Authors: William Godwin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and philosopher

March 3, 1756

Wisbech, Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, England

April 7, 1836

London, England


William Godwin made dissent the theme of his life. He had an early introduction to dissent, being the seventh of thirteen children in the family of a dissenting minister. Because of the father’s religious views, the children were reared in a strict, Puritanical tradition that stressed predestination and divine retribution. As a boy, Godwin was educated at various academies run by and for nonconformists. Trained for the ministry, he entered church work in 1771. Taking up residence in London after his father’s death, he studied the classics, theology, philosophy, and languages at the dissenting academy of Hoxton until his appointment to a parish in Stowmarket. He resigned the position because of a dispute over ordination and returned to London, where he encountered the optimism of Enlightenment philosophy so at odds with his previous studies and orientation. Realizing he would need a new profession, he began pursuing work as a writer, and gradually he became more interested in radically changing the present world than in preaching the terrors of the world to come. {$I[AN]9810000359} {$I[A]Godwin, William} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Godwin, William} {$I[tim]1756;Godwin, William}

William Godwin.

(National Portrait Gallery)

Godwin’s first book, the key to his thinking, was An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. The volume received wide attention, and according to reports, the author narrowly escaped being prosecuted for his unorthodox views. In the book, Godwin announced his principle of dispassionate advocation of extremes; the work is a compendium criticizing society, advocating a new ethics, and prophesying a utopian future. Godwin thought that people could exercise reason in all activities and through education gain insight into courses of individual and collective action that would bring about a better, more equitable society.

In 1792, Godwin met Mary Wollstonecraft, notorious at the time for her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In 1796, they began to live together without marriage, such unorthodox conduct being basic to their principles, but they bowed to convention and married when Wollstonecraft became pregnant. She died in 1797, a few days after giving birth to a daughter. Godwin was left with two small children: Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate child by Gilbert Imlay, an American novelist; and the Godwin’s newborn daughter Mary, who would later become the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the author of Frankenstein (1818). Needing help in his household, Godwin remarried soon after becoming a widower. His second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, was a widow with two children, one of whom, Clara (“Claire”), would later attain notoriety as George Gordon, Lord Byron’s mistress. Godwin and Clairmont had a son, William, who was to have a brief literary career of his own.

During the 1790s Godwin published two novels. His first, Caleb Williams, is his best known. It portrays what Godwin saw as the power of the privileged few juxtaposed against the helplessness of the many poor people, and it was intended as an indictment of society, a fictional presentation of the same principles Godwin had put forth in Political Justice a year before. In addition to being a novel with a social purpose, Caleb Williams is an interesting study in suspense and fear. In his second novel, St. Leon, Godwin wrote a historical romance, a gothic tale set in sixteenth-century England. His later novels are Fleetwood, Mandeville, Cloudesley, and Deloraine. He also wrote several biographies, including one of Geoffrey Chaucer, several volumes of history, two plays, and volumes in philosophy. Only Political Justice and Caleb Williams have received long-term popular or scholarly attention.

Godwin’s life after his second marriage was dismal. His wife operated an unprofitable publishing house that exacerbated the family’s financial woes. Money troubles dogged Godwin constantly; Percy Bysshe Shelley, his son-in-law, contributed for a time to his support. Godwin suffered a stroke in 1818, but he continued writing to earn a living. Only in 1833, three years before his death, did he have any financial relief. At that time, the British government gave him a sinecure as a yeoman usher of the exchequer, a post that provided him with financial security. Godwin died in London in 1836 and was buried in St. Pancras’s cemetery. When a railroad subsequently was built through the cemetery, his body had to be disinterred and moved to another grave at Bournemouth.

Author Works Long Fiction: Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, 1794 (also known as The Adventures of Caleb Williams: Or, Things as They Are; best known as Caleb Williams) St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, 1799 Fleetwood: Or, The New Man of Feeling, 1805 Mandeville, 1817 Cloudesley, 1830 Deloraine, 1833 Nonfiction: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, 1793 Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Early English Poet, 1803 Of Population, 1820 History of the Commonwealth of England, 1824–28 (4 volumes) Miscellaneous: Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, 1992 (8 volumes; Mark Philip, editor) Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, 1993 (7 volumes) Bibliography Clemit, Pamela, ed. Godwin. Vol. 1 in Lives of the Great Romantics III: Godwin, Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley by Their Contemporaries, edited by John Mullen. Brookfield, Vt.: Pickering & Chatto, 1999. Compendium of critical responses to and personal narratives about William Godwin, written by those who knew him and those who moved in his literary and cultural circles. Daffron, Eric. “Magnetical Sympathy: Strategies of Power and Resistance in Godwin’s Caleb Williams.” Criticism 37 (Spring, 1995). A study of Godwin’s novel. Graham, Kenneth W. William Godwin Reviewed: A Reception History, 1783–1834. New York: AMS Press, 2001. A study of the critical reception of Godwin’s novels in the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries. Bibliographic references and index. Grossman, Jonathan H. “Caleb Williams and the Novel’s Forensic Form.” In The Art of Alibi: English Law Courts and the Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Study of Godwin’s novel explaining its relationship to English forensics and the rules of evidence. Part of an argument that the discourses developed in the courts shaped the form of the British novel. Klancher, Jon. “Goodwin and the Republican Romance: Genre, Politics, and Contingency in Cultural History.” Modern Language Quarterly 56 (June, 1995). A modern examination. Marshall, Peter. William Godwin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. A comprehensive biography that particularly focuses on Godwin as a humanist. Paul, C. Keegan. William Godwin, His Friends and Contemporaries. 2 vols. 1876. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1970. Remains a valued biographical source. Pollin, Burton R. Education and Enlightenment in the Works of William Godwin. New York: Las Americas, 1962. A thorough bibliography of Godwin’s works is included in this study of Godwin’s representation of education. Pollin, Burton R. Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. A critical response to Godwin. St. Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys. New York: Norton, 1989. Details the familial relationships among the Godwins and Shelleys, while providing biographies of each family member.

Categories: Authors