WILLIAM GODWIN (1756–1836)

William Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died a few days after the birth of their daughter Mary (Shelley), author of Frankenstein (1818). The political philosophy in Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) influenced many intellectuals of his generation, and his ideas were given a wider appeal through his novel Caleb Williams. This is the best of those radical political novels which contemporaries called ‘philosophical romances’. Many examples employed Gothic melodrama to heighten their social realism, such as Thomas Holcroft’s Anna St. Ives (1792) and Hugh Trevor (1794) and Robert Bage’s Hermsprong; or, Man as he is not (1796). The genre included contributions to the ideology of women’s rights such as Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), in the preface to which she specifically mentioned the link between Radcliffe and Godwin in their focus upon passion, and linked psychology to political purpose: ‘The most interesting, and the most useful, fictions, are perhaps, such, as delineating the progress, and tracing the consequences, of one strong, indulged, passion, or prejudice, afford materials, by which the philosopher may calculate the powers of the human mind, and learn the springs which set it in motion.’ Godwin’s critique of society, as in the selection describing Caleb’s response to his imprisonment, draws upon descriptions of the horrors of the Inquisition, feudal tyranny, criminal biographies or ‘Tyburn chronicles’, and works on prison reform. He attacked the complacency of the English who thought that fortresses like the Bastille – and all it represented – existed only in France. Godwin was keen to emphasize the realism of his portraits: a footnote asserts that the incident of the man with the knife ‘really occurred, and was witnessed by a friend of the author a few years since in Newgate’; another footnote asserts that ‘A story extremely similar to this [about the highway robber] is to be found in the Newgate Calendar.’ Much of the criticism directed against Godwin in the press was that his knowledge of the law and prisons was limited and erroneous. Godwin’s radical circle selected their material to support their view that no imaginative terrors could exceed the horrors of injustice found in contemporary society. Godwin’s later novel St. Leon (1799), set in the sixteenth century and more specifically Gothic, drew heavily upon Radcliffe and Lewis. (For contemporary responses see here and here.)

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)

For my own part I had never seen a prison, and like the majority of my brethren had given myself little concern to enquire what was the condition of those who committed offence against, or became obnoxious to suspicion from the community. Oh, how enviable is the most tottering shed under which the labourer retires to rest, compared with the residence of these walls!
          To me every thing was new, the massy doors, the resounding locks, the gloomy passages, the grated windows, and the characteristic looks of the keepers, accustomed to reject every petition, and to steel their hearts against feeling and pity. Curiosity and a sense of my situation induced me to fix my eyes on the faces of these men, but in a few minutes I drew them away with unconquerable loathing. It is impossible to describe the sort of squalidness and filth with which these mansions are distinguished. I have seen dirty faces in dirty apartments, which have nevertheless borne the impression of health, and spoke carelessness and levity rather than distress. But the dirt of a prison speaks sadness to the heart, and appears to be already in a state of putridity and infection.
          I was detained for more than an hour in the apartment of the keeper, one turnkey after another coming in, that they might make themselves familiar with my person. As I was already considered as guilty of felony to a considerable amount, I underwent a rigorous search, and they took from me a penknife, a pair of scissars and that part of my money which was in gold. It was debated whether or not these should be sealed up, to be returned to me, as they said, as soon as I should be acquitted; and had I not displayed an unexpected firmness of manner and vigour of expostulation, such was probably the conduct that would have been pursued. Having undergone these ceremonies, I was thrust into a day room in which all the persons then under confinement for felony were assembled, to the number of eleven. Each of them was too much engaged in his own reflections to take notice of me. Of these two were imprisoned for horse-stealing, and three for having stolen a sheep, one for shop lifting, one for coining, two for highway robbery, and two for burglary.
          The horse stealers were engaged in a game at cards, which was presently interrupted by a difference of opinion, attended with great vociferation, they calling upon one and another to decide it to no purpose; one paying no attention to their summons, and another leaving them in the midst of their story, being no longer able to endure his own internal anguish in the midst of their mummery.
