Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

William Godwin's "School of Morality"

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

William Godwin's "School of Morality"

Article excerpt

William Godwin's Juvenile Library writing for children, beginning with his Bible Stories in 1802, continues his earlier work on the subject of treason, sedition, and the censorship of free thought and discussion, from Political Justice in 1793 to his reply to Dr. Parr in 1801. For Geoffrey Summerfield, Godwin's post-1802 children's literature venture was prompted only by the prospect of financial gain, "philistine arid grubbily commercial," and Godwin's dual commitment to imaginative children's books and to "infantine enlightenment," the development of children's reasoning powers, involved him in "a deep contradiction, unadmitted arid unresolvable" (244, 246). Godwin himself saw no contradiction. Understanding and imagination were potential partners in reform, as he argued in his Reply to Parr "The human imagination is capable of representing to itself a virtuous community, a little heaven on earth. The human understanding is capable of developing the bright idea, and constructing a model of it" (80-81). In his essay on "History and Romance" (1797), Godwin argues for an imaginative kind of history-writing that can "interest our passions, or employ our thoughts about personal events, be they of patriots, of authors, of heroes or kings." Children, Godwin observes, whose minds reflect the "genuine and native state" of the "mind of man," have little interest in abstractions, craving knowledge of "individualities," a knowledge that Godwin believes to be creative and progressive: "It is the contemplation of illustrious men ... that kindles into a flame the hidden fire within us ... if the energy of our minds should lead us to aspire to something more animated and noble than dull repetition, if we love the happiness of mankind enough to feel ourselves impelled to explore new and untrodden paths, we must riot then rest contented with considering society in a mass, but must analyse the materials of which it is composed." Only the study of individualities shows "what it is of which social man is capable." By this means, readers are enabled "to add, to the knowledge of the past, a sagacity that can penetrate into the depths of futurity" ("Of History and Romance" 291-3).

A similar motivation underpins Godwin's stories and histories for children, those citizens of the future. He wants to raise "the pulses which beat with sympathy," an empathic excitement with potentially transformative social effects (Preface to Bible Stories 314). Godwin's interest in imaginative story-telling and its links with moral and political transformation had deep roots. As early as 1783, when lie was writing a prospectus for a boys' school, Godwin was thinking about the reading of history and its possibilities for forming the minds of the future. History was the subject that he considered most vital in the expansion of imagination and associated fellow-feeling: not "the general history of nations," but the history of the character and actions of particular individuals, through which children are led "directly to the most important of all attainments, the knowledge of the heart," and thence to "ethical examination" (Account of the Seminal), 40, 44, 45). For Godwin, this close and thoughtful attention to past events, past motives and decisions, and their consequences, is a schooling in morality and justice that preserves the intellectual autonomy of the child reader and thinker, not one that imposes an orthodoxy.

In early 1813, a spy-report submitted to the Privy Council reveals that contemporaries suspected the Juvenile Library to be a continuation of Godwin's political work of the 1790s, designed to foster unorthodox, potentially seditious thinking. The business had already been publicly exposed as Godwin's new venture by the Eclectic Review in 1808, in a review of an anonymously authored book published by him (Mountcashell's Stories of Old Daniel). The Eclectic questioned the "principles" on which the Juvenile Library was based, and opined that Godwin ought to have acknowledged himself to be the publisher, since his name was an "index" of these principles (Eclectic IV: 274). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.