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5 Questions with Professor Pamela Clemit

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In our third interview for the 5 Questions series, Simon Reid-Henry talks to Professor Pamela Clemit (Professor of English) about William Godwin, and historical enquiry in the form of editing.

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IHSS: You are a leading scholar of, amongst other things, the works of William Godwin. I wondered if we might start with his ‘magnum opus’ Political Justice (1793). Godwin holds that it is social conditions and institutions that most determine how people are able to act. It’s a fairly fundamental insight that girds much of what the humanities and social sciences are actually about today. In his book, Godwin favours private judgment over political institutions as the source of what makes for a ‘good life’. All that is needed, he argues, is reason and justice. Godwin effectively articulates here—indeed, in many ways he established—an anarchist political philosophy. Working from the principles of equality, justice, and private judgment he holds government and the law up to the light and finds them wanting, a constraint upon human development. Given when he was writing, this was dramatic stuff. Can you describe something of the impact that his book had upon British Enlightenment thought in the last decade of the 18th century?

Let me first say thank you very much for inviting me to participate in the ‘5 Questions’ series. Godwin’s Political Justice was a book of great richness and complexity, which went through three editions by 1798. It was more deeply considered than Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-2), and written with a confidence which gave it authority. William Hazlitt, writing twenty-five years later, remembered its impact: ‘Truth, moral truth, it was supposed, had here taken up its abode; and these were the oracles of thought.’ Political Justice was published on 14 February 1793, just as the French Revolution entered its darkest phase. Louis XVI of France had been executed a fortnight earlier and the French National Convention had just declared war on Britain and Holland. So it appeared before ‘a public that is panic struck’, as Godwin wrote in the preface—and it offered hope. The book was in part a fierce attack on ancien régime Britain, but it also laid out an alternative vision of an ideal future state governed by reason. It gave practical advice about how to live a virtuous life while waiting for the just society to evolve, and had some of the qualities of a conduct book. (Godwin’s first career was as a nonconformist minister.) So it had a wide appeal. Anyone who was alienated from the old dispensation found something of value in it. For educated readers whose optimism was being tested by the situation in France, Godwin presented a view of humanity as bound to overcome all the errors, vices, and prejudices that obstructed reason: violence in France could be seen as a temporary setback on the road to general improvement. Democratic reform societies found in the book a justification for their activities. Young members of the radical intelligentsia treated it as a secular bible and a guide to living. Anglican clergymen regarded it with horror. It prompted Malthus to publish An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), kicking off a controversy which is still going on today. Despite its size and expense, Political Justice did not remain the property of an elite. Radical publishers printed extracts (usually from Godwin’s hostile analysis of aristocracy) in their periodicals for working people, a process which continued well into the nineteenth century. Friedrich Engels later declared Godwin ‘almost exclusively the property of the proletariat’.

IHSS: As you say, Political Justice was one of the standout works of its time. And with reference to Paine, I think Hazlitt even went so far as to say that ‘Tom Paine was considered as a Tom Fool to him’. What is there in Political Justice that particularly demands our attention still today?"

There is so much that it is hard to know where to begin. The last decade of the eighteenth century in Britain was in many respects a time like our own: riven by inequality, violence, cruelty, and heartlessness. If I had to pick out one thing, I would draw attention to Godwin’s analysis of political corruption: the way he probes the influence of aristocracy not just on institutions, but also on ideas and culture. Several chapters in Political Justice, especially the revised editions, are taken up with analysis of the mind-bending techniques of authority—the process by which government ‘insinuates itself into our personal dispositions’ and instils a false sense of deference. Godwin dramatizes the intrusion of government into individual lives in the novel Caleb Williams (1794). The servant Caleb is fascinated by his master Falkland, who shows a murderous contempt for his social inferiors, while they continue to revere him. Eventually both servant and master are morally destroyed by fake news, dirty tricks, and all the truth-twisting deceptions by which authoritarian governments maintain power. Caleb Williams was written straight after the first edition of Political Justice, and Godwin took the insights gained from tackling the same issues in a different genre back into revised editions of Political Justice in 1796 and 1798.

