Sunday, January 14, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part III: The Godwin Bunch

William Godwin was not suited to single fatherhood, and he knew this. As soon as it was seemly, he began searching for a new wife, and he found one in Jane Clairmont, the proverbial "widow next door".

Or at least Jane claimed to be a widow, but the truth was she'd adopted the name "Clairmont" to cover the fact that she was an unwed mother twice over, likely by two different men. One of these was a son named Charles, who played little role in the events to follow, and the other was a daughter who shared her name with her mother, but was known as Claire for the sake of -=ahem=- clarity.

Most of our information on Jane comes from admirers of Wollstonecraft who felt Godwin's new wife was a major step downwards, or from Mary Shelley, who despised her step-mother. This is further filtered through early authorized biographies of Mary and Percy, which portrayed Jane as an overbearing harridan, though as Mark Twain pointed out, her chief failing was "tell[ing] some disagreeable truths about [Percy]".

Still, Jane was likely an overly strict mother in the manner of parents who've screwed up their lives and are determined to prevent their children from repeating their mistakes. And as is usually the case, she failed completely. Two of her daughters would make the exact same mistake Jane had, and the third would do something far worse.

There are also accusations that Jane favored her own children (which came to include a second son, William, Jr.) over Wollstonecraft's. It is true that Charles and William, Jr. both received formal education and Claire attended a boarding school for a while, but Mary and Fanny were educated almost entirely at home. However, this most likely reflects discussions Godwin and Wollstonecraft had had on education. Godwin was an early advocate of homeschooling, and his anarchism made him distrust formal, regimented education. He felt children should be encouraged to explore their curiosity in a manner similar to what we now call Montessori. He deferred to Jane on her own children, but raised Mary and Fanny in the manner he felt Wollstonecraft would've approved of.

It's certainly hard to imagine that any British school that was open to girls at the time would've provided an environment as intellectually stimulating as the Godwin household, where Aaron Burr could pop by at lunch to discuss current events, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge would come over on Saturday to get everyone's opinion of his latest poem. On top of that, the household included Godwin's own bookshop/publishing house, which the girls had free access to. This explains the wide range of literary allusions found in Frankenstein, which would put any modern college freshman to shame -- and indeed, there have been critics who've argued that Percy must've co-written the novel because no uneducated nineteen year old girl could've been that knowledgeable. Horsehockey.

Apart from literature, Mary may also have gained some knowledge of science from the bookshop -- this was still a period when, apart from orbital mechanics, even the most cutting-edge scientific discoveries were understandable to layfolk -- though likely she picked up most of it from Percy, who was a bit of a nerd. Helping out with the shop also would've required the girls to learn enough math to total out a bill, which is about what would've been expected of them at a girl's school.

The one area where Mary and Fanny's education lagged Claire's was in French -- even in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, knowing French was de rigueur for any middle class woman, and neither of the girls who stayed at home seem to have learned it with any proficiency.

As to the reason Godwin now owned a bookshop, that was simple -- he was in desperate need of money. Obviously the transition from bachelorhood to being a father of five had been hard on the accounts, but even before he'd started his relationship with Wollstonecraft, he'd been having difficulties.

While An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice had been a financial success when it first hit shops, by the mid-1790s, as conservative propagandists spread alarm at the "Reign of Terror" in France, and Britain began its long and bloody war against the Revolutionary regime, being a radical philosopher was no longer a lucrative business to be in, and Godwin had to take on debt to maintain his lifestyle.

He made a number of stabs at reinventing himself. He put out a heavily revised edition of Political Justice in 1796, and another in 1798, each one watering down his original radicalism. Some of this was undoubtedly cravenness (a number of his colleagues had been arrested for sedition, and he only remained free because his book was too expensive to have attracted a mass audience), but as I discussed last time, some of his positions legitimately did evolve in response to events. But in any case, if people weren't interested in radical philosophy anymore, watered down radicalism wasn't going to bring them running back.

After Political Justice had come out, Godwin had penned a novel titled Caleb Williams, which is usually considered a Gothic though it's lacking in anything even vaguely supernatural. The story, concerning a servant who is persecuted by his master after discovering the master's dark secret, was Godwin's attempt to make his philosophy accessible to the average Joe, and had been a major success. So with his finances in dire straits, Godwin decided to take another stab at the Gothic, which was now at the height of its popularity, and in 1799 he published St. Leon, a tale of a man who acquires the Elixir of Life from an alchemist. He churned out several more potboilers in the coming decades, but apart from Caleb Williams, his fiction is only notable for its influence on Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

Once he was married to Jane, they decided to put out a line of children's books together, for which they founded their own publishing house, marketed as The Juvenile Library. They wrote a number of primers together -- mainly retellings of Biblical stories and Classical mythology -- and Jane translated The Swiss Family Robinson into English. They also convinced several friends to contribute as well, most notably Charles and Mary Lamb, who wrote Tales from Shakespeare for them.

