William Godwin's Caleb Williams,
The Gothic Novel as Political Subversion.
What was Jane Austen's Response?
A Male Voices Web Page

I recently picked up William Godwin's 1794 novel,



This is the novel most often referred to simply as Caleb Williams, or, a bit less often, as Things as They Are.

It was a mind-altering experience for me. First of all, it became quite clear that I must alter my view of Godwin himself—the novel is extremely well written, too well to have been written by the man I had previously envisioned.

I then realized that I must also revise my understanding of the Gothic novel; in turn, that required that I take a fresh look at one of Jane Austen's last two novels, Northanger Abbey. Certainly, we know that our Lady was well aware of the person and reputation of William Godwin. So, we might wonder how Jane Austen reacted to his novel.

My mind has been greatly altered, but is very glad for the change. I will try to describe my evolution and then invite your comments.

William Godwin as Husband,
Father, and Radical Philosopher

We have met the Jane-Austen contemporary, William Godwin (1756-1836), several times on these web pages. We met him as the husband of the radical feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the father of the even more interesting Mary Shelley. I was not kind to him on those pages, nor am I inclined to be so now in those contexts. However, I can note that I took the view that he was a foolish husband and father. And, I will now admit that there are many far-worse things that can be said of a man in those roles.

We also met with Godwin in his capacity as a radical, political philosopher; in particular, there is this focus on his debate with Malthus over the potentialities for human society. There, I concluded that, while logic is all against him, two-hundred years of subsequent history support Godwin's position (what a revoltin' development dis is!)

William Godwin
William Godwin, author
of Caleb Williams

But—William Godwin as a novelist?—I couldn't imagine! Well, perhaps you can imagine my surprise—Godwin was an excellent novelist. Make no mistake, Godwin was no Jane Austen, but he wrote far better than either of the more famous women in his own family, and I would rank him above either Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth.

I begin with a little recitation on his early background that will assist our understanding of the novel and Godwin's intent.

From Dissenting Clergyman to
England's Most Renown Atheist

Given that Godwin was England's most famous atheist in the young Jane Austen's time, you may be surprised to learn that, in his early career, he had been a clergyman—albeit a Dissenting clergyman. In fact, Godwin was born seventh of the thirteen children of John Godwin (1723-1772), a Dissenting minister. The father's father was Edward Godwin (1695-1764), also a Dissenting minister. (The mother of those thirteen children managed to survive only to the age of 86.)

Godwin was not a robust child—his aunt, "instructed me to compose myself in sleep, with a temper as if I were never again to wake in this [earthly] world." Godwin was a precocious child—at five he was reading The Pilgrim?s Progress with that same aunt. His other childhood readings included accounts of the conversion followed by holy, exemplary lives—and joyful deaths—of several young children, as well as hymns and prayers. His earliest memories were of wishing to be a minister and of preaching his own sermons in the kitchen on Sunday afternoons.

Godwin remained a religious enthusiast and dissenter at school—preaching to his schoolmates, while identifying some as "children of the devil". His success at school reinforced his commitment to intellectual activity and his aversion to physical activity; it also compounded his pride, for which he was frequently admonished by his father. Despite his father?s opposition, his resolution to become a minister never wavered, and in 1767 he went to board with a Mr. Samuel Newton, the minister of an independent congregation in Norwich.

Godwin's teacher was deeply influenced by the writings of a Calvinist extremist, Robert Sandeman. Among other things, Sandeman scorned faith as the criterion for salvation, and represented God as saving or damning a person solely "according to the right or wrong judgment of the understanding". In his Autobiography, Godwin compared his teacher to Caligula because of his spiteful and violent treatment of people. Godwin left Newton in the early summer of 1770—abandoned his calling in favor of becoming a bookseller. Six months was enough to persuade him to resume his study for a final year, after which he was pronounced fit for entry into the Dissenting College at Homerton. However, Homerton turned him down "on suspicion of Sandemanianism" (the teaching that the Church should not be subject to any league or covenant, but should be governed only by Apostolic doctrine).

The more tolerant Hoxton Academy admitted him. Hoxton was noted for its Arminianism (the belief that Divine sovereignty was compatible with free will in man) and Arianism (A theology which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ). At the same time, Godwin?s Sandemanianism remained stubbornly untouched. In June 1778 he set out to practice his vocation in this state of mind.

