Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Godwin, William (1756-1836)
GODWIN, WILLIAM, the elder (1756–1836), author of ‘Political Justice,’ son of John Godwin, was born 3 March 1756 at Wisbeach, Cambridgeshire, where his father, born 1723, was a dissenting minister. His mother's maiden name was Hull. He was the seventh of thirteen children (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 503, gives a few particulars about the family). He was physically puny, but intellectually precocious, and was brought up upon strict puritanical principles. His father moved in 1758 to Debenham, Suffolk. An Arian minority in his congregation opposed him, and about 1760 he settled finally at Guestwick in Norfolk; he never received above 60l. a year. William was sent to a dame school at Guestwick, and in 1764 to a school kept by Robert Akers at Hindolveston, in the neighbourhood. He used to steal secretly into the meeting-house to preach to a fellow-pupil, and became a promising student. In 1767 he was sent as a pupil to Samuel Newton, an independent minister at Norwich, of whose severity he afterwards complained. He had an attack of smallpox in 1768, having refused, from religious scruples, to be inoculated. He read Rollin's ‘Ancient History,’ and was influenced by his tutor's Wilkite politics and Sandemanian theology. In 1771 he became usher in his old school under Akers. His father died 12 Nov. 1772. In April 1773 he went to London with his mother, and, after being refused admission to Homerton Academy on suspicion of Sandemanian tendencies, entered the Hoxton Academy in 1773. Here he was under Kippis, who became a useful friend. He was ‘famous for calm and dispassionate discussion;’ he rose at five and went to bed at twelve, in order to have time for metaphysical inquiries, and, though a Calvinist in theology, formed the philosophical opinions as to materialism and necessity to which he adhered through life. He had arguments with Dr. Rees of the ‘Cyclopædia,’ then the head of the college. In 1777 he preached at Yarmouth and Lowestoft in the summer season, and in 1778, after an unsuccessful application at Christchurch, Hampshire, became minister at Ware in Hertfordshire. Here he came under the influence of Joseph Fawcet, a follower of Jonathan Edwards and a strong republican. In August 1779 Godwin moved to London, and in 1780 became minister at Stowmarket, Suffolk, where his faith in Christianity was shaken by a study of French philosophers, though he was for a time reconverted by Priestley's ‘Institutes.’ He fell out with his congregation in 1782, went to London, and began to try his hand at authorship. For the first half of 1783 he was again on trial as a minister at Beaconsfield, but finally settled to the profession of literature in the autumn. His ‘Life of Chatham’ was published in the spring of 1783, and he afterwards wrote pamphlets, articles, and novels. Murray employed him on the ‘English Review,’ and in translating Simon, lord Lovat's memoirs; but he had often to pawn his watch or books to procure a dinner. In 1785 he was appointed, through Kippis's introduction, to write the historical article in the ‘New Annual Register.’ He now dropped the title of ‘reverend,’ and henceforth saw little of his family, though to the end of her life his mother, a shrewd old lady, wrote occasional letters of bad spelling and grammar, full of religious advice and maternal affection. She lived near her eldest son, a farmer at Wood Dalling, Norfolk, and died 13 Aug. 1809. Godwin did his best to help his brothers in later life (Paul, Godwin, ii. 58, 122). Godwin's politics brought him into contact with Sheridan and other whig politicians, but he was ‘not venal enough’ to accept offers of support as a party writer. He was known to the more extreme party, and became especially intimate with Thomas Holcroft [q. v.] He took a pupil or two at intervals, to one of whom, Thomas Cooper, a distant relation, and afterwards an unsuccessful actor, he showed much kindness through life. Godwin was among the ardent sympathisers with the French revolution, and frequented the house of Helen Maria Williams. He read Paine's ‘Rights of Man’ in manuscript, having made the author's acquaintance at the house of Brand Hollis [q. v.] In 1792 he became acquainted with Horne Tooke. He now settled at a small house in Chalton Street, Somers Town, where he lived with great economy and seclusion. He had no regular servant, an old woman coming in to clean his rooms and cook his mutton-chop. He went a good deal into society and formed friendships with distinguished men, such as Thomas Wedgwood, Porson, and Ritson. He also became intimate with Mrs. Inchbald and with Mrs. Reveley, afterwards Maria Gisborne [q. v.] Godwin's ‘Political Justice’ appeared in February 1793. He received seven hundred guineas for the copyright, and three hundred guineas more after a sale of three thousand copies. It was profitable to the publisher, and made Godwin known as the philosophical representative of English radicalism. It is a curious instance of extreme principles advocated dispassionately with the calmness of one-sided logic. It was modified in later editions, and in the preface to ‘St. Leon’ (1799) he announces that he can find a place in his system for the domestic virtues previously omitted. It escaped prosecution, it is said, because the government supposed that little harm could be done by a three-guinea publication. The impression made by it upon young men is curiously illustrated in Crabb Robinson's ‘Diary’ (i. 32–52), where there is a correspondence between Robinson and Robert Hall. ‘Political Justice’ was followed in May 1794 by the remarkable novel ‘Caleb Williams,’ suggested partly by some of his views as to the falseness of the common code of morality, but preserved by the striking situation and considerable merits of style. It was dramatised by Colman the younger [q. v.], who showed little regard for the author's feelings (Rogers, Table Talk, pp. 252, 253), as ‘The Iron Chest.’ In 1794 Godwin was profoundly interested by the trials of Joseph Gerrald [q. v.] in Scotland, and afterwards of Horne Tooke, Holcroft, and others in London. He wrote a pamphlet in answer to the charge of Chief-justice Eyre in the latter case, and he became acquainted with many of the leading whigs, whom he met at the house of Lord Lauderdale.
