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William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries
Ch. I. 1756-1785

Contents Vol. I
‣ Ch. I. 1756-1785
Ch. II. 1785-1788
Ch. III. 1788-1792
Ch. IV. 1793
Ch. V. 1783-1794
Ch. VI. 1794-1796
Ch. VII. 1759-1791
Ch. VII. 1791-1796
Ch. IX. 1797
Ch. X. 1797
Ch. XI. 1798
Ch. XII. 1799
Ch. XIII. 1800
Contents Vol. II
Ch. I. 1800
Ch. II. 1800
Ch. III. 1800
Ch. IV. 1801-1803
Ch. V. 1802-1803
Ch. VI. 1804-1806
Ch. VII. 1806-1811
Ch. VIII. 1811-1814
Ch. IX. 1812-1819
Ch. X. 1819-1824
Ch. XI. 1824-1832
Ch. XII. 1832-1836
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EARLY LIFE. 1756—1785.

To those conversant with the literary history of the close of the last, and the first quarter of the present century, few names are more familiar than that of William Godwin. The husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the father-in-law of Shelley, the confidential friend of Coleridge and Lamb, his life was so closely intertwined with the lives of those whose story has been often written, as to render some record of him valuable, even had the man himself been less remarkable than he was. But though the present generation has read his works but little, this age owes more to him than it recognizes; many opinions now clothed in household words were first formulated by him, and the publication of his “Political Justice,” in 1793, marked a distinct epoch in the growth of liberal thought. During a large part of his life younger men looked on him as a kind of prophet-sage, and he exercised a remarkable influence over all with whom he came in contact.

The mere record of his life, would, if written soon after his death, have had a deeper interest than it now can have, the interest being in these days rather antiquarian and
literary than personal and social. But to write such a life was then possible to one alone, to
Godwin’s daughter, Mrs Shelley. She only would have known what to preserve and what to reject from the mass of papers left by one who never willingly destroyed a written line, and whose life and opinions had clashed to so great an extent with the susceptibilities of men then living. But from causes into which there is here no need to enter, Mrs Shelley was only able in a measure to select those papers which seemed to her fittest for publication, and to draw up a few valuable notes, explanatory of otherwise forgotten circumstances. Much as this is to be regretted, it may yet be that a freer handling than is possible to a daughter was needed for such a life and correspondence as is here presented. Not however that a veil is lifted from particulars which Godwin’s daughter would have desired to hide; she wished to conceal nothing of interest except in cases where some living person might be wounded, or some dear memory of the dead, and such danger has now almost or wholly ceased.

For the record of Godwin’s early years we are mainly dependent on an autobiographical fragment, drawn up by him in the year 1800, when he was forty-four years of age. But interest in the extreme detail in which the facts of his earlier life are presented in this fragment would at all times have been restricted to the members of his own family, nor was there anything especially remarkable in the surroundings of his earlier years. For these reasons but a small portion of his narrative is reproduced in the following pages.

William Godwin was born March 3rd, 1756, at Wisbeach in Cambridgeshire, at which place his father was a Dissenting Minister. He sprang on both sides from respectable middle-class families, that of his father having been estab
lished for some generations at Newbury in Berkshire, that of his
mother, whose name was Hull, had originally held landed property in Durham. Mr Hull had married and settled in Wisbeach, had been originally in the Merchant Service, and was at the time of his daughter’s marriage to Mr Godwin, the owner of vessels engaged in the coasting trade; he also sent an occasional venture to the Baltic.

The earliest traceable ancestor on the Godwin side was a great-great-grandfather, William Godwin, of Newbury, described in the Parish Register as “Mr,” who died, leaving six sons and three daughters. The following are among the family traditions, recorded by William Godwin:—


“Edward, my great-grandfather, was the fifth son of William, and was born in the year 1661. He married, probably in the year 1694, Mary ——, fifteen years younger than himself, and in the year 1706 was chosen Mayor of the town of which he was a native. He was educated to the profession of an attorney, and possessed at the time of his death in 1719 the office of town clerk of the corporation of Newbury.

Edward,” his eldest son, “was born 10th November 1695. He was destined to the profession of a dissenting minister, and was placed at a suitable age under the reverend Mr Samuel Jones, who conducted an academy for preparing young persons for the profession of the ministry at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.”


