Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism

By Gregory Dart | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Chivalry, justice and the law in William Godwin's
Caleb Williams

The mind is its own place; and is endowed with powers that might enable it to laugh at the tyrant's vigilance. I passed and repassed these ideas in my mind; and, heated with the contemplation, I said, No I will not die! 1


I

Unjustly incarcerated on a charge contrived by his former master Ferdinando Falkland, the eponymous hero of William Godwin's Things As They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) discovers in his prison cell a revolutionary spirit of resistance. Like Rousseau on the road to the prison of Vincennes, suddenly overcome with an overpowering sense of the depravity of modern society, Caleb responds to the spectacle of despotism by undergoing a powerful revolution of mind; in a moment the last trappings of feudal deference have fallen from him, and he has resolved to defy the law and attempt his escape. In this way the double title of Godwin's novel advertised its double nature: it was at once a biting critique of the English social order and a suspenseful gothic novel. Thirty years after the first appearance of Godwin's first novel the republican journalist William Hazlitt could still remember its impact: 'We conceive no one ever began Caleb Williams that did not read it through: no one who read it could possibly forget it, or speak of it after any length of time but with an impression as if the events and feelings had been personal to himself. ' Indeed Hazlitt felt certain that it deserved to occupy a central place in the national literature: 'The novel is utterly unlike anything else that was ever written', he wrote, 'and is one of the most original as well as powerful productions in the English language. ' 2 Undoubtedly he was especially fond of Caleb Williams on account of its radical politics, for the novel contains an extended critique of Edmund Burke's defence of the principle of aristocracy in the Reflections on the

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