Godwin had talked about marriage in a philosophic calmness soon after coming to London; but a match proposed by his sister came to nothing. He had some tenderness for Amelia Alderson, afterwards Mrs. Opie, and for Mrs. Inchbald. In 1796 he formed an attachment to Mary Wollstonecraft [see Godwin, Mary], who was now living as Mrs. Imlay in the literary circle frequented by Godwin. Although he objected to marriage on principle, he admitted that it had advantages when he expected to become a father, and he appears to have been as sincerely in love as his nature admitted. The marriage took place at Old St. Pancras Church 29 March 1797. It was kept private for a short time, and Godwin took a separate apartment in the Polygon, Somers Town, twenty doors from his own house, in conformity with his theory that too close an intimacy was provocative of mutual weariness. Mrs. Inchbald was deeply aggrieved by the marriage (Paul, Mary Wollstonecraft, p. lx). Mrs. Reveley wept, but was reconciled. Mrs. Godwin gave birth to a daughter, Mary, afterwards Mrs. Shelley, 30 Aug. 1797, caught a fever, and died 10 Sept. following. Godwin was sincerely affected, though the story is told that when his wife exclaimed that she was ‘in heaven,’ he replied, ‘You mean, my dear, that your physical sensations are somewhat easier.’ A painful correspondence with Mrs. Inchbald, whom he accused of using her ill, immediately followed. They were never quite reconciled, though at intervals they had a correspondence, and it was mutually irritating. He saw a few friends and set about compiling a memoir of his wife, which appeared in the following year.
Godwin returned to his studies and to society in 1798. He was left in charge of his infant daughter and of Fanny Godwin (as she was called), Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter by Imlay. A Miss Jones who took care of the children had apparently some wish to be their stepmother. Godwin thought that a second wife might be desirable, but had no fancy for Miss Jones. He visited Bath in March 1798, and made acquaintance with Sophia and Harriet Lee [q. v.], writers of the ‘Canterbury Tales.’ He made an offer to Harriet soon afterwards and reasoned at great length against her religious scruples, saying that she acted in the style of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. His philosophy, however, was thrown away. When Mrs. Reveley became a widow in 1799, Godwin endeavoured to persuade her to marry him, with the same want of success. In December 1801 he was at last married by Mrs. Clairmont, a widow with a son, Charles, and a daughter, Clara Mary Jane Clairmont [q. v.] Mrs. Clairmont had come to live in the next house to him in the Polygon, and introduced herself by ‘Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?’ She was ‘a querulous’ wife and a harsh stepmother, and the marriage was far from happy. She ruled her husband severely and was not favourable to his friendships. Godwin was meanwhile becoming embarrassed. In 1799 he wrote ‘St. Leon,’ a novel which succeeded, though not so well as ‘Caleb Williams,’ and a tragedy which has vanished. He had some literary quarrels, especially with Mackintosh, who had attacked the moral theories of the ‘Political Justice’ in his lectures at Lincoln's Inn, and afterwards admitted that he had been too harsh (Life, i. 134), and with Dr. Parr, who had been his political ally, but had criticised the ‘Political Justice’ in a ‘Spital Sermon’ (15 April 1800). The friendship was extinguished by an exchange of bitter reproaches. A pamphlet called ‘Thoughts on Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon’ replies with much vigour to Parr, Mackintosh, and Malthus, and shows that at this time Godwin considered Napoleon to be a saviour of society. A copy in the British Museum has some admiring annotations by Coleridge.
