A WELL-wnrrrEN " life " is a piece of literary
workmanship as charming as it is scarce. Amongst the most enduringly popular books on record are certain biographies. The vivid reproduction of a human character—though devoid of all emotional features, like that of Dr. Johnson—excites even more interest than a life-like portrait. Of course such interest is proportionately enhanced if the subject be one distinguished by strange points. In respect both of workmanship and of sub- ject, the volumes before us are marked by qualities of more than ordinary merit. The name of Godwin is one certainly not familiar to the present generation. The reputation which at the time of publication accrued to the author of Political Justice and of Caleb Williams is faded from the memory of the public. The recollection that survives of odwin's writings and intellec- tual influence is of the very faintest complexion. Indeed, it will not be too much to say that the solitary fact with which his memory remains distinctly identified for the general public is that of having been the father-in-law of Shelley. Throughout life his lot never came to be cast in the front line of public affairs. Though exercising an undeniable influence, it never was more than decidedly partial, and mainly confined to regions of life more or less eccentric, and which partook of a "Bohemian " type. That very circumstance, however, imparts its particular interest to this biography. It is a gallery wherein we en- counter many obscure individualities, but many singularly strange psychological phenomena. The life of Godwin was somewhat that of an intellectual Ishmaelite, and his really intimate associates were, for the most part, individuals whose bond of sympathy lay in the fact that each in some erratic fashion, and with more or less emphasis, challenged the established forms of existing society. An array of characters of this stamp must constitute an assemblage of figures that offer curious points for study. It is Mr. Paul's merit that he has thoroughly appreciated the nature of the interesting materials he has had at his disposal. With the instinct of a true biographer, he has been satisfied to let his subjects tell their story in their own words, whereby his volumes have been made into as life-like a representation as we ever have met with of strange, eccentric free-lances, who, in • William Godwin: Ms Friends and Contemporaries. By 0. Began Paul. 2 vole. London : Henry B. King and Co. 1876. First Series.
various ways, had fallen out with some portions of the world. they lived in.
William Godwin's origin was one wholly uncongenial to " emancipated " thought. For several generations his ancestors were distinguished for intense Puritanic sentiment. They were shining lights of the straitest Nonconformist ministry, and John Godwin, William's father, who had been a pupil of Dr. Doddridge, and pursued the family vocation of preaching at Wisbeach, was possessed with such stringently morose principles as to have seriously rebuked his son " for demeaning himself on the Lord's Day with profaneness," because the boy happened to fondle the family cat in his arms one Sunday. At this period William was quite disposed to sympathise with his sire's sour spirit, and when at the age of eleven, in 1767, he was put under the care of the Rev. Mr. Newton, the Independent minister at Norwich, he readily embraced his doctrinal views, which were " the supra-Calvinistic opinions of Robert Sandeman a celebrated North-country apostle who, after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has con- trived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin." Such was Godwin's expression at a subsequent period. But at this time he had so fervently adopted the doctrine, that after five years' stay in the Dissenting College at Hoxton, under Dr. Kippis, where the views of Arminius and Arius prevailed, he still remained "as pure a Sandemanian as he had gone in, though his political views had undergone a tempo- rary change. Those imbibed in his earlier years had been the same entertained generally by Nonconformists, but just before " entering the Dissenting College," he says, " I had adopted principles of Toryism in government, by which I was no less distinguished from my fellow-students than by my principles of religion. I had, however, no sooner gone out into the world than my sentiments on both these points began to give way ; my Toryism did not survive above a year, and between my twenty-third and my twenty-fifth year my religious creed insen- sibly degenerated on the heads of the Trinity, eternal torments, and some others." Godwin now entered on the family calling as minister, first at Ware, where he met with " the Rev. Joseph Fawcet, a young man of nearly my own age, one of whose favourite topics was a declamation against the domestic affections," the first of "the four principal instructors to whom I feel my mind in- debted for improvement," the three others having been Thomas Holcroft, the Republican actor ; George Dyson, a man of whom nothing is preserved but some letters in these volumes ; and Coleridge. The combination is curious, and characteristic of the queer lines in which Godwin's life ran. Soon Godwin moved to Stowmarket as minister, where he made acquaintance with a Mr. Norman, " deeply read in the French philosophers." In April, 1782, in consequence of some dispute on a question of Church discipline, be ceased his connection with the Stowmarket congregation. " My faith in Christianity had been shaken by the books which Mr. Norman put into my hands, and I was there- fore pleased, in some respects, with the breach which dismissed me." This was a turning-point. Godwin went to London, and through the medium of Kippis and Fawcet, sought to secure a livelihood by his pen mainly as a hack for booksellers, who wanted translations, while his opinions meanwhile insensibly drifted more and more away from their primitive moorings. " Till 1782 I believed in the doctrine of Calvin. . . . The Systeute de la Nature, read about the beginning of that year, changed my opinions, and made me a Deist I afterwards veered to Socinianism, in which I was confirmed by Priestley's institutes, in the beginning of 1783 I was not a complete unbeliever till 1787." By 1785, however, he was fairly started as a literary man, having through Kippis been engaged to write the historical part of the Annual Register, and being besides employed for jobs by Mr. Murray, the founder of the well-known publishing firm, and whose place of business then was in Fleet Street. "Notwithstanding these resources, for the most part, I did not eat my dinner without previously carrying my watch or books to the pawnbroker, to enable me to eat." All through his career Godwin was closely dogged by Erraticism and Im- pecuniosity. But he never seemed to have the slightest care on account of embarrassments. He would pursue his way as if inwardly persuaded that some special element must perforce carry him safely through, and inevitably provide means for the main- tenance of his superior existence. Never was a man more divested from compunction about calling on friends to make sacrifices for his money wants. But if he had no scruples as to asking for this assistance, the money obtained went as freely again in the relief of other distress. His purse, however replenished, was ever at the disposal of those who, in his eyes, were victims of an unjust society. Of the repayment of loans he was indeed ob- livious, to the meeting of ordinary obligations he was simply indifferent, but at all times he showed himself generously ready, amidst much pressing difficulty, to furnish an advance to the strange individuals towards whom his heart yearned as the fancied apostles of principles of emancipation.
