William Godwin (1756–1856) was an odd little boy. I wrote about him at length in my biography of Mary Shelley (The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 2012), but I’m going to repeat a little bit of it here, slightly adapted: I can’t assume, of course, that readers of this have also read that. So here goes …
On 3 March 1856, Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was born in the little market town of Wisbech, about eighty miles northeast of London. He was the seventh of what would eventually be thirteen children. Twelve were boys.
Because of primitive medical knowledge and practices, many babies did not survive childhood illnesses. So it’s unremarkable that when Godwin was born, four of his older brothers had already died. Godwin later said that one of his brothers, age two, fooled by the reflection of apples in a pond, reached for the fruit, fell in the water, and drowned.
Both his father and grandfather were Christian ministers. His mother had no schooling, but she liked to tell stories. She was a kind and concerned woman—and (no surprise) very religious. But the Godwins did not accept what was then the official religion of the kingdom, the protestant Church of England. Instead, they brought William up to be, like them, a “Dissenter.” Among these “Dissenters” were Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, and Methodists. Dissenters suffered for their beliefs. They could not attend England’s two great universities, Oxford and Cambridge. They could not hold public offices—or even be buried in sacred Church of England ground.
Godwin’s family expected their son to become a Dissenting minister, so his father trained him to take religion seriously, once disciplining the little boy for playing with his cat on a Sunday.
William Godwin was a brilliant child. By the time he was four, he was reading. At six, he had decided he would be a poet and was reading books written for adults. Extremely talkative, he liked to preach little sermons in the kitchen, using a high chair as his pulpit.
His education was rapid, even amazing. During Godwin’s childhood, there were no public schools. No laws required school attendance. So parents had to send their children to private schools—unless they were wealthy and could hire private tutors. So the Godwins sent their talented son to a boarding school at nearby Hindolveston, a dreary place where Godwin began to learn a difficult lesson: He was not like other boys. They teased him, laughed at him. They could not believe that a seven-year-old could be so serious, so much like an adult. The Oxford English Dictionary records that the verb bully entered the language around 1710, so I’m sure little William Godwin knew its meaning—on the page, on the stage of life.
Within a few years he had advanced in his schoolwork far beyond his classmates, so he went to live and study with the Rev. Samuel Newton. There, Godwin wrote, “I had scarcely any pleasure but reading.” For weeks on end he did not even go outside. The Rev. Newton, a very strict man, once punished him by hitting him with a birch switch. Godwin was horrified at this—he called it a “violation.” For the rest of his life, he was opposed to violence of all kinds. Later, he would never hit his own children.
When Godwin was fourteen, his father died, but there was enough money to send the gifted young man to a fine Dissenting academy in Hoxton, a small village on London’s northeastern edge. (It’s now part of the city.) Here, he would spend his next several years—continuing to prove himself a brilliant but unpopular student.
While he was at Hoxton, Godwin established the habits of study that he maintained for the next sixty years. He got up each morning about seven and for an hour or so read books in Latin and Greek. After breakfast—from nine to twelve—he studied and wrote. The rest of the day he spent reading, visiting with friends, or taking long walks for exercise. In the evenings he read even more—or went to the theater, an activity he loved, and which he later taught his daughter Mary to love.
At 22, Godwin graduated from Hoxton Dissenting Academy and became a minister. But he was not successful, and the first two churches that hired him promptly fired him. So in June 1783, he headed for London. With a population of about 600,000, it was the largest city in the world. He hoped to find a way—some way—to make a living with his astonishing talents. He would try writing—after all, even as a child, he had dreamed of being an author.
But no one wanted his writing.