He held a post in 1780 in Suffolk for two years, during which time his religious beliefs underwent further evolution, moving towards deism (a criticism aimed at the nature and content of traditional religious beliefs, and the substitution for them of a rationalistic naturalism). That evolution followed his reading of the French Philosophes, Holbach, Helvetius, and Rousseau, at the suggestion of one of his parishioners. Not surprisingly, he fell into dispute with his congregation and moved to London in 1782 where friends encouraged him to turn to writing for his living which he promptly set out to do.

If you wish to learn a little bit more about these religious philosophies—Sandemanianism through deism—I recommend you take this link to the Catholic Encyclopedia. (That place provides sufficient alternative links to give you a broader view of a topic.) I would think that a useful exercise because you can begin to see Godwin's ultimate evolution in this early, religious phase—his evolution into an atheist and anarchist revolutionary.

At the end of 1782 he returned briefly to his original profession during which time he produced a volume of sermons and Sketches of History (1783). When this appointment broke down he returned to London and resumed his career as an author.

Godwin was productive in those first years, but his writing did not make much money until one of his former tutors invited him to write the British and Foreign History section for the New Annual Register. With that, he was assured of an adequate income for the first time. Between 1785 and 1793 Godwin published little save his work for the New Annual Register and the Political Herald, a Whig journal. The pamphlets, and his pieces for the Political Herald, reveal him to be an extremely well informed commentator on contemporary affairs.

Then, in the summer of 1791, at the height of the debate on the French Revolution (1789), and sparked by an opposition to Edmund Burke?s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Godwin persuaded a publisher to support him while he wrote a work summarising recent developments in political philosophy. The work was published in 1793 as An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. It was an immediate success and remains the founding work of philosophical anarchism. Although Godwin drew on the work of the philosophes, Political Justice was also influenced by Godwin?s Dissenting education and his involvement in Dissenting circles.

The success of Political Justice soon made Godwin a central figure in radical political and literary circles of London; he became the friend of John Thelwall, Holcroft, and John Horne Tooke, all of whom were indicted for Treason in 1794 (keep that in mind as you read the passages set in prison in Caleb.) Godwin also had access to a wide range of other established writers, such as Elizabeth Inchbald, and he was sought out by a younger generation of enthusiasts, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt.

In May 1794 Godwin published his most successful novel, and the subject of this posting, Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, adding further to his literary reputation. In that same year, he published his political pamphlet, Cursory Strictures on the Charge Delivered by Lord Chief Justice Eyre to the Grand Jury, in which Godwin attacked the case for Treason constructed by Eyre against the leaders of the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information.

Loves, Marriages,
And Controversies

Then there were the women; to that time, Godwin had not been socially adept: he both took offence easily and gave it with his habit of candor. Only with his increasing professional success did he come in contact with a wide range of clever women. These included women with political, literary, and philosophical interests, such as Helen Maria Williams, Elizabeth Inchbald, Amelia Alderson, Maria Reveley, Mary Hays, and Mary Robinson. These contacts had their effects; he cut his hair short, adopted a less ministerial style of dress, and he developed something resembling a pleasing social skill. One historian put it this way, "[Godwin] also developed a basic competence in flirtation." In the last months of 1795 and first half of 1796, Reveley, Alderson, Inchbald, and Samuel Parr?s daughter Sarah were all competitors for his attention.

Following their re-acquaintance Mary Wollstonecraft broke all convention and called on him in April 1796. Even though Godwin subsequently met and corresponded with her regularly it was only after being turned down by Alderson that he and Wollstonecraft became lovers in August 1796. Wollstonecraft became pregnant in December and after much deliberation to reconcile their actions to their principles, they married in March 1797.

Wollstonecraft?s death following childbirth, in September 1797, left Godwin distraught and burdened with the care of the baby Mary (later Mary Shelley), Mary?s child (Fanny Imlay) from a previous liaison, and a succession of debts. He threw himself into work: he revised Political Justice for a third, and final time, wrote a hurried memoir of Wollstonecraft, and then his second major novel, St Leon (1799). Wollstonecraft?s influence on Godwin?s thinking has been claimed by some scholars in the revisions made for the third edition of Political Justice. A rather different sense of their relationship was presented by him in his Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), and in his depiction of marriage in St. Leon (1799).

To cope with his domestic responsibilities he looked for a new wife. When a widow with two children, Mary Jane Clairmont, leaned over her balcony in 1801 and asked "Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?", his fate was sealed and Mary Jane became his second wife. It was a disaster. Something was very wrong in the household of that second marriage and historians seem unwilling to examine the details. Here is what we know for sure. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin ran away with a married man, Percy Shelley, when she was 17 (July 1814). Percy took her 16 year-old step-sister along with them—it was a package deal I guess. Godwin's son by Mary Jane Clairmont, William Godwin jr., ran away from home at age 11 (August 1814). Then, Godwin's step daughter (Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter), Fanny Imlay, committed suicide (Oct. 1816).

