The Godwins and the Shelleys

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Even though the title of this study is THE GODWINS AND THE SHELLEYS, it is William Godwin who is the centerpiece. History has not been kind to Godwin. He has been overshadowed by other family members such as his lover and eventually wife Mary Wollstonecraft, their daughter Mary Shelley, and her husband Percy Bysse Shelley. William St. Clair, by way of exploration of family archives, turns the focus with this work back to Godwin and his revolutionary philosophical thought. Godwin’s monumental treatise, AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL JUSTICE (1793), brought him instant notoriety. Liberal intellectuals of the day sought him out to be their inspirational leader and conservative politicians pondered whether he should be charged with treason. But Godwin was more than merely a thinker wishing to inspire. One of his strengths was that he learned over the course of time that pragmatism was also a necessary ingredient to philosophical thought. His treatise went through three edition. Whereas radicals, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, found their inspiration in only the first edition, Godwin showed how he grew and tempered his thought in each subsequent edition.

St. Clair is keen to point out how circumstances made Godwin behave and rethink previous positions. He was devastated by the death of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft after giving birth to a daughter, Mary--the future wife of Shelley and the author of FRANKENSTEIN. He was also in constant need of money. His plodding nature and his sense of purpose helped him through the terrible heartache and almost total financial ruin. St. Clair presents a full and very human portrait of a man and his times. Through all the tumult, Godwin stood as a beacon of liberal thought. He spoke for the individual and the need to be free. He has found a true and sympathetic biographer in William St. Clair.