Godwin, William

William Godwin (1756-1836) was one of the most controversial political philosophers of his day.  After a brief stint as a Dissenting minister, Godwin declared himself an atheist in 1785.  His fame derived mostly from one book, An Rnquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793).  His central thesis was that man could reach perfection by gradually improving his environment and institutions.  Man’s problems were not innate, but produced by his interaction with the outside world, and if all obstacles to truth could be removed, general good and universal benevolence would prevail by means of human reason, not by feeling.  Godwin influenced many of the Romantics and revolutionaries during the early and mid-1790s, such as Wordsworth and Crabb Robinson; by the late 1790s, however, most had rejected, or at least, significantly modified, his phil­osophy.  Robert Hall blamed Godwin for much of the spirit of infidelity existing in England in the late 1790s in his famous sermon, Modern Infidelity considered with Respect to its Influence on Society (1800).

Mary Jane Clairmont (1766-1841) married William Godwin (they had been neighbors for a time) on 21 December 1802.  She brought with her two illegitimate children, Charles and Mary Jane (both from different fathers) with her into the marriage.  A son, William, was born to Godwin and his new wife on 28 March 1803.  She would later assist him with the operation of the Juvenile Library (opened in 1805), through which Mrs. Godwin came to know Eliza Fenwick, who briefly worked for the Library and contributed several publications for young readers to its catalogue.