Eva M. Pérez – The Trials of Sincerity: William Godwin’s Political Justice v. His Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft


The Trials of Sincerity: William Godwin's Political Justice v. His Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft

Eva M. Pérez

Published in Connotations Vol. 13.3 (2003/04)


Godwin's changing opinions regarding issues covered in Political Justice have been amply documented.1) My specific concern in this article is the contrast between the rational philosophy put forward in his treatise, Political Justice (1793, 1795 and 1797),2) and the more subjective arguments expressed in the biography, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft (January and August 1798; henceforward Memoirs).3) For an assessment of this contrast, three aspects of Godwin's philosophy will be considered. One is the relevance of necessity and sincerity, as defined by Rational Dissent, for Godwin's account of Wollstonecraft's life and acts; the second is the progression in his views on marriage between the different Political Justice editions; and the third, the disparity between the views Godwin adopted on suicide in the treatise and in the Memoirs respectively. In particular, in the final section of this article, a joint overview of both works will show to what extent Wollstonecraft's influence (or the influence of Godwin's life with and marriage to Wollstonecraft) is visible in the later editions of the treatise as well as in the biography.

For a better appreciation of the arguments put forward in this article, it is necessary to bear in mind the chronology of events, in particular as the two editions of the Memoirs and the third edition of Political Justice appeared within a half year, with Wollstonecraft's death (September 1797) coming between Godwin's revisions of the treatise towards its third edition (published December 1797) and publication of the biography (January and August 1798).

Wollstonecraft's relationship with Godwin started shortly after the publication of the 1795 edition of Political Justice. This second edition is [→page 214] generally assumed to favour the sentiments and to endorse a less strict rationalism than the original 1793 edition.4) It is then obvious that this change came about for reasons other than the relationship between the philosopher and the feminist. In contrast, the revisions towards the third edition of Political Justice were completed on 30 July 1797, exactly a month before the birth of the couple's daughter, the future Mary Shelley, and were therefore carried out during Godwin and Wollstonecraft's relationship and marriage,5) with publication taking place towards the end of 1797. However, changes are not abundant in this third edition, and only those concerning suicide and marriage, issues related to the biography of Wollstonecraft, are considered in this article.6)

Godwinian critics have failed to agree on the import of the changes in ethics between the first three editions of Political Justice. While some assert that the core of the treatise's philosophy remains unchanged, others maintain that the third edition bears little resemblance to the first, to the extent of considering both editions different political statements.7) It is not the aim of this article to review those changes, but it would be safe to affirm that, while Godwin's belief in the individual's right to the free use of private judgement remains, a more empirical outlook tempers his rationalism and Platonism.8) What remained in Godwin of his faith in utopianism has its origin in Rational Dissent: men have an obligation to truth that motivates moral acts. Such subordination to truth and sincerity, according to Godwin, implies that our conduct, whether private or public, must be regulated by morality and utility. This is relevant to Godwin's fiction, where the protagonists are continually brought before inquisitorial father figures, whether social, religious, moral or familial. It is also pertinent to the writing of biography, one of Godwin's favourite literary exercises, and very especially to the Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft.[→page 215]

Sincerity and Necessity: Political Justice v. the Memoirs

Rational Dissenters maintained that "candour" and "plain speaking" were necessary for better communication between individuals in society.9) As a consequence of such plain speaking, Godwin believed that truth would be accessible to all individuals who, once enlightened, would be self−sufficient without government. This "euthanasia of government," as it was called in Political Justice, was achieved through truth's very nature: "single and uniform" (PJ 104).10) The relevance of Godwinian 'sincerity' in the context of biography is evident. After the convulsed 1790s, Godwin adopted a more limited educational program, favouring the individual above the general and the private above the public: "the more fully we are presented with the picture and story" of a person of merit, the better readers will experience "a sympathy in their excellencies" (M 87).11) At the same time, he maintained in his "Autobiographical Notes" that throughout his life, he "was indefatigable in my search after truth—I was perpetually prompting myself with the principle, Sequar veritatem" (M 42).12)

One other central doctrine for Dissenters was that of necessity.13) The necessitarian doctrine regarded humans as caught in a web of causal relations, built on a series of external stimuli to which the individual responds in a given manner. According to Godwin's philosophy in Political Justice, the "character of any man is the result of a long series of impressions communicated to his mind, and modifying it in a certain manner, so as to enable us […] to predict his conduct" (PJ 161). The theory maintains that every act of the individual is necessary and could not have been different: "if we form a just and complete view of all the circumstances in which a living or intelligent being is placed, we shall find that he could not in any moment of his existence have acted otherwise than he has acted" (PJ 158). The second edition of Political Justice adds the emendation that the principle of necessity merely influences man to adopt one given course of action. But that is the only major alteration in an otherwise largely untouched chapter.