But Godwin's biggest literary production during this time was his biography of Wollstonecraft, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Godwin had a rationalist streak in him that often led him to misunderstand basic human behavior, and this was a case in point. He believed that if he gave a 100% accurate account of Wollstonecraft's life, readers would understand the motivations for her philosophy and be more likely to support her ideals, so he didn't hide anything about Wollstonecraft in his account. Her helping her sister abandon her husband and child. Her relationship with Fuseli. Her affair with Imlay.  Her bastard daughter. It's all there. From a modern perspective, this is invaluable, especially in light of the Shelleys' later attempts to rewrite history. But when the book appeared in 1798, it destroyed Wollstonecraft's reputation. Her lifestyle was taken as proof that women's equality would lead to immorality. Other early feminist thinkers had to distance themselves from her work, which led to A Vindication of the Rights of Women becoming disconnected from the women's rights movement as it developed throughout the 19th and 20th Century.

But the book, and Godwin's other works during the period, did manage to stave off insolvency and keep a roof over the family's head. However, staving off insolvency isn't the same as getting out of debt, and the family was in a constant state of financial crisis. Godwin often had to turn to friends for "loans" that were for all intents and purposes gifts -- as he said in Political Justice, those who have the means owe it to those who have the needs, especially when the needy are worthy gentlemen such as Godwin. But as the years wore on, the number of friends Godwin could lean on dwindled away. Some hit financial troubles of their own; some got tired of throwing money into a bottomless pit; and many simply got old and died.

So when a young nob named Percy Shelley sent a letter proclaiming himself to be Godwin's biggest fan, Godwin smelled opportunity, and he invited Percy to stop by the next time he was in London.

NEXT WEEK: Pretentious, Privileged and a Total Ass -- Enter Percy Shelley

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part II: That Time the World's First Feminist Married the World's First Libertarian

At the end of 1792, even though tensions between Britain and France were running high, Mary Wollstonecraft moved to Paris, joining a British expat community made up largely of radical philosophers who were alarmed by the growing reactionary atmosphere back home. The most prominent of these was Tom Paine, who had fled Britain after hearing a rumor he was going to be charged with treason. Paine was working with Condorcet on reforms of the French education system, and he asked Wollstonecraft to submit ideas for women's education.

But Wollstonecraft had arrived in France at the worst possible time. Only a few days after settling into Paris, she witnessed King Louis being carted through the streets for his trial. France was already at war with Austria and Prussia, which had formed a coalition to restore Louis to his full monarchical power, and the King's execution in January 1793 brought Britain, Holland and Spain into the conflict as well. In response, the French National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to take executive control of the country. The Committee took action to stabilize the economy and establish price controls on food, and organized a massive army that repulsed the enemy invasion. But at the same time they faced the threat of counter-revolutionary forces in the form of war profiteers, fifth columnists and insurgents. The Committee resorted to mass arrests of suspected Royalists, subversives, and Catholic clergy who wouldn't forswear their loyalty to Rome. Those judged guilty of high crimes were put to death.

Wollstonecraft hadn't foreseen this turn of events. It wasn't (contrary to what British propagandists claim) that the French were behaving exceptionally badly. After all, the British government at this time was establishing a domestic spy network to keep an eye on suspected subversives, many of whom would eventually be jailed, and in 1798 they'd carry out massacres and stage mass executions to put down an uprising in Ireland. But Wollstonecraft held the Revolution to higher standards than that. This was supposed to be a rational movement to make the world a better place, and here they were behaving no better than George III.

But still, Wollstonecraft decided to stick it out, and she soon hooked up with an American smuggler named Gilbert Imlay, becoming not only his lover but an unofficial business partner. The two never married, though Imlay did claim her as his wife to the French government, which led them to treat her as an American citizen rather than an Englishwoman.