I will leave it to you to connect the dots.

Godwin?s Political Justice had been a product of the enthusiasm of English radicals for the French Revolution and, by the end of the decade, the author and his works were exuberantly denounced by loyalists and the defenders of order which increasingly dominated the British political and literary scene. Was Jane Austen one of those? That is the main question before us.

The Memoirs provoked further controversy with its revelations of Wollstonecraft?s unconventional sexual inclinations. Several of Godwin?s past acquaintances spurned him and he found himself increasingly the subject of attack by loyalist newspapers. His philosophical opinions were parodied and ridiculed in novels, reviews, and pamphlets. Godwin reacted with dignity and sought dispassionately to answer his critics and to confess errors which he now recognized, and which had already been acknowledged both in the revisions to the later editions of his Enquiry, and in his comments in St. Leon. But the reply did not rescue him from the overwhelming tide of reaction, and his incautious remarks in his discussion of Malthus? Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) about exposing children and abortion, were seized upon with glee by critics.

For much of the rest of his life, "Godwinism" became a perjoritive term. In the new, intolerant political climate Godwin returned to literature and history for income. He tried his hand at drama with a play, Antonio (1800), but with little success; in 1803 he wrote a two volume Life of Chaucer which was very successful—the standard for many years. And, two years later, he produced a further novel, Fleetwood: or The New Man of Feeling (1805).

His final work, unpublished in his lifetime, was a series of essays on Christianity, in which he fulfilled an ambition, first announced in 1798, to

"sweep away the whole fiction of an intelligent former world and a future state; to call men off from those incoherent and contradictory dreams, that so often occupy their thoughts, and vainly agitate their fears; and to lead them to apply their whole energy to practical objects and genuine realities." (Political and Philosophical Writings)

And, in this modest way, Godwin's philosophical evolution was completed.

Meanwhile, Jane Austen had died in July, 1817, and her last two novels were published within the year following, including her Northanger Abbey, which we will examine in this essay after we are a bit more familiar with Godwin's Caleb.

Why Did Godwin Publish a Novel?
& the Social Context for Caleb Williams

Godwin was quite clear about that, he needed money. To most people of his time, it seemed that folks wrote novels for purely pecuniary reasons. Novelists had not yet achieved the high regard given them in our time. For that reason, some authors of novels withheld their names in order to avoid embarrassment to themselves or to their connections.

One famous example was Sir Walter Scott who was a renowned poet, but who published several novels anonymously (Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, etc.) in Jane Austen's time. Scott did not confess this activity until after Jane Austen's death. However, you can find explicit statements in our Lady's letters that prove that Scott's secret was an open secret—our Lady knew who wrote his historical romances. (Incidentally, here is a link to what Sir Walter said about Jane Austen - he was a great admirer!) Jane Austen signed her novels, "By a Lady." So, while our "Lady" did nothing to hide her gender, she did not want the public to know her name. The guess about her reasons, that I favor, is that Jane Austen did not want the public to imagine that she had to resort to such an activity in order to make a living.

The social context for the publication of Caleb in 1794 is fascinating. Here is a link to a comprehensive chronology of events at about that time. There you will see that 1794 was the time when Godwin and other "English Jacobins" were just beginning to fall out of favor with the English public and with good reason. Events, both in France and England, attended to that. And, as we have seen, the fall was nearly complete and permanent.

Godwin made his political motives for writing Caleb quite clear in his preface:

"... It is now known to philosophers, that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society. But this is a truth, highly worthy to be communicated, to persons, whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach. Accordingly it was proposed, in the invention of the following work, to comprehend, as far as the progressive nature of a single story would allow, a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man. If the author shall have taught a valuable lesson, without subtracting from the interest and passion, by which a performance of this sort ought to be characterized, he will have reason to congratulate himself upon the vehicle he has chosen."

Well, Pooh-Pooh-Pee-Do! Godwin certainly knew how to express himself clearly and in a candid way. He also had a tendency to congratulate himself. But, the main point is that Godwin did not attempt to hide his underlying political motives. Godwin did not, but his publisher did, Crosby and Co. suppressed the preface for the first edition.

