Godwin wrote just about anything. Journalism, novels, philosophical tracts, plays (they suck), histories, children’s books, essays, pamphlets. About the only thing he didn’t seem to have published was poetry. But he was friends—at least for a while—with some of England’s greatest, including Coleridge and Wordsworth. He would meet Keats and, of course, Shelley, who stole his daughter and broke his heart. Later on, Lord Byron provided financial help to both Godwin and his daughter after poor Bysshe Shelley drowned in 1822.
I have a file drawer stuffed with notes on Godwin’s writings—a different file folder for each of his publications. I count twenty-nine folders. The one devoted to his philosophical masterwork, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, includes the forty-six typed pages of notes—single-spaced—I took on that book. Other folders hold a single page; others, a photocopy of the publication along with my notes.
I don’t own many of Godwin’s publications for the simple reason that they are out of print, at least with commercial publishers. On 29 August 2011, I checked Amazon and found only his novel Caleb Williams still available in both Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics editions. (Oxford’s site no longer lists his novel St Leon; Penguin no longer offers Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.) Other dealers on Amazon list a number of the others—used or print-on-demand. One academic press—Pickering & Chatto—has collected much of Godwin’s work, an extraordinary boon to scholars, but buying the books is financially daunting. Certainly for me. The Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, eight volumes: $975. (I found a used set for much less.) The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, seven volumes: $925. (I don’t own them.) And the single volume The Plays of William Godwin: $185. (Nope.) So, if you want to own the Pickering & Chatto works of Godwin, all sixteen volumes, you’ll need $2085. Plus shipping.
|The copy of Caleb|
Williams I read in 1997
Let’s use Caleb Williams, his 1794 novel, the one that’s still in print in an inexpensive edition, as an example of what Godwin was up to. In his preface, Godwin writes that he intended his novel to supply a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man. And so he does.
Published on 22 May 1794 under the title Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, the novel appeared in three volumes—again, the custom of the day for full-length novels. It was a hit, reprinted twenty-eight times in Godwin’s lifetime.
I see in my journal that I began reading the novel on Wednesday, 13 August 1997, during the time we were waiting for news both on the Aurora house sale and the Hudson purchase. In Hudson that day, I saw the sellers’ moving van outside our new house; one of the owners was smoking a cigarette on the front porch. I headed over to Saywell’s coffee shop, sat and read the first couple of chapters of Caleb Williams in a whir of delight. I finished the book on 22 August, a Friday, another day jammed with moving complexities, a day when I also taught an evening class, 6–10 p.m. (Writing in the Liberal Arts) in Hiram’s Weekend College. The course met only on alternate weekends, but as I look back at all I was trying to do in those months, it seems almost willfully self-destructive, as if I were trying to see how much stress I could put in my life before I burst open like a forgotten popcorn bag in a microwave.