At this period began the intimacy with Holcroft, a man of stern and irascible character, a shoemaker's son, who in turns became stable-boy, shoemaker, and actor, and who,' having espoused the opinions of the French Revolution with in- temperate enthusiasm, acquired celebrity by becoming the object of • a State prosecution. It is curious that at the beginning of their intercourse the two fell out violently. " Sir, —I write to inform you that instead of seeing you at dinner to-morrow, I desire never to see you any more, being determined never to have any further intercourse with you of any kind.—T. Holcroft." But the quarrel was soon made up. Doubtless it was owing to Holeroft that Godwin was introduced to the knot of ardent spirits who consti- tuted the society of " Revolutionists," and under the influence of their doctrines became rapidly impregnated with the principles of the New Era. The politics of the day now began to engross his interest more and more, and soon Godwin was looked upon by the little band of English enthusiasts who sat at the feet of Horne Tooke and Tom Paine as one who, by his intellectual power, would deserve to rank by the side of these as a prophet -and a mighty champion. This impression was due to ex- pectations as to the effect to be produced by a magnum opus on which Godwin was known by his friends to be engaged. The anticipations entertained were not devoid of foundation. The publication he had in hand was his work entitled Political Justice. Whatever may be its substantive value at this day, it must be admitted that the book was a production of undoubted -originality and -vigour. The outspokenness of its innovating speculations, and the force with which these were expressed, at once arrested attention, and secured for the author notoriety. The Government revolved a prosecution, but Mr. Pitt shrewdly observed that a three-guinea publication was not likely to -circulate much amongst the general public. But though not attaining the popularity which certain revolutionary pamphlets obtained, the work secured to Godwin a special position. It was the first publication in his own name, and with it he became re- cognised as a thinker of no ordinary freedom, and a writer who could broach opinions with a vigour equal to their hardihood. It brought down many criticisms from acquaintances of his earlier days, which galled his over-sensitive nature painfully, but, on the other hand, it made him a recognised power, so that the period of this publication is the great epoch in his life. With the year 1794, William Godwin ceased to be the sage of an obscure circle, and became a man, publicly regarded, indeed, by the majority as a godless denier of order and morality, but also as the exponent in its most forcible forms of certain revolutionary doctrines. At this period the celebrated prosecutions for treason of Horne Tooke, Hardy, Holcroft, and others ensued. Godwin heard of this when on a visit to Dr. Parr, with whom he had become acquainted on the pub- lication of Political Justice. The doctor was a genuine Liberal, but by no means a Free-thinker in Godwin's sense. In a letter to Godwin he writes :—" Your anxiety during Hardy's trial could not be more intense than mine I very strongly disap- proved of the Convention ; I would oppose the doctrine of universal suffrage ; I look with a watchful and-perhaps unfriendly
we upon all political associations I would resist with my pen, and perhaps with my sword, any attempt to subvert the Constitution of this country, but I am filled with agony when laws intended for our protection are stretched and distorted for our destruction." And he ends with, "Remember me kindly to Mr. Holcroft. Come again to see me at my parsonage." At a later stage, Dr. Parr repudiated all intercourse with Godwin, after his publication of writings of yet more advanced speculation in re- gard to morals and doctrine. But this letter is illustrative of the sentiments which were enlisted at the time in the cause of declared Opposition, by the distortions of justice perpe- trated under the ascendancy of rampant Toryism. Godwin himself immediately hastened to London on hearing of his
friends' danger. Fearlessness was ever one of his most conspicuous qualities. He went into Court daily to sit by the prisoners, indifferent to consequences. But he did more. In the Morning Chronicle there appeared a scathing criticism of the Chief Justice's charge, which produced a deep sensation. It was at once transcribed from the columns of that journal, and widely circulated throughout the country. The author of this powerful denunciation of high-prerogative doctrine spoken from the Bench was Godwin. The service rendered by him on this occasion to the cause of freedom and of right, justified as it was by the fervour of friendship, proved signal to those in whose behalf it was ex- pended, while it increased greatly the reputation of the writer. In May, 1794, Godwin came before the public in the character of a novel-writer, with Caleb Williams, now forgotten, but at the time a success. The proofs were submitted to Mrs. Inchbald, the authoress of Simple Story, who gave utterance to her feelings in these (from a lovely woman's pen) characteristic expressions :- "' God bless you!' That was the sentence I exclaimed when I
had read aloud half a page I have read now as far as page 32 My curiosity is greatly increased by what I have read, but if you disappoint me, you shall never hear • the last of it, and instead of God bless I will vociferate, ' God — you!' "