Archive Spotlight: New William Godwin Discovery

Dr Evert Jan van Leeuwen, of Leiden University, has written the following report for us on a new discovery he’s made in the Abinger Collection at the Bodleian.  We’re very happy to publish short notes like this relating to discoveries that might be of interest to the Romantic Studies community – if you’d be interested in contributing a piece on archival findings, please get in touch.

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Unknown Manuscript Note Identified in the William Godwin Papers of the Abinger Collection, at the Bodleian Library

In consulting the online catalogue of the Abinger Collection at the Bodleian Library, on Thursday 15 October 2015, I was able to identify the source of a piece of manuscript in William Godwin’s papers catalogued as “unknown.”  It concerns the following item, the pages of which can be viewed online here and here:

• Shelfmark: MS. Abinger c. 39
• Former shelfmark: Dep. b. 229/4(a)
• Fol(s).: 90r (and 90v)
• Document type: copy, in the hand of William Godwin, and Mary Jane Godwin
• Contents: ?Extract from an unknown work, beginning ‘The head is a house built for reason…’

The “unknown work” is The Guls Horne-Booke (1609) by Thomas Dekker, which Godwin read on the 5th and 6th of February 1813, according to William Godwin’s Diary.

Dr. B.C. Barker-Benfield, of the Department for Special Collections & Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, explains that “the leaf is transcribed in the hand of an amanuensis, probably Mary Jane Godwin, but with corrections certainly in William Godwin’s hand.”  It contains the extended “head is a house” metaphor from Chapter 3 of Dekker’s text (pp.14-15 of the 1609 text, available as a digital file via EEBO).  It is transcribed almost verbatim, with only minor differences in punctuation and a small phrase missing on fol. 90v that appears between “Frenchman” and “nor” in the 1609 text: “that pluckes up all by [y] rootes” (15).  Dr. Barker-Benfield points out that “the watermark of this leaf is the lower half of Britannia, a very common pattern, with no visible date.”

Dekker’s pamphlet is a burlesque of the conduct literature circulating in early seventeenth-century fashionable society.  One wonders what drew the aging philosopher to The Guls Horne-Booke.  Godwin’s young admirer Edward Bulwer Lytton would become famous for his satirical portraits of high-society beaux and belles; Godwin, by contrast, holds the reputation for being a serious (even gloomy) psychological and political novelist of purpose.

In 1817, Godwin published Mandeville, a Tale of the Seventeenth-Century in England.  Reading Dekker may have been part of his research towards writing this work of fiction.  What I am currently researching is to what extent Dekker’s extended “head is a house” metaphor functions as a governing literary motif in Mandeville.  The narrator-protagonist Charles Mandeville reflects at the outset that “it is…necessary that I should here describe the most remarkable features of [my uncle’s] residence” because “they insensibly incorporated themselves as it were with the substance of my mind; and my character, such as it was afterwards displayed, owed much of its peculiarity to the impressions I here received” (23).  Audley Mandeville’s coastal residence is a full-blown Gothic mansion “in a woful [sic] state of dilapidation” (24).  In the course of the novel, Charles Mandeville’s mind becomes as isolated and ruinous as his uncle’s home.  Godwin was clearly struck by Dekker’s extended “head is a house” metaphor and his appropriation of this figure of speech suggests that he was developing a Gothic motif that the American poet, critic and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe (who read Mandeville) would perfect in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839).  In this tale, the house and the mind of its proprietor are indeed one; they fall down together.

I will present a working paper on this thesis at the January 2016 British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference and plan to publish a finished essay in the course of the year.  I would like to thank Dr. Barker-Benfield for encouraging me to publish a note on the identification of Godwin’s transcription of Dekker’s text.  The online catalogue entry will shortly be corrected in the light of the identification.

Dr Evert Jan van Leeuwen
Leiden University, the Netherlands

1 thought on “Archive Spotlight: New William Godwin Discovery

  1. Mr. Beer N. Hockey

    Good to know William Godwin, my favourite human being, continues to both fascinate and perplex us. If you thought him gloomy for his time imagine what he would be thinking now.

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