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William Godwin

Two other radicals who passed through the Hackney Unitarian College, this time as students, were William Hazlitt (on whom see above, p. 151) and William Godwin (Figure 8.4). Godwin, son of an impoverished Dissenting minister who taught Classics to supplement his meagre income,’6 entered the academy in 1770 and graduated in 1778. He may have been unusually studious, but he was a model product of Hackney College, which beyond preparation of students for ministry explicitly aimed to offer the lay student at Hackney ‘a galaxy of acquisitions’ including:

Habits of diligence

Knowledge to enable him to establish his reputation in life A basis for innocent intellectual leisure activities

A foundation for the best type of friendship

An outlook likely to encourage temperance and refinement Ability to be useful to others and to the community Interests and hobbies for eventual old age and, above all, Religious knowledge.57

As can be seen in his austere but regular diary entries (1788-1836), there was almost no day in his life that he did not read some Greek or Latin author before

William Godwin

FIGURE 8.4 William Godwin: ‘AUTHOR OF “THOUGHTS ON MAN’" by Daniel Maclise (1883), reproduced by courtesy of the Maclise Portrait Gallery. Reproduced courtesy of the Maclise Portrait-Gallery.

breakfast. He read around five chapters a day of Herodotus in Greek from 20th May 1832 to 27th April 1833.58 He also read classical authors in modern translation, including Plato’s Republic in English and Xenophon’s Anabasis in French.’9 Godwin fed his interest in ancient Sparta with Rollin’s Ancient History and Mitford’s reactionary History of Greece (1784).60 His habit of consistent, independent study lasted his whole life. His confidence in his intellectual powers and his unorthodox moral reasoning were developed during his Nonconformist upbringing and propelled him into an active part in political struggles. Like Wakefield, he came to renown (or notoriety) with the publication in 1793 of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness.

In the polarising social, cultural and political debate of the 1790s, and after his defence of Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall during the Treason Trials (1794),61 Godwin was associated with the revolutionary left. In order to remain engaged in the struggle and to ply his trade, Godwin assumed another name for his work on his new literary endeavour the Juvenile Library’.

Writing as ‘Edward Baldwin’, Godwin published numerous classical (among other Biblical,62 historical and grammatical) works designed for the liberal education of children. His own version of Aesop, Fables, Ancient and Modern appeared in 1805; it articulated a radical new desideratum that a book for a child would also stimulate his reflective and imaginative capacities.63 Godwin explains that he had tried to adapt the material to make it appropriate to the emotional and cognitive needs of the child:

I have fancied myself taking the child upon my knee, and have expressed them in such language as I should have been likely to employ when I wished to amuse the child and make what I was talking of take hold upon his attention.64

Godwin’s combined household with his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, contained no fewer than five children. It may not have been difficult to find one to put on his knee.

His Fables (1805), which drew on Aesop, Phaedrus and numerous earlier editions,6’ is not ideologically neutral. There are moments, especially in the editorial explication of the fables, where Godwin may be seen sowing the seeds of a liberal mindset. He includes an Aesopian fable, of which the previous reception history had been unanimously racist, entitled (by Godwin) ‘Washing the Blackamoor White’.66 This fable tells of how a foolish woman attempts to wash Nango, her black footman, white. When she confesses that she thinks Nango is ‘a very handsome man’, Godwin, in parenthesis, assures his young reader that black men could be handsome and well-mannered. Godwin was by no means immune to the everyday racism of the times, but his comment challenges conventional prejudice. More markedly subversive is the secret contempt felt towards the woman by her servants and washerwomen.

In ‘The Wolf and the Mastiff’, a starving wolf befriends a domesticated dog, telling it: ‘We are animals originally of the same class, only with a little difference in our education’.67 The dog agrees and offers to take the wolf back to his home where his master will feed and care for him too. But the wolf notices the mark of the collar on the dog’s neck. ‘Hunger shall never make me so slavish and base’, the wolf concludes, ‘as to prefer chains and blows with a belly-full, to my liberty’.68

