William Godwin’s Fleetwood: a full and proper madness

Posted by Richard Gough Thomas on September 29, 2014 in Richard Gough Thomas tagged with , ,

I would argue that Godwin’s third novel, Fleetwood: or, the New Man of Feeling (1805), is principally an attack on a Rousseauvian idea of education. Rousseau advocates teaching children through the events that occur around them. When these prove inadequate, Rousseau continues, the tutor should secretly conspire to create situations that should prove instructive. Godwin called Émile ‘a series of tricks, a puppet-show exhibition’ (The Enquirer, p.106). Reading both Godwin’s essays on education in The Enquirer (1797) and Fleetwood side-by-side, the author clearly argues that while child-centred education is valuable, an education not based on honesty and transparency will render its subjects solipsistic. The novel’s protagonist, Casimir Fleetwood, experiences the stage-managed moral lessons that Emile does and enters adult life with little sense of the emotional needs of others. His life has, up until this point, been a series of simple moral choices where wiser heads have always been ready to show him the correct path. Like Émile, the protagonist has no meaningful relationships beyond those with his mentors (in Émile, everyone else the child meets has been placed there by the tutor to illustrate some lesson or another). Fleetwood suffers years of loneliness and his eventual marriage is disastrous because his education has taught him that events revolve around his emotional needs. The only meaningful relationship Fleetwood understands is that of pupil and mentor – he has no grasp of respect between equals because all his friends have been mentors who always knew how to guide him. He has learned only how to lead and how to follow. In real life, where feelings are more complicated, the protagonist is ill-equipped to deal with dialogue and compromise. His binary understanding of relationships makes him easy prey for those who do not have his best intentions at heart, driving him to the point of madness and tragedy.

The novel’s two weirdest scenes lend themselves to this theme of masters and pupils. At both points in the text, we see characters driven to frenzy by events beyond their control. Both scenes are moments of revelation, as the characters are forced to recognise that they have been used as pawns in other people’s emotional games. As painful as that might seem, the real hammer blow for either character is being forced to acknowledge that their feelings are not of primary importance to events – a realisation that prompts both to respond with violence, in a desperate attempt to exert control.

Withers is a contemporary of Fleetwood at Oxford. An ungainly, solitary figure, Withers had been brought up indulgently by his clergyman father. He was unworldly and possessed of ‘an exalted opinion of his own intellectual accomplishments’ (Fleetwood, p.75). The ‘wits and satirists’ of the college discover that he has authored an epic on Hercules’ cleaning of the Augean stables and cruelly manipulate Withers into performing this work before an assembly (p.76). The poem itself is dire (and in a rare moment of silliness, Godwin constructs some suitably absurd verses for the narrator to recount) but Withers’ fellow students lavish him with false praise and ply him with wine.

Had he possessed the smallest portion of knowledge of the world, he could not have harboured a moment’s uncertainty; but he was in all these respects a child. They nursed him, so to speak, in mistake, and rocked him in the cradle of delusion. By degrees they persuaded him to mount upon the table, that he might recite some of the most brilliant passages with greater effect. (p.84-5)

The night descends into a riotous ‘celebration’ of Withers’ talents, all the while the poet oblivious that he is being mocked. The cruelty continues the next day, as the chief culprits convince Withers that they are all to be sanctioned by the college for their antics. It is here that the narrative takes a turn for the strange:

Machinery, such as the malicious and riotous genius of the young men concerned in the plot suggested to their thoughts, was prepared for the occasion. In a chair near the wall, at the upper end of a spacious room the use of which they procured, was seated a puppet, dressed up in a gown and wig similar to those of the master, which it was proposed to pass on the unfortunate Withers for the identical person of the superior whose reproof he dreaded. This image, by the ingenuity of some of the parties to the plot, was so contrived as to have its head and hands capable of being moved by one of the confederates, who unseen held the springs for that purpose. (p.86)

Morrison, one the ringleaders, is a talented ventriloquist and provides the master’s voice while standing alongside Withers under the ‘puppet-master’s’ censure. Each student subjected to a harangue from the puppet, Withers refuses to indict his fellows and accepts martyrdom as the leader of the previous night’s riot. The puppet pronounces sentence on Withers, pushing the young man to breaking point:

He however threw his down to the floor with some resentment, and could not refrain expressing in three or four words some contempt for such trappings, and the privileges annexed to them. At this moment, to his utter astonishment and confusion, the figure lifted up its hand, as if in the intention of striking him. This indignity put Withers beyond all patience, and work him into a momentary insanity: he flew at the master, and positively began to cuff the image with violence: the machine was unable to resist this species of rudeness, and actually fell in pieces about the ears of its assailant. The candles were extinguished, and the room left in utter darkness; and at the same moment a long, obstreperous, and deafening peal of laughter burst out from every person in the assembly. (p.88)

The plot revealed, Withers is rudely awakened to what regard his fellows hold for him. Unable to face further ridicule by his peers, Withers becomes a recluse before eventually drowning himself in the river.