He was now becoming known to Wordsworth, Lamb, and Coleridge. To Coleridge's influence he attributes a return to a sufficiently vague theism, having been, he says, converted to unbelief by his conversations with Holcroft about 1787, and having become an atheist about 1792, that is during the composition of the ‘Political Justice.’ He now too expanded his course of reading and took to history and the English dramatists. A result of this was his ‘Tragedy of Antonio,’ which was carefully criticised by Lamb, refused by Colman for the Haymarket, but produced by Kemble at Drury Lane 13 Dec. 1800 and hopelessly damned. Lamb described the catastrophe with his usual humour in ‘The Old Actors’ (London Magazine, April 1822, reprinted in Essays of Elia as ‘Artificial Comedy of the Last Century’). In September 1801 Godwin finished another tragedy called ‘Abbas, King of Persia,’ but could not persuade Kemble to make a fresh experiment. The failures were serious for Godwin, whose difficulties were not diminished by his marriage, and who still helped his brother.
Two volumes of his first antiquarian work, the ‘Life of Chaucer,’ upon which he had been employed for two or three years, appeared in October 1803, bringing him 300l., and he received the same sum for the two concluding volumes. He then completed ‘Fleetwood,’ a novel, published in 1805, which was a falling off from its predecessors, and ‘Faulkener,’ a play, which after some disappointments was acted at Drury Lane in December 1807 and ran for some nights. Godwin's want of success had forced him to become a borrower. Thomas Wedgwood, a previous benefactor, lent him 100l. in 1804. He had now five children to support (the two Clairmonts, Mary Wollstonecraft's two children, and his son William by his second wife, born 1804), and though his wife had worked at translations, their position was precarious. He now (1805) took a small house in Hanway Street, in which Mrs. Godwin carried on a publishing business. He wrote for it some fables and histories for children, under the name of Baldwin, his own having an odour of heterodoxy. They had much success. Mrs. Godwin translated some children's books from the French, and the Lambs gave them some books, especially the ‘Tales from Shakespeare.’ The business struggled on with many difficulties. Godwin had also undertaken a history of England. In 1807 the business had improved, and a larger shop was taken in Skinner Street, Holborn, with a dwelling-house, to which the family moved. A subscription was started, to which Godwin's political friends contributed handsomely in order to improve his chances. Godwin's health was suffering from frequent fainting fits, though not so as to diminish his industry. In 1809 he produced the lives of Edward and John Philips. Embarrassments still increased, and he had difficulties with his wife. In January 1811 he was addressed by Shelley. From his early life Godwin had many disciples among young men of promise attracted by his philosophical reputation. His correspondence with them is creditable to his good feeling, and shows that he could administer judicious advice with real kindness (see notices of Arnot, Cooke, Patrickson, and Rosser in Paul's Godwin). Shelley's is the only case still memorable. Godwin endeavoured to calm his impetuosity during the Irish tour of 1812, and in the autumn went to visit his disciple at Lynmouth, only to find that the Shelleys had gone to Wales. In October they met him in London. In the following July Shelley eloped with Mary God win. Godwin's character appears in its worst aspect in the letters published by Mr. Dowden in his life of Shelley. He tried to maintain his philosophic dignity while treating Shelley as a seducer for acting on the principles of the ‘Political Justice.’ He refused to communicate with Shelley except through his solicitors, and forbade Fanny Godwin to speak to her sister. At the same time, he was not above taking 1,000l. from Shelley, and begging for more. He returns a cheque with an affectation of dignity, but asks that it may be made payable in another name. Upon Shelley's marriage, December 1816, he was reconciled, and the poet's veneration for the philosopher disappeared on the discovery that Godwin was fully sensible of the advantages of a connection with the heir to a good estate. Godwin, constantly sinking into deeper embarrassment, tried to extort money from his son-in-law until Shelley's death, and Shelley did his best to supply the venerable horseleech. Mrs. Godwin's antipathy to her stepdaughter, Mrs. Shelley, her bad temper, and general spitefulness made things worse, and Godwin had much difficulty in keeping up any pretence of self-respect (Dowden, Shelley, i. 417, 463, 488, 521, 538, ii. 72, 114, 321, &c.). H. C. Robinson says that he once introduced Godwin to a certain Rough. Next morning he received separate calls from the pair. Each expressed his admiration for the other, and then asked whether his new friend would be likely to advance 50l. (Diary, i. 372).
In October 1816 Fanny Godwin, who appears to have been an attractive girl, went to Wales to visit her mother's sisters. She poisoned herself, 11 Oct., at Swansea, for no assignable cause.
