Happy birthday, William Godwin!

Today’s the birthday of William Godwin, born March 3, 1756 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, the son of a nonconformist Calvinist minister, who became a journalist, novelist, publisher, and founder of philosophical anarchism.

He who should make these principles would not rashly insist upon instant abolition of all existing abuses . . . . Truth, however unreserved by the mode of its enunciation, will be sufficiently gradual in is progress. It will be fully comprehended only be slow degrees, by its most assiduous votaries; and the degrees will be still more temperate by which it will pervade so considerable a portion of the community as to render them mature for a change of their common institutions . . . we shall have many reforms, but no revolutions . . . . Revolutions are the produce of passion, not of sober and tranquil reason.

His life is a fascinating mass of contradictions: the radical who didn’t believe in formal institutions married Mary Wollstonecraft when she became pregnant for reasons of propriety; he strongly disapproved of his daughter Mary‘s elopement with the (married) poet Shelley but accepted Shelley’s money; in his old age he accepted a pension from a Tory government.

Throughout his life, Godwin kept a journal, a brief daily listing of people he had meals, conversations, or meetings with, now transcribed and analyzed online courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, The Godwin Project. His meetings with Mary are recorded in code.

Godwin and Mary, UR Getting It Wrong…

After three failed attempts to consummate their attraction, recorded concisely in Godwin’s diary as ”chez moi,” ”chez elle” (twice), victory is finally denoted by ”chez elle toute” — surely one of history’s most succinct sexual success reports.

Wollstonecraft’s diary indicated that while it was not entirely ”toute” for her — not the ”rapture” of Imlay, her only other lover — it was an experience of ”sublime tranquillity.”

Once starting their affair they meticulously practiced the most sophisticated birth control of the day: abstention for three days following menstruation and then frequent sex for the remainder of the month (frequency was thought to lower the possibility of conception.) Bingo! Within a few months Wollstonecraft was pregnant and these two outspoken opponents of marriage, married, though they maintained their separate abodes and their mutual, and separate, circles of acquaintances. Toni Bentley’s review for the New York Times of Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon. More.

Here’s the page from Godwin’s diary that records the birth of his daughter on August 30, 1797, in the rather cramped entry added in halfway down the left page: {Birth of Mary, 20 minutes after 11 at night. Ten days later Mary Wollstonecraft was dead of childbirth complications. An entry on the right page reads: …dying in the evening.

I’ll recommend once again Jude Morgan’s wonderful novel Passion about Godwin, Wollstonecraft, and Shelley and Byron and the women who were their lovers and victims.

I’m fascinated by the story of Wollstonecraft and Godwin and the fact that she’s still an icon of feminism whereas he’s pretty much sunk into obscurity. Have you read any of his works? Here’s a bibliography. I’m tempted to try his novel, if only for the reason that anyone Mary Wollstonecraft loved has to be okay.

What do you think? Who are your favorite couples, fictional or historical, where the women outshine their men?

And in self-promoting news (you knew it had to be coming) check out the great review for Mr. Bishop and the Actress at Dear Author. Pam Rosenthal will be holding a contest to win copies of both Mr. Bishop and the Actress and Improper Relations starting tomorrow.

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Jane George
11 years ago

Oh man, that one-line entry…dying in the evening. Really gets you in the gut doesn’t it?

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe

I’m tempted to say Daphne & Rupert in Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, but I fear Rupert’s just tricked me as well as he did Daphne. 🙂

Very interesting post. So glad I live today.

Janet Mullany
11 years ago

Jane, my reaction too. A case of what is left unsaid.

Maggie, I wonder whether the heroines in romance always outshine the heroes, and whether that’s part of the appeal of the genre? Something I should probably have included in the post.

11 years ago

My one complaint about Jude Morgan is I wish his books were available on kindle. I would love to carry Passions as well as An Accomplished Woman with me.

11 years ago

Great post — wow.

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

Fascinating post, Janet. I need to look for his novel. As you said, any man she thought enough of to marry must have had something going for him, especially intellectually.

A couple I have always been fascinated with are the Pirate Queen Cheng I Sao (also known as Ching Sih) and her first husband Captain Cheng. She was a prostitute when they married, but she negotiated an equal partnership in his pirate enterprise as a condition of the marriage contract. She was one smart business woman and increased his “business” by leaps and bounds. They were only together for six years before Cheng died (1807, I think) She took over her husband’s pirate fleet and appointed his second in command, (their adopted son) Chang Pao, as captain of the fleet. Everyone, however, knew she was the one in charge. Especially after she started an affair with Chang Pao and married him. She was one tough cookie and had an amazing career as a pirate and life as a woman in nineteenth century Asia.

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