In 1794 Wollstonecraft gave birth to her first daughter, Frances or Fanny. Unfortunately for the both of them, Imlay was a fickle bastard with no desire to be a father, and he ditched them soon after Fanny's birth. At first Wollstonecraft tried to stick it out in France, but being a single mother in this period was difficult enough; being one in a foreign country was even worse, to say nothing of a country that's at war with your homeland, and in 1795 she returned to London and tried to get back with Imlay.

Imlay was still a bastard, however, and he wouldn't take her back of even give her support. With no one else to turn to, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. Imlay saved her, and afterwards he asked her to undertake a trip to Scandinavia to sort out some business matters for him. Whether this was a genuine attempt to get Wollstonecraft's mind on other matters, or just cynical exploitation ... well, Imlay was supposed to rendezvous with her in Germany but never made it. Once she returned to London, Wollstonecraft realized the relationship was beyond salvage and tried to drown herself in the Thames, though she was saved by a passerby.

Wollstonecraft recovered slowly, and it was during this time that she encountered William Godwin again and began a relationship with him.

To call Godwin the world's first libertarian is perhaps a bit unfair -- he wrote his major political work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, only a decade and a half after Smith published The Wealth of Nations and more than half a century before Marx and Engels began The Communist Manifesto, which makes it impossible to map him onto modern political axes that are defined by dogmatic capitalism and socialism.

Like most political thinkers of the late 18th Century, Godwin's primary concern was personal liberty, and his approach to it was utilitarian. He posited an early form of the Trolley Problem in which he imagined the French philosopher Fenelon in a burning room with his chambermaid, and concluded that any reasonable person -- even the chambermaid's husband -- should prefer to rescue Fenelon because he would make greater contributions to society. But at the same time, Godwin would reject modern Randian Libertarianism and the way its adherents assume the accumulation of wealth is an inherent good and the poor are lazy slobs who deserve their lot in life:

Justice obliges [a rich man] to regard this property as a trust, and calls upon him maturely to consider in what manner it may best be employed for the increase of liberty, knowledge and virtue. He has no right to dispose of a shilling of it at the will of his caprice. So far from being entitled to well earned applause for having employed some scanty pittance in the service of philanthropy, he is in the eye of justice a delinquent if he withhold any portion from that service. Nothing can be more incontrovertible. Could that portion have been better or more worthily employed? That it could is implied in the very terms of the proposition. Then it was just it should have been so employed. -- In the same manner as my property, I hold my person as a trust in behalf of mankind. I am bound to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength and my time for the production of the greatest quantity of general good. Such are the declarations of justice, so great is the extent of my duty.

But justice is reciprocal. If it be just that I should confer a benefit, it is just that another man should receive it, and, if I withhold from him that to which he is entitled, he must justly complain. My neighbour is in want of ten pounds that I can spare. There is no law of political institution that has been made to reach this case, and to transfer this property from me to him. But in the eye of simple justice, unless it can be shewn that the money can be more beneficently employed, his claim is as complete, as if he had my bond in his possession, or had supplied me with goods to the amount.
Both Engels and Kropotkin recognized Godwin as being part of their political lineage, though Engels felt that Godwin's emphasis on the individual and distrust of institutions made him ultimately incompatible with socialism. Ultimately it is modern Libertarians who are more direct descendants of Godwin, even if he himself would be appalled at Paul Ryan and Rand Paul using his ideas for such twisted ends.

There is one trait Godwin had that is shared by modern Libertarians, and that is a penchant for theorizing on subjects for which he had minimal experience. A case in point: For the first forty years of his life, Godwin lived as a bachelor with no signs of any romantic entanglements in his life, but that didn't stop him from writing about the subject. He began shrewdly enough:

But the evil of marriage as it is practised in European countries lies deeper than this. The habit is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to each other eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are presented with the strongest imaginable temptation to become the dupes of falshood. 
This is certainly the conclusion our society has come to, apart from a few religiously conservatives. While we might want Ron and Hermione (or Harry and Hermione, or Harry and Neville) together forever, we recognize that in real life it's best not to marry your high school sweetheart. It's best to shop around a bit, find out what your options are, and take them out for a test drive by living together for a bit. But most of us (though in declining numbers) still recognize marriage as a potential endpoint for a relationship. Not so with Godwin. He believed that marriage itself was evil:

Add to this, that marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice is alive and vigorous. So long as I seek to engross one woman to myself, and to prohibit my neighbour from proving his superior desert and reaping the fruits of it, I am guilty of the most odious of all monopolies. Over this imaginary prize men watch with perpetual jealousy, and one man will find his desires and his capacity to circumvent as much excited, as the other is excited to traverse his projects and frustrate his hopes
The framing of the argument is male-centric, with the woman as simply a prize to be won -- though it should be noted that this was the legal case at the time; for all intents and purposes, once a woman said, "I do," her husband owned her and all her property. And Godwin's idea of reform ignores the effects of patriarchy on the whole issue -- the fact that most men prize women when they're young and good looking, and they have less interest in taking care of a woman who has children from another man.