          It is a custom among thieves to constitute a sort of mock tribunal of their own body, from whose decision every one is informed whether he shall be acquitted, respited or pardoned, as well as respecting the supposed most skilful way of conducting his defence. One of the housebreakers who had already passed this ordeal was stalking up and down the room with a forced bravery, exclaimed to his companion that he was as rich as the Duke of Bedford himself. He had five guineas and a half, which was as much as he could possibly spend in the course of the ensuing month, and what happened after that, it was Jack Ketch’s [i.e. the hangman’s] business to see to, not his. As he uttered these words he threw himself abruptly upon a bench that was near him, and seemed to be asleep in a moment. But his sleep was uneasy and disturbed, his breathing was hard, and at intervals had rather the nature of a groan. A young fellow from the other side of the room came softly to the place where he lay with a large knife in his hand, and pressed the back of it with such violence upon his neck, the head hanging over the side of the bench, that it was not fill after several efforts that he was able to rise. ‘Oh, Jack!’ cried this manual jester, ‘I had almost done your business for you!’ The other expressed no marks of resentment, but sullenly answered, ‘Damn you, why did not you take the edge? It would have been the best thing you have done this many a day!’
          The case of one of the persons committed for highway robbery was not a little extraordinary. He was a common soldier, of a most engaging physiognomy, and two and twenty years of age. The prosecutor, who had been robbed one evening, as he returned late from the alehouse, of the sum of three shillings, swore positively to his person. The character of the prisoner was such as has seldom been equalled. He had been ardent in the pursuit of intellectual cultivation; and he drew his favourite amusement from the works of Virgil and Horace. His integrity had been proverbially great. In one instance he had been instructed by a lady to convey a sum of a thousand pounds to a person at some miles distance: in another he was employed by a gentleman during his absence with the care of his house and furniture to the value of at least five times that sum. His habits of thinking were strictly his own, full of justice, simplicity and wisdom. He from time to time earned money of his officers by his peculiar excellence in furbishing arms; but he declined offers that had been made him to become a serjeant or a corporal, saying, that he did not want money, and that in a new situation he should have less leisure for study. He was equally constant in refusing presents that were offered him by persons who had been struck with his merit: not that he was under the influence of false delicacy and pride, but that he had no inclination to accept that, the want of which he did not feel to be an evil. This man died while I was in prison. I received his last breath.
          The whole day I was obliged to spend in the company of these men, some of them having really committed the actions laid to their charge, others whom their ill fortune had rendered theM victims of suspicion. The whole was a scene of misery, such as nothing short of actual observation can suggest to the mind. Some were noisy and obstreperous, endeavouring by a false bravery to keep at bay the remembrance of their condition; while others, incapable even of this effort, had the torment of their thoughts aggravated by the perpetual noise and confusion that prevailed around them. In the faces of those who assumed the most courage, you might trace the furrows of anxious care, and in the midst of their laboured hilarity dreadful ideas would ever and anon intrude, convulsing their features, and working every line into an expression of the keenest agony. To these men the sun brought no return of joy. Day after day rolled on, but their state was immutable. Existence was to them a theatre of invariable melancholy; every moment was a moment of anguish, yet did they wish to prolong that moment, fearful that the coming period would bring a severer fate. They thought of the past with insupportable repentance, each man contented to give his right hand, to have again the choice of that peace and liberty, which he had unthinkingly bartered away. We talk of instruments of torture; Englishmen take credit to themselves for having banished the use of them from their happy shore! Alas, he that has observed the secrets of a prison, well knows that there is more torture in the lingering existence of a criminal, in the silent, intolerable minutes that he spends, than in the tangible misery of whips and racks!
          Such were our days. At sun set our jailors appeared, and ordered each man to come away, and be locked into his dungeon. It was a bitter aggravation of our fate, to be under the arbitrary control of these fellows. They felt no man’s sorrow; they were of all men least capable of any sort of feeling. They had a barbarous and sullen pleasure in issuing their detested mandates, and observing the mournful reluctance with which they were obeyed. Whatever they directed, it was in vain to expostulate; fetters, and bread and water, were the sure consequences of resistance. They tyranny had no other limit that their own caprice; to whom shall the unfortunate felon appeal? To what purpose complain, when his complaints are sure to be received with incredulity? A tale of mutiny and necessary precaution is the unfailing refuge of the keeper, and this tale is an everlasting bar against redress.
