Five Questions: Pamela Clemit on The Letters of William Godwin

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Pamela Clemit is Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London and a Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.  She has published widely on the literature and culture of the Romantic period, particularly the politics, upheavals, fictions and fallouts of the 1790s.  She has produced a series of major editions of novels, plays, life writing and other works by authors including Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Inchbald and – most prominently – William Godwin.  Her most recent publications include an essay on Romantic-period letter writing as a social practice; a co-authored piece publishing some newly discovered letters by Charlotte Smith; and a co-authored study of Godwin’s citations.  Her current research project, which we discuss below, is a pioneering six-volume edition of the Letters of William Godwin.  The first two volumes were published by Oxford University Press in 2011 (1778-1797) and 2014 (1798-1805); work is well advanced on the next two volumes.  She has a website and can also be found on Twitter: @Godwin_lives.

1. How did you first become interested in William Godwin?

It was my brother’s fault. He was writing an MA thesis on Balzac and the English Gothic Novel (under Nicole Ward Jouve) at the University of York, and I was a second-year undergraduate at Oxford. One day he shoved a battered copy of the 1970 Oxford English Texts edition of Caleb Williams into my hands and told me to read it. I was gripped from the start—by the intensity of the power struggle between servant and master, the inexorable hunting down of Caleb, and the puzzle of the two endings. I still have that edition on my shelves. As a third-year undergraduate, I was taught by Marilyn Butler that Caleb Williams had to be read alongside Political Justice. As an M. Phil. student in Jonathan Wordsworth’s class on the 1790s, I encountered Political Justice again, and became fascinated by Godwin’s relentless, step-by-step dismantling of existing social and political norms. His style of writing drew me in. It was measured and logical, yet infused with biblical rhythms and a yearning for a transformed condition—qualities which, I learned much later, owed something to the dynamics of nonconformist conversion-narrative. I settled on the ‘Godwin school’ (a term coined by contemporary reviewers) as my doctoral subject, concentrating on the mode of psycho-philosophical-political fiction which Godwin pioneered in Caleb Williams and developed in his later novels—and which was taken up by his daughter Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, among others. This gave me the chance to investigate the rest of his oeuvre and, for the first time, his unpublished papers. All this came in handy when, in 1989, I was pitched straight into editing five volumes in the Pickering Masters edition of his Collected Novels and Memoirs. It was a baptism of fire.

2. When beginning work on the edition, how did you go about finding surviving Godwin letters? What’s your favourite previously unpublished discovery from among the correspondence you have located?

When I started work, most of Godwin’s letters (about 1500 items) had not been published before. Finding his surviving manuscript letters was a research project in itself. Some repositories were already familiar to me. The Abinger papers, the residue of the Shelley family papers which were eventually deposited at the Bodleian Library, contained a great mass of Godwin’s correspondence, but not all of it. I knew of many holograph letters in other major collections, such as the Carl. H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and his Circle at the New York Public Library, the Huntington Library, and the National Library of Scotland. But were there other letters elsewhere, waiting to be found? I wrote to more than 400 librarians all over the world. Most of them replied, and some sent hidden treasures: high-quality reproductions of holograph Godwin letters previously unknown to the wider world. New letters still turn up from time to time—perhaps this interview will flush out more.

Many letters had not been previously catalogued, so the second stage in the finding project was dating and identification of addressees. The Abinger papers were held in boxes corresponding to the haphazard order in which James Scarlett, 8th Baron Abinger (1914-2002), had brought them to the library (allegedly in Sainsbury’s carrier bags). In order to locate Godwin’s letters, I had to sort through the entire collection. I made my own catalogue, listing incoming and outgoing correspondence, and, in many cases (since address leaves were rarely preserved), establishing dates and recipients. A group of thin, translucent leaves presented special challenges. The handwriting was Godwin’s, but it was often scarcely visible, or blurred, and had left no physical impression on the paper. Were they letters? How had they been created? The mystery was solved by the watermarks: ‘J WATT & Co PATENT COPYING’. The fragile leaves were copies, made on one of the world’s first successful letter copying machines, invented by James Watt. The copies were by definition accurate and a guarantor of the authenticity of the lost original—but in other respects they were an editorial nightmare. Some words had faded owing to the degradation of the copying ink over time. Other words were missing at the edge of the leaf, where the copying paper and the letter had not been correctly aligned. In a few cases, the entire document was blurred as a result of pressing wet documents. Nevertheless, it has been possible to recover full texts of nearly all these wet-transfer copies, and to identify the dates and correspondents of the vast majority. They provide the sole surviving texts for many important letters in Volumes I and II. As to my favourite discovery, that’s a very hard question to answer: every letter has a story to tell. The wet-transfer copies will always have a special place in my heart because of the labour that went into recovering them. Poring over a document written in invisible ink, piecing together the text word by word, gradually realizing that it was a passionate love letter and marriage proposal from Godwin to Maria Reveley, written less than two years after the death of his first wife Mary Wollstonecraft, was an unforgettable experience. Otherwise, I’ve always been drawn to letters which appear to be inconsequential. If I had to select one, it would be this one (published in Volume I), which belongs to a private collection:

Dear sir

Mr Holcroft having by an unforeseen circumstance been suddenly summoned from town, I am desired to write to you, to enquire as to a point which cannot specifically be collected from your letters which Mr Holcroft has left behind him. You say that a hamper intended for Mr Gerrald has never reached him: Is that, sir, the case or not with the box which was sent from London? Or, is the hamper, with its contents, the only thing left behind? If so, will you be so obliging as in your answer to mention these contents?

