Haunted by William Godwin

godwinHe won’t leave me alone. He finds me wherever I am. However much I try to forget him, he’s still there. He’s like a stalker. I first encountered William Godwin as a philosopher.  His An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was a light in the dark and dingy world (for me, of 18th and 19th century political philosophy) despite (or perhaps because of)  having a reputation as being naively utopian.   William it was who first introduced me to the idea that anarchism could be ‘philosophical’ rather than that bomb throwing chaotic variety most people think of it as being. And therefore he became my best friend when I was writing (in 1984) my dissertation on philosophical anarchism and international law. A snappy little piece of academic writing (not) which had to somehow segue social/political philosophy which I was very interested in with international politics which (at the time) I was not interested in.  I spent a long time looking at law, rules and my favourite bandwagon, epistemic authority, by route of ‘primitive’ cultures and the headily anarchic world of International Society.  My conclusions, as far as I can remember were that there was a lot more ‘anarchy’ in the international legal system than amongst the pygmies, aborigines or any other small ‘anarchic’ based ‘cultures.’

While I liked the cut of his philosophical gib, William always worried me a bit. He was Mary Shelley’s dad and popular with the Romantic poets, took Percy Bysshe Shelley under his wing (only to be repaid by Shelley running off with his daughter – that’s why we know her as Mary Shelley rather than her whole title Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.) As a ‘young person’ it concerned me that a proponent of ‘free’ love should get so arsey when free love decided to elope. And to compound this ‘hypocrisy’ (as I saw it) William married, not just once but twice despite every part of his ‘philosophical’ position being against what marriage stands for.  In fact he described marriage as ‘the worst of monopolies.’ So why did he marry Mary Wollstonecraft, I used to wonder?  Now, as I’m 50 and I’ve also been married twice, and I have more of an understanding of the complexities of adult life and the practical difficulties that go hand in hand with philosophical beliefs. And perhaps more of an interest in the ramifications of individual actions in the political sphere. I can also see why a parent (not that I’ve been one) might get a bit troubled when a longhaired poet type runs off with your daughter – and takes her sister as well. May I point out that Shelley was already married at this point though he had poetically ‘abandoned’ his first wife. It’s not quite what any parent would want for their offspring is it?  Poor William. Keeping theory and practice working hand in hand is a very difficult trick to pull off.  And failure doesn’t always mean ‘hypocrisy’ of the individual as much as an acceptance that praxis is more complex than ideology and much harder to achieve.

Some years after I’d left Godwin the philosopher and his extended Romantic family behind. Byron and the Shelley’s were great pals at University but they had to take a back seat when I started teaching A level literature at a London Crammers (I was teaching about 70 ‘classic’ texts a year – which made me the literary equivalent of a party animal I suppose) and I made loads of new friends.  As Head of a Department of three we used to sit down each term and play a sort of version of Top Trumps with that terms students and texts.  Never having been a friend of Jane Austen’s I would use her as my primary ‘trade’ card.  I met loads of new and more obscure writers that way and that’s how I came back into contact with William.  More specifically his novel Caleb Williams. In my ten years of teaching and tutoring English only one student ever presented this text for study and while I can’t remember the boy’s name, I can remember he was a pleasant and serious young man, completely confused as to why he’d not got an A first time round.  We spent some very happy hours together poring over Caleb Williams while the bright young things enjoyed their romp through domestic irony with Jane.  Me, the affable student and William instead spent our time in brooding on some heavy political issues.  Because it turned out that Caleb Williams was in many ways the Enquiry rendered into novel form.  Right up my street it looks at the way the individual gets destroyed by legal institutions and an expose on the abuse of power in society. It’s much more ‘reader friendly’ than the Enquiry.

I’ve not thought about the ramifications of that for my own writing before, but I realise now  that that’s often what I’ve tried to do. Take philosophical and political ‘ideas’ and render them into fictional or dramatic contexts so that they are more audience or reader friendly.  It seems like William has been there in the shadows all this time without me realising it.  Which makes me think it’s only going to be fair to take Enquiry down from the philosophy section of my bookshelves and my Penguin classic copy of Caleb Williams and do a comparative analysis.  It’s part of a longer project I have which is to re-read those ‘significant’ texts from when I first learned to really love literature in my teens and see how my relationship with them has changed now I’ve hit the big 5-0.   Because I appreciate that fundamentally fiction is a relationship between reader and writer. And so each reading can be a new experience, different perspectives encourage different conclusions.  I have neglected William for too long. Especially when he’s been there as a guiding hand (not a stalker at all!) behind so much of my creative thinking. Time to renew our friendship I think. Happy Birthday William Godwin.

As a coda I’d like to note that Mary Wollstonecraft was quite a woman and any man would surely be proud to marry her. She wrote ‘A vindication of the rights of women’ and was a political theorist in her own right as well as an advocate of women’s rights. And we are in the 18th century here folks!  You have to get beneath the superficial irony of these two people talking about freedom and rights and then seeming to ‘shackle’ themselves together – and if you do, then you may understand what they are really talking about. And the poor woman died less than a year after she married Godwin. No happy ever after for them then!


About callyphillips

3 Responses to Haunted by William Godwin

  1. Julia Jones says:

    Love the top trumps idea — but can’t imagine being able to trade Austen!

  2. Bill Kirton says:

    I never knew much about him so thanks for rectifying that. But I’ve been a great fan of Mary Wollstonecraft’s for ages. She was so far ahead of her time and wrote and did so much in such a short life. Inspiring. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Trade Austen, Julia, I’d give her away! I know it’s horses for courses and I have taught classes on Austen so I do know that she is a ‘good’ writer. Just not for me. And Bill, you’ll find that Godwin was every bit as ahead of his time as Mary and I hope you enjoy his fiction if not his philosophy!

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