Studies of a Biographer/William Godwin's Novels
WILLIAM GODWIN'S NOVELS
Hazlitt has recorded a conversation in which he and his friends discussed an interesting problem: If you were able to summon from the dead any of the great men of old, whom would you select for an interview? The choice is bewilderingly wide, and supposing that a medium limited our selection to Hazlitt's own circle, we might still be a little puzzled. Some would perhaps like to know whether a monologue of Coleridge was really as amazing as his admirers report; others might prefer to listen to the spontaneous and unsophisticated outflow of humour from which Lamb distilled the Essays of Elia; and possibly one or two might like to try the flavour of Hazlitt's own incisive and egotistic sallies. One thing, I fancy, is quite clear. Nobody would ask for an hour of William Godwin. His most obvious qualities, a remorseless 'ergotism,' squeezing the last drops out of an argument; a frigid dogmatism, not redeemed by the fervour which half excuses fanaticism; and a singular incapacity for even suspecting the humorous or fanciful aspects of life, are qualities which go far to make the superlative bore. They may be harmless or even advantageous in a man who wishes to compose a political Euclid, but that kind of author is not likely to be attractive at a supper-party, and certainly not likely to succeed in other branches of literary work. Yet it is odd that, without too much violence to language, we might describe Godwin as one of the most versatile authors of his time. Though a dealer in the most abstract speculations, he became an industrious Dryasdust, raking in the obscurest assortments of waste paper. In spite of his priggishness, he was a writer of popular books for children, and, without the smallest claims to poetic imagination, he was the author of one tragedy which escaped failure. A more remarkable fact, however, was his success as a novelist. He wrote in a comparatively barren period. The generation which had been impressed by the novels of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, and Goldsmith had passed away, and the novel of the nineteenth century had not yet come to life in Miss Austen and Scott. The novels which were produced in the interval, and can still be read by any one except conscientious professors of English literature, may be counted on the fingers—perhaps of one hand. Godwin's Caleb Williams is one of the few. It can be read without the pressure of a sense of duty. It has lived—though in comparative obscurity—for over a century, and high authorities tell us that vitality prolonged for that period raises a presumption that a book deserves the title of classic. Three generations must have accepted it, and as each naturally condemns the taste of the old fogies, its predecessors, the agreement implies some permanent attractiveness. There has been time for a reaction and a re-reaction. Living novelists, if one may judge from their practice, will say that Caleb Williams offends against all manner of sound canons of criticism. I am a little sceptical as to all such canons, and rather infer that a book which can survive in spite of such incompatibility must have had some of the seeds of life. Few writers, I fear, can be confident that their works will interest their great-great-grandchildren; and only such happy persons should be quite ready to throw the first stone.
Godwin's personal characteristics are sufficiently revealed in his life published some years ago by Mr. Kegan Paul. The subject was not altogether an easy one to manage. Some people shine, as it were, by their own light. There are others, of whom Godwin was one, who become interesting only when the observer is prepared to look at him from the right point of view. Lowell, in speaking of the inimitable Pepys, calls him an 'unconscious humourist.' The diary, that is, has all the effect of humorous writing, but the writer did not intend to produce a smile, and made his quaint confessions as if they would be to his readers, as they were to him, just the most natural things in the world. The reader, however, has to supply a great deal more from his own resources in the case of Godwin. He reminds us of a familiar difficulty which besets writers of fiction. When they introduce a bore for the sake of the comic effect of his tediousness, the tediousness is very apt to tire the reader. Now Pepys had infinitely too much vivacity ever to have been a bore, but Godwin, as I have said, was a bore by nature. Everybody, I hold, is a bore to some people, but Godwin was one of the unlucky persons capable of boring all round. He can never be amusing taken by himself, and we have to make the effort of seeing him among his fellow-actors before we catch any glimpse of the comedy in which he played a part. Lamb's famous description of the damning of Godwin's Antonio gives the true point of view. To Godwin himself the event, no doubt, was simply painful; the average spectator saw nothing in it but the proper punishment of stupidity; Lamb, by showing us the simple-minded philosopher in his oddly inappropriate position, manages to combine a smile with compassion. A writer possessed of Lamb's skill might manage to throw a similar light upon the whole career of the unlucky dramatist.
