Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Preface to the First Edition.

Yet another novel from the same pen, which has twice before claimed the patience of the public in this form. The unequivocal indulgence which has been extended to my two former attempts, renders me doubly solicitous not to forfeit the kindness I have experienced.

One caution I have particularly sought to exercise: “not to repeat myself.” Caleb Williams was a story of very surprising and uncommon events, but which were supposed to be entirely within the laws and established course of nature, as she operates in the planet we inhabit. The story of St. Leon is of the miraculous class; and its design, to “mix human feelings and passions with incredible situations, and thus render them impressive and interesting.”

Some of those fastidious readers — they may be classed among the best friends an author has, if their admonitions are judiciously considered — who are willing to discover those faults which do not offer themselves to every eye, have remarked that both these tales are in a vicious style of writing; that Horace has long ago decided that the story we cannot believe we are by all the laws of criticism called upon to hate; and that even the adventures of the honest secretary, who was first heard of ten years ago, are so much out of the usual road that not one reader in a million can ever fear they will happen to himself.

Gentlemen critics, I thank you. In the present volumes I have served you with a dish agreeable to your own receipt, though I cannot say with any sanguine hope of obtaining your approbation.

The following story consists of such adventures as for the most part have occurred to at least one half of the Englishmen now existing who are of the same rank of life as my hero. Most of them have been at college, and shared in college excesses; most of them have afterward run a certain gauntlet of dissipation; most have married, and, I am afraid, there are few of the married tribe who have not at some time or other had certain small misunderstandings with their wives.[A] To be sure, they have not all of them felt and acted under these trite adventures as my hero does. In this little work the reader will scarcely find anything to “elevate and surprise;” and, if it has any merit, it must consist in the liveliness with which it brings things home to the imagination, and the reality it gives to the scenes it pourtrays.

[Footnote A: I confess, however, the inability I found to weave a catastrophe, such as I desired, out of these ordinary incidents. What I have here said, therefore, must not be interpreted as applicable to the concluding sheets of my work.]

Yes, even in the present narrative, I have aimed at a certain kind of novelty — a novelty which may be aptly expressed by a parody on a well-known line of Pope; it relates:

“Things often done, but never yet described.”

In selecting among common and ordinary adventures, I have endeavoured to avoid such as a thousand novels before mine have undertaken to develop. Multitudes of readers have themselves passed through the very incidents I relate; but, for the most part, no work has hitherto recorded them. If I have hold them truly, I have added somewhat to the stock of books which should enable a recluse, shut up in his closet, to form an idea of what is passing in the world. It is inconceivable, meanwhile, how much, by this choice of a subject, I increased the arduousness of my task. It is so easy to do, a little better, or a little worse, what twenty authors have done before! If I had foreseen from the first all the difficulty of my project, my courage would have failed me to undertake the execution of it.

Certain persons, who condescend to make my supposed inconsistencies the favourite object of their research, will perhaps remark with exultation on the respect expressed in this work for marriage, and exclaim, “It was not always thus!” referring to the pages in which this subject is treated in the “Enquiry concerning Political Justice” for the proof of their assertion. The answer to this remark is exceedingly simple. The production referred to in it, the first foundation of its author’s claim to public distinction and favour, was a treatise, aiming to ascertain what new institutions in political society might be found more conducive to general happiness than those which at present prevail. In the course of this disquisition it was enquired whether marriage, as it stands described and supported in the laws of England, might not with advantage admit of certain modifications. Can anything be more distinct than such a proposition on the one hand and a recommendation on the other that each man for himself should supersede and trample upon the institutions of the country in which he lives? A thousand things might be found excellent and salutary, if brought into general practice, which would in some cases appear ridiculous, and in others be attended with tragical consequences, if prematurely acted upon by a solitary individual. The author of “Political Justice,” as appears again and again in the pages of that work, is the last man in the world to recommend a pitiful attempt, by scattered examples, to renovate the face of society, instead of endeavouring, by discussion and reasoning, to effect a grand and comprehensive improvement in the sentiments of its members.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/godwin/william/caleb/preface3.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37