The English writer and philosopher William Godwin, an early proponent of idealistic liberalism, died 180 years ago today. He is, perhaps, better remembered for his daughter, Mary, who married the poet Percy Shelley and wrote Frankenstein. Godwin kept a diary throughout his life. Although the daily entries are little more than lists of names and places and books read, the diary as a whole is considered of ‘immense importance to researchers of history, politics, literature, and women’s studies’.
Godwin was born in 1756 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, into a large family of religious dissenters. Educated into a strict Calvinism, he finished his schooling at the Hoxton Academy, and served as minister in several places before returning to London. But by then he had shed his religion in favour of an idealistic liberalism based on the sovereignty and competence of reason to determine right choice. In order to further his new ideas, he set out on a writing career, contributing to political journals and associating with radical societies. He also tried setting up a school, and writing novels, though these early ventures did not come to much.
In 1793, Godwin published Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness - now considered his greatest work - setting out his positive vision for an anarchist society of small self-subsidising communities. After the writings of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, it was the most popular written response to the French Revolution. He followed this with a (hugely successful) novel - Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams - which some consider the first ever thriller. In 1795, Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who he had first met some years earlier and who now had a daughter, became intimately involved. She fell pregnant by Godwin, and the two married in London in 1797. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born within a few months, but her mother died ten days later.
That same year, 1797, Godwin published a collection of essays entitled The Enquirer; and he wrote a biography of his wife, published as Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (though it was not very well received for being too revelatory). After producing a third and final edition of Political Justice, he turned to literature and history, trying his hand at plays, another novel and a life of Chaucer. In 1801, he married his neighbour Mary Jane Clairmont, who brought two children into the household (in addition to Godwin’s daughter and step-daughter). However, she proved an ill-tempered stepmother and was inhospitable to some of Godwin’s friends. This union produced a son for Godwin, David, who went on to become a journalist but died young from cholera.
In 1805, to secure a better financial situation, the Godwins, with help from friends, began running a children’s bookshop. Godwin wrote a variety of books - fables, histories, dictionaries - for the shop, while his wife saw to the business end, and translated books from French. In 1812, Godwin became a kind of mentor to Percy Shelley, who then visited the house often, and who provided much needed funds (borrowed against his future expectations) in support of Godwin and his family. In 1814, however, Shelley eloped with Godwin’s 16-year-old daughter Mary to the Continent. They returned to England and married in 1816 (after the death of Shelley’s first wife). Only a couple of years later, Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, dedicated to Godwin, would be published.
The most notable publications of Godwin’s later career were Of Population, a belated attempt to refute Thomas Malthus’s 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population - itself a response to Godwin’s ideas (see more on Malthus’s diary at The cost of men and food); History of the Commonwealth of England, from its Commencement to the Restoration of Charles II in four volumes; and Thoughts on Man, his Nature, Productions and Discoveries. Godwin died on 7 April 1836. For more information see Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, The History Guide, The Wordsworth Trust or University of Oxford podcasts.
Godwin kept a diary for most of his life, leaving behind 32 octavo notebooks now held by the Abinger Collection of manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Although each diary entry - 1788-1836 - is no more than a short list of names, places etc., and often no more than a few words, the entire text has been considered important enough to be fully digitalised, analysed and uploaded to a dedicated website hosted by the Bodleian This was funded, between 2007 and 2010, by the Leverhulme Trust and others under the direction of Oxford’s David O’Shaughnessy and Mark Philp and Victoria Myers from Pepperdine University, California.
According to the project: ‘The diary is a resource of immense importance to researchers of history, politics, literature, and women’s studies. It maps the radical intellectual and political life of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as providing extensive evidence on publishing relations, conversational coteries, artistic circles and theatrical production over the same period. One can also trace the developing relationships of one of the most important families in British literature, Godwin’s own [. . .]. Many of the most important figures in British cultural history feature in its pages, including Anna Barbauld, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles James Fox, William Hazlitt, Thomas Holcroft, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charles and Mary Lamb, Mary Robinson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Wordsworth, and many others.’
The website offers - freely - an image of every page and a transcription of the text. Moreover, for every person, place, publication, play, meal etc. mentioned in the diary, there is a link to further detailed notes and collated lists of other mentions in the diary of the same subject. Often times, nearly every word of a diary entry is a highlighted link to further information. An introduction to the website can be found here, a more detailed intro to the complexities of the text can be found here, and an example of how the diary has been used can be seen at the Shelley’s Ghost exhibition website. (See also Write. Read Homer about Mary Shelley’s diaries.)
Although they make little sense divorced of the links and explanations provided by the William Godwin Diary website, here are a few examples of Godwin’s diary entries.
8 March 1790
‘House of Commons: Tobacco act, Capt. Williams’s Petition, Quebec’
13 November 1791
‘Correct. Dyson & Dibbin call; // talk of virtue & disinterest. Dine at Johnson’s, with Paine, Shovet & Wolstencraft; talk of monarchy, Tooke, Johnson, Voltaire, pursuits & religion. Sup at Helcroft’s:’
28 July 1792
‘Write 2 pages, on prosperity. Finish Merchant of Venice: Much Ado, 3 acts. Miss Godwin at tea.’
23 August 1792
‘Walk to Rumford, 3 hours: stage to town, breakfast at miss Godwin’s: dine at Mr Marshal’s. See Cross Partners’
4 February 1795
‘Call on mrs Jennings: tea Johnson’s, Kentish Town.’
9 July 1795
‘Breakfast at Buckingham: dine at Watford: tea Fawcet’s, Hedge Grove, sleep: see Wilson, Smith, &c.’
7 September 1808
‘Church-yard: walk to Thatcham: dine at Woolhampton: tea Theal, sleep. George Dandin.’
10 April 1816
‘Dine at Darlington: pass Durham: sleep at Newcastle—intelligent bailiff, pleasing gentleman, Cumberland farmer.’
27 April 1816
‘Breakfast at Carlisle: coach to Penrith: chaise along Ulswater: dine at Wordsworth’s: call, w. him, on Jackson; adv. Wakefield: circuit of Grasmere. Derwent Coleridge dines: write to M J & Thos Moore.’
1 November 1830
‘Essays, revise. Homer, v. 395. Museum; Du Bartas: theatre, Henry V. 60 / 65’