- Caleb Williams
Given the unusual composition and publication history of William Godwin's Caleb Williams, Pamela Clemit's 2009 edition is a welcome new guide to the novel, its tumultuous times, and the intricacies of its production. Clemit takes a different approach from previous editors, who usually opt to reproduce Godwin's last rather than first edition. Indeed, she is the first editor to offer the original 1794 text in paperback format. Her "Note on the Text" explains: "The first edition is preferred over the conventional choice of 1831, the last edition corrected by Godwin, because it brings us closer to Godwin's original intentions in 1794 and presents his unique blend of politics and psychology in its purest form" (xxviii). Readers who first encountered the 1831 version of the novel will be surprised to learn how that edition differs from the first. For instance, Caleb acquires his "invincible attachment to books of narrative and romance" only in the third (1797) edition (314). It requires some adjustment in one's assessment of the novel to realize [End Page 736] that the doubling of protagonist and antagonist, seemingly so essential to the drama, was not part of Godwin's original design—at least, not to the extent that he made both characters avid romance readers until three years after writing it. By reading the "Selected Variants" provided in Appendix C, we may trace other omissions and additions, the Laura Denison episode being the most substantial of the latter, added in 1797. For Clemit, the successive revisions demonstrate that Godwin was increasingly committed to an ethics of sympathy and less determined to make the novel a testament to "rational self-sufficiency," as his first edition of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) had been: "[Caleb's] … loss of self is not merely the product of social injustice, as in 1794, but is closely linked with the absence of human fellowship and regard" (xxvii).
Clemit's introduction attends to both the immediate political circumstances in which the novel was published (and to which it responds) and the enduring philosophical, psychological, and literary historical relevance that the novel has to this day. The scope of her essay is accordingly broad, delineating an array of perspectives that suggest why Caleb Williams, though "the first entirely successful political novel," nevertheless "deals with issues which rise above mere topicality" (vii). The French Revolution, and the political ferment it produced in Great Britain, are the novel's the most immediate context; however, by also attending to the epistemological and psychological questions the novel raises, and suggesting how these in some ways undermine Godwin's more overt political principles, she captures the paradoxes that make the novel so maddening and yet mesmerizing.
With a brief reception history and a nod to the novel's theatrical adaptations and translations into German and French, Clemit establishes the profound impact the work had on European politics and culture. Situating Godwin in the intellectual context of his times, she traces his debts to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (for his techniques of confessional narrative), Hannah More (for her use of dialogue and simplified language to deliver conservative ideology to the masses), and especially Edmund Burke, who becomes an anti-hero in Godwin's political imagination. Often read as the model for the novel's primary villain, Ferdinando Falkland, Burke is the behemoth that Godwin and his compatriots charged themselves with discrediting. Clemit is adept at capturing the convergence of admiration and outrage that Burke inspired in his adversaries, especially Godwin. Noting his original respect for Burke in the 1780s, she suggests how his Reflections on the Revolution in France galvanized his opponents to unmask his politics of prejudice precisely by turning his rhetorical ammunition—an "aesthetic of terror"—against him (xxiii). Such observations illuminate how the adversarial quality of political debate in the 1790s, though [End Page 737] disillusioning for some and deadly for others, led to surprising advances in fictional technique.
The subtle transmutation of political rhetoric into fictional practice becomes one of the...