This Samuel Jones was a remarkable man. He was the son of the Rev. Malachi Jones, a “minister of the gospel in Pennsylvania,” who had emigrated to America early in life. Samuel was sent to Europe, and received his education in great measure at Leyden, “under the learned Perizonius,” Professor of History and Greek, who died 1715. In 1711 we find him, still quite a young man, taking fifteen pupils, who were not, however, all constant to the nonconformist training of their tutor. Not only Dr Isaac Watts,
Thomas Secker, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, and Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, author of the Analogy, were among his pupils. From Tewkesbury, while still a schoolboy, Butler “conducted a correspondence with Dr Samuel Clarke on the subject of certain propositions in Clarke’s treatise, entitled ‘A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God,’ which were afterwards printed as an appendix to that work.”


“A ridiculous mistake,” says Godwin, “has been fallen into by some persons who have written concerning this Samuel Jones, in supposing that he married the daughter of Mr John Weaver, one of the ministers ejected in the reign of Charles II., who was born about the year 1632, and whose daughter may be supposed to have been about sixty at the time of Mr Jones’s marriage.” He did in fact marry a young woman named Judith Weaver from Radnorshire.

“To go back to my grandfather. He was a fellow-student of Butler and Secker, and” on the death of Mr Jones in October 1719 “was invited to undertake the conduct of the seminary in which he had been educated.” This offer he declined. “On the 12th of April 1721 he married the widow of his late tutor. He resided at this time in his professional character of a minister at Hungerford, in the county of Wilts, and in 1723 was called to take charge of a congregation in Little St. Helens, Bishopsgate Street, London, in which situation he continued for the rest of his life. My grandfather maintained in his advancing years the character he had acquired in early life, and was frequently consulted by his brethren as a reviser of their works. He, in particular, superintended the ‘Family Expositor’ of Dr Philip Doddridge in its passage through the press.”


Edward Godwin had two sons, Edward, who having run “a certain career of wildness and dissipation, became a convert to the tenets and practices of Mr George Whitfield. He was for a short time, for the thread of his life
was soon broken, a distinguished preacher in the Methodist connection, and an eager publisher of experiences, devout allegories and hymns.”
John, the younger of the two sons, was born Feb. 21, 1723. He was a pupil of Dr Doddridge, “for whom he retained during life a more affectionate veneration than for any other human being,” became a dissenting minister, as has been said, and the father of William Godwin.

The son’s portrait of the father is amusing and characteristic. Aiming at the most scrupulous fairness, he succeeds only in giving a very distinct impression that he had but little love for his father, and no very high opinion of his mental powers.


“My paternal grandfather, as I have said, was esteemed a man of learning; my father was certainly not a man of learning. But he was something better than a merely learned man can ever be; he was a man of a warm heart and unblemished manners, ardent in his friendships, eager for the relief of distress whether of mind or of circumstances, and decent and zealous in the discharge of his professional duties. He had so great a disapprobation for the constitution and discipline of the Church of England, as rather to approve of his children’s absenting themselves from all public worship than joining in her offices; yet he lived on terms of friendship with many of her members and of her clergy. He was scrupulous and superstitious respecting most of the succours of religion, particularly the observance of the Lord’s day. My father, at the time I was most capable of noticing his habits, was extremely nice in his apparel, and delicate in his food. He spent much of his time on horseback. This habit grew out of a sentiment of duty, when he resided in a village, the scene of my early reveries and amusements, where his flock lay variously dispersed through a circle of from twelve to sixteen miles in diameter. He was attached to the intercourses of society, yet of the most unvaried temperance. He was extremely affectionate, yet at
least to me, who was perhaps never his favourite, his rebukes had a painful tone of ill humour and asperity. He was fond of reading aloud in his family, but the age of novels and romances, of
Tom Jones and Cleopatra, was over with him before my memory. I scarcely ever heard him read anything but expositions and sermons. His study occupied but little of his time. His sermon, for in my memory he only preached once on a Sunday, was regularly begun to be written in a very swift short-hand after tea on Saturday evening. I believe he was always free from any desire of intellectual distinction on a large scale; I know that it was with reluctance that he preached at any time at Norwich, in London, or any other place where he suspected that his accents might fall on the ear of criticism. He was regarded by his neighbours as a wise as well as a good man, and he desired no more. He died at fifty years of age, but it was with considerable reluctance that he quitted this sublunary scene. The last time I stood by his bedside, two or three days before he expired, he repeated with an anxious voice a hymn from Dr Watts’ collection, the first stanza of which is as follows:—
‘When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I’ll bid farewell to every fear
And wipe my weeping eyes.’”


