William Godwin’s is one of the best-documented lives of his era: he left behind incoming letters, copies of his own letters, autobiographical fragments, and a diary recording a half-century of daily events. Mary Shelley added to this what remained of her abandoned life and letters of her father which, with her own papers and diary and those of her mother and husband, descended to Sir Percy Florence Shelley (1819-89) and his wife Jane, who made them available to selected biographers. In the twentieth century the papers, now known as the Abinger Collection, were acquired by the Bodleian Library and were used by William St Clair for his pathbreaking biography, The Godwins and the Shelleys (1989), and for modern editions of the letters of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Pamela Clemit’s edition of Godwin’s letters is now under way, and the Godwin Diaries have been transcribed, annotated, and made available online.
Among those given access to the Godwin papers was Charles Kegan Paul (1828-1902), a clergyman and former neighbor of Percy Florence Shelley who would later leave the church to pursue a second career as a publisher. Paul edited a collection of Godwin’s uncollected essays in 1873, published his biography of Godwin in 1876, and edited Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters in 1879. The biography, William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries, was a life-and-letters compilation containing letters and fragments of letters by Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Holcroft, Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and many others. It remained the standard biography of Godwin for more than a century, until supplanted by St Clair.
That it endured so long has less to do with its intrinsic merits than with the difficulty, until recently, of getting access to the documents. While it was well received in 1876 Kegan Paul’s biography was never reprinted, nor would it be difficult to compile a long list of its failings. In addition to the usual cavalier treatment of documents it suffers from Paul’s unfamiliarity with much of Godwin’s oeuvre and his lack of research—there is but one footnote in the two large volumes, no bibliography, and precious little information given about the “friends and contemporaries,” most of whom go unidentified. The first volume, for which Paul had access to Mary Wollstonecraft’s commentary, is noticeably superior to the second. Many of the documents necessary to tell the story of Godwin’s later years were apparently held back for use in later publications such as Edward Dowden’s Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley which Paul would publish in 1886.
That said, one must acknowledge the enormous task of sorting through 27,000 pages of uncatalogued and often cryptic manuscripts, and that Kegan Paul did succeed in giving a narrative shape to the life that does justice to his subject’s complex character. William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries is notably frank in this respect, displaying Godwin in his pettiness and abasement as well as in his courage and magnanimity. Paul shared Godwin’s liberal social views, and his own struggles with Christian doctrine no doubt made him the more empathetic to Godwin’s. Where modern biographers have focused their attention on the immediate family drama, there is something to be said for Paul’s sometimes maddening unselectivity. Many of the letters from minor correspondents are not available elsewhere. It is a good and useful thing to have all three sides of the correspondence between Mary Wollstonecraft, Everina Wollstonecraft, and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft Bishop.
There were of course limits to what a Victorian biographer could be frank about; the sexual adventures and misadventures of the Godwin clan, where not passed over in silence, are handled obliquely, as when Kegan Paul obfuscates the identity of Allegra Byron’s mother:
In March 1818 the Shelleys went to Italy. The immediate cause of the journey was a demand from Byron, then at Venice, for Allegra, his natural daughter, who had been under Mrs Shelley’s care from the time of her birth—about a year and a quarter before. Though Mrs Shelley had given the child all a mother’s care, and had accepted the charge ungrudgingly, there was every reason that Byron should have the superintendence of Allegra’s education, and that she should be removed from her mother’s influence, less likely now to reach her under Byron’s roof than anywhere else. But there was so much reason to fear that Byron might change his mind, that when once the summons came, scarcely a moment was lost in preparing to carry it out; and the Shelleys, with Miss Clairmont, took the child as far as Milan or Leghorn, whence it was sent to Byron at Venice, with its nurse.
Although Thomas Medwin in his 1847 life of Shelley had revealed the name of Allegra’s mother as “Miss C.,” Claire Clairmont was alive in 1876 and apparently appearances still needed to be maintained.
Tact of a different sort was required in Kegan Paul’s treatment of Godwin’s atheism and radical politics. The same opinions that rocketed Godwin to fame in one decade blasted his reputation in the next. The old animus against him yet remained: “Mr. Paul’s admirable style, and the many flattering tributes he has collected, do not avail to make us regard Godwin otherwise than as a morbidly vain, quarrelsome creature, whose frigid philosophy was simple indifference to all except the frequent hurts to his self-love which he put himself in the way of receiving. It is pretty plain that he was henpecked by the silly and exacting widow whom he married, and we are glad of it” New Quarterly Magazine (May 1876) 263. But this expression of venom was provoked by earlier, positive reviews. Paul uses the resources of the life-and-letters format to present a nuanced, faceted treatment of events in which Godwin comes across not as hero or victim but as a flawed though well-intentioned man.
David Hill Radcliffe