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The First Family of Romanticism : THE GODWINS AND THE SHELLEYS: The Biography of a Family by William St. Clair (W. W. Norton: $27.50, illustrated; 572 pp.; 0-393-02783)

October 29, 1989|Ann Mellor | Mellor, author of "Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters" (Methuen/Routledge, 1988), teaches English at UCLA. and

What a family they were! William Godwin, reared to become a strict Calvinist minister in the dissenting church of 18th-Century England, tormented through his loveless childhood by Janeway's visions of infant martyrs, became instead the leading rationalist philosopher of the English romantic period. Against his earlier conviction that man would be tormented in an eternal hell for the sins of his flesh, he argued in his famous "Political Justice" (1793) that man was perfectible and could be educated to live a life grounded entirely on the abstract principles of reason, benevolence and justice, even though this might entail a duty to free oneself from the fetters of previous, less rational promises and obligations, such as marriage, economic contracts, or civil obedience.

Governed by an uncompromising desire to discover the truth, Godwin wrote more than 20 novels (the best known today is "Caleb Williams"), histories, reformist children's books and political pamphlets. His "Cursory Strictures" (1794) single-handedly saved his friends Horne Tooke and Thomas Holcroft from execution for treason during the anti-Jacobin panic in England.

Still a virgin at 40, the austere philosopher fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft, the most famous feminist of her day and the author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." Wollstonecraft had not only defended the ideals of the French Revolution against the attacks of Edmund Burke but also had publicly demanded equal educational opportunities and civil liberties, including the right to vote, for the women of England. By the time she befriended Godwin, she had given birth to one illegitimate daughter. Their passionate affair, whose sexual progress is marked night-by-night in Godwin's diary, culminated in a marriage that lasted only five months: On Sept. 12, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, leaving Godwin with a daughter named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

That daughter became the author of the only myth created single-handedly by a human being, the novel "Frankenstein," a cautionary tale of what happens when scientists carry out experiments without regard to their ethical consequences, of what happens when a man has a baby without a woman and fails to mother his child, of how humans create monsters. That daughter also became the wife of the most revolutionary poet of the later romantic period, Percy Shelley.

Introducing himself to Godwin as a devoted disciple, Shelley, in his poems "Queen Mab" and "Prometheus Unbound," endorsed Godwin's revolutionary belief in human progress and perfectibility. Shelley also attempted to live Godwin's ideals. He distributed his pamphlet on "The Necessity of Atheism" to the Catholic Irish. In "Ode to the West Wind" and "The Revolt of Islam," he advocated the immediate overthrow of the British monarchy. He celebrated free love and denied his marriage bonds in order to elope with his "soul-mate," 16-year-old Mary Godwin (he also took with them her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he probably had a sexual relationship as well).

The lives of this extraordinary family encompass the most profound and enduring intellectual movement of the last two centuries, from the rationalist Enlightenment that spawned both the American and the French Revolutions through the romantic celebration of passionate feeling and the divinity of the human imagination to an ironic recognition of the limitations of human progress in the face both of the power of external nature and our mortal capacity for greed, self-deception, and violence. A biography of this family, sensitive to the dynamic interplay of both the conflicting emotional needs and the intellectual arguments among its four members, would indeed be an achievement.

Unfortunately, William St. Clair has--in this mistitled book--given us a biography of only one member of this quartet. His focus is unrelentingly on William Godwin. Godwin's life before he knew Mary Wollstonecraft is described in detail in 250 pages; hers is dispensed with in 20. The famous summer of 1816 which the unmarried Percy and Mary spent with Byron in Switzerland, during which Percy Shelley wrote "Mont Blanc" and Mary Godwin began "Frankenstein," is recounted solely from the point of view of outraged British tourists and the scandalized Godwin back in London. The creation of "Frankenstein" is not even mentioned!

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