The notice of his mother is more favourable, and, as will appear from letters which are extant, not other than deserved.


“My mother, so long as her husband lived, was the qualifier and moderator of his austerities. Some of the villagers were impertinent enough to allege that she was too gay in her style of decorating her person. She was facetious, and had an ambition to be thought the teller of a good story, and an adept at hitting off a smart repartee. She was a most obliging, submissive, and dutiful wife. She was an expert and active manager in the detail of household affairs. Two persons perhaps never lived against
whom the voice of calumny itself had less to urge than my father and mother. I speak here of her character during the life of my father. After his death it became considerably changed. She surrendered herself to the visionary hopes and tormenting fears of the methodistical sect, and her ordinary economy became teazingly parsimonious.”


It may be added, and indeed will hereafter be sufficiently evident, that Mrs Godwin was far from being a highly educated person.

Of this marriage, “which proved extremely prolific,” William was the seventh child of thirteen. Mrs Godwin did not suckle her children, and the child was “sent from home to be nourished by a hireling.” When he was again taken home at the age, apparently, of two years, there was added to his family circle a first cousin of his father, Miss Godwin, afterwards Mrs Sothren, “who out of her decent income, as it was considered, of £40 a year, paid £16 to my father as a stipend for lodging and board.” Miss Godwin had a considerable amount of literary culture, and still more of literary instinct. This, however, was qualified and checked by a strongly Calvinistic turn of mind, which impressed the child whom she made her chief favourite and companion, but increased the breach between them, when in after years he adopted opinions widely different from those in which he had been so carefully nurtured. To this lady William Godwin owed his first teaching and initiation into literature. His earliest books were the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and an “Account of the Pious Deaths of Many Godly Children,” by James Janeway. “Their premature eminence,” he writes, “suited to my own age and situation, strongly excited my emulation. I felt as if I
were willing to die with them, if I could with equal success engage the admiration of my friends and mankind.” But while thus nursed in a very hotbed of forced piety, he was physically a puny child, and records that the persons about him were much less solicitous for the health of his body than the health of his soul.

In 1758 Mr Godwin, senior, removed from Wisbeach to Debenham, “a small market town in the vicinity of Suffolk. But here his congregation was divided into two factions, Arian and Trinitarian. The Trinitarians had just before expelled an heretical pastor, and the defeated Arians were resolved to grant no suspension of arms to his more orthodox successor.” He therefore went in about 1760 to Guestwick, sixteen miles north of Norwich, “one of the smallest order of villages in the county of Norfolk,” and here, where it may be hoped the simple villagers did not know the subtle differences of rival creeds, he passed the remainder of his life. The emolument of none of his preferments exceeded the amount of £60 a year.

William Godwin’s school-life was subject to the same influences which surrounded him at home. His earliest teacher beyond his own family was the mistress of a dame’s school at Guestwick, and, like all the persons who had hitherto had any charge of him, she “was much occupied in the concerns of religion. She was considerably stricken in years, and had seen twenty years of the preceding century. I recollect her bitter lamentations respecting the innovation in the Style,” September 1752, “and the alteration of Christmas Day.” Under her tuition he read through the whole of the Old and New Testaments, and gained, before he was eight years old, a great familiarity with the phraseology and manner of the Bible; and this, he himself thought, had a considerable share in the formation of his
character. He was a precocious child, in whose mind the most characteristic features “were religion and love of distinction.” Having determined even thus early to be a minister, he afterwards recorded that he “preached sermons in the kitchen, every Sunday afternoon, and at other times, mounted in a child’s high chair, indifferent as to the muster of persons present at these exhibitions, and undisturbed at their coming and going.” His education at this time was puritanically strict. “One Sunday, as I walked in the garden, I happened to take the cat in my arms. My father saw me, and seriously reproved my levity, remarking that on the Lord’s-day he was ashamed to observe me demeaning myself with such profaneness.”

