Caleb Williams is set in a time of great political change in England. Revolution in America had deprived England of the wealth of her colony on that continent, and the revolution in France threatened all of Europe with war, economic uncertainty, and political chaos. To raise money for its national debt, the British government demanded new taxes from every class. Opposed to the Tories, the Whig Party at this time tended to champion the role of Parliament in achieving a measure of control over taxation and policy making. Thus the "old" wealth of the aristocracy and the "new" wealth derived from middle-class industrial investment found a common cause in safeguarding what were considered to be older English "liberties."
William Godwin, who began his political activism in support of the reform-minded Whigs, would move further toward the radical fringe of politics by promoting political anarchism. His characterization of the landed gentry in Caleb Williams, the tyranny of Tyrrel, and the liberality and benevolence of Tyrrel's opposite, Falkland, posit how political systems can lead to the suppression and corruption of the individual. Caleb Williams can thus be seen as a dramatization of Godwin's earlier theoretical book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).
Current readers of Caleb Williams can find fascinating parallels between the world of Godwin and the global war on terrorism. Faced with unprecedented violence in revolutionary France and insecurities about homeland defense and assaults on the very fabric of English political life, the government cracked down on dissent and so-called "Jacobin" or Francophile and radical segments of the population, which resulted in the suspension of habeas corpus (1794) and the creation of various legal stratagems by which charges of treason could be brought against writers and intellectuals considered subversive to English society.
Predictably, Godwin supported many of those figures who were unfairly charged, and his concerns show up in his writings. Caleb Williams, though not a roman a clef, explores the way that individuals can be manipulated by the structures of power. Caleb is pursued from place to place not only by the intelligence gathered from informants of all stripes, but also by the "history" of his crimes, published by means of inexpensive pamphlets that penetrated even the remotest regions of the kingdom. Although economic conditions in England had caused large landowning interests to enclose common lands to better use the productive value of such commonly held property, the remaining rural people were relatively conservative in their outlook, and thus Caleb finds limited relief from a population itself subjected to hardship and manipulated by aristocrats like Tyrrel and the media of the day—church sermons and pamphlets. Caleb's interactions with Falkland's servant, Thomas, is another instance of this trend. Ironically, Godwin would be unable to publish a preface indicating the "delineation of things passing in the moral world," because governmental "[t]error was the order of the day; and it was feared that even the humble novelist might be shown to be constructively a traitor."
The Changing Role of Religion
Although the Bible was a primary text during this period, its status as a unified work emerging from a single spot in time had undergone a change over the preceding century. Scholars in the Enlightenment era, using tools developed to create authoritative editions of Greek and Latin classics by comparing texts, examined the books of the Bible. It was held that different accounts of similar events were embedded in the Bible, suggesting that different source material had been combined. This scholarship would flourish in the nineteenth century, but, nevertheless, due to this scholarship, freethinking individuals like Thomas Jefferson could decide to study what they believed to be the real historical words of Jesus.
The Bible was also seen as a supreme work of genius, and as such contained timeless and universal treatments of the human condition. Its great story of creation, of the relationship between God and human and angels, of humans aspiring to be as God, of divine wrath, retribution, universal destruction and redemption, of demonic powers and so forth, fueled the collective imagination.
To justify the ways of God to man...
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