Excerpts from Caleb Williams

Given that Godwin's primary motive was to make some money, it is not surprising that he chose the most commercial form at the time, the Gothic novel, for his Caleb Williams. Well, he did and he didn't; many of the Gothic elements were there—an evil and powerful man assisted by relentless, remorseless underlings; a kidnapped damsel about to be forced into a clandestine wedding ceremony; a prisoner kept in chains and solitary confinement, a mysterious chest containing secret evidence; escapes in secret passage ways; etc. On the other hand, Caleb was something else as well, it was also a call to revolution—it was, quite simply, political propaganda.

A striking fact is the way that the Gothic-type novel so nicely fit Godwin's secondary motive of political subversion. Understand, the chief political fact that created so many revolutionaries in that era was the apprehension and fear of arbitrary, hereditary power. So, the plot that contained a evil nobleman or large landowner exercising just such a power was the very thing.

This may seem odd to us nowadays—nowhere do we find a concern of the political radical of that time for, say, the plight of the worker in the midst of industrialization, or the struggle of underdeveloped nations against a tide of imperialism. All of those concerns would be expressed first at a later time.

Another striking fact is that the novel is so very well written. It is beautifully paced and the reading of it scans so very well. The events are exciting and do tend to pull you along. Some say that no one who starts to read Caleb Williams will resist finishing it. I suspect that there is something to that claim. Godwin's emphasis is on the psychology of the characters and it is there that the quality is the greatest. I simply have to admit that Godwin understood men in all their variety and intensity. Perhaps it was no accident that female characters are barely mentioned; but that doesn't matter, Godwin did know about men and he knew them with depth. However, I will question his understanding of society in this posting, and I will speculate, further on, that Jane Austen may have had the same question on her mind.

After saying those things, I will leave the evaluations of literary qualities of the novel to the more qualified and turn, instead, to the politics of the novel. For one thing, I don't want to reveal the plot and spoil things for you. For another, it is in the discussion of the politics that I will bring Jane Austen into the picture.

The one thing I will relate is enough of the basic story line to help you interpret the excerpts. The story is about an intelligent, self-educated servant, Caleb Williams, who uncovers a terrible secret of his country-gentleman master. The master then oppresses and haunts the servant into flight, after which the master frames Caleb with a capital crime in order to make him a fugitive from the law.

The cruel master sets the political tone of the novel during this burst of anger at Caleb. Here he describes the array of social forces arrayed against Caleb should he ever try to inform the authorities of the Master's crime.

" '... I wear an armour against which all your weapons are impotent. ... Your innocence shall be of no service to you; I laugh at so feeble a defence. It is I that say it; you may believe what I tell you. - Do you not know, miserable wretch!' added he, suddenly altering his tone, and stamping upon the ground with fury, 'that I have sworn to preserve my reputation, whatever may be the expense; that I love it more than the whole world and its inhabitants taken together? And do you think that you shall wound it? Begone, miscreant! reptile! and cease to contend with insurmountable power!' "
Volume 2, Chapter VIII

A fellow servant, Thomas, visits Caleb in prison and is appalled by the conditions in the jail. Thomas begins a conversation with Caleb in this way:

" '...Why I thought this was a Christian country, but this usage is too bad for a dog.'

'You must not say so, Thomas; it is what the wisdom of the government has sought fit to provide.'

'Zounds, how I have been deceived! They told me it was a fine thing to be an Englishman, and about liberty and property, and all that there; and I find it is all a flam. Lord, what fools we be! Things are under our very noses, and we know nothing of the matter; and a parcel of persons with grave faces swear to us that such things never happen but in France, and other countries the like of that. ...' "

Volume 2, Chapter XIV

During one of his flights from the law, Caleb is pondering the social institutions—the law, the courts, the prisons—when he thinks these thoughts:

" '... Strange that men from age to age should consent to hold their lives at the breath of another, merely that each in his turn may have a power of acting the tyrant according to the law. Oh God! give me poverty! shower upon me all the the imaginary hardships of human life! I will receive them all with thankfulness. Turn me a prey to the wild beasts of the desert, so I be never again the victim of man, dressed in the gore dripping-robes of authority! Suffer me at least to call life and pursuits of life my own! Let me hold it to the mercy of the elements, of the hunger of beasts, or the revenge of barbarians, but not of the cold-blooded prudence of monopolists and kings! - ...' "
Volume 3, Chapter I

At one point, Caleb takes refuge among a band of thieves. There we hear the nominal leader of the thieves exhorting the band about a decision they are about to take. During that admonition, the captain provides this romantic view of English outlaws:

" '... Our profession is the profession of justice. ... We, who are thieves without a license, are at open war with another set of men who are thieves according to law. ... A thief is, of course, a man living among his equals; I do not pretend therefore to assume any authority among you; act as you think proper; ...' "
Volume 3, Chapter II

Caleb confirms this view with his observations, and expands the the characterization of the thieves to make them seem a clandestine band of revolutionaries.

