Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mapping Misogyny: Godwin's Fleetwood and the Staging of Rousseauvian Education

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mapping Misogyny: Godwin's Fleetwood and the Staging of Rousseauvian Education

Article excerpt

"It is suffering only that can inspire us with true sympathy." (Fleetwood 45)

"The man who did not know pain would know neither the tenderness of humanity nor the sweetness of commiseration. His heart would be moved by nothing. He would not be sociable; he would be a monster among his kind." (Emile 313-14, 87)

I

WHEN WILLIAM GODWIN'S THIRD MAJOR NOVEL, FLEETWOOD; OR, THE New Man of Feeling, appeared in February 1805, its forty-eight year-old author was still widely known to the British public for a series of works from the 1790s--the influential Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), two very successful novels, Caleb Williams (1794) and St. Leon (1799), and his notoriously frank Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft's life (1798). The generally unfavorable reception received by this latest publication, however, must have been a considerable disappointment to him. Although the critical estimate of his earlier novels had varied a good deal, largely in accordance with particular critics' political allegiances, most reviews had at least acknowledged these narratives to be powerful and original works.

To be sure, Godwin offered this new fiction as a more modest tale, aiming not so much to astonish its readers as to cause them to reflect upon daily events and everyday life. His preface to Fleetwood insists upon the typicality of its plot, saying that "The following story consists of such adventures, as for the most part have occurred to at least one half of the Englishmen now existing, who are of the same rank of life as my hero.... In this little work the reader will scarcely find any thing to `elevate and surprise.'" Its merit, if it has any, was said by Godwin to lie instead in two features: the vividness with which its largely ordinary events are imagined, and the realistic accuracy with which they are portrayed. (1) Containing nothing like the suspense-driven plot of Caleb Williams or the Gothic machinery of St. Leon, Fleetwood was presented to the reading public as straightforward realistic fiction.

Yet critics, in responding to it, objected to precisely this claim by the author, finding what was typical in the novel not particularly interesting and what was distinctive not particularly believable. Many were visibly offended that Godwin would offer a character like Fleetwood as typical in any sense, and particularly appalled that Godwin could describe his hero as the "new" man of feeling for a new era of British life. Walter Scott's negative assessment in a review he wrote for the April Edinburgh Review conveyed a common judgment. "It can hardly be called a history, which has neither incident nor novelty of remark to recommend it ... all that is remarkable in the tale is the laboured extravagance of sentiment which is attached to these ordinary occurrences. There is no attempt to describe the minuter and finer shades of feeling; none of that high finishing of description, by which the most ordinary incidents are rendered interesting." Scott, like others, saw the depiction of Fleetwood himself as a failure, strained beyond credibility by his extravagant and overwrought emotional sensibility. "It is no doubt true, that a man of sensibility will be deeply affected by what appears trifling to the rest of mankind.... But a man who is transported with rage, with despair, with anger, and all the furious impulses of passion, upon the most common occurrences of life, is not a man of sentiment, but a madman." (2) As many reviews made clear, the objections to Godwin's novel were ultimately moral in nature. Critics did not see Fleetwood as the sort of exemplary hero a novel should properly contain; in particular, his brutal behavior toward his wife struck them as insufficiently motivated, implausible, and, worst of all, destructive of the ethos of sympathy on which the sentimental novel was based. They rejected, or refused even to see, the logic of Godwin's ethical analysis--that the sensibility of a figure like Fleetwood might manifest itself in personally and socially destructive ways, or that an intense sensitivity toward other people might create an antisocial personality. …

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