The reputation of WILLIAM GODWIN as a social philosopher, and the merits of his famous novel, “Caleb Williams,” have been for more than a century the subject of extreme divergencies of judgment among critics. “The first systematic anarchist,” as he is called by Professor Saintsbury, aroused bitter contention with his writings during his own lifetime, and his opponents have remained so prejudiced that even the staid bibliographer Allibone, in his “Dictionary of English Literature,” a place where one would think the most flagitious author safe from animosity, speaks of Godwin’s private life in terms that are little less than scurrilous. Over against this persistent acrimony may be put the fine eulogy of Mr. C. Kegan Paul, his biographer, to represent the favourable judgment of our own time, whilst I will venture to quote one remarkable passage that voices the opinions of many among Godwin’s most eminent contemporaries.
In “The Letters of Charles Lamb,” Sir T.N. Talfourd says:
“Indifferent altogether to the politics of the age, Lamb could not help being struck with productions of its newborn energies so remarkable as the works and the character of Godwin. He seemed to realise in himself what Wordsworth long afterwards described, ‘the central calm at the heart of all agitation.’ Through the medium of his mind the stormy convulsions of society were seen ‘silent as in a picture.’ Paradoxes the most daring wore the air of deliberate wisdom as he pronounced them. He foretold the future happiness of mankind, not with the inspiration of the poet, but with the grave and passionless voice of the oracle. There was nothing better calculated at once to feed and to make steady the enthusiasm of youthful patriots than the high speculations in which he taught them to engage, on the nature of social evils and the great destiny of his species. No one would have suspected the author of those wild theories which startled the wise and shocked the prudent in the calm, gentlemanly person who rarely said anything above the most gentle commonplace, and took interest in little beyond the whist-table.”
WILLIAM GODWIN (1756–1836) was son and grandson of Dissenting ministers, and was destined for the same profession. In theology he began as a Calvinist, and for a while was tinctured with the austere doctrines of the Sandemanians. But his religious views soon took an unorthodox turn, and in 1782, falling out with his congregation at Stowmarket, he came up to London to earn his bread henceforward as a man of letters. In 1793 Godwin became one of the most famous men in England by the publication of his “Political Justice,” a work that his biographer would place side by side with the “Speech for Unlicensed Printing,” the “Essay on Education,” and “Emile,” as one of “the unseen levers which have moved the changes of the times.” Although the book came out at what we should call a “prohibitive price,” it had an enormous circulation, and brought its author in something like 1,000 guineas. In his first novel, “Caleb Williams,” which was published the next year, he illustrated in scenes from real life many of the principles enunciated in his philosophical work. “Caleb Williams” went through a number of editions, and was dramatized by Colman the younger under the title of “The Iron Chest.” It has now been out of print for many years. Godwin wrote several other novels, but one alone is readable now, “St. Leon,” which is philosophical in idea and purpose, and contains some passages of singular eloquence and beauty.
Godwin married the authoress of the “Rights of Woman,” Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1797, losing her the same year. Their daughter was the gifted wife of the poet Shelley. He was a social man, particularly fond of whist, and was on terms of intimacy and affection with many celebrated men and women. Tom Paine, Josiah Wedgwood, and Curran were among his closest male friends, while the story of his friendships with Mrs. Inchbald, Amelia Opie, with the lady immortalized by Shelley as Maria Gisborne, and with those literary sisters, Sophia and Harriet Lee, authors of the “Canterbury Tales,” has a certain sentimental interest. Afterwards he became known to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb. He married Mrs. Clairmont in 1801. His later years were clouded by great embarrassments, and not till 1833 was he put out of reach of the worst privations by the gift of a small sinecure, that of yeoman usher of the Exchequer. He died in 1836.
Among the contradictory judgments passed on “Caleb Williams” by Godwin’s contemporaries those of Hazlitt, Sir James Mackintosh, and Sir T. N. Talfourd were perhaps the most eulogistic, whilst De Quincey and Allan Cunningham criticized the book with considerable severity. Hazlitt’s opinion is quoted from the “Spirit of the Age”:
“A masterpiece, both as to invention and execution. The romantic and chivalrous principle of the love of personal fame is embodied in the finest possible manner in the character of Falkland; as in Caleb Williams (who is not the first, but the second character in the piece), we see the very demon of curiosity personified. Perhaps the art with which these two characters are contrived to relieve and set off each other has never been surpassed by any work of fiction, with the exception of the immortal satire of Cervantes.”
