Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romanticizing Adolescence: Godwin's St. Leon and the Matter of Rousseau

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romanticizing Adolescence: Godwin's St. Leon and the Matter of Rousseau

Article excerpt

LATE IN WILLIAM GODWIN'S ST. LEON: A TALE OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY (1799), when an alchemist spies on the daughters he earlier abandoned, the scene is linked with the mythos of Jean-Jacques Rousseau--especially with Rousseau's infamous abdication of fatherhood--through St. Leon's chosen disguise, an Armenian caftan. This costume, Rousseau's palliative for urinary pain, is a blatantly gratuitous detail in context, for St. Leon has just used the elixir vitae to transform himself from a wizened Inquisition fugitive into a fresh-faced, unrecognizable youth. (1) Indeed, the puerility of the reminiscence evokes many a forked rationalization from Rousseau's Confessions: though "convulsed" alternately by grief and exultation, weeping over the girls while baffling the eldest with her own childhood memories--"I conjured up past scenes ... I touched all the pulses of her soul--"St. Leon shelves the topic briskly, having "nothing further to relate" about the daughters except their galling equanimity toward his own death, which he successfully faked twelve years earlier (St. Leon 294-97).

This performance is not unique in its allusive caricature; rather, it consolidates earlier tokens of Rousseau, in St. Leon's dual role as domestic truant and "conjuring" confidence-man. His losses, though certainly wrenching, partake of the gothic burlesque and the sentimental pratfall--as when, on being questioned by a stranger about alchemy, St. Leon resists the "vice" of paranoia (another storied feature of Rousseau's later life) by reasoning that the exile "is of all men most liable ... to conjure up for himself the unnatural intercourses and reciprocations of hostility" (251). Like the final frame of a comic strip, the next paragraph shows the Inquisition officers at his door. Thus, the Rousseau associations in this novel--to be pursued again in Fleetwood (1805)--lend an ironized, purblind self-consciousness to the chastening of St. Leon, an effect perhaps transferrable to Godwin's own revolutions in domestic life and social thought. (2) But the resonance of these associations is not merely confessional. Alchemy in St. Leon creates a forum not only for the loaded terms of Rousseau's self-fashioning but also for an ongoing dialogue with Rousseau as educationist and cultural critic. Generally serving the novel's photographic negative of the vir bonus, this dialogue more specifically addresses the sexual politics of male development, from the inside--seeking a rebalance of Rousseauvian psychology, to correct for the false determinism implicit in Emile 0762).

In St. Leon, Godwin attempts to reshape the idealized phases of Emile's later education into a more theoretically truthful picture of development and a more experientially honest picture of male adolescence. The critique is ultimately a recovery effort, bringing a reconstituted Rousseau into romantic discussions of identity formation. What Godwin achieves, I believe, is a phenomenology of developmental transition that originates in the physical currencies of pedagogical transactions, and that from our vantage point can complement the purposefully spare, emblematic backstories of Tintern Abbey (1798) and Frankenstein (1818). Godwin's intervening view of the male lifecourse, far more profuse, textured, and meandering--bringing to bear Rousseau's narrative luxuriance, while debating his theoretical premises--thus enriches our understanding of romantic mythologies of sexuality and subjectivity.

Godwin's critique of Rousseauvian pedagogy begins in his early prospectus An Account of the Seminary ... at Epsom (1783), and continues as a running theme in the essays comprising The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797). (3) His points, though scattershot, can be collated under two key entailments of the alchemy plot in St. Leon. (4) First, the enforced secrecy of alchemy, made much of in the novel, extends Godwin's objection to the neo-hermeticism of Emile. …

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