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William D. Brewer, The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley

Monday, April 1, 2002 - 05:58
William D. Brewer, The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press, 2001.  246pp.  $39.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8386-3870-8).

Reviewed by
Judith Barbour
University of Sydney

There is no denying the dramatic interest and thematic pertinence to the fictional writings of William Godwin and Mary Shelley of the metaphor of the "mental anatomy" (Introduction 15–17 and passim), which gives the title to William D. Brewer's critical monograph, and contours its extended comparison of this father-and-daughter pair of authors. An anatomy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (in the old form of the word "an atomie") is a violent delapidation of an organic unity. In the primitive conditions of hospitals and morgues contemporary with the Godwin-Shelley writers, only cadavers could be anatomized and made intelligible, dissected and made visible, the veins, nerves, and musculature traced, flayed, and probed. The metonym of the eye—its "terrible aspect"—is hegemonic in Enlightenment cultural politics. In one pathetic instance, the dead foetus, or as it was officially called the abortion, could by now be anatomized in situ in the dead gravid uterus, as the "naturalistic" optics and perspective machines of graphic artists gave the burgeoning male profession of scientific obstetrics its first breakthrough. Incidentally, "abortion" was one of the key words inserted by Percy Bysshe Shelley into the manuscript-in-the making of his pregnant lover's and soon-to-be-wife's Frankenstein (1818).

The leading terms of Brewer's discussion—psychological exploration, analysis of the workings of the mind, delineation of ruling passions—are announced at the start in Godwin's pithy declaration: "The thing in which my imagination revelled the most freely, was the analysis of the private and internal operations of the mind, employing my metaphysical dissecting knife in tracing and laying bare the involutions of motive" (qtd. in Brewer 15). This, Brewer writes, is Godwin's "account of the composition of Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794)"; and he adduces the examples of dramatist Joanna Baillie and novelist Mary Hays, "a disciple of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft," whose writings in the 1790s devled into human passion and prejudice, the "power of the human mind," and the "springs which set it in motion" (Brewer 15, quoting Hays in 1796).

Enter a caveat, pointing out that Godwin wrote his account of the imaginative jouissance that had shaped Caleb Williams, and distinguished between his own creative purposes in fiction and the then prevailing canons of novelistic realism, not in 1794, but in 1832. In hindsight, Godwin can perceive the connections between minute psychological operations, and literary authority and moral significance. The 1794 debut of Caleb Williams into the London of the Treason Trials, gripped by wartime paranoia and state repression, carries forward a history of "the private and internal operations of the mind" into the sphere of public morality and national governance. In this re-weighting of the gravitas of private conscience and self-knowledge, Godwin rejoins at the close of his career a movement, sponsored at first by women writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, to challenge the rigidity of their exclusion from the public intellectual sphere, and moreover to redefine the formative importance of such so-called private matters as sexuality, labor, childhood education, and parenting.

A manuscript fragment was drafted by Mary Shelley in late 1836 when she was starting to compose a memoir of her late father. While she concedes that "pot-boiler" hack writing was often forced on Godwin by the need for a livelihood, Mary Shelley claims that even his earliest writings show gleams of his later mastery of psychological fiction, what Mark Philp, in his editorial introduction to the href="">Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, terms Godwin's unfolding of "an alternative history, the history of mentalities" (1.42). Of his apprentice sermons from the dissenter pulpits at Ware and Stowmarket, hastily got up for publication in 1783, she writes:

The Sermons are entitled Sketches of History . . . . They are peculiar from displaying that tendency to dive into & anatomize the human heart, which is so principal a feature in all Mr Godwins writings – & also by that lofty conception of the excellence of human nature which led him to consider its absolute perfection no dream of the imagination . . . he had a firm faith in the powers inherent in Man to raise himself to heroism & surpassing excellence. href="#FOOT1">[1]

Demonstrably, Mary Shelley in 1836 is echoing Godwin's self-analysis in 1832, his "metaphysical dissecting knife" "displaying that tendency to dive into & anatomize the human heart." Brewer quite rightly emphasizes the rhetoric of anatomy as a master light of Godwin's seeing and of Mary Shelley's reading of him. But he passes over Mary Shelley's idealizing of Godwin's novels, her attribution to him of a "firm faith," irrespective of his probing analytic powers. In her youth, Mary Shelley read Godwin's work in the afterlight of Mary Wollstonecraft's death, and Godwin in old age read his own work in the reflected light of his daughter's mollifying vision. A spate of writing from both Godwin and Mary, between 1816 and 1818, coincided with traumatic life events: Mary's half-sister Fanny Imlay's suicide; Mary's marriage to the poet P. B. Shelley after his first wife's violent death; and the death of the Irish barrister and defender of civil liberties, John Philpot Curran, who is the dedicatee of Godwin's novel Mandeville (1817), written in the heat of Godwin's reading of the pre-publication manuscript of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, while Frankenstein itself is dedicated to "the Author of Caleb Williams." From 1831–1832, another flow of writing and rewriting saw Shelley's Frankenstein, and Godwin's Caleb Williams, St Leon (1799) and Fleetwood, or The New Man of Feeling (1805), revised and republished with a panoply of authorial prefaces in the Standard English Novels series.

