Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Framing the Corpus: Godwin's "Editing" of Wollstonecraft in 1798

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Framing the Corpus: Godwin's "Editing" of Wollstonecraft in 1798

Article excerpt

IN 1798 WILLIAM GODWIN PUBLISHED BOTH HIS MEMOIRS OF WOLLSTONECRAFT and his posthumous gathering of her works, including her unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman.(1) Godwin's Memoirs were so controversial that he was forced to issue a second, revised edition in the same year. Southey wrote that he lacked "all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked," through disclosures about her father's violence, her romantic relationships and the gynecological details of her death.(2) And although Mitzi Myers recognizes him as "something of an innovator in life-writing,"(3) Godwin's frank portrayal of his wife's relationships with Fuseli and Imlay has been blamed for the subsequent disfiguration of her name by anti-Jacobins such as Polwhele. His re-membering of his wife may indeed be "hurtful," if read against Wordsworth's association of epitaphs with monuments, and the latter's claim that memory should be selective, should "spiritualize and beautify" the deceased.(4) But Godwin does not necessarily share Wordsworth's use of memory to conserve the past and bury its failures. In "Of Choice in Reading" he locates the significance of a work (and, by extension, a life) not in its explicit moral but in a "tendency" opened by and to an uncertain future.(5) Writing Wollstonecraft's epitaph rather than her biography would contain these revolutionary tendencies within a morally acceptable summation of her life, as indeed the doctored version of the section on Fuseli tries to do.(6) Likewise, idealizing her innovations might be to fix as dogma the experimental and temporary responses she developed to the wrongs of woman, for instance in her educational writings, which reveal her construction by a propriety and Englishness she also sought to escape. Godwin's choice is rather to "romanticize" Wollstonecraft, in the sense that Novalis uses the word in writing (also in 1798) that the world "must be romanticized" through a "qualitative raising to the powers (Potenzirung)" in which the "lower self is identified with a better self."(7) Thus Wollstonecraft is all too real, all too human; but Godwin looks to the reader to potentialize the revolutionary idealism in such apparently base occurrences as her love for Fuseli and Imlay.

This paper thus suggests a method in what is often seen as Godwin's naivete and ineptitude. His editing of Wollstonecraft is his attempt to write the revolutionary subject into history so as to initiate the uncertain process of her future reading. Or to put it differently, Godwin's editing is a historiography that can be read with and through his other "experiments" (in essays, biographies, and fiction) with a history that is revolutionary and unsettled. This historiography sees the subject's re-formative potential as emerging only in a complexly negative dialectic both with herself and history. It locates her legacy not in the moral of specific texts and acts, but in a tendency often hidden from the author herself, and unconsolidated within existing discourses. Tendency, moreover, is not transparent: it is inseparable from a work's "effects," allowing genius a performative power, but also subjecting it to the accidents of its own disfiguration. Reading Wollstonecraft's texts as parts of her life, Godwin seeks to disclose the tendency within which specific writings on education or liberal reform emerge as experiments not reducible to their morality. His tendential reading of Wollstonecraft accounts for the unfinalized, fragmentary quality of her life in his portrayal. Sadly, among the. "effects" of this life, as Godwin wrote it, was the postponing of feminist justice for generations. Yet despite this fact, the Memoirs have also made possible our own reassessment of Wollstonecraft and how she figures in the political unconscious. To give but one example, Gary Kelly's argument that her passion for Imlay was part of her revolutionary feminism(8) rests, perhaps unconsciously, on Godwin's sense of the dialogical integrity of her life and work. …

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