IHSS: That’s such a fascinating entwinement of genres: the way in which Godwin emphasises the power of literature to inspire the imagination and then uses that politically. One is almost tempted to surmise that, for Godwin, character—and personal virtue in particular—matters as much in political society as the structures of civic and political freedom that different states might supply. But what I find perhaps most interesting here is that Godwin was pursuing these ideas at a moment not only of political but of intellectual ferment as well. He seems to have found himself speaking one political language (of moral conscience) while the emergent field of political economy (to which Malthus and later Marx very differently belonged) spoke quite another: one much more concerned with the power of social and market forces, articulated in the realm of numbers. Against this powerful current in political thought how did Godwin’s account of the importance of virtue translate into a positive vision for society—would it be fair even to say that his was an idealism of the means, rather than of political ends?

That’s an interesting thought—but the reality is complicated. It’s important to distinguish between what Godwin meant at the time he was writing and how he might be viewed retrospectively. His concept of virtue was never just personal, but always civic and interpersonal. In the first edition of Political Justice, he was writing in the moral and philosophical tradition of Rational Dissent, the heterodox wing of English religious nonconformity. They advocated liberty of conscience in the civic as well as the religious sphere. For Godwin, virtue had an objective value, derived from a theologically inspired concept of right reason. The virtuous individual had a duty to pursue ceaseless enquiry into moral, intellectual, and political matters. Godwin extended this view in the second edition (1796), in which he assimilated the philosophical tradition of the English moralists, especially Adam Smith. He read Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) directly after the publication of Caleb Williams, and found in it confirmation that a thriving civic society had to be based on interpersonal virtue. It was only with Malthus (who was provoked into print by his aversion to Godwin’s theories), and especially with Ricardo, that political economy became the ‘dismal science’. Godwin, after his first riposte to Malthus in 1801, did not engage with him extensively until he was stung into responding to the fifth edition (1817) of the Essay on the Principle of Population—in which Malthus dropped all reference to Political Justice. His full-length reply to Malthus, Of Population (1820), informed contemporary debates about Poor Law reform but did not have lasting impact. Godwin was a voluntarist who believed in the capacity of humankind to improve. Unlike Malthus and Ricardo, he did not give credence to iron laws that condemn humanity to ‘misery and vice’. He was an anarchist of the left. Unlike present-day nihilist libertarians, he believed in the binding authority of interpersonal moral obligation. This has given him an abiding but niche appeal. He advocated community, decentralization, local self-sufficiency, and mutual aid. His positive vision of a self-governing society based on co-operation (rather than coercion) resonates in our own times. For example, the voluntary mutual aid groups which sprang up in local communities earlier this year during the countrywide Covid-19 lockdown were in the spirit of Godwin’s moral intuitions. 

IHSS: You are also General Editor of the six volume The Letters of William Godwin. The practice and social conventions around letter writing are critical to the exchange of ideas during this period. And, of course, reading them shapes how we appraise and re-appraise those ideas today. You’ve worked on many other subjects too. What prompted you to focus on Godwin’s letters so systematically?