In March 1764, upon the death of his aged schoolmistress, the boy was sent with one of his brothers to a school at Hindolveston, or Hilderson, about two miles and a half from his home. The school consisted of thirty boarders, and seventy day scholars, among which last were the Godwins. The name of the master was Akers; he was celebrated as “the best, or second best, penman in the county of Norfolk, or, for aught he knew, in England.” This will account for the admirable quality of Godwin’s own handwriting, which remained, even to the end of his long life, as legible as print, yet with a distinct personal character about it. “Akers was bred a journeyman tailor, and had never had more than a quarter of a year’s schooling in his life. The rest was the fruit of his own industry. He was a moderate mathematician, and had a small smattering of Latin. Few men ever excelled him in the rapidity and truth of his arithmetical operations.” Godwin says further: “I was perhaps the only one of his scholars that ever loved him;” and this is likely enough from the account given of the master, and of the conduct of his
school. All, however, that was taught was well taught, and Godwin was an eager and ambitious pupil.

At this school was also “a poor lad of the village, whose name was Steele,” who seemed to Godwin a proper subject on whom to exercise his old practice of preaching. He talked to Steele “of sin and damnation, and drew tears from his eyes.” He privily got possession of the key of the meeting-house, that he might preach to and pray over Steele from his father’s pulpit. His whole soul was vexed within him, because he thought that very few of his schoolfellows discovered any tokens of God’s grace.

In the following year Mrs Sothren took the boy on a tour to Norwich, Lynn, and Wisbeach; and as at Wisbeach it was the time of the races, he was then, for the only time in his life, a spectator of that amusement, to which he “attended with great interest and passion.” At Norwich he saw the play of Venice Preserved; and it is a curious instance of the changeableness and inconsistency that there is in the repudiation of amusements by those who are very strict in their religious views, that he was taken to the theatre by Mrs Sothren, with the full consent of his parents.

In September 1767 he was sent to Norwich, to become the solitary pupil of Mr Samuel Newton, minister of the Independent congregation in that city. Of this man he gives a most unpleasant picture, physically and intellectually. But this is evidently the impression of his riper manhood, not of his childhood. For at the time Newton had a great influence over him, and of a kind scarcely possible but where sympathy exists. It is probable that he only grew to detest Newton when he grew to detest Newton’s creed. This was “drawn from the writings of Sandeman, a celebrated north country apostle, who, after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind, has contrived a scheme for damn-
ing ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin.” Of himself at this time he writes as follows, and there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of his self-introspection:—


“It was scarcely possible for any preceptor to have a pupil more penetrated with curiosity and a thirst after knowledge than I was when I came under the roof of this man. All my amusements were sedentary; I had scarcely any pleasure but in reading; by my own consent, I should sometimes not so much have gone into the streets for weeks together. It may well be supposed that my vocation to literature was decisive, when not even the treatment I now received could alter it. Add to this principle of curiosity a trembling sensibility and an insatiable ambition, a sentiment that panted with indescribable anxiety for the stimulus of approbation. The love of approbation and esteem, indeed, that pervaded my mind was a nice and delicate feeling, that found no gratification in coarse applause, and that proudly enveloped itself in the consciousness of its worth, when treated with injustice.”


But his new tutor did not think so highly of the abilities which thus panted for recognition as Mrs Sothren and Akers had done. After the fashion of those days, Newton speedily proceeded to birch his self-complacent pupil, prefacing the application of the rod by a long exhortation, full of facetious metaphor.


“To this discourse,” says Godwin, “I listened at first with astonishment, and afterwards with incredulity. It had never occurred to me as possible that my person, which hitherto had been treated by most of my acquaintances, and particularly by Mrs Sothren and Mr Akers, who had principally engaged my attention, as something extraordinary and sacred, could suffer such ignominious violation. The idea had something in it as abrupt as a fall from heaven to earth. I had regarded this engine as the appropriate lot of the very refuse of the scholastic train.”


In the spring of the following year, 1768, he had an
attack of the smallpox, having on religious grounds steadily refused to allow himself to be inoculated; and during his illness he was conscious of entire “detachment” from life, and willingness to die. After his recovery, he found that his tutor’s son had much difficulty and bashfulness in praying before others, and he therefore used to take the lad to his own room, and there pray with him. He remained with
Mr Newton three years, and finally left him in 1771. There had been in this time one short break, during which he went back to Hindolveston, but returned to Newton at his own request. It is plain, therefore, that his dislike of his tutor could not have been great, while his own attainments in after-life speak well for the teaching he had received. Godwin also had gained much intellectually from having been allowed—or at least not checked in—the free range of his tutor’s library.


