Five Questions: Eliza O’Brien, Helen Stark and Beatrice Turner on New Approaches to William Godwin

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New Approaches to William Godwin: Forms, Fears, Futures, edited by Eliza O’Brien, Helen Stark and Beatrice Turner, was recently published by Palgrave MacMillan as part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print series. Below, the editors discuss their first encounters with William Godwin, the timeliness, origins and arrangement of the collection, and how they see Godwin Studies developing in the future.

1) How did you each first become acquainted with William Godwin?

Bea: I’m ashamed to say I didn’t meet him until I started my PhD. I came to Romanticism in reverse, via the nineteenth century, and when I started my thesis project on Romantic childhood and Romantic child-parent authorship, I came at him through his daughter Mary and through Romantic ideas about education, so the first work of his I actually read was The Enquirer. I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but I was immediately struck by the sense of a mind always to some degree at war with itself. Godwin’s capacity for brutal self-interrogation and at the same time astonishing self-deception, particularly about family matters, is a large part of my fascination with his writing.

Helen: I read Caleb Williams as an undergraduate on a module about the French Revolution convened by Matthew Grenby (a contributor to the volume). But it was Essay on Sepulchres which piqued my interest in Godwin and I didn’t read that until I was doing my PhD – or maybe afterwards. Michael Rossington introduced me to Sepulchres and it’s a text I find endlessly fascinating, which is why I wanted to write about it for our edited collection. It’s short but brimming with imagery ranging from the evocative to the visceral – such as when describing a hypothetical dead friend Godwin (morbidly?) exclaims, ‘I would give all that I possess, to purchase the art of preserving the wholesome character and rosy hue of this form, that it might be my companion still.’

Eliza: Like Helen, I also studied Caleb Williams as an undergraduate but it took me a very long time to find my way in Godwin’s world. I read the Penguin edition edited by Maurice Hindle that reprinted the essay “Of History and Romance” as well as Godwin’s 1832 account of writing Caleb Williams, and I think those encounters with Godwin’s ideas in other texts were what really helped me to see what was happening in the novel. That still applies now – how one text unlocks or modifies the next is one of the joys of reading his work. And as Bea says, his interrogative quality is one of Godwin’s most compelling virtues.

2) Why do you consider this a particularly appropriate moment to reassess Godwin and his influence?

When we put out the original call for papers for the conference in 2017, there was a steady trickle of articles on Godwin but a relatively small number of book-length studies, the most of recent of which was Robert Maniquis’ and Victoria Meyers’ 2011 edited collection, Godwinian Moments (University of Toronto Press). We felt that interest in Godwin was greater than the published record might indicate, and we also knew there were some really great early career scholars working on Godwin – some of whom we’re absolutely delighted to feature in our collection. Since then, our suspicions have been confirmed by the appearance in 2019 of both the European Romantic Review special journal issue on Godwin and William Godwin: A Political Life (Pluto) by Richard Gough Thomas, joined this year by J. Louise McCray’s Godwin and the Book: Imagining Media, 1783-1836 (Edinburgh University Press).

3) How did you go about securing contributors for the collection?  Which areas were you particularly keen to address?

The collection arose out of a conference on Godwin we organised back in 2017. The three of us were at the time all based in the north east of England, and Godwin’s unique quasi-outsider position in relation to the Romantic and eighteenth-century canon as it is most often taught was something we collectively kept returning to. Eventually we decided to put our money where our mouths were, so to speak, and see what would happen if we put on an event that put Godwin front and centre rather than in his more customary position as supporter to the main Shelley-Byron circle. The response was a modestly sized but exceptionally energising conference, with wonderful papers given by Godwin scholars from the UK and abroad. Discussion continued out of the Newcastle University Percy Building, down to the pub, and well into evening, and we pretty swiftly concluded that a) Godwin Studies was in rude health and b) that we should invite our speakers to develop their presentations into chapter-length work. So in that sense, securing our contributors was straightforward. In order to draw out what we thought would be some productive dialogues between chapters, we also persuaded Matthew Grenby to contribute. Matthew had been a thoughtful and incisive audience member at the conference, triggering a stimulating discussion about Godwin’s children’s literature, and luckily for us he agreed to work up his research on some unattributed short stories. Given the collection’s focus on the future of Godwin Studies, Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer’s article on Godwin’s citations was the natural conclusion to the collection, and they graciously offered to arrange for it to be republished. 

4) How did you choose how to order and arrange the essays?

The collection follows the same three-part structure as the conference: Forms, Fears, and Futures. We chose these themes not merely for alliterative purposes, but because we wanted the original conference to move beyond the well-trodden ground of Caleb Williams and Political Justice. We thought that asking contributors to respond to the notion of ‘form’ was an interesting way of reflecting on the sheer range of genres he attempted, while ‘fears’ was chosen because Godwin is usually thought of as an author and thinker of great confidence and robust argument – we wanted contributors to consider less familiar, more anxious or doubting strands of Godwinian thought. Finally, ‘futures’ reflected not only Godwin’s future-oriented political theory and his own well-documented concern with his legacy, but ideas about Godwin’s afterlives and the future of Godwin Studies. For the edited collection, the ‘futures’ section in particular needed to be re-thought. The conference participants had addressed that theme on the day in stimulating ways which, on paper, didn’t quite allow for the main focus to be on Godwin’s work itself, so that needed to be developed differently. Again, our thanks goes to all the conference contributors for how their work on the day helped us to understand what shape the collection might take – and that thanks to them we had something to develop!

5) Which lines of approach from the collection are you particularly excited to see developed further?  Are there aspects of Godwin and his work that you think remain underexplored that you’d like to see more research on?

An interesting outcome of the conference was that while we received proposals from across a wide range of Godwin’s oeuvre, Political Justice and to a lesser extent Caleb Williams were touchstones throughout. Evidently, there are works which, for some authors, are simply unavoidable, and for Godwin, that’s Political Justice. A real strength of the collection is the way in which it shows how Political Justice haunts Godwin’s thought even as he apparently turns to other concerns, either by illustrating, attempting to converse with, modify or disavow its ideas. On the other hand, we are really pleased that the collection foregrounds scholarship on lesser-known works, as with John-Erik Hansson’s chapter on Godwin’s biographies for children, and dynamic approaches, such as Ruby Tuke’s use of gift theory to explore Godwin’s views on charity. We are particularly excited about contributions which bring entirely new material before readers for the first time, as with Helen’s chapter and Matthew Grenby’s. We’d love to see more in this vein, and we think that Godwin’s later works – his novels Cloudsley and Deloraine, and Thoughts on Man, for example – remain understudied. There is plenty of work to be done, and many exciting new directions for Godwin scholars to explore!