William Godwin: the Irrational, the Dark and the Weird

Posted by Richard Gough Thomas on September 05, 2014 in Guest Blog, Richard Gough Thomas tagged with ,

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William Godwin is frequently a name mentioned in passing by Gothic scholars, usually as a way to place some context on the life of Mary Shelley. Similarly, it’s not unusual to see Romanticists make passing reference to the ‘Gothic elements’ or ‘Gothic style’ of Godwin’s fiction. There’s value in either kind of statement, but Godwin’s relevance to the Gothic fiction of the early 1800s is under-interrogated. Within the field of Godwin scholarship itself, attention has mainly focused on the author’s politics and on his relationships with other writers – Wollstonecraft, Coleridge and the Shelleys at the forefront of this, all gloriously recorded in Godwin’s copious letters and diaries. Critical interest in Godwin’s fiction is overwhelmingly concerned with his first ‘mature’ novel, the tremendously influential Caleb Williams (1794).

Caleb Williams has many of the elements readers expect from the early Gothic novel – tyrannical masters, the persecution of the innocent, unjust imprisonment and a narrative that hinges on long-buried secrets. The novel’s influence on seminal Gothic authors like Charles Brockden Brown and Mary Shelley is difficult to challenge; while, conversely, critics have identified the parallels between Godwin’s novel and Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho.

But Godwin wrote five novels after Caleb Williams. Rather than wade into two centuries of Caleb Williams scholarship in an unnecessary attempt to define the Gothic characteristics of that novel, I would argue that there is much still be said about Godwin’s later fiction. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to provide some critical thoughts on three of the author’s later novels: St. Leon (1799), Fleetwood (1805) and Mandeville (1817). Though St. Leon was a success in its day, the two latter novels were commercial failures – perhaps in part due to the reaction of readers to the shocking violence of both texts. All three novels have memorable Gothic vignettes and I intend to argue that in his later fiction, Godwin uses the Gothic as a stylistic tool to raise cultural issues. Not only this, but also that these novels engage with the conventions and arguments of earlier authors writing in the Gothic mode.

It’s my feeling that Godwin’s taste for the dark and weird, as seen in some of his writing after Caleb Williams, sits uneasily with the author’s image as a ‘philosopher of reason’ (a characterisation of him given by contemporaries such as Wordsworth and supported by disproportionate interest in Godwin’s early work). Simple narratives of the author’s career often claim that his love affair with Wollstonecraft taught him the value of feeling and prompted a humiliating revision of his earlier work. Godwin denied such narratives at the time and the facts give them little support, but for the purposes of literary criticism it is interesting to note the author’s interest in the irrational stretching from texts of the early 1790s, all the way to his final works.

While it would be superficial to ‘claim’ Godwin as a Gothic author, a little attention to Godwin’s Gothic vignettes provides a useful amendment to assessments of the author’s relevance that focus largely on his work in the 1790s. For Gothic scholarship, a little attention to Godwin’s vignettes reminds us that when we invoke the author’s name as period context, we reference more than simply Caleb’s persecution.

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