- Mandeville by William Godwin
"I think the power of Mandeville is inferior to nothing you have done," wrote Percy Shelley in a December 7, 1817 letter to Godwin, describing the novel further as "tumult hurried onward by the tempest" (469). A few weeks later, Shelley repeated these sentiments in a longer letter published in Leigh Hunt's Examiner further extolling Mandeville's "strength and consistency and boldness" (470). Writing in Blackwood's about the same time, John Gibson Lockhart compared Godwin's work favorably to Byron's, the two authors sharing dispositions toward "[g]loominess and desolation," not to mention "Satanic sarcasm" and an intriguing tendency to rely on narrators who are "the most incurable of madmen" (473-74). Other reviewers found the novel's content and style difficult, "metaphysical," even repellant. All of these assessments are correct. Mandeville is powerful, bold, metaphysical, slightly mad, and difficult. It may also be one of the most important, if underappreciated, novels of the Romantic era.
Delivered in the confessional mode that Godwin used in previous novels, Mandeville recounts the troubled childhood and adolescence of its eponymous hero, Charles Mandeville, the heir to an aristocratic family dilapidated by both the pathological reclusiveness of Mandeville's uncle Aubrey, and the Parliamentary victory in the Civil War. The novel opens in Ireland in 1641 where the young Mandeville's parents are slaughtered in the catholic rebellion and from which Charles, age three, is rescued by a faithful Irish servant Judith and the rabidly protestant Reverend Hilkiah Bradford, who brings Mandeville to his uncle's estate and becomes his tutor. After Bradford dies, Charles enrolls at Winchester College where his antisocial habits offend a coterie of Royalist bullies led by the sadistic charlatan Mallison and the enchanting (if penniless) chevalier Clifford. Although his stony convictions and gloomy demeanor [End Page 305] have already made him an outcast, a false accusation by Clifford's gang that Mandeville possesses a series of satiric anti-Royalist images turns Mandeville into an utter pariah.
Mandeville then matriculates to Oxford but abandons his studies to become embroiled in the Penruddock uprising, which in March 1655 hoped to reclaim the English government on behalf of the young Charles II. With a letter of introduction from Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, Mandeville hopes to become the conspirators' secretary, but these political ambitions are foiled by none other than Clifford, who takes the job promised to Mandeville, survives the failed uprising in swashbuckling fashion, becomes heir to a huge Catholic estate, and befriends the soon-to-be restored king. Mandeville's return to Oxford is met with more accusations of disloyalty and a complete mental breakdown. Recovering in the family home, Mandeville discovers that his uncle Aubrey has been the object of a plot by his solicitor, Holloway (whose nephew and apprentice is none other than Mallison), to take control of the family legacy. Mandeville's saving angel is his benevolent sister Henrietta, who tries to reconcile her brother to Royalist society. But when he discovers that she is engaged to the despised Clifford, Mandeville organizes a ludicrous attack on the wedding party, mirroring in dismal fashion the violent rebellion with which the novel begins—and which Charles suddenly recalls for the one and only time in its telling. During the skirmish, Mandeville receives a horrific wound across his face. The novel ends there, abruptly, with Mandeville lamenting the monstrosity of his visage and his fate.
In many respects, Mandeville's confession resembles Mary Shelley's handling of similar themes of ambition, exclusion, and monstrosity in Frankenstein, which Godwin read in draft in late 1817 while the Shelleys were themselves reading Mandeville. Its frequent, nearly-anachronistic allusions to Shakespeare and Milton, its paranoid Gothic doubles, and its enticing hints of hedonism, perversion, and incest are likewise strongly reminiscent of Byron's "satanic" poems and plays, as Lockhart noted. All of Godwin's novels—this one most of all—require, even demand, an acute sense of Romantic irony. Yet Mandeville is also the closest Godwin came to writing a historical novel in the mode of...