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

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