William Godwin, 1756-1836

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Biographical note

Philosopher and novelist, born at Wisbeach, and educated at a school in Norwich, to which city his father, a Presbyterian minister, had removed, and subsequently at a Presbyterian college at Hoxton, with a view to the ministry. From 1778 to 1783 he acted as minister of various congregations near London; but his theological views having undergone important changes, he resigned his pastorate, and devoted himself to a literary career.

His first work, a series of historical sketches in the form of sermons, failed. He then found employment as one of the principal writers in the New Annual Register, and became otherwise prominent as an advocate of political and social reform. Many of his views were peculiar and extreme, and even tended, if fully carried out in practice, to subvert morality; but they were propounded and supported by their author with a whole-hearted belief in their efficacy for the regeneration of society: and the singular circumstances of his connection with and ultimate marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft showed at least that he had the courage of his opinions.

His Enquiry concerning Political Justice [1793] made him famous. A year later he published his masterpiece, Caleb Williams, a novel exhibiting a sombre strength rarely equalled. The next few years were occupied in political controversy, for which Godwin was, by his sincerity and his masculine style, well fitted; and it was in the midst of these — in 1797 — that his first marriage, already alluded to, and the death of his wife, of whom he published a singular but interesting Life, occurred. In 1799 his second great novel, St. Leon, based upon the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, appeared. His other novels, Fleetwood [1804], Mandeville [1817], and Cloudesley [1830], are much inferior. In addition to these works Godwin brought out an elaborate Life of Chaucer in 2 vols. [1803], An Essay on Sepulchres [1808], containing much fine thought finely expressed, A History of the Commonwealth, an Essay against the theories of Malthus (q.v.), and his last work, Lives of the Necromancers.

For some time he engaged in the publishing business, in which, however, he ultimately proved unsuccessful. In his later years he had the office of Yeoman Usher of the Exchequer conferred upon him. Godwin entered in 1801 into a second marriage with a widow, Mrs. Clairmont, by whom he had a daughter This lady had already a son and daughter, the latter of whom had an irregular connection with Byron. His daughter by his first marriage — Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, — became in 1816 the wife of Shelley.

Godwin was a man of simple manners and imperturbable temper.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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