Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dear Wm's scribblings

Mary Wollstonecraft's last few years, some of her happiest, were intimately bound up with William Godwin. When their friendship ripened into love, they married; when the fruit of that love killed her, he was devastated.  I think he went a bit mad with grief, rushing into publication with one of the most ill-advised memoirs in literary history. A year ago we looked at his diary, newly online, its odd abbreviations rendered comprehensible by careful editing, a gift to the world of scholarship, a triumph of the digital humanities. Now we have his letters, or at any rate 200 of them in the first volume, taking us from 1778, when he was "a theologically muddled twenty-two-year-old dissenting preacher", to the disastrous widowerhood of 1797. The TLS printed a review by Kelly Grovier of both of these resources. It begins with this paragraph:
In September 1797, two weeks after his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, died in childbirth, William Godwin confided to a friend, “I cannot write. I have half destroyed myself by writing. It does me more mischief than anything else. I must preserve myself, if for no other reason than the two children”. On the day of Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin wrote half a dozen painful letters and throughout this volume one has the sense of peeling away at something unreachable as his grief ripens in real time. When he breaks the news to one of his closest friends, the radical writer Thomas Holcroft, Godwin’s mourning has grown starkly raw: “I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again. When you come to town, look at me, & talk to me, but do not (if you can help it) exhort or console me”. Nor were letters the only repository of his desperation. A groundbreaking new website devoted to Godwin’s extensive and often cryptic diaries, hosted by the Bodleian Library, reveals the instant when language itself momentarily failed. The entry for September 10, 1797, the day thirty-seven-year-old Wollstonecraft succumbed to a complication of so-called childbed fever, Godwin’s pen briefly flatlines, able to produce nothing more than four long strokes from left to right across the page. 
William Godwin was an influential writer, but more than that, he was a salonier, if the male form of the word exists: "His London sitting rooms became incubators for an astonishing number of poets, painters, radical theorists and mysterious travellers".  He moved all over the city, as Mary did -- Grovier says his numerous abodes "reflects Godwin’s ability over these years to stitch himself tightly into the emotional fabric of an ever-widening social circle". These friends and acquaintances ranged "from supporters of revolution in France, such as Thomas Paine, to those who would oppose it, such as Edmund Burke; from celebrated natural philosophers and inventors such as Joseph Priestley and Thomas Wedgwood, to pioneering women writers such as Mary Hays and Elizabeth Inchbald."

Grovier praises the editorship of Pamela Clemit, who balances the needs of various readers and annotates the material "in a manner that is neither condescending to academic readers, nor too elitist in its scholarly presumptions".  It's an undervalued skill. Even more invisible are the humanists behind the online diary, "a fully searchable, digitized engine that chugs smoothly through some thirty-two notebooks that Godwin kept between April 1788 and March 1836 (the month before he died), while providing access to high-resolution images of the original octavo leaves. The result is a trove of cross-reference against which one can read the broken epistolary record."

What kind of a person was Godwin? Would he and Mary have remained a couple, had she lived, or would she have grown beyond him? Grovier ascribes to Godwin "a supple and forgiving temperament, and a capacity for empathy that fostered moving insights into human motivation". He encouraged the young, for example: "there are many letters to aspiring writers and thinkers who have turned to Godwin for advice and on whom he warmly lavishes professional and personal encouragement." Here's a vignette of the man -- again, at the time when he was freshly widowed (widowered?), the wound still raw and gaping. He reaches out to a young man in trouble, imploring him:
to “cultivate cheerful impressions. Break off abruptly the thread of painful ones . . . . Do not indulge in visions & phantoms of the imagination, or place your happiness in something you may perhaps never obtain, but endeavour to make it out of the materials within your reach”.
Grovier supposes that "on some level [Godwin] is strenuously trying to soothe himself". I can well imagine that he used similar words to soothe Mary's doubts and fears. Truly, a remarkable man.

Pamela Clemit, editor
Volume One: 1778–1797
440pp. Oxford University Press. £100 (US $185).
978 0 19 956261 9
Portrait of William Godwin by Henry William Pickersgill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Thank you very much for this information. I always found him to be an interesting and honest man, and I look forward in learning more about him.

    1. Now seems to be the historical moment to find out more. I suggest starting with the
      the Wikipedia article, then the online version of the current exhibition, ''Shelley's Ghost'' (unless you can get to New York), and then these two resources, the letters and diary.