[→page 216] Therefore, it might occur that both doctrines, necessity and absolute 'truth−telling,' clashed; for example Godwin as a biographer met with some difficulties when assessing Wollstonecraft's unconventionalas it was perceived to have beensocial behaviour. For if one could not possibly have acted differently than they did, and the biographer has an obligation to truth, how can Wollstonecraft's suicide attempts, and liberal relationships and pregnancies be accounted for? There seems to be no answer to the conundrum of necessity versus morality. As Jon Klancher has affirmed, Godwin's case is just one more of the "shift from rationalism to empiricism or scepticism, radicalism to liberalism, or Enlightenment assuredness to Romantic ironism," although for this critic the transition in Godwin is better seen through his choice of genres, "ranging from the scientific and the historiographic [in Political Justice] to the poetic and the critical [in The Enquirer (1797)]."14) At the late end of that shift, together with The Enquirer, I would include the Memoirs of Wollstonecraft.

Godwin's adhesion to truth in Wollstonecraft's biography was misinterpreted in his day, as his readers did not understand the motives of Godwin's candour. Even in Rational Dissent terms, there was a limit to such candid sincerity: charity, discretion and generosity were invoked to temper the devastating effects that the impartial disclosure of truth could cause. Some Rational Dissenters found Godwin's obstinate candour distasteful; William Roscoe, for example, wrote Wollstonecraft's famous epitaph: "mourn'd by thy Godwin with a heart of stone."15)

However, Godwin's fearless attitude was to himself entirely justifiable: "If there ever were any motives of prudence or delicacy, that could impose a qualification upon the story, they are now over" (M 127). It mattered little that Godwin could call Wollstonecraft "my wife," for as he had maintained in the famous "fire case," "What magic is there in the pronoun 'my,' that should justify us in overturning the decisions of everlasting truth?" (PJ 50).16) The reason for his liberal vindication of Wollstonecraft's unusual life was that the Memoirs were to form part in Godwin's lifelong educational project.

[→page 217] This project also involved philosophy, history, fiction, children's literature, and literary criticism. What biography (and autobiography) alone offered was a form of "individual history," a depiction of the subject's mind, that could morally and socially improve readers: "It has always appeared to me, that to give to the public some account of the life of a person of eminent merit deceased, is a duty incumbent on survivors" (M 87). As opposed to the traditional 'life and letters' approach to biography, Godwin advocated total sincerity in an account of an individual's life that considered private and public concerns inseparable. By choosing Wollstonecraft as his subject, Godwin defends her courageous life as representative of the new social order, against institutional imposition and hypocrisy, following the model set by the biographies of many French revolutionary leaders, some of whom had been personally known to her.17) Godwin's principle is that, by appealing to the reader's conscience, political education is achieved. This turned the Memoirs into a defence act just like the publication of Caleb Williams had been, with its incendiary Preface, or the production of Cursory Strictures to help Holcroft in his trial for treason in 1794.18)

Despite the Memoirs' educational purpose, there still remained the so called "ethical question": the biographer's degree of intrusion upon his subject's privacy. The conservative critical position regarding the biography of great persons, observed among others by Addison, was to keep a respectful wait until long after their death.19) The avant−garde position, by contrast, was "Indifference, with respect to persons, and Impartiality, with respect to truth."20) This attitude seems to have been closely followed by Godwin in his different Histories and biographies, including the Memoirs. In History of the Commonwealth, for example, he assures readers he has passed judgement on events and persons only after "a fair and severe examination of evidence, and the not suffering any respect of persons, or approbation of a cause, to lead the writer to misapprehend or misrepresent the nature of facts."21)