“The books I read here,” he says, “with the greatest transport were the early volumes of the English translation of the Ancient History of Rollin. Few bosoms ever beat with greater ardour than mine did while perusing the story of the grand struggle of the Greeks for independence against the assaults of the Persian despot; and this scene awakened a passion in my soul which will never cease but with life.”


Another extract, and it is one displaying that inordinate vanity which was traceable through life, amid much that was loveable, will close this period of mere boyhood.


“When I was about thirteen or fourteen years of age I went by myself one day at the period of the assizes to the Sessions House. Having gone early, I had my choice of a seat, and placed myself immediately next the bench. The judge was Lord Chief-Justice De Grey, afterwards Baron Walsingham. As I stayed some hours, I at one time relieved my posture by leaning my elbow on the corner of the cushion placed before his lordship. On some occa-
sion, probably when he was going to address the jury, he laid his hand gently on my elbow and removed it. On this action I recollect having silently remarked, if his lordship knew what the lad beside him will perhaps one day become I am not sure that he would have removed my elbow.”


Thus ends the fragment of detailed autobiography. In 1805 Godwin wrote of this MS.,—“I shall probably never complete it. My feelings on the subject are not what they were. I sat down with the intention of being nearly as explicit as Rousseau in the composition of his Confessions.” But finding that so minute a portrait would not be after all the truest which could be written, he hints that posterity will judge him by his works. There remain, however, many short notes of the years 1772-1795, but scarcely more than a summary of the leading events. Such as they are, these notes are almost the only authority for that portion of the life. The greater part of his correspondence with his relatives after he left his father’s house was destroyed by his mother shortly before her death, and there were but few letters of interest addressed to him during the period in which he was young and unknown.

Enough has been said to show the school in which the religious opinions of the growing lad were formed. In politics his father was a moderate whig, but in that household politics were rarely discussed. Of Mr Newton his pupil says again—


“Ductility is a leading feature of my mind. I was his single pupil, and his sentiments speedily became mine. He was rather an intemperate Wilkite, but first and principally he was a disciple of the supra-Calvinistic opinions of Robert Sandeman.”


Such was the boy, who made an early start in life, at
the age of fifteen, by accepting the post of usher in the school of his old master, Mr Robert Akers of Hindolveston. He continued in this occupation during the whole of the year 1772, and probably during the spring of the following year. He read during this period the whole of
Shakspere, “and planned an epic poem of Brute.” Mr Godwin, senior, died on November 12, 1772, but the event did not cause his son any profound emotion. The circumstances in which the family were left were slender, but some small sum seems to have been available for the completion of William’s education. In April 1773 he came to London with his mother, intending to enter Homerton Academy, but was rejected when examined by Mr Stafford and Mr Noah Hill, at the instance of the former, on suspicion of Sandemanianism. After spending the summer in Kent with his mother’s relatives, he entered Hoxton College as a student in September, the authorities being either more tolerant than those at Homerton, or having a less keen scent for possible heresy. He planned during that summer “two tragedies, one on the-subject of Iphigenia in Aulis, and the other of the death of Cæsar, and constructed a harmony of the evangelists from the gospels themselves, without the assistance of any commentators.” He procured also from the circulating library at Rochester the works of Robert Sandeman, that he might compare them with his previous habits of thinking, and know whereof he was accused.

He remained five years at Hoxton, and in long after days wrote as follows his recollections of that period:—


“During my academical life, and from this time forward, I was indefatigable in my search after truth. I read all the authors of greatest repute, for and against the Trinity, original sin, and the most disputed doctrines, but I was not yet of an understanding
sufficiently ripe for impartial decision, and all my inquiries terminated in Calvinism. I was famous in our college for calm and impassionate discussion; for one whole summer I rose at five and went to bed at midnight, that I might have sufficient time for theology and metaphysics. I formed during this period, from reading on all sides, a creed upon materialism and immaterialism, liberty and necessity, in which no subsequent improvement of my understanding has been able to produce any variation. I was remarked by my fellow-collegians for the intrepidity of my opinions and the tranquil fearlessness of my temper.”