The social atmosphere of Godwin's early days was not exactly calculated—I hope that I may say so without offence—to stimulate any germs of humour or fancy. The son of a dissenting minister in a country village, he began by following in his father's steps. A revered tutor made him a Sandemanian. According to Godwin (I do not answer for the statement) Calvin had damned ninety-nine men out of every hundred; and Sandeman contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine out of every hundred Calvinists. Remembering that the amiable Faraday was a member of the sect, I cannot doubt that the creed admits of a milder interpretation. Anyhow, Godwin stuck to it for a time, and resisted the ensnaring arguments of Arians and Arminians. A glimpse of the social stratum which enjoyed such intellectual food may be given by a passage in a letter from his mother—a worthy and affectionate old lady in spite of her peculiar views of spelling, punctuation, and Christian charity. That her daughter may not be
as the figtree whome the master of the vineyard came seeking fruit and found none. Is my daily prayer for her and all of you poor Jack once made a profession two but him I have no hopes off. I may say the same of Joseph how cutting it is to be the means of bringing children into the world to be the subjects of the Kingdom of Darkness to dwell with Divils and Damned Spirits from whence as I heard you mention in your prayers there is no redemption.
The 'prayers' must have been edifying, but William went the way, it is to be feared—wherever it may have led—of Jack, Joseph, and Hannah. His nonconformity took him, like Priestley and Price, into the ranks of political radicalism, and while his Calvinistic theory of predestination changed into the doctrine of 'philosophical necessity,' Rousseau became his guide in place of Jonathan Edwards. He left the pulpit, but only to preach lay sermons as an author of all work. He became known in the circles which were prepared to welcome the French Revolution. He records in his diary the subjects of some of the talks which enlivened their tea-parties and other more convivial gatherings. Sandemanian tracts were out of place, but they talked of 'ancient virtue and respect for other men's judgments,' of self-love, sympathy, 'perfectibility,' and 'ideal unity.' Now and then they were honoured by the presence of the great Dr. Priestley, or of the shrewd, cynical Horne Tooke, the veteran survivor of the old Wilkite agitation; or of Thomas Hollis, who swore by the old-fashioned republicanism of Milton and Algernon Sidney; Helen Maria Williams and Mary Wollstonecraft represented the early stage of the crusade for the rights of women. His closest ally was Holcroft, ex-stable-boy at Newmarket, popular dramatist, and keen republican agitator. With Hollis and Holcroft, Godwin helped to revise Paine's Rights of Man. It had been suppressed by the fears of its first publishers, and its circulation was soon to become the most dangerous of ventures for the party booksellers. Meanwhile Godwin brought out his own Political Justice, and became the philosopher of the English Revolutionists. No book, says Hazlitt, 'ever gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country. Tom Paine was considered for the time a Tom Fool to him; Paley an old woman; Edmund Burke a flashy sophist. "Throw away your books of chemistry," said Wordsworth to a young man, "and read Godwin on Necessity."' Hazlitt probably exaggerates, but it is true that Wordsworth and Coleridge, then in their revolutionary fever, were strongly impressed. Coleridge addressed an enthusiastic sonnet to the author of the book (which, however, he had not read), and became a personal friend. Rival prophets, indeed, have their little jars, and Coleridge, after one interview, denounces, in his peculiar phrase, the 'grossness and vulgar insanocecity of this dim-headed prig of a philosophocide.' Humbler youths not only accepted Godwin as a teacher, but always declared that a study of his book had made an epoch in their lives, and permanently elevated their moral tone. The philosophy, it is true, was startling, but it was delivered in the most edifying tones. No 'milder-mannered' literary Lambro ever proposed to scuttle the ship of state. He discoursed as calmly as one of his old colleagues in the ministry, who would be condemned by the godly as too much given to 'cold morality.' Quietly, as one propounding mere matter-of-fact or truths which, when once announced, must be self-evident, he shows the absurdity, not only of kings and aristocrats, but of government in general. Democracy is the least bad system, but it is at best a makeshift on the way to anarchy. We are to have no parliaments, no states, no laws. He sorrowfully admits that it may be right at the moment to resist a murderer by force, but punishment is essentially unreasonable. Force is not argument; it is as foolish to be indignant with a murderer as to be indignant with his knife; and reason is (or ought to be) omnipotent. We ought to convince the scoundrel of his mistake instead of sending him to prison. All restraints are bad, even when self-imposed. Promises in general are therefore bad, and marriage so obviously absurd that it can be demolished in a paragraph. Moreover, all the 'private affections' are bad, for they imply partiality and therefore injustice. Reason tells me to save the life of a virtuous Fénelon rather than the life of his valet. If the valet be my father or brother, that little accident can make no difference in the eye of pure reason. Gratitude is thus a vice, because it tends to gross partiality. Nobody, I suppose, ever made so clean a sweep of all existing social ties, but he always preserves the calm and benevolent tone of a preacher drawing obvious morals from the Sermon on the Mount, though the Christian creed is among the doctrines too absurd to require explicit confutation.