"... Nothing could be more unlike than the thieves I had seen in _____ jail, and the thieves of my new residence. The latter were generally full of cheerfulness and merriment. They could expatiate freely wherever they thought proper. They could form plans and execute them. They consulted their inclinations. They did not impose upon themselves the task, as is too often the case in human society, of seeming tacitly to approve that from which they suffered most; or, which is worse, of persuadng themselves that all the wrongs they suffered were right; but were at open war with their oppressors. ... The persons who composed this society had each of them cast off all control from established principle; their trade was terror, and their constant object to elude the vigilance of the community. The influence of these circumstances was visible in their character. I found among them benevolence and kindness: they were strongly susceptible of emotions of generosity. But, as their situation was precarious, their dispositions were proportionately fluctuating. Inured to the animosity of their species, they were irritable and passionate. ... They were habituated to consider wounds and bludgeons and stabbings as the obvious mode of surmounting every difficulty. ... "
Volume 3, Chapter II

The captain of the thieves listened to Caleb's story and then made an observation.

"... He said that this was only one fresh instance of the tyranny and perfidiousness exercised by the powerful members of the community against those who were less privileged than themselves. ..."
Volume 3, Chapter II

During one of his wonderings, Caleb overheard a conversation in a public house that made him understand that he had become a famous outlaw who had won some reluctant admiration among the common folk. More to the point, for my purposes, he also heard this judgment of society.

" '... and so [Caleb] Williams—[Caleb] is a devilish cunning fellow, ... he threatened to bring his master to trial at 'size ... and got money from him at divers times. Till at last, one Squire _______, a relation of t'other, found it all out. And he made the hell of a rumpus, and sent away [Caleb] to prison in a twinky; and I believe he would have been hanged: for when two squires lay their heads together, they do not much matter law, you know; or else they twist the law to their own ends, I cannot exactly say which; but it is much at one when the poor fellow's breath is out of his body.' "
Volume 3, Chapter V

Once, while contemplating his situation, Caleb concluded,

"... I was not born to hereditary wealth; but I had a better inheritance, an enterprising mind, an inquisitive spirit, a liberal ambition. ... The free spirit and the firm heart with which I commenced, one circumstance was sufficient to blast. I was ignorant of the power which the institutions of society give to one man over others; I had fallen unwarily into the hands of a person who held it as his fondest wish to oppress and destroy me."
Volume 3, Chapter VIII

Later, when taken before a magistrate, Caleb attempts to tell the whole story including a revelation of the Master's crime. The magistrate interrupts him to admonish,

" '... Why, are you such an ass as to suppose that the sort of story you have been telling can be of any service to you here or at the assizes, or any where else? A fine time of it indeed it would be, if, when a gentleman of six thousand a year take up their servants for robbing them, those servants could trump up such accusations as these, and could get any magistrate or court to listen to them! Whether or no the felony with which you stand charged would have brought you to the gallows, I will not pretend to say; but I am sure this story will. There would be a speedy end to all order and good government, if fellows that trample upon ranks and distinctions in this atrocious sort were upon any consideration suffered to get off.' "
Volume 3, Chapter XI

And so on and so on—Godwin continually hammers home the point that the laws, courts, and indeed all English political institutions are dedicated to maintaining the wealthy and oppressing the poor and dependent. These are the "things as they were", as they really were, he would have us believe—but, were they truly so?

Crosby & Co., Jane Austen,
And the Aborted Novel, Susan

We make our segue to Jane Austen with a discussion of the publisher of Caleb Williams. That would be the London firm of Benjamin Crosby and Co. They had made a great deal of money from the publication of Gothic novels. Godwin's Caleb was not an exception.

Crosby and Co. operated between 1794 and 1814, from the geometric center of the London booktrade. The concern dealt mainly in musical pieces and songs, supported by the publication of religious discourses and sermons, as well as numerous children?s works, with the usual gamut of conduct-books and educational textbooks. Of literary works, Crosby published a substantial amount of drama, poetry, and fiction, with reprints of earlier titles.