Withers’ humiliation is paralleled in the climax of the novel. In a pastiche that references both Othello and Henry Mackenzie’s Julia de Roubigné (1777), Fleetwood is tricked by his cousin Gifford into believing that his new wife Mary has cuckolded him with Gifford’s half-brother, Kenrick. Rather than confront the (imagined) couple, Fleetwood flees the marital home. Distracted and increasingly irrational, the protagonist allows Gifford to run his affairs; Gifford stewards Fleetwood around Europe to avoid contact with the protagonist’s friends and relatives. The Iago-like Gifford orchestrates Fleetwood’s divorce from Mary so that he can claim the protagonist’s fortune in the event of his death. Left to his own devices, Fleetwood’s fractured mind indulges the best revenge against Mary that it can manage:

I wrote to give to procure me, by some means, complete suit my wife’s clothes, together with a lieutenant’s uniform, made to pattern, according to the mode of the regiment which Kenrick belonged. I assured him that my life depended upon fulfilling my present demand. […]
I had in my possession a miniature of my wife. I went to a celebrated modeller in wax, in the city of Florence, where I now was, and caused him to make a likeness, as exact as he could, of the size of life. […]
For the wearer of the regimentals, I fixed upon a terrible and monstrous figure of a fiend, which I found in the magazine of my artist. I ordered a barrel-organ to be made for the same occasion. I recollected the tunes which Mary and Kenrick had sung together when at Bath, and I caused my instrument to be made to play those tunes. I bought a cradle, and a chest of child-bed linen. It is inconceivable what a tormenting pleasure I took in all these preparations. They employed me day after day, and week after week. When at length the fifteenth of July came, I caused a supper of cold meats to be prepared, and spread in an apartment of my hotel. […]
Never had madness, in any age for country, so voluptuous a banquet. […]
I no longer distinctly knew where I was, or could distinguish fiction from reality. I looked wildly, and with glassy eyes, all round the room; I gazed at the figure of Mary; I thought it was, and it was not, Mary. With mad and idle action, I put some provisions on her plate; I bowed to her in mockery, and invited her to eat. Then again I grew serious and vehement; I addressed her with inward and convulsive accents, in the language of reproach; I declaimed, with uncommon flow of words, upon her abandoned and infernal deceit; all the tropes that imagination ever supplied to the tongue of man, seemed to be at my command. I know not whether this speech was to be considered as earnest, or as the sardonic and bitter jest of a maniac. But, while I was still speaking, I saw her move-if I live, I saw it. She turned her eyes this way and that; she grinned and chattered at me. I looked from her to the other figure; that grinned and chattered too. Instantly a full and proper madness seized me; I grinned and chattered, in turn, to the figures before me. It was not words that I heard or uttered; it was murmurs, and hissings, and lowings, and howls. I became furious. I dashed the organ into a thousand fragments. I rent the child-bed linen, and tore it with my teeth. I dragged the clothes which Mary had worn, from off the figure that represented her, and rent them into long strips and shreds. I struck the figures vehemently with the chairs and other furniture of the room, till they were broken to pieces. I threw at them, in despite, the plates and other brittle implements of the supper-table. I raved and roared with all the power of my voice. (p.386-8)

Fleetwood's 'wedding feast' from the Bentley Standard Novels edition, 1832.

Fleetwood’s ‘wedding feast’ from the Bentley Standard Novels edition, 1832.

The splintering of Fleetwood’s mind raises the question of where his rage is directed. His psychotic episode is not a sudden fracture in response to his betrayal by Mary and Kenrick, but the culmination of the secret resentment he has harboured towards Mary for the entirety of their marriage. Fleetwood’s Rousseauvian education has taught him that a wife joins with her husband and shares his dreams, but Mary has a mind of her own – a growing recognition that confuses and frustrates the protagonist. Though she clearly loves him and has his best interests at heart, Mary has her own fears and passions, and is able to make emotional and social connections that are not mediated by her husband. Mary is, in essence, a fully-formed human being, not a waxwork to be moulded according to her master’s whims.

The implication is that, up until this point, Fleetwood has regarded the entire world in this manner – the only ‘real’ people have been himself and his tutor. I feel that Godwin here means to indict the solipsism of Rousseau’s system, implying that a child given no chance to bond with peers has no chance to learn about relationships based on give-and-take. For Fleetwood, as for Émile, the world has honestly appeared to revolve around him.

Fleetwood’s puppets and waxworks present another, complementary but unsettling, reading. The characters in either scene fail to recognise others as people like themselves, blind to the idea that others have concerns and desires that do not centre on the character’s own. When this narcissism is challenged, the characters respond with frenzy. In the novel’s preface, Godwin opined that Fleetwood’s adventures ‘for the most part have occurred to at least one half of the Englishmen now existing, who are of the same rank of life…’ (p.48). Such a claim seems far-fetched unless we infer that the author refers to the protagonist’s sentiments rather than his literal actions, but if this is the case then Godwin suggests that Fleetwood’s violent irrationality is a capacity we all share. Readers in the period reacted with horror, as contemporary criticism attests. Modern readers may be more sympathetic to the implications of the author’s assertion: that our regard for ourselves may lead us to treat others as extensions of ourselves, and that our need for dominion over others can manifest itself violently. Fleetwood is, to some extent, the narcissism of childhood writ large – but the power of adults (and ‘gentlemen of rank’) with the caprice of children is a frightening prospect. Godwin’s novel strikes to the heart of all our interpersonal relationships. Fleetwood asks how much we secretly wish we could mould our friends into beings that serve only our needs, and how well we cope with the realisation that this can never come true.

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Godwin, William; Fleetwood. (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001)

Godwin, William; The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature in a Series of Essays (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1797)

Handwerk, Gary; ‘”Awakening the Mind”: William Godwin’s Enquirer’ in Maniquis and Myers, eds. Godwinian Moments: From the Enlightenment to Romanticism. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011)

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