The book thus crammed with intellectual explosives appeared in 1793, when the respectable classes were in the panic caused by the French Revolution and the Government preparing the severest measures of suppression. Godwin's friends, Home Tooke and Holcroft, were about to be tried for high treason; and Godwin expected that he might himself be the next victim. It is only just to say that he appears to have rather courted martyrdom by openly showing his sympathies. The acquittal of his friends put an end to the danger; and his own circle rather regretted, it would seem, that he had not had a chance of sharing their glory. Pitt, they reported by way of apology, had said in the Cabinet that a three-guinea book could not do much harm in the class which was dangerous precisely for want of guineas. The fact that so dear a book should have had an immediate circulation of over four thousand copies is indeed a remarkable proof of the general excitement. A surprising number of the well-to-do must have been anxious to know what a Jacobin had to say for himself. Pitt, however, may have had other reasons. The Attorney-General could have no difficulty in quoting passages from Paine's Rights of Man, and inserting 'innuendoes' to show that they applied to our gracious sovereign. Godwin kept so much to the supernal regions of abstract argument that it was comparatively difficult to saddle his book with any definite or immediate political application. Moreover—in perfect consistency with his general doctrine—he had fully and explicitly denounced violent revolution. Force, he argues, is as bad on one side as on the other. Reason is so omnipotent that we may trust to its efficiency without any extraneous support. He condemned organised agitation even in support of his own principles. His friends were accused of belonging to seditious clubs; he held that all clubs implied some abnegation of individual liberty. Pitt might be right in holding that reason thus understood was a force of very little significance. True, Godwin's theories logically applied might tend to dissolve the very ties of all social and political order. That did not much matter till his readers became capable of drawing inferences, or till his doctrines were translated into terms immediately applicable to George III. and rotten boroughs.
Godwin, in any case, might well pass for a great philosopher. He dealt in what is called 'inexorable logic.' That is to say, that whenever he ran his head against a lamp-post, he calmly asserted that it did not exist. If the proper way of making a science of politics be to ignore all appeals to experience, his method was irreproachable. That happened to be precisely the opinion of a good many people at the time, and Godwin's Utopia, though liable to collapse at the first touch of common-sense, appeared to enthusiasts to be solid because self-consistent. Moreover, if we consider the merits of the exposition, apart from the validity of the theory expounded, it showed remarkable literary power. The style is simple and solid; the argument is well arranged; and, in short, the logical architecture leaves nothing to be desired if we will allow the architect to use for his material what is really mere moonshine. Nor can it be denied that he is appealing to the sense of justice and humanity of his readers; and that, if he is not impassioned, there is a general glow of benevolent sentiment which commended him to the more generous impulses of the revolutionary period. I have only to say, however, that it is easy to understand that Godwin would act the part of philosopher to perfection. Ingenuous youths of both sexes are for a time capable of reverence for that variety of the species. The illusion indeed frequently lasts with the superior sex beyond the period of early enthusiasm. Colleges devoted to female education are, I fear, rapidly destroying that agreeable distinction. With minds sharpened by study, young ladies will soon make their brothers' discovery that when a man claims to be a philosopher there is a strong presumption that he must be an impostor. In Godwin's days, Newnham and Girton were not even conceivable; and a philosopher might hope to be taken seriously by a circle of feminine admirers. They could revere a man, not though but, because he was a bore. Incapacity for lighter talk proved that his thoughts were absorbed in serious topics, and the absence of romance showed that in him the emotions were under the sway of reason. Godwin had begun by showing superiority to the impulses of a young man's fancy. He had resolved to marry in a business-like spirit, and to save trouble asked his sister to choose a wife for him. She found a young lady good-natured and humble, and 'with about as much religion as my William likes.' Godwin took the matter into consideration, but deliberated so long and calmly that he never made the necessary advances. His fame as a philosopher soon rendered any advances on his side unnecessary. He became