But one thing that separates Godwin from modern Libertarians is that he was willing to reconsider his ideas in light of new facts, and he did so on this issue after re-encountering Wollstonecraft. In the third edition of Political Justice, the above passage becomes:

Add to this, that marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of all monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness. Over this imaginary prize, men watch with perpetual jealousy and one man finds his desire, and his capacity to circumvent, as much excited, as the other is excited to traverse his projects and frustrate his hopes
Notice how in this new version, the problem with marriage isn't that one man is keeping a woman from another man, but that the act of possessing a woman is itself "despotic and artificial".

His change of thinking is more obvious when it comes to the matter of sex and love. In the first edition of Political Justice, Godwin reasoned:
The intercourse of the sexes will in such a state fail under the same system as any other species of friendship. Exclusively of all groundless and obstinate attachments, it will be impossible for me to live in the world without finding one man of a worth superior to that of any other whom I have an opportunity of observing. To this man I shall feel a kindness in exact proportion to my apprehension of his worth. The case will be precisely the same with respect to the female sex. I shall assiduously cultivate the intercourse of that woman whose accomplishments shall strike me in the most powerful manner. 'But it may happen that other men will feel for her the same preference that I do.' This will create no difficulty. We may all enjoy her conversation; and we shall all be wise enough to consider the sensual intercourse as a very trivial object. This, like every other affair in which two persons are concerned, must be regulated in each successive instance by the unforced consent of either party. It is a mark of the extreme depravity of our present habits, that we are inclined to suppose the sensual intercourse any wise material to the advantages arising from the purest affection. Reasonable men now eat and drink, not from the love of pleasure, but because eating and drinking are essential to our healthful existence. Reasonable men then will propagate their species, not because a certain sensible pleasure is annexed to this action, but because it is right the species should be propagated; and the manner in which they exercise this function will be regulated by the dictates of reason and duty.
 This is of course the sort of overly-rational thinking you expect from Libertarian sci-fi fans who think Mr. Spock is the ideal of manhood. But after his relationship with Wollstonecraft, Godwin completely changed his tune:

It is a question of some moment, whether the intercourse of the sexes, in a reasonable state of society, would be promiscuous, or whether each man would select for himself a partner, to whom he will adhere, as long as that adherence shall continue to be the choice of both parties. Probability seems to be greatly in favour of the latter. Perhaps this side of the alternative is most favourable to population. Perhaps it would suggest itself in preference, to the man who would wish to maintain the several propensities of his frame, in the order due to their relative importance, and to prevent a merely sensual appetite from engrossing excessive attention. It is scarcely to be imagined, that this commerce, in any state of society, will be stripped of its adjuncts, and that men will as willingly hold it, with a woman whose personal and mental qualities they disapprove, as with one of a different description. But it is the nature of the human mind, to persist, for a certain length of time, in its opinion or choice. The parties therefore having acted upon selection, are not likely to forget this selection when the interview is over. Friendship, if by friendship we understand that affection for an individual which is measured singly by what we know of his worth, is one of the most exquisite gratifications, perhaps one of the most improving exercises, of a rational mind. Friendship therefore may be expected to come in aid of the sexual intercourse, to refine its grossness, and increase its delight. All these arguments are calculated to determine our judgement in favour of marriage as a salutary and respectable institution, but not of that species of marriage in which there is no room for repentance and to which liberty and hope are equally strangers.
In other words, Godwin and Wollstonecraft had mindblowing sex, and all the more so because they were intellectual equals who respected each other.

But their happiness was short lived. Wollstonecraft became pregnant at the end of 1796, and she and Godwin decided, despite their mutual misgivings about marriage, to wed so their child would be legitimate. But Wollstonecraft was by now thirty-eight, an age at which child birth became dangerous. Her daughter Mary was born safely, but Wollstonecraft contracted a postpartum infection and died a mere two weeks later, leaving her two daughters in the care of a forty year old man who had spent his entire life as a bachelor.

NEXT TIME: The Godwin Bunch