Godwin continued to work in spite of distractions. His novel ‘Mandeville’ was published in 1817, and an answer to Malthus was begun in 1818. At the end of that year he had a slight stroke of paralysis. The answer to Malthus, on which he spent much labour, appeared in 1820. It had little success. It is ably criticised in Bonar's ‘Malthus,’ 1885, pp. 360–70. Towards the end of 1819 the publishing business showed ominous symptoms. They deepened in the following years, and Godwin's title to his house in Skinner Street was successfully disputed in 1822. Godwin became bankrupt in that year. His friends again came forward to raise the arrears of rent now claimed, and to enable him to make a fresh start. His old opponent Mackintosh and his new friend Lady Caroline Lamb joined with others to help him, but they failed to set him on his legs again. He lived in the Strand, working industriously, and between 1824 and 1828 produced his ‘History of the Commonwealth.’ He was the first writer to make a thorough use of the pamphlets in the Museum and other original documents. His thoroughness and accuracy made his book superior to its predecessors, and it is useful, though in some directions superseded by later information. His ‘Thoughts on Man’ in 1830 consisted chiefly of old essays. In that year he made the acquaintance of Bulwer, to whom he gave some collections upon Eugene Aram [see Aram, Eugene]. In 1832 he lost his son, William Godwin [q. v.] In 1833 Lord Grey, to whom Mackintosh and others had applied, made him yeoman usher of the exchequer. He had a residence in New Palace Yard, and no duties. The office was soon abolished as a sinecure, but Godwin was allowed to retain it during his life. His career as a writer ceased with the ‘Lives of the Necromancers,’ but he afterwards finished some essays, published in 1873. He gradually failed, and died 7 April 1836. He was buried in Old St. Pancras churchyard. The churchyard was destroyed by a railway, and in 1851 his remains and those of his first wife were removed to Bournemouth, where they are buried in the same grave as their daughter, Mrs. Shelley. His second wife died 17 June 1841 (Gent. Mag. 1841, pt. ii. p. 216).
The best account of Godwin's appearance is in Talfourd's ‘Final Memorials of Charles Lamb’ (Lamb, Works, 1855, ii. 347–55), and there is a good account of his philosophical reputation in Hazlitt's ‘Spirit of the Age’ (pp. 1–58). Godwin's philosophy was taken seriously by his friends till the end of his life, and produced some effect at the time as an exposition of the revolutionary creed. His first novels are curious examples of impressive fiction constructed rather from logic than poetic imagination; and in his later years he did some good work as an antiquary. Affecting the virtues of calmness and impartiality, he was yet irritable under criticism, and his friendships were interrupted by a series of quarrels. His self-respect was destroyed in later life under the pressure of debt and an unfortunate marriage; but, though his character wanted in strength and elevation, and was incapable of the loftier passions, he seems to have been mildly affectionate, and, in many cases, a judicious friend to more impulsive people.
His portrait, by Northcote, formerly in the possession of the late Sir Percy Shelley, is printed by Hazlitt. An engraving is prefixed to Mr. Paul's ‘Life.’
His works are: 1. ‘Life of Chatham,’ 1783 (anon.). 2. ‘Sketches of History, in Six Sermons,’ 1784. 3. ‘Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness,’ 1793, 1796, 1798. 4. ‘Things as they are; or the Adventures of Caleb Williams,’ 1794 (often republished). 5. ‘Cursory Strictures on the Charge of Chief-Justice Eyre,’ 1794. 6. ‘The Enquirer … a series of Essays,’ 1797 (new edition, 1823). 7. ‘Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women,’ 1798. 8. ‘St. Leon, a Tale of the 16th Century,’ 1799. 9. ‘Antonio, a Tragedy in five acts in verse,’ 1800. 10. ‘Thoughts occasioned by … Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon,’ 1801. 11. ‘Life of Geoffrey Chaucer … with Sketches of the Manners … of England,’ 2 vols. 4to, 1803; 4 vols. 8vo, 1804; a German translation, 1812. 12. ‘Faulkener, a Tragedy in prose,’ 1807. 13. ‘Essay on Sepulchres,’ 1809. 14. ‘Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton’ (with appendices), 1815. 15. ‘Mandeville, a Tale of the 17th Century,’ 1817. 16. ‘Of Population … in answer to Mr. Malthus,’ 1820. 17. ‘History of the Commonwealth of England … to the Restoration of Charles II,’ 4 vols. 8vo, 1824–8. 18. ‘Cloudesley, a Tale,’ 1830. 19. ‘Thoughts on Man; his Nature, Productions, and Discoveries,’ 1831. 20. ‘Deloraine,’ 1833. 21. ‘Lives of the Necromancers,’ 1834. 22. ‘Essays’ never before published, 1873. Godwin published some children's books, ‘Fables’ (1805 and eleven later editions), a ‘Pantheon,’ and histories of Greece, Rome, and England, under the pseudonym Edward Baldwin. ‘The Looking-glass, a true History of the Early Years of an Artist … by Theophilus Marcliffe’ (1805), is also attributed to him by Mr. F. G. Stephens, who edited a facsimile edition in 1885. Mr. Stephens shows that it was probably an account of the life of William Mulready (1786–1863) [q. v.][C. Kegan Paul's William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols. 8vo, 1876; Dowden's Life of Shelley; Talfourd's Final Memorials of Charles Lamb; Hazlitt's Spirit of the Age; Gent. Mag. 1836, i. 666–70; H. Crabb Robinson's Diary, 1869; Mrs. Julian Marshall's Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1890.]