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About the transformative power of love and, as the acknowledgements affirm, inspired by the same in the author, this book offers an ardent appreciation of William Godwin and his circle for their attempts at revolutionizing intimate relations: “denouncing marriage as an impediment to human happiness and improvement achieved through mutuality and exchange” (p. 6). Andrew Cayton sees this as an important aspect of the movement to promote humanitarianism, benevolence, and free commerce that flourished from the American Revolutionary era, with radicals fighting to replace traditional authorities with a system of power based on “a dynamic process that emerges from continual conversation among educated individuals who celebrate mutuality, honesty, and change” (p. 9). British and American novels served as the primary venue for this conversation that addressed the messiness of human affairs as well as the possibilities and perils of modern philosophy. Interest in the historical writings, fiction, and thoughts of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft peaked after the publication of Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” revealed shocking details of Wollstonecraft’s personal life. Cayton takes the story into the next generation with the attempts of Mary Godwin Shelley to realize the ideals of her mother, which similarly came to grief. Wollstonecraft, after all, already had discovered that economic and social commerce were not compatible in practice when the personal ambitions of her lover, Gilbert Imlay, made him immune to persuasion on the comforts of the domestic hearth and on the need for mutuality in parental responsibility. As for Godwin, after his sexual awakening with Wollstonecraft made him stray from his belief in the utility of a rational, independent single life, as set out in Political Justice, he sought a second wife who would conform to traditional gender roles better than his first had done. Ultimately, little transformation took place, but, Cayton argues, the acts [End Page 283] of imagination these lives engendered have much to teach us today.
Cayton has drawn upon the tremendous amount of scholarship on these milieus and the novels of this era, mined the Godwin archives, and consulted a wide array of Anglo-American fiction, but his book gets bogged down in the heady romance of his subjects’ lives, rehashing in loving detail stories told many times before. He strains to claim the uniqueness of the Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley circle in promulgating an ideal of freedom via social interdependence, in interrogating the generic boundaries of history and romance, and in presenting the personal and the political as equally important in history. The result is more a Freudian family romance than the account of historical change promised by the title. Scholars of early modern continental fiction may be surprised to learn that the novel “was invented largely by English men and women in the long eighteenth century” (p. 26). Some readers may bristle at Cayton’s attempt to rescue Imlay from infamy by presenting him as an archetype of the land speculators and scammers of the early republic. His observation of Wollstonecraft and her ilk’s “unconscious imperialism”—a white middle-class woman claiming universal authority as a mother—seems a hasty nod to postcolonial theory (p. 256). He unwittingly falls into the same novelistic conventions that he criticizes in Godwin’s Memoirs. Recounting her affair with Imlay, he observes, “We do not know how their relationship progressed. We do not know when they first touched, kissed, and embraced, whether they arrived at intercourse quickly, impulsively, or whether they moved slowly, fitfully” (pp. 55-56). In multivalent ways, this book demonstrates how indulging love’s imagination involves butting heads with reality. As Wollstonecraft perceptively warned Imlay, “love … is always rather a selfish passion” (p. 115). [End Page 284]
Marilyn Morris is an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas. She authored The British Monarchy and the French Revolution (1998) and has a book forthcoming titled “Sex, Money and Personal Character in Eighteenth-Century British Politics.”