Sir Leslie Stephen said of it the other day:
“It has lived — though in comparative obscurity — for over a century, and high authorities tell us that vitality prolonged for that period raises a presumption that a book deserves the title of classic.”— National Review, February, 1902.
To understand how the work came to be written, and its aim, it is advisable to read carefully all three of Godwin’s prefaces, more particularly the last and the most candid, written in 1832. This will, I think, dispose of the objection that the story was expressly constructed to illustrate a moral, a moral that, as Sir Leslie Stephen says, “eludes him.” He says:
“I formed a conception of a book of fictitious adventure that should in some way be distinguished by a very powerful interest. Pursuing this idea, I invented first the third volume of my tale, then the second, and, last of all, the first. I bent myself to the conception of a series of adventures of flight and pursuit; the fugitive in perpetual apprehension of being overwhelmed with the worst calamities, and the pursuer, by his ingenuity and resources, keeping his victim in a state of the most fearful alarm. This was the project of my third volume.”
He goes on to describe in more detail the “dramatic and impressive” situations and the “fearful events” that were to be evolved, making it pretty clear that the purpose somewhat vaguely and cautiously outlined in the earliest preface was rather of the nature of an afterthought. Falkland is not intended to be a personification of the evils caused by the social system, nor is he put forward as the inevitable product of that system. The reader’s attention is chiefly absorbed by the extraordinary contest between Caleb Williams and Falkland, and in the tragic situations that it involves. Compared with these the denunciation of the social system is a matter of secondary interest; but it was natural that the author of the “Political Justice,” with his mind preoccupied by the defects of the English social system, should make those defects the, evil agencies of his plot. As the essential conditions of the series of events, as the machinery by which everything is brought about, these defects are of the utmost importance to the story. It is the accused system that awards to Tyrrel and Falkland their immense preponderance in society, and enables them to use the power of the law for the most nefarious ends. Tyrrel does his cousin to death and ruins his tenant, a man of integrity, by means of the law. This is the occasion of Falkland’s original crime. His more heinous offence, the abandonment of the innocent Hawkinses to the gallows, is the consequence of what Godwin expressly denounces, punishment for murder. “I conceived it to be in the highest degree absurd and iniquitous, to cut off a man qualified for the most essential and extensive utility, merely out of retrospect to an act which, whatever were its merits, could not be retrieved.” Then a new element is imported into the train of causation, Caleb’s insatiable curiosity, and the strife begins between these well-matched antagonists, the man of wealth and station utilizing all the advantages granted him by the state of society to crush his enemy. Godwin, then, was justified in declaring that his book comprehended “a general view of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man.” Such were the words of the original preface, which was suppressed for a short time owing to the fears caused by the trial of Horne Tooke, Thomas Holcroft and other revolutionists, with whom Godwin was in profound sympathy. Had he intended “Caleb Williams,” however, from its first inception, to be an imaginative version of the “Political Justice,” he would have had to invent a different plan and different characters. The arguments of a sociological novel lack cogency unless the characters are fairly representative of average mankind. Godwin’s principal actors are both, to say the least, exceptional. They are lofty idealizations of certain virtues and powers of mind. Falkland is like Jean Valjean, a superhuman creature; and, indeed, “Caleb Williams” may well be compared on one side with “Les Misérables,” for Victor Hugo’s avowed purpose, likewise, was the denunciation of social tyranny. But the characteristics that would have weakened the implied theorem, had such been the main object, are the very things that make the novel more powerful as drama of a grandiose, spiritual kind. The high and concentrated imagination that created such a being as Falkland, and the intensity of passion with which Caleb’s fatal energy of mind is sustained through that long, despairing struggle, are of greater artistic value than the mechanical symmetry by which morals are illustrated.
E. A. B.
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