Godwin’s tutor at Hoxton was Dr Kippis, editor of “Biographia Britannica,” &c., &c., who died in 1795; he was very sincerely his friend, did much for him when starting afterwards in literary life, and found him also a fairly lucrative appointment as a private tutor. The then head of the college was Dr Rees, editor of “Chambers’s and Rees’s Cyclopaedia,” who died in 1825, and with him Godwin held a very curious and interesting conversation on the eternity of hell torment, in which the pupil, one day to become so heretical, was more orthodox than his teacher. In answer to Godwin’s complacent quotation of the stock texts on the matter—


“The doctor argued that in these passages an infinite duration was put merely for one that was unlimited, and that ‘for ages of ages’ meant only for a very long time. The doctor further maintained that this ambiguous and obscure style was very wisely kept up in the New Testament, since less than the absolute belief in eternal suffering would never retain the lower orders of the community in the path of duty. For himself he was perfectly convinced that such a punishment was never the meaning of Jesus Christ, but he should think it censurable in himself to promulgate the true sense of the New Testament on this point, to the grosser mass of mankind, who if they were acquainted with it would infallibly launch out into the most enormous crimes.” Godwin
could not agree with him in this, and “was persuaded there was more virtue and less crime in the best ages of Greece and Rome than in any period of the Christian dispensation, and was therefore satisfied that the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell was not absolutely required to prevent men from running out into excesses that would be destructive of the social system.”


Of the general tone of the College, Godwin says—


“The prevailing opinions were those of Arminius and Arius, but I endured the fiery trial, and came out in my twenty-third year as pure a Sandemanian as I had gone in; this, however, without any intercourse with the congregation in London distinguished by the name of that leader. A little time before the period of my entering the Dissenting College at Hoxton, I had adopted principles of toryism in government, by which I was no less distinguished from my fellow-students than by my principles of religion. I had, however, no sooner gone out into the world than my sentiments on both these points began to give way; my toryism did not survive above a year, and between my twenty-third and my twenty-fifth year my religious creed insensibly degenerated on the heads of the Trinity, eternal torments, and some others.”


In 1777 while spending his last summer vacation in his native county, Godwin preached at Yarmouth every Sunday morning, and at Lowestoft in the afternoon. In the next year after leaving the College and recovering from a severe attack of “putrid fever,” he preached, unsuccessfully, as a candidate at Christchurch in Hampshire, and settled at Ware in Hertfordshire as a minister. If, however, it be necessary to have a firm faith before teaching others, as then, for the most part, men would have held, Godwin’s fitness for his post, which however he accepted in all seriousness and devotion, may be doubted. He writes:—


“In the last year of my academical life I entered into a curious paper war with my fellow student Mr Richard Evans, an excellent mathematician, and a man of very clear understanding. The subject, the being of a God. Our papers were, I believe, seen by no person but ourselves. I took the negative side, in this instance, as always, with great sincerity, hoping that my friend might enable me to remove the difficulties I apprehended. I did not fully see my ground as to this radical question, but I had little doubt that grant the being of a God, both the truth of Christianity, and the doctrines of Calvinism, followed by infallible inference.”


No record is preserved of Godwin’s ministry at Ware, nor are any facts now discoverable, but he was there first brought in contact with Joseph Fawcet, whose name is interesting to us as being the first of four persons who at different periods profoundly impressed Godwin, and influenced his mental development. He says:—


“The four principal oral instructors to whom I feel my mind indebted for improvement were Joseph Fawcet, Thomas Holcroft, George Dyson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”




“In my twenty-third year I became acquainted with the Rev. Joseph Fawcet, a young man of nearly my own age, one of whose favourite topics was a declamation against the domestic affections, a principle which admirably coincided with the dogmas of Jonathan Edwards, whose works I had read a short time before. Mr Fawcet’s modes of thinking made a great impression upon me, as he was almost the first man I had ever been acquainted with, who carried with him the semblance of original genius.”