attractive to a whole circle of feminine enthusiasts. Among his female admirers was Miss Alderson (afterwards Mrs. Opie), a beauty, a bit of a poetess, and then an ardent radical. There was Mrs. Inchbald, of the Simple Story, a bright and very clever and saucy actress, who was able, we are told, at any social meeting to charm to her side the admirers who surrounded any rival beauty. Though, as a devout Catholic, she must have had more religion than William liked, she was attracted by the serene philosopher, and carried on what seems to have been a lively flirtation. There was the beautiful 'Perdita,' Mary Robinson, who, in spite of her questionable position and her aristocratic connections, was willing to reciprocate the attentions of the humble author. There was Mrs. Reveley, afterwards Shelley's Mrs. Gisborne. She was very young and very beautiful, says his daughter, and full of 'deep sensibility'; her heart was full 'to bursting' with the hopes of political freedom, and she 'drank deeply' of Godwin's philosophy. His heart, it is added, was not disturbed—for the present at least—but both Mrs. Reveley and Mrs. Inchbald burst into tears when they heard that their philosopher was married to Mary Wollstonecraft. His relations even to that model enthusiast were a little hampered by philosophy. He took the peculiar precaution of occupying a separate house in order that their affection might not be exposed to the trial of constant intimacy. She complains, too, that when he was absent on a journey, he was too much attracted by the 'homage of vulgar minds' and restored to his 'icy philosophy.' The connection did not last long enough to try whether more serious jars might not arise between an icy philosopher and a romantic sentimentalist. Yet it is only fair to admit that Godwin seems to have been roused for once to a genuine passion, and that when his wife died, he felt the blow like a man and dropped the philosopher. There was, one is glad to know, some really warm blood beneath the surface, though during the rest of his career it remained quiescent. His domestic circumstances, however, made it natural enough that he should soon think of marrying again; and then the philosopher reappears in all his force. He applied to Miss Lee of the 'Canterbury Tales' used in Byron's Werner. She hesitated on account of his free-thinking. He retorted by applying the omnipotent force of reason. If you ought to argue even with a burglar, you clearly should be able to persuade the object of your affections. Accordingly he explained clearly that his theory of ethics was quite consistent with her theological orthodoxy; he pointed out that her creed was 'the quintessence of bigotry,' and that in refuting him she was acting in the spirit of the eleventh and twelfth century. The argument may have been perfectly sound, but seems to require some further steps before justifying the inference that she ought to marry him. She did not draw it. Next year he heard of the death of Mrs. Reveley's husband, and now applied a closer bit of logic. She, he declares, had admitted that she loved him, even when she had a husband and he a wife. As these obstacles were removed, the obvious inference followed that she should become the sole 'happiness of one of the most known men of the age, of one whose principles, whose temper, whose thoughts you have long been acquainted with, and will, I believe, confess their universal constancy.' Nothing could be more obvious. Moreover, the match would 'restore her self-respect, and ensure for her no mean degree of respectability.' Mrs. Reveley in despair took to the most irritating of all positions. She was incapable, she said, of reasoning with him. He pointed out in vain that he was incapable of using an atom of sophistry. If, therefore, she could not reason for herself, she clearly ought to accept arguments so satisfactorily vouched. But against a person who declines to reason, reason is powerless, and Mrs. Reveley married Mr. Gisborne. Godwin was next to illustrate the failure of reason to protect even its possessors. Mrs. Clairmont, his next-door neighbour, saw him sitting in his balcony and exclaimed, 'Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?' The poor man yielded to 'the homage of a vulgar mind,' and became a slave for life. No man's wife was ever more unanimously condemned by his friends. Lamb could only call her 'that damned Mrs. Godwin' or the 'disgusting woman who wears green spectacles.' She was handsome, we are told, and clever enough to enforce her authority. Possibly Godwin's admirers were a little too anxious to make her the scapegoat for his infirmities. His later career suggests a painful tract upon the moral dangers of impecuniosity. Attempts to set up in business; bankruptcy steadily advancing; and application for help from old friends and even compassionate adversaries; ending in the final appointment of the old radical to be 'yeoman usher of the Exchequer,' make up a melancholy story.