Godwin followed the Fables with his version of Tooke’s Pantheon (1806), The History of Rome: From the Building of the City to the Ruin of the Republic (1809) and History of Greece (1821). He also commissioned the children’s version of the Odyssey from Charles Lamb which was to have a profound effect upon generations of young Britons across the class spectrum, inspired numerous imitations and is seen as a landmark in the history of publishing.69 His Pantheon (1806) was used and endorsed by the English ‘public school’ (i.e. fee-paying and private) Charterhouse. The book was dedicated to ‘Rev. Matthew Reine D.D., Master of Charter-House School’ because Godwin’s stepson was a pupil there. Reine’s endorsement boosted sales substantially, secured fair reviews and ensured that it became the standard text by which all children at the time accessed the mythology of Greece and Rome, for Godwin had made his original more refined. He declares that Tooke’s Pantheon ‘contains in every page an elaborate calumny upon the Gods of the Greeks, and that in the coarsest thoughts and words that rancor could furnish’.7" Godwin felt no need to ‘inveigh against the amours of Jupiter’. ‘The office of the writer of such a book as this’, writes Godwin, ‘is to prepare his young readers to admire and to enjoy the immortal productions of Homer, Horace and Virgil’. The primary use of the study of ancient mythology, identified in his preface, was ‘to enable young persons to understand the system of the poets of former times, as well as the allusions so often to be found interspersed in writers of a more recent date’.71

He declares that his new Pantheon, sold for an affordable price, has been ‘expressly written for the use of young persons of both sexes’, revealing a wish for his book to have a life beyond the traditional, elite, male-dominated schoolroom. The book was found in the chest of books left behind after his death by John Keats, poet and inn-manager’s son (1795—1821).72 Keats probably first encountered Godwin’s book in his school library at Enfield Academy,73 run at the time byJohn Clarke (1757-1820), formerly a teacher in the Baptist Minister John Collett Ryland’s (1723-1792) Northampton Dissenting academy, and colleague there of George Dyer.74

Godwin’s children’s books had a wider reach and deeper impact than the work for which he is now most well regarded, i.e. his novels and political philosophy.7’ Was his shift to the preparation of books for children a retreat from ideological struggle? Children’s literature was no safe haven. A reviewer objected to the extent of the alterations of the originals in his Fables, and to the possible anti-Christian implications that could be drawn.76 A report written by an anonymous government spy in 1813 concluded that there was ‘a regular system through all his [Godwin’s] publications to supersede all other elementary books, and to make his library the resort of preparatory schools, that in time the principles of democracy and Theophilanthropy may take place universally’.77

In retrospect, the concern shown for Godwin’s small-scale, unprofitable and short-lived publishing venture (1805-1825) seems disproportionate to the threat posed.78 But the report shows that it was believed that Godwin had targeted constituencies of poorer readers: ‘In order to allure schools of a moderate and a lower class, he holds out the temptation of an allowance of threepence in every shilling for such books as are published by him’.7'’ The language is loaded because the threat of revolution had been intensified by increasing literacy and organisation among working-class communities. Although meetings had been made difficult by the Gagging Acts (1795), the spread of revolutionary ideas through cheap print was harder to proscribe. The agent may have had some justification in concluding that Godwin’s intention with the Juvenile Library was to monopolise early educational publishing, ‘and thus by degrees to give an opportunity for every principle professed by the infidels and republicans of these days to be introduced to their notice’.80 In case the report’s recipient would need help in detecting the urgency of the threat, the agent continues: ‘By such means did Voltaire and his brethren for twenty years before the Revolution in France spread infidelity and disloyalty through the remotest provinces of that country, and we know too well how they succeeded’.81

Godwin himself maintained that the Juvenile Library was filling a hole in English educational provision. He wanted to teach children to think for themselves, not simply to know things, ‘to plant the seeds of dissent and intellectual autonomy in a new generation of readers’.82 And his Pantheon (1806) was a particular concern of the government agent: ‘It is an insidious and dangerous publication’. The preface, he maintains, ‘professes to exalt the purity and show the superiority of Christianity over the heathen morality taught in the Grecian and Roman mythology’, but then the work that follows ‘improperly excites the curiosity of young persons ... and artfully hints the wisdom of the morality of the heathen world’.83 The book went through eight editions by 1836 and was stocked and studied in schools nationwide and in India.84

In Baldwin’s ancient histories, so the agent reports, ‘every democratic sentiment is printed in italics that they may not fail to present themselves to a child’s notice’.85 The agent explains that in his History of Rome (1809),

Instead of carrying it down to the destruction of the Empire it leaves off at the reign of Augustus, and in italics remarks that it is useless to write the History of the tyrants who governed for the remaining 400 years, for when it ceased to be a Republic it ceased to deserve the name of History.86

In practical terms, Godwin was interested in replacing both Oliver Goldsmith’s and Rollin’s influential histories.87 His diary reveals that he also drew on the proto-communist and staunch republican Gabriel Bonnot de Mably’s Observations sur les remains (1751).88

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