Fawcet’s very name is now forgotten as well as his writings, but Godwin was not the only one of his contemporaries who esteemed him highly. Hazlitt thus speaks of him:—


“The late Rev. Joseph Fawcet, author of the ‘Art of War,’ &c. It was he who delivered the Sunday Evening Lectures at the Old Jewry, which were so popular about twenty years ago. He afterwards retired to Hedgegrove in Hertfordshire. It was here that I became acquainted with him, and passed some of the pleasantest days of my life. He was the friend of my early youth. He was the first person of literary eminence whom I had then known, and the conversations I then had with him on subjects of taste and philosophy, for his taste was as refined as his powers of reasoning were profound and subtle, gave me a delight such as I can never feel again. Of all the persons I have ever known, he was the most perfectly free from every taint of jealousy or narrowness. Never did a mean or sinister motive come near his heart. He was one of the most enthusiastic admirers of the French Revolution, and I believe that the disappointment of the hopes he had cherished of the freedom and happiness of mankind, preyed upon his mind, and hastened his death.”—Life of Holcroft, Vol. 2, note to p. 246.


Leaving Ware in August 1779, Godwin resided for four months “with great economy,” at a little lodging in Coleman Street. Here he read reports of the speeches of Burke and Fox, “to whom from that time he commenced an ardent attachment, which no change of circumstances or lapse of time was ever able to shake.” In this first residence in London he was still uncertain about his career—not yet detached from a set of opinions which his previous training had made so habitual, as to be with difficulty shaken even by his growing liberalism. The next year he left London again, and resumed his ministerial work. In the commencement of the next year, he writes in his notes:—


“I went to reside at Stowmarket in Suffolk, in my profession of a dissenting minister. The only pleasant acquaintance I had
here was Mrs Alice Munnings, and her unfortunate son Leonard, a captain of the Suffolk Militia, and a lively, well bred and intelligent man. In 1781 there came to reside at Stowmarket
Mr Frederic Norman, deeply read in the French philosophers, and a man of great reflection and acuteness. In April 1782 I quitted Stowmarket, in consequence of a dispute with my hearers on a question of Church discipline. My faith in Christianity had been shaken by the books which Mr Norman put into my hands, and I was therefore pleased in some respects with the breach which dismissed me. I resided during the rest of the year at a lodging in Holborn, and by the persuasions of Fawcet and another friend was prevailed on to try my pen as an author. I drew up proposals for a periodical series of English Biography, but having set down first to the Life of Lord Chatham, I found it grow under my hands to the size of a volume, which I completed by the end of the year. I spent the first seven months of 1783 at Beaconsfield, in the way of my original profession.”


It appears however from the records of the “Old Meeting House” at Beaconsfield, now no longer used as such, that Godwin was only a candidate, and was never formally appointed as minister. An old man who was still living forty years ago, “remembered,” or thought he remembered, “that on one Sunday morning there was no service, because the minister had gone out coursing,” but the tradition is difficult to reconcile with the earlier training from which Godwin had not wholly emancipated himself, and with his apparent total indifference to, if not dislike of such pursuits at other times.


“I found myself,” continue the notes, “troubled in my mind on the score of the infidel principles I had recently imbibed, but reading at Beaconsfield the Institutes of Dr Priestley, Socinianism appeared to relieve so many of the difficulties I had hitherto sustained from the Calvinistic theology, that my mind rested in that theory, to which I remained a sincere adherent till the year
1788. On quitting Beaconsfield in August, I formed the plan of a school, for which I was offered some pecuniary assistance, and I actually hired a furnished house for the purpose, at Epsom in Surrey, and published a
pamphlet in recommendation of my plan: but I never secured a sufficient number of pupils at one time to induce me to enter upon actual business. This year I may for the first time be considered as an author by profession. My ‘Life of Lord Chatham’ was published in the spring. I wrote a defence of the Rockingham party in their coalition with Lord North.”


This coalition turned out Lord Shelburne, who had become Prime Minister on the death of Lord Rockingham, made the Duke of Portland Prime Minister in the room of Lord Shelburne, Fox and Lord North the two Secretaries of State, in February 1783.