In spite of his weakness, Godwin had some real claims upon his young friends outside his philosophy. He says of himself, in a curious bit of self-analysis, that he was always anxious to appreciate and encourage merit, but was hampered by his nervous diffidence. He lost his self-possession in company, and, like many shy men, blundered into excessive frankness. His bluntness led him into quarrels, though his obvious good intentions led to reconciliation. A pupil of early days noted on paper some of the 'pointed and humiliating words' bestowed by his tutor. He had been called 'a foolish wretch,' a brute and a viper to his face, and behind his back a 'tiger' and a 'black heart' with 'no proper feelings.' Godwin, upon finding the notes, was gratified by the pupil's 'sensibility,' and pointed out that the reproaches were only masked expressions of the kindness which he had showed by real sacrifices for the young gentleman's benefit. He gave really good advice to a whole series of young men attracted by his fame, and, when they were at a distance, was not tempted to spice it with cutting epithets. Shelley was only one, though the only memorable instance. He had fancied, as boys naturally do, that so great a man must have lived a long time ago. Godwin belonged to the sphere of Plato and Bacon, and must naturally have been a contemporary of one of those immortals or rather outside of time in general. On discovering that the world was still blessed with so great a luminary, Shelley offered his homage with characteristic enthusiasm. Nothing could be better than the advice which Godwin bestowed on the enthusiastic proselyte. He points out to the fervid disciple that the wrongs of Ireland were not likely to be cured by a pamphlet and a speech; that twenty years was a short period in the life of a nation; and that even the Catholic superstition had done some good in its time. If Godwin's philosophy prompted Shelley to turn to poetry in place of politics, we should certainly be grateful; though we may regret that so much of the mentor's philosophy penetrated into the poetry. Unluckily Godwin held another doctrine, which has its charms for philosophers. A rich man is surely bound by reason to subsidise great thinkers. Godwin had already, it seems, been demoralised by the excellent Thomas Wedgwood, who had liberally applied that dangerous principle to Coleridge and other men of high promise. So-called 'loans' became gifts, and by Shelley's time, it would seem, the gifts scarcely deserved gratitude, for they were the bare discharge of a plain obligation. The culminating point was reached when Godwin—the denouncer of marriage—refused to see the Shelleys for acting upon his principles, and declined to accept money from the seducer of his daughter—unless the cheque were made payable in a different name. We can only exclaim with Mrs. Shelley, 'Oh, philosophy!' Shelley behaved to the old gentleman with admirable courtesy and firmness, but seems never to have lost his illusions. The thumb-screw was being applied when Godwin published his novel Mandeville in 1817. Shelley declares that its
interest is of that irresistible and overwhelming kind that the mind in its influence is like a cloud borne on by an impetuous wind. … In style and strength of expression Mandeville is wonderfully great and the energy and sweetness of the sentiment scarcely to be equalled. Clifford's character as mere beauty is a divine and soothing contrast, and I do not think, if perhaps I except (and I know not if I ought to do so) the speech of Agathon in the Symposium of Plato, that there ever was produced a moral discourse more characteristic of all that is admirable and lovely in human nature; more lovely and admirable in itself, than that of Henrietta to Mandeville as he is recovering from madness.
The touch about Plato is delightful, and reminds one of some modern criticisms. Poets can be the best of all critics, but they are a little apt to fancy that singular power in the author instead of singular impulsiveness on their own side is the explanation of the 'impetuous wind' of enthusiasm.
That Shelley, for the moment at least, should put Godwin beside Plato, not only as a thinker but as a literary artist, is a little startling, even if the compliment were intended to soften the refusal to be bled in pocket. Posterity has long ceased to hanker after Mandeville. I, at least, have tried in vain to discover the slightest justification for Shelley's enthusiasm. Can we discover any grounds for such enthusiasm in Godwin's masterpiece? Caleb Williams was published when Godwin's fame was at its zenith—just before the trial of his friends. A preface, announcing its purpose, was suppressed for the time by the fears of his publisher. 