William Godwin Godwin, William (1756 - 1836)

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(Gothic Literature)

William Godwin (1756 - 1836)

English philosopher, novelist, essayist, historian, playwright, and biographer.

Although known primarily for his philosophical works and his influence on English Romantic writers, Godwin is also remembered for his contributions to the Gothic literary tradition. His best-known novel, Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), is a didactic tale about the evils of government that borrows heavily from the popular Gothic fiction of the day. Caleb Williams dramatizes many of the anarchistic and rationalistic beliefs that Godwin put forward in his philosophical masterpiece, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), which argues that humankind is innately good and capable of living harmoniously without laws or institutions. Godwin's only other work in the Gothic tradition is the occult tale St. Leon (1799), which also has philosophical overtones. Critics point out that this novel, as well as his numerous other works, lack the emotional power and intellectual appeal of Caleb Williams and Political Justice. The influence of Godwin's writings on his younger contemporaries, including novelists, poets, economists, and philosophers, was considerable. However, Godwin's philosophical and literary reputation has declined, and he is chiefly known today as a figure of historical importance—as the husband of philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, as the father of novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and as the author of two minor Gothic novels.


The seventh of thirteen children, Godwin was born in Wisbeach, England, to a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Raised in a strict, puritanical environment, Godwin trained for the ministry at an early age and became a Sandemanian clergyman in 1777. However, after studying the French revolutionary philosophers, he grew disenchanted with religion and eventually became an atheist. Leaving the church in 1783, Godwin moved to London, intending to make his living as an author. He began writing pamphlets and literary parodies, most of them published anonymously. Against the backdrop of revolution in France and the repression of seditious writings and speech in Britain, he produced Political Justice, which met with immediate success. Although its primary appeal was to intellectuals, it also found its way into the hands of the working class. A year later Godwin addressed that audience more directly with the publication of Caleb Williams, which he claimed to have written for people who would never read books of science or philosophy.

Godwin was already an established and influential writer and radical when in 1796 he met Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an attack on society's treatment of women. Their rapport was immediate, and soon the two began living together. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant a few months later, the two wed despite their mutual distaste for the institution of marriage because they wanted to ensure the legal rights of their child. By all accounts, both found great joy in wedlock, but their happiness was short-lived. Several days after the birth of their daughter in 1797, Wollstonecraft died of complications from the delivery. A desolate Godwin recorded his memories of their brief life together in Memoirs of the Author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1798), in which he wrote of his wife, "I honoured her intellectual powers and the nobleness and generosity of her propensities; mere tenderness would not have been adequate to produce the happiness we experienced." Left with his infant daughter as well as a step-daughter to care for, Godwin set out to find a mother for his children. He was turned down by one woman after another before marrying Mary Jane Clairmont, by all accounts a harsh, cruel woman who treated his children poorly.

Although he continued to write and publish works of philosophy and fiction, Godwin was struggling financially, and...

(The entire section is 13,740 words.)