“For this Stockdale gave me five guineas; I published my scheme of the seminary at Epsom; and I composed a pamphlet entitled the ‘Herald of Literature,’ which was not published till the following year. Soon after the period in which I quitted Beaconsfield, I took lodgings near the New Church in the Strand,”—St Mary Le Strand, consecrated in 1723,—“where I continued during the whole of the following year. I,” now “lost the pecuniary assistance which had in some degree smoothed for me the difficulties of the two preceding years, and enabled me to publish on my own account the ‘Life of Chatham,’ the friend who assisted me going abroad at this period, and leaving me forty pounds in his debt. My principal employment was now writing for the ‘English Review,’ published by Murray in Fleet Street, at two guineas a sheet, in which employment it was my utmost hope to gain twenty-four guineas per annum. Mr Murray had been won to this contract by the offer of the MS. of the ‘Herald of Literature.’ This was probably the busiest period of my life; in the latter end of 1783 I wrote in ten days a novel entitled Damon and Delia, for which Hookham gave me five
guineas, and a novel in three weeks called ‘
Italian Letters,’ purchased by Robinson for twenty guineas, and in the first four months of 1784 a novel called ‘Imogen, a Pastoral Romance,’ for which Lane gave me ten pounds. Murray published my ‘Herald of Literature,’ by which I gained nothing, and Cadell published on the same terms and with the same effect a small volume of my Sermons. This volume was dedicated to Dr Watson, Bishop of Llandaff.” Richard Watson was a friend but opponent of Gibbon, a liberal and enlightened prelate. He died in 1816, aged 79. “Murray also graciously put into my hands the job of translating from the French MS. the ‘Memoirs of Simon Lord Lovat,’ which was not published for several years after. For this job he gave me twenty guineas, but the style of the translation was refined and improved in every sentence, almost in every line, by Mr and Mrs Murray. Notwithstanding these resources, for the most part I did not eat my dinner without previously carrying my watch or my books to the pawnbroker to enable me to eat.”

In the next year, 1785, he was appointed by Robinson the publisher, on the introduction of Dr Kippis, writer of the historical part of the “New Annual Register,” at the stipend of sixty guineas, “and the contract was sealed by a dinner in trio between Mr Robertson, Dr Kippis, and myself at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand.” This tavern was opposite St Clement’s Church, on a site now occupied by shops.

It was about this time that the prefix of Reverend gradually fell away from his name, and the links were severed between the old life and the new. For some time past he had seen but little of his family. The eldest brother was settled as a farmer at Wood Dalling in Norfolk, with whom, or close to whom Mrs Godwin senior resided.
The conduct of their relations did not gratify this lady and her eldest son, neither did the family letters afford them pleasure, and they therefore destroyed nearly all the correspondence which passed in these years. There are however records of a brother
John who settled in London in “sickness and poverty,” of another, Nathaniel, in scarce better case, who became a sailor and died at sea, of another, Joseph, who had got into trouble and disgrace, and of a sister Hannah, who wrote poetry, but could not spell—few women then could—and who had settled in partnership with a dressmaker in London. Between her and William Godwin existed a strong affection which survived their not infrequent quarrels.

It may well be supposed that so complete a change of life and views on Godwin’s part had given much pain to the honest, homely folk at Wood Dalling, and to Mrs Sothren to whom he was once so dear. The first indication of this is to be found in a letter from her, in answer to a request for some information in regard to his family, and with this—for the letters from his mother will find place hereafter—may close the record of his early life.

Mrs Sothren to William Godwin.
Norwich, March 7th, 1788.

Dear Cousin,—I was indeed much surprised to receive a letter from you, but on opening it found it to be one of meer curiosity, and what is not in my power to satisfy, as I know not so far as you, for I never knew my grandfather; he being dead before I was born, nor have I anything in my possession relating to it. Am very glad your Sister (for I think that a much more indearing title than Miss G. but suppose ’tis polite, as I know your partiality for your Sister used to be great, and hope she has not done any-
thing to abate it) is to appearance so agreably fixed, sincearly wish them success.

“Wish Joseph may not hurt you; if report says true he has been very imprudent. There is an old proverb ‘Keep your shop, and your shop will keep you,’ am very sorry for the poor woman and dear little children. Mary is with your mother.

“You seem to keep out of these troubles. Shure you must want a companion, cannot think how you live. Since I received yours am told you have commenced Novel writer, own it gives me some concern that you that are so capable of turning your thoughts to some thing that would have been for the good of mankind should take that turn.

“Indeed your disposition of maintaining yourself without troubling your friends is very commendable but it has always been a profound secret what the productions of your pen were (to me).

“Young Wilkins seems very happy. Am very sorry for poor Miss Gay; she is a great favourite of mine, I think her an amiable young lady.—Yours affectionately,

Han. Sothren.

P.S.—Hope you will not take it ill what I have wrote, if you can read it. My pens and ink are so bad I am quite ashamed.”

Mrs Sothren became a widow in 1785 and died in 1796.