'It is now known to philosophers,' says this document (philosophers had just been enlightened by Political Justice) 'that the spirit and character of government intrudes into every rank of life.' The novel was to illustrate this truth, and to exhibit 'the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man.' That is to say, apparently, it is to show how the wicked aristocrat carries into private life the execrable principles of kings and ministers. Caleb Williams was, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, to rouse men to a sense of the evils of slavery. The reader, unassisted by the preface, would scarcely perceive this doctrine between the lines. Falkland, the hero, is a model country gentleman; not only a benevolent and public-spirited landlord, but a man of taste and a poet. Like his predecessor, Sir Charles Grandison, he shows his high qualities under the most delicate circumstances. A lovely Italian lady is so charmed by him as to excite the jealousy of the lover to whom she is already betrothed. Falkland's tact and dignity enable him to avoid a duel, to reconcile the estranged couple, and to make it perfectly clear that his moderation is due, not to want of courage, but to the loftiest magnanimity. Returning to England, he settles on his property, to become the cynosure of the surrounding society, much to the disgust of the brutal Squire Tyrrel, who had previously had things all his own way. Tyrrel bullies his tenants, especially certain Hawkinses, and Falkland takes them under his protection. Tyrrel then tries to force a poor girl who is dependent upon him into a marriage with a lout, and though Falkland again endeavours to intervene, she dies in consequence of Tyrrel's machinations. Falkland, righteously indignant, denounces Tyrrel at a public assembly, and the ruffian is abashed by the power of reason. As soon as he has got out of hearing, however, he recovers himself, and returns to deliver a knock-down blow, a kind of argument which he had learnt from the heroes of the prize-ring. Falkland, who is slight, though inimitably graceful, retires to consider the position. A duel would be the obvious result, unless indeed Tyrrel had forfeited the right to meet a gentleman. Had Falkland been a Godwinite, he would not have adopted that barbarous custom; but perhaps Godwin's peculiar morality might justify the course which he actually took. On the principle illustrated by Fénelon's valet, it was clearly desirable that Tyrrel should be killed rather than Falkland, while a duel would equalise the chance. It seems, however, that Falkland forgot to reason. He meets Tyrrel and stabs him to the heart. Suspicion is roused, and Falkland comes before the magistrates. He declares himself innocent, and tells them that he valued Tyrrel's life even more than his own. His enemy's death had made it impossible to wipe off the stain on his honour. He cannot even commit suicide—which might have seemed desirable—because suicide might look like a confession of the murder. Falkland is dismissed without a stain upon his character, and suspicion falls upon the Hawkinses, father and son, the very victims whom Falkland had protected against Tyrrel. He now allows them to be hanged, and sanctions or starts a report that they have confessed their guilt. In spite of this satisfactory solution, Falkland cannot be happy. He is tortured by remorse, or rather by the fear of being found out. He is, however, as benevolent as ever, and, unluckily for him, shows his goodness by taking Caleb Williams for a secretary. Now Williams is curiosity embodied. He is sharp enough to connect his patron's gloom with the story of the murder, and manages to experiment upon Falkland much as Hamlet experimented upon his uncle. He discovers that Falkland is accustomed to retire in fits of overpowering gloom to a closet, where there is an iron chest, which presumably contains a key to the secret. Falkland presently discovers him in the act of breaking open the chest. The question naturally occurs, what did the chest contain? If Williams had consulted Sherlock Holmes he might, perhaps, have discovered some clue, but to the ordinary mind no connection is conceivable. The chest, however, struck the popular imagination and gave the title to a dramatised version of the novel. Falkland, anyhow, is startled to energetic action. He confesses the murder to Williams, and adds that, though he admits himself to be 'the blackest of villains,' he is determined to leave behind him a spotless name. He loves his reputation more than the whole world and all its inhabitants. He will not silence Williams by killing him, reflecting that he 'may not be so fortunate in his next murder.' He will keep his detector in bondage, and on the least threat of divulging the secret, Williams shall suffer torments of which he has not the faintest idea. When the wretched secretary tries to escape, Falkland makes use of the chest incident, declares that Williams has stolen the contents, and arranges a conclusive proof by secreting them in the room of the supposed thief. Williams is now at Falkland's mercy; he is imprisoned; escapes to live with robbers, and afterwards rambles into London slums and the remotest corners of Wales. Everywhere he is watched by Falkland's spies. He always manages to stumble into places—Godwin has no scruples as to incredible coincidences—where Falkland is revered by some old dependent, and where the discovery that Williams has been faithless to so perfect a master causes him to be expelled with execration. Driven to despair, he at last openly accuses Falkland, who comes to meet the charge worn to a skeleton. Williams has no evidence to produce, but the force of reason triumphs. On hearing his impressive speech, Falkland throws himself into his accuser's arms and confesses the charge. 'Williams,' he says, 'you have conquered. I see too late the greatness and elevation of your mind.' He dies in three days from the agony. Meanwhile, strangely enough, Williams's veneration for his oppressor has never declined. He declares that he is 'an atrocious and execrable wretch for ever inflicting upon Falkland an agony a thousand times worse than death.'
