year experience as a slave to the Algerians had likewise made him the most confirmed of misanthropes. Although Borromeo’s rough treatment of Julian initially serves only to drive Julian more fervently to St Elmo, Borromeo’s hatred for his fellow man is, by the end of the novel, entirely rehabilitated by Julian’s influence, which Godwin refers to as “the ascendancy of virtue” and “the success of gentleness” (290). In the novel’s final paragraphs, Borromeo professes that “the true system for governing the world, for fashioning the tender spirits of youth, for smoothing the pillow of age, is love” (289). Most importantly for Godwin’s theory of the perfectibility of human society, Borromeo also states that “the one thing that most exalts and illustrates man is disinterested affection,” a critical distinction (289).
Interestingly, in nearly all of Godwin’s novels we see a persistent and insightfully psychologically based suggestion that the fostering of responsible expressions of attachment and aggression between men are critical components of social progress. Mary Shelley’s similar development of this theme in Frankenstein, and in other works, was clearly based on the model of her father’s fiction. Her Robert Walton clarifies the great potential of male friendship when he declares his desire for a friend “who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind” (13). Frankenstein and Godwin’s pre-1830 novels all explore the catastrophes that ensue when the traditional conception of manhood and masculinity lead to unmeasured antipathy and competition between men, competition that often impacts upon and even destroys women and the family. The potential destructiveness of misplaced affection and desire between men thus becomes one means by which Godwin illustrates the fact that contemporary definitions of masculinity must be transformed.
In Cloudesley, however, the social benefits of a particular Godwinian ideal of love and devotion between men is fully illustrated and celebrated. Rather than focusing on aberrant relationships and destructive social bonds as in his earlier works, here Godwin contrasts the weaknesses of such characters as Cloudesley, Borromeo, and Lord Danvers to the particular strengths of young Julian. A passionate devotee of a purer and nobler definition of male friendship borrowed from the antique world, as well as a new conception of the male personality, Julian is offered up as a memorable exemplar of Godwin’s argument that universal love and “disinterested affection” are the only means towards a more perfect society. As the reformed Borromeo states most clearly in the concluding paragraphs of the novel, “The true key of the universe is love. That levels all inequalities [. . .] and brings human beings of every age and every station into a state of brotherhood” (289).
For a full discussion of homophobia during the reign of George III, see Crompton 12-62.
See Marchand, ed., Byron’s Letters and Journals 1: 207, 1: 207n2, 2: 124, and 2: 124n5.
Robert Corber offers another way to interpret the sexual dynamics of Caleb’s and Falkland’s relationship, arguing that Godwin exaggerates aspects of Falkland’s personality that contemporary readers would interpret as those of an effeminate, “Frenchified” dandy—a stereotype that may have signalled the sodomite to some readers. Reading Falkland as such would of course greatly intensify Caleb’s language that resonates with sexual passion and at times even invokes terminology echoing the language of the marriage contract. See also Gold 146.
The plot of Godwin’s final novel Deloraine (1833) is likewise based upon a destructive homosocial rivalry. In this novel the narrator, Deloraine, is driven to murder his wife’s former lover, William, in a fit of jealousy, and then narrates his adventures in fleeing justice in a recasting of the flight of Caleb Williams. Deloraine, however, exhibits little evidence of homoerotic desire underlying the narrator’s relationship with his rival or with other men.
As with St Leon, Fleetwood’s intense longing for male companionship recalls Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the similar longing that Robert Walton expresses in writing to his sister: “I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me a romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend” (13). Mary Shelley develops this theme in many directions in the complicated relationships she depicts between Walton and Frankenstein, between Frankenstein and his friend Henry Clerval, and between Frankenstein and his creature. For her use of male-male desire in Frankenstein, see McGavran; for her recurring treatment of homosocial relationships between men in Frankenstein, Valperga, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, and in her short fiction, see Markley, “Tainted Wethers” and “Mary Shelley’s ‘New Gothic.’”
Godwin, Deloraine 174; quoted in Brewer 64-5. In illustrating the destructive effects of homosocial rivalry, Deloraine follows Fleetwood and Mandeville more closely than Cloudesley.
I am most grateful to Eric Clarke, Pamela Clemit, David Collings, Gary Handwerk, Michael O’Rourke, and Robert Tobin for their suggestions regarding this essay.
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