However, in his old age Godwin would admit to having been suspicious of the intrusiveness of biography: "I have always entertained the [→page 218] strongest antipathy to this violation of the confidence between man and man, that every idle word, every thoughtless jest I make at another's expense, shall be carried home by the hearer, put in writing, and afterwards printed."22) Godwin's secret misgivings about the intrusiveness of biography and its tendency towards subjectivity, incompatible with impartial philosophy, explains many instances of disagreement between Godwin and other Wollstonecraft biographers. They have also exposed him, the alleged champion of truth and sincerity, to accusations of falsehood or limited sincerity. For example, the happiness Wollstonecraft experienced, according to Godwin, as a chaperone in Bath (M 101−03) bears little or no resemblance with her own confessions of disgust at a life of show and dissipation.23) Likewise, Godwin presents her teaching at the Kingsboroughs' as a fortunate period in her life, in which she was loved by the family. Yet Claire Tomalin paints a totally different picture, affirming that Mary fell out with the Kingsboroughs within less than a year of taking her position. The couple separated shortly after, and the series of scandals that pursued the family were attributed to Wollstonecraft's influence.24)

Another Wollstonecraft biographer, Margaret Tims, reveals doubts about Godwin's truthfulness in the case of the Eliza Bishop incident.25) After the rash elopement, Eliza's daughter was left to die, and Tims suggests that, although there is no evidence, maybe Mary Wollstonecraft's sisters refused to take care of Fanny Imlay in Ireland many years later by way of revenge. In Janet Todd's view, "the lack of any anxiety on Mary's part in separating mother and infant was extraordinary."26) It was indeed a neglectful measure, to which Godwin alludes with suspicious brevity: "Mary continued with her sister without intermission, to her perfect recovery" (M 94).

It is assumed by modern Wollstonecraft biographers that Eliza Bishop's disorder was what is now termed post−natal depression, and that there was a streak of mental fragility in most members of the family.27) That would account for Eliza's abandonment of her familial [→page 219] duties, Fanny Imlay's melancholy character and eventual suicide, and Mary Wollstonecraft's own attraction to suicide, too.

Godwin followed Rousseau in the thought that, once an error has been confessed, no−one has the right to criticise the sinner.28) However, the strength of the public reaction to his original account of Wollstonecraft's attraction to suicide forced him to revise both the sections of Political Justice regarding the issue and the Memoirs themselves. One other issue which suffered revision was marriage.

Marriage and Suicide in Political Justice and the Memoirs

The final section of this article will focus on these two topics and how Godwin's views on them changed, from the first edition of Political Justice to the later two, and the Memoirs.

When Godwin and Wollstonecraft married, both the radical and conservative circles of their society were shocked, amused, or both.29) Wollstonecraft had maintained in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman the need for current matrimonial rules to change, if not disappear altogether.30) Godwin for his part had advocated in Political Justice the disappearance of all marriage ties. His stance of 1793 was influenced both by his life as a bachelor and his over−rational philosophy, which rested on absolute impartiality and universal virtue. Godwin's original comments on matrimony as a legal institution and social practice can be found in the section significantly entitled "On Property," in the first edition of Political Justice. In it, Godwin protests against the tradition and formality of marriage. Marriage, as the chapter heading reads, is "a branch of the prevailing system of property" (PJ 448) which deserves Godwin's criticism on the grounds that it presupposes mutual understanding between husband and wife for life, and is entered following a romantic, usually deceptive, decision based on inexperience.

[→page 220] In addition, marriage in 1793 is for Godwin not only an affair of property, it is also against justice for the community, for "[s]o 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" (PJ 453). These views would be echoed in the Memoirs, five years later. When he reflects on his and Wollstonecraft's wedding day, his tone is more legalistic than romantic: "after the experiment of seven months of as intimate an intercourse as our respective modes of living would admit, there was certainly less hazard to either, in the subjecting ourselves to those consequences which the laws of England annex to the relations of husband and wife" (M 130).