The book closes with this cheerful reflection, and suggests the question, what has become of the moral? How about the wickedness of government? The answer must be that it has passed out of sight. Something, indeed, is made of the social abuses of the time: there is a prison of the old pattern, and an innocent man who dies in it because he is too poor to pay for legal assistance; and an impossible band of robbers—imported apparently from the region described by Schiller—whose captain argues philosophically as to the rights of property with Williams. But such matters only supply accessories. Falkland, the centre of interest, is not the typical oppressor of the poor; and, whenever he is not murdering or concealing a murder, uses his influence for the best possible purposes. His mind has been poisoned, we are told, by the 'idle and groundless romances of chivalry.' He suffers from Don Quixote's complaint, but has managed to mislearn his lesson. The Don would certainly have felt bound to fight instead of meanly assassinating. Falkland is a perverse monomaniac, who will guard his reputation even by deserving infamy. That, no doubt, might suggest a very interesting motive. The psychology of hypocrisy—of the transition by which the sense of honour is replaced by a desire for being honoured—might be embodied in a lifelike hero, as it is common enough in real life. With Godwin, Falkland becomes a heap of contradictory qualities. Monomaniacs are rather in favour now, and a modern novelist would, perhaps, make Falkland into an illustration of heredity or the general corruption of society. But he is so obviously unreal, and all the incidents so frankly impossible, that we scarcely feel even the interest excited by a caricature of conceivable wickedness. Why, then, are we interested? In the first place, because mysterious crimes are always interesting. The interest may be wrong, but it is natural. But, in the next place, given the situation and shutting our eyes to impossibilities, Godwin shows the kind of power manifested by the Political Justice. The story is developed with admirable order and lucidity—if the machinery will not bear inspection, we need not inspect—and the agony is slowly and steadily piled up till the catastrophe in which the victim suddenly changes places with the oppressor. The sentiment is nearly that of Browning's Instans Tyrannus. Browning's tyrant 'sets his wits on the stretch to inveigle the wretch,' till, when he has 'laid his last plan to extinguish the man,' the man suddenly starts to his feet and prays, to the tyrant's confusion. Godwin's hero does not pray—it would be against his principles—he invokes the force of reason; but the result is the same, and the gradual working up of the catastrophe, the slow and steady evolution of the diabolical agency, has a fascinating power. We catch something of the writer's own profound interest in the story, and admire at least the persistence and ingenuity (perverse as its means) with which variations are performed upon the theme which is always in view. Godwin, of course, had not a trace of the peculiar skill exemplified in Pride and Prejudice, where every incident is both perfectly natural and conducive to the effect. Yet his incidents are so well combined that the book has the same sort of unity and co-ordination, and even the formality of the style is congenial to his own ideals. Godwin, in his Enquirer, gives a curious discourse upon that subject. English style, he declares, has reached its perfection; it is no longer cumbrous, as with Hooker, nor over simple, as with Addison. Dignity and clearness are now judiciously combined. Smollett is condemned for 'lowering his style,' and making one of his characters talk like a real servant-maid. Now, it is the office of a poet or novelist, says Godwin, 'to adorn the style of their characters, and to give to real life the most impressive form,' that is, to make everybody talk like a book. Godwin, in short, as became a man of his epoch, is nervous about the 'dignity of history'—whether the history be real or fictitious—and failed to anticpate the secret revealed by Scott. He will not condescend to the vivid touch which suggests direct vision and gives individuality of scenery and customs. His speakers declaim in balanced phrases even when they try to be in a passion. They are, in fact, generalised types instead of individuals. To judge him fairly, we must accept his position. His novels are a kind of mean between the moral tale of the Rasselas or Candide variety, where actors and incidents are arbitrary pegs upon which to hang wise and witty reflections, and the novel which frankly deals with real life and makes use of the most familiar touches. Godwin is still a publicist of his time, given to reflections upon 'nature' and 'the dignity of man,' and the abstract truths or platitudes which were then popular in political discussions. He condescends to become a novelist in the interests of his doctrine, but cannot stoop so far as quite to throw aside his stilts. His actors are not quite men nor quite abstract qualities, but human beings seen as in a darkened mirror, or at such a distance that the individual peculiarities are blurred into indistinctness. Making the necessary omissions, however, and admitting his style to be appropriate to his end, we can accept his good, solid, straightforward utterance as effective enough in its kind.
Caleb Williams might be compared with Mrs. Clive's very striking Paul Ferroll. Ferroll combines the murderer and the polished gentleman far more intelligibly than Falkland, and refuses to let an innocent person suffer in his place. Godwin's book has, however, a certain advantage from the fervour due to his intended moral. The moral, it is true, eludes him. It reminds one of Lowell's description of an orator who tries in vain to get his subject properly laid down. He makes desperate attempts, wanders off in many directions, and in his last contortion 'sees his subjick a-nosin' round arter him agin'.' Still, the pursuit of a subject gives a certain unction to oratory, and in the same kind of perverted and anomalous fashion Godwin's moral gives a sort of momentum and diffused energy to his mass of incongruities.