Brewer eschews the practice of reading authorial autobiography between the lines of fiction, and his key phrase "mental anatomy" is stiffly restricted to fictional characters. He claims that this puts him in the company of Godwin and Mary Shelley (18). Godwin's focus on subjects representative of the public historical order of things, and his stated distaste for personal revelations, support Brewer's claim here. But Mary Shelley presents a different case. Her empathetic female portraits, and the histrionic sensibilities displayed by many of her protagonists, draw inspiration from the London and American theater stage, as well as the popular portraits and stage scenes of Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery in the early years of the nineteenth century, a sub-genre adapted and developed by the illustrated magazines to which she contributed. And she was moreover the biographer of a whole family of writers who had, as it were, delegated this task and legacy to her.

The dustjacket illustration to the hardback copy of Brewer's book is taken from the frontispiece of the Standard English Novels reissue of Godwin's Fleetwood. In the 1832 edition, the caption of that frontispiece reads: "I dragged the clothes which Mary had worn, and rent them into long strips and shreds. I struck the figures vehemently with the chairs till they were broken to pieces." The illustration shows a scene of iconoclastic frenzy, a violent demasking of a failed god, as the protagonist Casimir Fleetwood bludgeons a doll-sized replica of his supposedly adulterous wife Mary. This nightmare moment of revulsion is the countervailing strike to a dream of possessing and incorporating the Other, be that a woman, child, or demonic Creature. Throughout a tortuous series of part-confessions and part-retractions, Fleetwood struggles under this tremendous dialectics of imagination and fails to win through it other than in scanty ejaculations of words. The assailant's left foot appears to trample a set of corset stays and a brassiere.

This dustjacket image points up the dangers in reading fiction along a continuum with everyday life relationships, so it has a cautionary aspect, not least for critics inclined to read fictional characters as transparent indexes of authorial motives. When it was first published in 1805, Fleetwood had precipitated the long-suffering friendship of Godwin and Thomas Holcroft into a bleak estrangement that lasted until a melancholy reconciliation at Holcroft's deathbed in 1809. The habit of reading "to a key" (identifying a living person with a fictitious persona) betrayed Holcroft, who identified himself with a harsh father in the novel whose only son commits suicide, as his own son had done. Facing his book with this Gothic image, Brewer seems to remind himself and his reader to hold to the conventions of differentiating auto-biographical transparency from character psychology.

Brewer's text aims at a humanities college readership and comes equipped with a comprehensive array of recent scholarly editions and critical enquiry. The ground plan is a grid in which novels of both writers are ranged in chronological order, first for Godwin and then for Shelley, enabling a reader to study any one chapter as a self-supporting discrete entity. This plan bears its fruit strictly according to type, without sprouting any multi-colored sports or mutations to upset the apple-cart. One omission from this scrupulously compiled bibliography is John Bender's Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (University of Chicago Press, 1987), which explores the role of the carceral imagination in the English novel during "the decade of Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794)" (Bender 63).

Brewer's study presents two formidable talents at the beginning of the modern English profession of letters, both of them publishing at the center of the metropolis of the book business, London, and its satellites in Dublin, Edinburgh, and (increasingly) Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The technique of accounting chapter-by-chapter, topic-by-topic, across the fictional corpus has the disadvantage of any assemblage of parts: the whole remains unanimated and unbreathed. His even-handed distribution of emphasis tends to flatten the highs and lows of Mary Shelley's and Godwin's reading-writing collaboration, especially in 1817 (working on the first Frankenstein) and 1831 (working on the revised Frankenstein). Their common sponsorship and oversight of the revised editions of 1831–1832 marks the highwater publishing event of a sustained pedagogical and revisionist oeuvre, a literary achievement within the mentor-ephebe influence relations idealized by Romantic literature. Bypassing vital contexts of exchange, Brewer has let an opportunity go by to deepen his evaluative comparisons of their texts.

1. I gratefully acknowledge Lord Abinger's permission to quote from the Shelley-Godwin manuscript Dep. c.606/1, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A hypertext edition of Mary Shelley's biography of Godwin may be viewed at: <> Shelley, Mary. Life of William Godwin. The unfinished text from the Abinger papers deposited at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Ed. Judith Barbour, with Clara Tuite. March 2002. Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service, University of Sydney.