However, following the speculative manner in which he wrote the last section of Political Justice, Godwin provides only suggestions for the abolition of matrimony: man should look for the most virtuous of his community, form relationships and only engage in "sensual intercourse" as "a very trivial object" (PJ 454). Reason and duty dictate how the species should be propagated, and paternity loses its relevance, for one's sense of moral virtue demands total impartiality. Godwin points to a future society in which there is no conflict between public duty and private affection.31) This rationalistic attitude even extends to Godwin's conception of sexuality: Friendship, Godwin says, "may be expected to come in aid of the sexual intercourse to refine its grossness and increase its delight." Godwin admits that even when two people are satisfied with their relationship, infidelities may occur. That, he says, is all right, as long as that "inconstancy" is not carried out "in a clandestine manner" (PJ Variants [2] 338−39).32)

Godwin's progression in his views on marriage is evident in the definition he gives the institution in the third edition of Political Justice, i.e. after his marriage to Wollstonecraft: "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" (PJ Variants [3] 339). The stress is again on the spouses' [→page 221] obligation to honesty. Respectable though the institution now seemed to Godwin, he still has objections, particularly due to its legal implications. However, he acknowledges that since the social majority accepts the institution, the bad consequences of rejecting it in practice would outweigh the good. He would no doubt understand the strain of opposing society, since he had felt the need to publicly defend Wollstonecraft's adherence to the name "Mrs Imlay":

Mary indeed had, till now, retained the name of Imlay which had first been assumed from necessity in France; but its being retained thus long, was purely from the awkwardness that attends the introduction of a change, and not from an apprehension of consequences of this sort. Her scrupulous explicitness as to the nature of her situation, surely sufficed to make the name she bore perfectly immaterial. (M 131)

It is hard to believe, however, that a punctilious philosopher such as Godwin would declare "immaterial" the choice of the name "Imlay," in particular if it was inexact.

A greater challenge is posed to the philosophy of Political Justice by the question of suicide, which Wollstonecraft attempted at least twice. As Janet Todd argues, she had not considered suicide in her Wrongs of Woman because it was supposed to be the result of emotion, not rationality. Later, however, she came to accept it as the opposite of female resignation, and it thus became "the revolutionary right of rational death." For this critic, however, Godwin's record for posterity of Wollstonecraft's suicide attempts in the Memoirs implied the lasting connection of suicide and female rights in the public reactionary mind. In addition, suicide would in future be interpreted as sentimental and romantic, an interpretation against which Wollstonecraft had always battled.33)

Let us have a look first at Godwin's words on suicide in Political Justice. In the original version, he rejects suicide as an act of cowardice, as he maintains that "pain" and "disgrace," the two reasons which he considers may drive a person to voluntary death, are "a small inconvenience," and "an imaginary evil" respectively (PJ 55). In addition, suicide is a breach of one's duty to the rest of society: "The difficulty is [→page 222] to decide in any instance whether the recourse to a voluntary death may overbalance the usefulness I may exert in twenty or thirty years of additional life" (PJ 56). Although he cites figures of the classical world whose suicides taught self−restraint and love for the Roman republic, his opening stance is that human beings have no right to kill themselves. Similar arguments appear in the second edition of Political Justice. The appeal to usefulness remains, but now on the grounds that "to escape from pain is a motive exclusively selfish, and he who postpones the possible benefit of many to his personal ease, seems to be the fit object of censure, and not of approbation" (PJ Variants [2] 68).34)

Bearing these views in mind, it would be safe to assume that Godwin should have chastised Wollstonecraft in the Memoirs for her determination to take her own life, but no reproof is found. In contrast, readers encounter one of Godwin's bouts of extreme impartiality. He enthusiastically approves of Wollstonecraft's dangerous journey to Scandinavia on behalf of Imlay, the man who had put her in that suicidal frame of mind. He also thinks it was "gratifying to her feelings, to be employed in promoting the interest of [Imlay]," in a mission which "seemed the most desirable thing to recruit her health, and, if possible, her spirits, in the present crisis" (M 122).35) For a man whose longest trip was to Ireland, it seemed odd to express such enthusiasm for such a risky adventure.