Some of the other subjects I’ve worked on have been very satisfying—notably, the novels of Elizabeth Inchbald and the writings of Mary Shelley (Godwin’s daughter by Mary Wollstonecraft). I’ve also been drawn into other projects on letters, editing newly discovered letters by Charlotte Smith (the latest tranche on her botanical pursuits), and I’ve written on Romantic-period letter writing as a social practice. There were several reasons for taking on Godwin's letters. The simple answer is because they were there (like Mount Everest). Biographers and critics had always known about Godwin’s unpublished papers, but, until my project began, were largely content to dip in and out of them. There are about 1500 or so letters, written to just about everybody of note on the political left from the French Revolution to the eve of the Victorian period. A small number appeared in nineteenth-century selections authorized by Jane, Lady Shelley (custodian of the family archive after the death of Mary Shelley); Godwin’s correspondence with Mary Wollstonecraft (both sides) was published in 1967; and four letters to his wayward protégé and future son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1992. Otherwise, most of the letters had not been published. So there was a rich personal archive to be explored and made available in modern scholarly format. There are more complex reasons as well. The letters of other major Romantic writers—Coleridge, Keats, Byron—have long been regarded as indispensable to understanding their creativity. But relatively little was known about Godwin’s inner life. For some, the ‘famous fire cause’ (Charles Lamb’s phrase) in Political Justice shaped views of his personality. Godwin had proposed that the truly benevolent individual would rescue Fénelon rather than a chambermaid from a burning building, even if the chambermaid were his own wife or mother. On the other hand, he bonded with Wollstonecraft, and many other radical women sought his solace and advice. So his enigmatic personality was a strong draw. But perhaps the most important reason is that a scholarly edition of the letters was and is the best way of getting at his larger project: what he was, in Quentin Skinner’s phrase, ‘up to, what he meant by writing as he did’. His letters may be read as an extension of his published writings. They show his efforts to live out his principles, especially in relation to the ideal of disinterested friendship (which was often tutelary, even admonitory, in practice). To study Godwin is to study his times, and often the challenge has been to find the right approach: those I’ve used include literary criticism, textual editing, historical contextualization, and (in a collaborative project) citation analysis. For a polymathic intellectual like Godwin, editing turns out to be the best method of historical enquiry. (I’ve just written an essay on this for the QM Centre for the History of Political Thought project, ‘History in the Humanities and Social Sciences.) It raises questions about textual identity, meaning, and function. A scholarly edition provides the apparatus for answering them, building up an incremental understanding of a writer’s oeuvre in its particular historical moment. Godwin’s letters show him to be a more complex figure than literary history has allowed. When properly contextualized, they may prove as significant as his published writings for understanding what drove him intellectually, in both private and public spheres.

IHSS: The idea of editing as a form of historical enquiry is fascinating, and scholarly editions of the sort that you and others have produced are absolutely the kind of ‘vital asset’ that the History in the Humanities and Social Sciences project is trying to make more central to the way we work within the human sciences. Not least the programme seeks to challenge a sometimes unduly ingrained separation of ‘fact’ from ‘values’ by fostering greater awareness of the ways in which modes of enquiry and forms of reason intersect. Thank you so much for taking the time to share some of your work and insights with us, Pamela. We usually finish these interviews by asking about what you are yourself reading at present, or have read recently, that may be of interest to others to hear a little about.

Thank you in turn, Simon, for the excellent questions and a most enjoyable conversation. At the moment I’m re-reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal, which she kept from 1800 to 1803, in Pamela Woof’s superb Oxford World’s Classics edition. It records three years in which Dorothy lived with her brother William in a cottage in the Lake District, their first shared home. (They had been separated in early childhood.) Dorothy wrote the journal for William, and it ends shortly after their childhood friend Mary Hutchinson joined the household as his wife. It evokes life in the slow lane, and values the everyday: planting the garden, walking in the hills, sitting in the orchard, reading books, seeing friends, copying poems. Part of its attraction is glimpses of the poet at work—William writing ‘To a Butterfly’ at breakfast, his ‘Broth before him untouched’, with ‘his shirt neck unbuttoned, & his waistcoat open’. But Dorothy’s main subject is the natural phenomena which she sought to describe with absolute precision: the landscape, the changing weather, the growth of plant life, the movements of clouds and birds. She captures the language of chance travellers and the hard economic circumstances of the country people. The appeal of the book is in the descriptive power of the writing. Sometimes she purposefully sets out to capture a scene, which often kindled her brother’s imagination and formed material for his poems—daffodils, a wounded soldier, an old man gathering leeches—but the places and people she sketches have independent life. She is especially attuned to shifts in light through the day: Rydal Water in the morning ‘was very beautiful with spear-shaped streaks of polished steel’; a favourite birch tree ‘glanced in the wind like a flying sunshiny shower’; ‘a very fine moonlight night—The moonshine like herrings in the water’. Anyone interested in a change of pace or a simpler way of life would find something of value in this book.

This interview was conducted by Simon Reid-Henry (IHSS) and Pamela Clemit in September 2020.