Well, what did Mary have to say about her father?
Mary began by misspelling the town of her father’s birth, Wisbech (she wrote it as “Wisbeach”), a small farming community at the time—a little over a hundred miles north of London, in Cambridgeshire. She says very little about his family—then this, on the first page: Very early, even in childhood, he developed that love of acquirement and knowledge which stamped his future career. And so the praise and patent affection commence. Only a few lines later she writes, Reason and a love of investigation were the characteristics of Godwin, even in boyhood ….
After sketching his early career, she arrives at Caleb Williams, which, she declares, is the best [novel] in our language. She also praises Godwin for standing up to the government—and for standing up for his prosecuted friends—at a time of great censorship and harsh handling of those publishing anything that implied the government was going awry.
After some more summary of his career, Mary arrives at the account of his father’s marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft, whom Mary Shelley calls a woman with a lofty spirit. She adds: Even now, those who have survived her so many years never speak of her but with uncontrollable enthusiasm. Her unwearied exertions for the benefit of others, her rectitude, her independence, joined to a warm affectionate heart, and the most refined softness of manners, made her the idol of all who knew her. There were many, of course, who would never agree with this assessment; for many conservatives, Mary Wollstonecraft represented the worst of liberal sentiment.
But in these words, we see the heart of Mary Shelley herself. She clearly adored the mother she’d never known—had read her works repeatedly since she was able to read—and saw her, throughout her own life, as the model for all.
Mary then continues her journey through Godwin’s publications and life—pages rich with praise for the father she loved. And her final passage could serve as a summary for all: As a moral character, his reputation is unblemished. He stands, in simplicity of wisdom, and consistency of principle, the monument of the last generation, extending into this the light of a long experience, and ornamenting our young and changeful literature with the profounder and loftier views of a more contemplative era. Again—many would have disagreed.
Still, Mary’s memoir of her father is a valentine—a long letter of admiration, of gratitude, of love. In April 1831, when this memoir appeared with the re-issue of Caleb Williams, William Godwin had just turned seventy-five years of age.