          Our dungeons were cells, 7½ feet by 6½, below the surface of the ground, damp, without window, light or air, except from a few holes worked for that purpose in the door. In some of these miserable receptacles three persons were put to sleep together. I was fortunate enough to have one to myself. It was now the approach of winter. We were not allowed to have candles; and, as I have already said, were thrust in here at sun set and not liberated till the returning day. This was our situation for fourteen or fifteen hours out of the four and twenty. I had never been accustomed to sleep more than six or seven hours, and my inclination to sleep was now less than ever. Thus was I reduced to spend half my day in this dreary abode and in complete darkness. This was no trifling aggravation of my lot.
          Among my melancholy reflections I tasked my memory, and counted over the doors, the locks, the bolts, the chains, the massy walls and grated windows that were between me and liberty. ‘These,’ said I, ‘are the engines that tyranny sits down in cold and serious meditation to invent. This is the empire that man exercises over man. Thus is a being, formed to expatiate, to act, to smile and enjoy, restricted and benumbed. How great must be his depravity or heedlessness who vindicates this scheme for changing health and gaiety and serenity, into the wanness of a dungeon and the deep furrows of agony and despair!’
          ‘Thank God,’ exclaims the Englishman, ‘we have no Bastille! Thank God, with us no man can be punished with a crime!’ Unthinking wretch! Is that a country of liberty where thousands languish in dungeons and fetters? Go, go, ignorant fool! and visit the scenes of our prisons! witness their unwholesomeness, their filth, the tyranny of their governors, the misery of their inmates! After that show me the man shameless enough to triumph, and say, ‘England has no Bastille!’ Is there any charge so frivolous upon which men are not consigned to those detested abodes? Is there any villainy that is not practised by justices and prosecutors? But against all this, perhaps you have been told, there is redress. Yes; a redress, that it is the consummation of insult so much as to name! Where shall the poor wretch, reduced to the last despair, and to whom acquittal perhaps comes just time enough to save him from perishing, – where shall this man find leisure, and much less money, to fee counsel and officers, and purchase the tedious dear-bought remedy of the law? No; he is too happy to leave his dungeon and the memory of his dungeon behind him; and the same tyranny and wanton oppression become the inheritance of his successor.
          For myself I looked round upon my walls, and forward upon the premature death I had too much reason to expect; I consulted my own heart that whispered nothing but innocence; and I said, ‘This is society. This is the object, the distribution of justice, which is the end of human reason. For this sages have toiled, and midnight oil has been wasted. This!’
          The reader will forgive this digression from the immediate subject of my story. If it should be said, these are general remarks; let it be remembered that they are the dear bought result of experience. It is from the fulness of a bursting heart that invective thus flows to my pen. These are not the declamations of a man desirous to be eloquent. I have felt the iron of slavery grating upon my soul.
          I believed that misery, more pure than that which I now endured, had never fallen to the lot of a human being. I recollected with astonishment my puerile eagerness to be brought to the test and have my innocence examined. I execrated it, as the vilest and most insufferable pedantry. I exclaimed in the bitterness of my heart, ‘Of what value is a fair fame? It is the jewel of men formed to be amused with baubles. Without it I might have had serenity of heart and chearfulness of occupation, peace and liberty; why should I consign my happiness to other men’s arbitration? But, if a fair fame were of the most inexpressible value, is this the method which common sense would prescribe to retrieve it? The language which these institutions hold out to the unfortunate is, ‘Come, and be shut out from the light of day; be the associate of those whom society has marked out for her abhorrence, be the slave of jailers, be loaded with fetters; thus shall you be cleared from every unworthy aspersion, and restored to reputation and honour!’ This is the consolation she affords to those whom malignity or folly, private pique or unfounded positiveness have without the smallest foundation loaded with calumny. For myself I felt my own innocence; and I soon found upon enquiry that three fourths of those who are regularly subjected to a similar treatment, are persons, whom even with all the superciliousness and precipitation of our courts of justice no evidence can be found sufficient to convict. How slender then must be that man’s portion of information and discernment, who is willing to commit his character and welfare to such guardianship!