There is a more relevant variation between the two editions of the Memoirs concerning suicide. After a meticulous description of Wollstonecraft's method for sinking in the Thames, Godwin in the first edition of the Memoirs philosophises about the suicide's state of mind. A man about to kill himself, Godwin says, is blind to "the prospect of future tranquillity and pleasure," but "moral reasoning" should produce different results: men should "impress their minds, in their sober moments, with a conception, which […] seems to promise to act as a successful antidote in a paroxysm of desperation" (M 124). In the revised Memoirs, however, Godwin's philosophy becomes both more profound and specific: whereas in the first edition he had made no [→page 223] reference to Wollstonecraft's specific contribution to society at large, he now does:

By insensible degrees she proceeded to stake her life upon the consequences of her error: and, for the disappointment of his [Imlay's] choice, for a consideration so foreign to the true end of her powers and cultivation, she was willing to consign those powers and that cultivation, pregnant as they were with pleasure to herself and gratification to others, formed to adorn society […], as well as, through the medium of the press, to delight, instruct, and reform mankind—she was willing, I say, to consign all these to premature destruction! (M Variants 154)

The change is explained as Godwin's attempt to prove to his and Wollstonecraft's detractors that the educational campaign he had in mind with the Memoirs was intimately linked to her example. Abstraction and generalisation were therefore replaced with specific references to her. In his haste and earnestness, Godwin overlooked his grammatical correctness, for the sentence above, which for the sake of simplicity has been edited, would have merited inclusion in his own Enquirer as an example of long−winded syntax.36) Godwin's readership therefore had an effect on the Memoirs, but would Wollstonecraft have an effect on the third edition of Political Justice as regards suicide?

The chapter on suicide in the 1797 edition in Political Justice reads mostly along the same lines as the first two. Godwin chastises suicides on the grounds of social nonchalance in their neglect of the Dissenting duty to foster general improvement, and still adheres to the immorality of terminating our own lives, one of our endowments which fall under moral discipline. And "in common with every branch of morality, it is a topic of calculation, as to the balance of good and evil to result, from its employment in any individual instance" (PJ Variants (3) 68). But there is an important change: where Godwin had wondered in 1793 and 1795 whether the suicide had a right to destroy himself "to escape from pain or disgrace" (PJ 55), in 1797 he speculates about "pain and distress" (PJ Variants [3] 68; my emphasis).

The change seems a revealing one: what appears to have been a casual choice of words in the first two editions, posed after the [→page 224] Memoirs some discomfort to Godwin, for it now seemed that he was supporting the notion that a suicide—and here his reading public would put "Wollstonecraft"—might wish to escape disgrace. Therefore, it was assumed, she had been disgraced. Willing to avoid such a line of thought, Godwin would have felt the need to replace, in the treatise's third edition, this searing word with a more indistinct one. It is significant that Godwin in the Memoirs strives to dissociate the term "disgrace" from Wollstonecraft, in a famous passage where he attempts to vindicate her character—with poor results, one might add. The brackets enclose the Memoirs' second edition amendments:

There are no circumstances of her life, that, in the judgement of honour and reason, could brand her with disgrace. [She had errors; but her errors, which were not those of a sordid mind, were connected and interwoven with the qualities most characteristic of her disposition and genius.] Never did there exist a human being, that needed, with less fear, expose all their actions, and call upon the universe to judge them. An event of the most deplorable sort, has awfully imposed silence upon the gabble of frivolity. (M 127; M Variants 155)

It is obvious that Godwin felt the need to acknowledge Wollstonecraft's "errors," although he connected them to her intellect, in a very unfortunate sample of his preference for the Political Justice jargon. In the space of sixty−four words, two references to judgement are made; more strangely, also to honour, a very rare occurrence in Godwinian philosophy.

In this article, I have tried to show the extent to which Godwin's theoretical adherence to sincerity clashed with areas of Wollstonecraft's life which he covered in his biography of her. From his adjustments in his conception of the institution of marriage to his indecision regarding the motives that could drive a person to suicide, Godwin experienced the gap which opened between writing philosophy and writing a life. Godwin may have protested his faith in Wollstonecraft's clean past, and believed that her tragic death would seal her accusers' lips. But the decades to come proved him wrong in his latter assumption.37) A close reading of his contradictions and constant corrections to [→page 225] the text of the Memoirs shows that not even he believed his own words. Understandably, when Godwin returned to a glorification of Mary Wollstonecraft, he chose fiction, and when he returned to biography, he chose a medieval literary personality. St Leon (1799) and the Life of Chaucer (1803) proved that Godwin maintained his faith in the formative nature of circumstances and the potential of political and social contingency to affect individual growth. Typically Godwinian though these premises looked, they did not touch on any private lives, and both works became successes. His fictional idealisations of Wollstonecraft after 1799 would all read as more elegant, constrained, and, above all, sensible.

Universitat de les Illes Balears
Palma, Spain