Your compliance with this request will be esteemed any kindness by, sir,

                                                                     yours, &c

                                                                             W Godwin

25 Chalton Street,

Somers Town, June

2. 1795

The address leaf tells us that the recipient was Russell Scott, then minister of the High Street Unitarian Chapel, Portsmouth. ‘Mr Gerrald’ was the political reformer Joseph Gerrald, who was tried for treason in Edinburgh in March 1794, sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation, and held at Newgate for nearly a year, where Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, and other radical sympathizers visited him. On 2 May 1795 Gerrald was moved, under guard and shackled, to Gosport, near Portsmouth, and placed aboard a convict ship to await transportation to New South Wales. The hamper and box contained books, money, and clothes collected by his friends, together with a farewell letter. None of these items reached Gerrald before the ship sailed on 25 May. The letter opens a window onto the experience of persecuted radicals, their friendship networks, and their solidarity under government oppression.

3. What is the edition’s ethos in terms of contextualizing and annotating each letter?

My task as editor is to present each letter as faithfully to the original utterance as possible. The aim is to provide a text which represents exactly what Godwin wrote and what his correspondent read. Ethical decisions have practical implications. The work begins with making accurate transcriptions, as far as possible, which includes deciphering faded or crossed-out words. Godwin’s handwriting is nearly always clear, regular, and well-formed. He usually wrote in black ink which has uniformly faded to a medium brown. His holograph sent letters are written with care and require minimal editorial intervention. In many cases, the holograph sent letter does not survive, and I have had to rely on copies in other hands, or heavily scored-through drafts. Establishing an authoritative text is only part of the task. Letters are written according to specific conventions and carry signals which are crafted uniquely for the recipient. The editorial challenge is how best to convey their original meaning to a twenty-first-century reader. It might be argued that an annotated text can never resemble what authors of the past intended or first readers encountered. But a raw Godwin letter cannot be read today in the same way that it was by the original recipient. My job as editor is to provide knowledge that the first reader would have taken for granted. For example, to grasp the significance of Godwin’s intervention in the 1794 Treason Trials (defendants included personal friends), the reader needs historical context. To understand his financial dealings, the reader needs to be informed about contemporary instruments of credit. To recognize the urgency of his journeys to, say, Bath (to court Harriet Lee), Norfolk (to visit his dying mother), or Edinburgh (seeking a publisher’s advance to keep him out of jail), the reader must know about the modes of transport and staging posts which shaped each route. Good annotation does not provide interpretation, but, in Melvyn New’s phrase, ‘position[s] the reader on the brink of interpretation’. In the case of a polymathic intellectual like Godwin, annotation has to be a multidisciplinary undertaking.

4. How has working on the edition expanded or modified your sense of the changing environments in which Godwin worked?

The conventional view of Godwin as a reclusive philosopher, conjuring up schemes for the betterment of humanity, is not much in evidence in the letters. My understanding of his changing spheres of activity—his career spanned three generations—has been transformed in so many ways that it is hard to know where to begin. Let me single out just three examples. His conversational world (as documented in his diary) did not collapse when metropolitan radical circles disintegrated in the late 1790s. Instead Godwin established new friendships, many of them lifelong. Personalities changed, but the habit of frequent social interaction was sustained. Godwin’s networks went far beyond London. In the summer of 1800 he toured the hotspots of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland and met leading figures in Irish nationalist politics. He remained plugged into an international network of Irish Patriot exiles and émigrés well into the 1820s—a discursive community which may have been as significant for his later writings as Rational Dissent was for Political Justice. Godwin’s income as a freelance writer declined after 1800 as people lost their appetite for radical moral and philosophical works. So he became a risk-taking entrepreneur. He managed rental properties owned by the Wollstonecraft family, and then, with his second wife Mary Jane Godwin, he set up an independent commercial undertaking: a children’s bookselling and publishing business which dominated his middle years (1805-1825). The bookshop was undercapitalized from the start. To keep it going, Godwin became an accomplished fundraiser, drawing support, at various times, from radical connections established in the 1790s and a large network of Whig grandees. His protégé Percy Bysshe Shelley, who inveigled him into negotiating cash loans on his own (Shelley’s) behalf, drew him into a darker world of moneylenders and crooked lawyers. The letters also reshape our view of Godwin’s domestic environment. In his middle years, he presided over a dysfunctional family made up of five children with no two parents in common, three of them born out of wedlock. Some family events are well known—the suicide of Fanny Imlay (whom Godwin adopted on the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft); the elopement and marriage of his daughter Mary to P. B. Shelley; the Shelley family’s voluntary exile to Italy (accompanied by Godwin’s stepdaughter Claire Clairmont); the drowning of P. B. Shelley in 1822; and Mary Shelley’s reluctant return to England a year later. But Godwin’s perspective has been missing until now. His intimate letters give a new understanding of family dynamics and transform our view of this turbulent phase of Romantic-period literary history.

5. What other projects are you currently working on?

I’m not working on any other academic projects at present. There are a few things in the pipeline, including an essay on scholarly editing for the CUP volume edited by Richard Bourke and Quentin Skinner, and arising from their project History in the Humanities and Social Sciences. But with large editorial projects there comes a tipping point, when one has to hunker down and concentrate solely on the task in hand—whatever the exigencies of the Research Excellence Framework. Both Volume III (1806-1815), edited by M.O. Grenby, and Volume IV (1816-1828), edited by myself, are substantially larger than Volumes I and II. My current task is to bring them both to timely completion and publication.