Letters of William Godwin Cast Light on the Eighteenth Century

Portrait of William Godwin, by James Northcote (1802)

The first volume of a six-book project to transcribe and edit the letters of William Godwin was published in 2011. Edited by Professor Pamela Clemit, The Letters of William Godwin Volume 1: 1778-1797 casts new light on the literary relationships of one of the most influential writers of the eighteenth century.

William Godwin was the author of Caleb Williams, one of the great novels of the 18th century, and of Political Justice, a founding text of philosophical anarchism. He was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early advocate of women’s rights; the father of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein; and the father-in-law of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

“The editor, Pamela Clemit, judges the tone and texture of her notes perfectly, so that the glosses to each letter are at once self-contained, engaging and accessible, as well as skilfully integrated into the volume as a whole”
Times Literary Supplement

The first volume of his letters (1778-1797) includes scores of texts newly transcribed from the original manuscripts and given scholarly annotation for the first time. They record the personal and professional interactions of an original thinker who had a lasting influence on progressive movements in Britain and Europe, and is still widely read today.

Godwin knew or corresponded with almost every one of note on the political left from the era of the French Revolution to the Great Reform Bill (1832): writers, actors, artists, journalists, economists, historians, lawyers, politicians. His letters are topical and intellectual, while also being deeply personal. The volume follows him from his education in English religious nonconformity, through his early years as a struggling writer, to his decade of fame in the era of the French revolution. It records his passionate involvement with Mary Wollstonecraft, and sheds light on many other literary, political, and artistic figures, such as Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Paine, John Thelwall.

“immaculately edited”
London Review of Books

This edition of the letters is the first of six projected volumes that Professor Clemit is currently working on, as General Editor of the series and Editor of Volumes I and II.

Professor Clemit’s research on Volume 1 was supported by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2007-2010), and two MHRA Research Associateships (2007-2008, 2009-2010).

The first volume has received widespread praise in popular and academic journals. Reviews which are publicly available include the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, the Review of English Studies, Review 19, and the Contemporary Review. The Letters of William Godwin Volume 1: 1778-1797 is available from Oxford University Press.

14 thoughts on “Letters of William Godwin Cast Light on the Eighteenth Century

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  1. This excellent edition of Godwin’s earliest letters is a welcome and essential resource for all scholars working on William Godwin’s life, writings, and circle. Clemit’s excellent notes and annotations are extraordinarily helpful. My work has already benefitted greatly from using this volume and, like many other scholars, I eagerly await volume II.


    1. Many thanks, Gail, for your ringing endorsement of the project. I am making good progress on Volume II, so I hope you will not have too long to wait for the next instalment.


  2. For anyone interested in British literature, history, politics, and culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this is an important publication. Remarkably, Godwin’s extensive letters have never been published in full before. The letters are now being made available, expertly edited by Pamela Clemit, a leading Godwin scholar. Every aspect of the edition–the introduction, the transcriptions of the letters, the notes, the index–follow the highest professional standards of accuracy and clarity. The notes are models of their kind, striking an ideal balance of providing detailed, pertinent information to explain people and allusions in the letters but not so much that they become digressions and detract from the letters themselves. This extensively researched and meticulously edited volume of William Godwin’s letters (and those to come) is a valuable resource for future studies of Godwin and other Romantic-era writers.


  3. Thank you very much, Beth. It sounds as if you have read the volume very closely, and I hope it will be useful in your own work.


  4. I have indeed already used vol. 1 of Godwin’s letters in my own research. Moreover, last Fall I taught an MA-level seminar on the Godwins and the Shelleys, and several students found the letters helpful for their term papers.


  5. What a rich record of the British radical intelligentsia in the age of the French Revolution, a web of freethinking, feminism, romance, and the buzz of London social and cultural life. Absorbing. We no longer have letters like these, so will not leave such an intimate trace of ourselves. Beautifully edited.


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