Godwin's next novel, St. Leon, is, I suppose, the last—in spite of Shelley—which anybody has read in modern times, and marks a stage in his development. It appeared in 1799, and shows that he had learnt something from his brief married life. He announces in the preface that he has now learnt that there is really some good in the 'private affections.' He adds calmly that this opinion is perfectly consistent with the rest of his doctrines—though to most readers the alteration required in them seems to be considerable. Anyhow, his new doctrine again provided him with a really striking situation. St. Leon is a French nobleman of the seventeenth century, though, it need hardly be said, Godwin takes very little trouble to give any genuine picture of the time. St. Leon has made a happy and aristocratic marriage, when he is accidentally reduced to extreme poverty. An affectionate family, however, surrounds him, and he manages to get on pretty well in an Alpine district where the people are not corrupted by luxury. To him enters an old gentleman who has discovered the philosopher's stone. This, as is known, enables a man to produce boundless wealth and also gives the power of restoring youth. The possessor, however, has been made so miserable that he is only anxious to die, and death, it seems, can only be secured by transferring the stone to another man, who must accept the same terms and be pledged to absolute secrecy. The purpose is to show how miserable a man would become when his exemption from mortality made him incapable of sympathy with his ephemeral companions. That is the kind of text which might have been treated effectively in the old moral tale of the Candide variety. Godwin not only expands it into a long quasi-historical novel, with all manner of impossible adventures and coincidences, but contrives to miss the moral. The point of the situation in his version comes to be the difficulty which St. Leon finds in accounting for his sudden accession to boundless wealth. He has a perfect wife, supposed to be meant for a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, but the poor lady is tormented by a curiosity as keen as that of Caleb Williams. In those days, no doubt, it would be more difficult than it is now to account for a mysterious bound into wealth; the Stock Exchange was not invented. Still, one would have thought that it was not beyond human ingenuity to get round such a perplexity. St. Leon is unequal to the task. He comes under suspicion—pretty well justified indeed—of dealing in magic; he alienates his family by his unaccountable proceedings; he is locked up in a dungeon by a nobleman who guesses at his powers, and proposes to keep him employed in making gold; he falls into the hands of the Inquisition; and though he manages to escape and to disguise himself by again becoming a youth, he has in that capacity to repudiate his children; becomes thoroughly miserable and is left at the end of the story proposing to die in spite of his miraculous gifts. Godwin had got further from realities than he was in Caleb Williams, and makes his characters indulge in a stilted declamation which he appears to have meant for passion. A brief passage will be enough to show what was the kind of eloquence which induced contemporaries—even Shelley—to think that he was at home in describing 'whirlwinds of passion.' St. Leon's wife has guessed the secret. She feels that a hopeless gulf has opened between herself and her husband. Her beloved son has been forced to drop his disreputable father and she herself is dying under the shock. A page or two of eloquence ends with the remarks—
How unhappy the wretch, the monster rather let me say, who is without an equal, who looks through the world and in the world cannot find a brother, who is endowed with attributes which no living being participates with him, who is therefore cut off for ever from all cordiality and confidence, can never unbend himself, but lives a solitary joyless inhabitant of a prison, the materials of which are emeralds and rubies. How unhappy this wretch, how weak and ignoble the man who voluntarily accepts this odious existence.
The lady's passion has clearly not impeded her command of grammar.
The modern novelist does not accept this method of giving 'the most impressive form' to 'real life.' In truth it is only tolerable so long as there is some real force behind the queer old-fashioned mannerism. Godwin, by the time of St. Leon, was forcing his vein under pressure of embarrassment, and the usual result followed. In Caleb Williams it was by a kind of good luck that his philosophy provided him with an effective situation, and though it did not in the least prove his moral, and though characters and incidents are simply preposterous, gave a certain power to his elbow. The current of general conviction which had worked the Political Justice had force enough to turn the mill, if one may say so, even when the purpose was incongruous and the effect produced very different from the intention. Caleb Williams is a kind of literary curiosity—a monstrous hybrid between different species—which gains its interest by a fortunate confusion. But if any one should be prompted to push his study into other novels, I fear that he is destined to disappointment.