          But my case was even worse than this. I intimately felt that a trial, such as [our] institution is able to make it, is only the worthy sequel of such a beginning. What chance had I, after the purgation I was now suffering, that I should come out acquitted at last? What probability was there that the trial I had endured in the house of Mr. Falkland was not just as fair as any that might be expected to follow? No; I already anticipated my own condemnation.
          Thus was I cut off for ever from all that existence has to bestow, from all the high hopes I had so often conceived, from all the future excellence my soul so much delighted to imagine, to spend a few weeks in a miserable prison, and then to perish by the hand of the public executioner. No language can do justice to the indignant and soul-sickening loathing that these ideas excited. My resentment was not restricted to my prosecutor, but extended itself to the whole machine of human society. I could never believe that all this was the fair result of institutions inseparable from the general good. I regarded the whole human species as so many hangmen and torturers; I considered them as confederated to tear me to pieces; and this wide scene of inexorable persecution inflicted upon me inexpressible agony. I looked on this side and on that; I was innocent; I had a right to expect assistance; but every heart was steeled against me; every hand was ready to lend its force to make my ruin secure. No man that has not felt in his own most momentous concerns justice, eternal truth, unalterable equity engaged in his behalf, and on the other side brute force, impenetrable obstinacy and unfeeling insolence, can imagine the sensations that then passed through my mind. I saw treachery triumphant and enthroned; I saw the sinews of innocence crumbled into dust by the gripe of almighty guilt.
          What relief had I from these sensations? Was it relief that I spent the day in the midst of profligacy and execrations, that I saw reflected from every countenance agonies only inferior to my own? He that would form a lively idea of the regions of the damned, needed only to witness for six hours a scene to which I was confined for many months. Not for one hour could I withdraw myself from this complexity of horrors, or take refuge in the calmness of meditation. Air, exercise, series, contrast, those grand enliveners of the human frame, I was for ever debarred, by the inexorable tyranny under which I was fallen. Nor did I find the solitude of my nightly dungeon less insupportable. Its only furniture was the straw that served me for my repose. It was narrow, damp and unwholesome. The slumbers of a mind, wearied like mine with the most detestable uniformity, to whom neither amusement nor occupation ever offered themselves to beguile the painful hours, were short, disturbed and unrefreshing. My sleeping, still more than my waking thoughts, were full of perplexity, deformity and disorder. To these slumbers succeeded the hours which by the regulations of our prison I was obliged though awake to spend in solitary and chearless darkness. Here I had neither books, nor pens, nor any thing upon which to engage my attention; all was a sightless blank. How was a mind, active and indefatigable like mine, to endure this misery? I could not sink it in lethargy; I could not forget my woes; they haunted me with unintermitted and demoniac malice. Cruel, inexorable policy of human affairs, that condemns a man to torture like this; that sanctions it and knows not what is done under its sanction; that is too supine and unfeeling to enquire into these petty details; that calls this the ordeal of innocence and the protector of freedom! A thousand times I could have dashed my brains against the walls of my dungeon; a thousand times I longed for death, and wished with inexpressible ardour for an end to what I suffered; a thousand times I meditated suicide, and ruminated in the bitterness of my soul upon the different means of escaping from the load of existence. What had I to do with life? I had seen enough to make me regard it with detestation. Why should I wait the lingering process of legal despotism, and not dare so much as to die but when and how its instruments decreed? Still some inexplicable suggestion withheld my hand. I clung with desperate fondness to this shadow of existence, its mysterious attractions and its hopeless prospects.

[SOURCE: William Godwin, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, 3 vols (London: B. Crosby, 1794), vol. 2, chap. 11, pp. 204–24]

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