Caleb Williams narrates. From a humble background, and having recently lost his parents, he accepts a job as a personal secretary to a local nobleman, Ferdinando Falkland, a moody, mercurial, mysterious man. Caleb gradually learns—and tells us—Falkland’s biography, especially concerning his early love, Miss Hardingham, who also had another suitor, the violent and vain Barnabas Tyrrel.
Tyrrel, in an effort to hurt Falkland, wreaked havoc in the life of Emily, a young woman under his sway, a virtuous young woman who loved Falkland. Tyrrel arranged for her to be raped in the woods, but Falkland, happening by, rescued her. But then Tyrrel had her arrested (claiming she owed him unpaid rent), and, devastated by all that has happened to her, she died in jail. Then someone murdered Tyrrel (after some fisticuffs with Falkland), but Falkland was acquitted; another man with a grudge was convicted and executed.
Caleb Williams is curious about all of this and tries to gather from his employer what really happened. But Falkland is reluctant to speak of it. Then—in a moment of crisis—he confesses to Caleb: He did kill Tyrrel and allowed an innocent man to die for it. He then threatens Caleb: If ever an unguarded word escape from your lips, if ever you excite my jealousy or suspicion, expect to pay for it by your death …. Caleb realizes he is now a prisoner.
Falkland correctly expects that Caleb wants to escape, so he frames him for a theft, has him arrested and jailed; inside, Caleb rails against the penal system (as Godwin later will in his nonfiction). This is society, he says. This is the object, the distribution of justice, which is the end of human reason.
Spoiler alert: If you don’t what to know what happens at the end of Caleb Williams, skip the next paragraph!
But—of course—Caleb manages to escape, and throughout much of the third volume he flees the authorities—and Falkland. He’s recaptured, then re-released, and heads to Wales, where he tries to live inconspicuously. But his neighbors discover who he is and reject him. He decides to risk all and return to accuse Falkland of the murder. He does so—and, finally, the authorities believe him. And Falkland, who now has the appearance of a corpse, confesses: I am the most execrable of all villains, he admits. He dies three days later—and Caleb, full of remorse and regret, believes he has killed Falkland.
As I read through Godwin’s other novels (including the exciting St Leon, about a man who discovers both the philosopher’s stone and the key to eternal youth), I realized that Godwin had mastered some effective narrative devices, techniques he would use again and again—techniques that his daughter would also employ to great effect. Secrets. The chase. Coincidence. The realization that things—and people—are not always what they appear to be.
But it is the chase that animates much of Godwin’s best fiction, the chase that propels Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the creature pursues Victor; then Victor returns the favor). And it was not long before I understood that Godwin and Mary were themselves game, and the game was afoot, and I was committed to the chase. The chase for their ghosts.