Crosby and Co. had begun its publication of fiction in 1794, auspiciously, with the subject of our posting, Godwin?s Things as They Are or the Adventures of Caleb Williams. The firm then maintained a consistent commitment to fiction, a total of sixty-eight titles appeared between 1794 and 1814. Many of Crosby's novels were run-of-the-mill fictions, with new titles consisting typically of sentimental romances and Gothic tales especially in the 1790s and early 1800s. The Gothic titles themselves matched the respective periods of favour of first the Ann-Radcliffe derivatives and then the more scurrilous horrors. Most of its fiction can best be described as domestic melodramas within a broadly sentimental framework. The combination of fashionable or upper-class locales with dramatic incident, and manoeuvring Machiavels is a popular formula for Crosby novels.

Crosby and Co. also published The Flowers of Literature, a magazine for literary commentary and advertisement. Here is a relevant entry in The Flowers of Literature of 1805. There we find this interesting commentary on Godwin's new novel, Fleetwood.

"Mr. GODWIN, whose former principles we viewed with detestation, and whose return to those of reason and sensibility we greeted with unqualified pleasure, has lately appeared again as a novel writer; and, in his Fleetwood, shows, in odious colours, the consequences of the passion of jealousy; but, by making the hero of his piece commit the most improbable and ridiculous outrages, he not only excites the disgust of the readers, who can scarcely find patience to follow ... the character to the end of his career; but causes them to lay down the book with the conviction, that no such a being ever existed in the world. Indeed, some parts of the narrative are so extravagant, that we not only must enter our caveat against the assertion of the author, who says, that the story consists of such adventures as, for the most part, have occurred to at least one half of the Englishmen now existing, of the same rank of life as his hero; but we will assert, that such adventures never occurred to any human being; and thus the work, instead of teaching the recluse to form an idea of the world, will tend only to mislead him. In thus freely expressing our opinion, we are far from wishing to intimate, that Fleetwood is not a work of merit. Any thing from the pen of Mr. Godwin must be interesting; but we must decidedly declare, that though this work contain many splendid passages, which bespeak the hand of a master, yet it will bear no comparison with Caleb Williams; for, notwithstanding the tendency of that publication was mischievous in the extreme, it nevertheless displayed sterling abilities. The character of Fleetwood, on the contrary, though divested of political prejudice, is throughout absurd, and contradictory to common sense."

I know of no contemporary statement, of similarly short length, that so clearly expresses what had happened to Godwin's reputation in that eleven-year interval between publication of Caleb and 1805. I also think that the next to last sentence characterizes my own view of Caleb.

What I think or what a contemporary reviewer thought is of no consequence. The question before the community is, what might Jane Austen have thought?

The firm of Crosby and Co. is most often remembered, nowadays, for its dealings with Jane Austen over the manuscript of what would eventually be published by John Murray as Northanger Abbey (1818). In the spring 1803, Austen had sold the manuscript of the novel, then titled Susan, to Crosby for ?10. It appears that Crosby had intended to publish it, since a work entitled, "15. SUSAN; a Novel, in 2 vols." was advertised as "In the Press" in its The Flowers of Literature for 1801 and 1802. For some reason, Crosby did not publish Susan, and this led to a bitter exchange between Austen and the firm. Some say the reasons were mainly financial, but that is not my favorite explanation; rather, I think that Crosby was so heavily committed to the publication of Gothic novels, it may well have developed a reluctance to publishing our Lady's Susan which parodies and, perhaps, one might say even ridicules that genre. If true, this was indeed an instance of an unfortunate conflict of interest for the publisher.

Following this unsatisfactory correspondence, Austen?s dealings with Crosby ceased until 1816, when her brother, Henry Austen, bought back the manuscript, following the publication of Emma. According to James Edward Austen-Leigh?s Memoir of Jane Austen (1870-71), Henry "found the purchaser very willing to receive back his money, and to resign all claim to the copyright." Once the exchange had been made, Henry "had the satisfaction of informing him that the work which had been so lightly esteemed was by the author of Pride and Prejudice."

Some new Questions about
Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

I conclude with some speculation and new questions about Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.

Well, Godwin's vision of country society, and of country gentlemen, is incompatible with those of his great contemporary, Jane Austen. There is nothing of Godwin's "... modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man" in her novels. So, which is the more accurate view? That question may be too difficult to address at present, so I prefer the simpler, "how might Jane Austen have reacted to Caleb Williams?" I don't know the answer to that one either, but a study of our Lady's Northanger Abbey might provide a clue. My best guess is that Jane Austen regarded Caleb as political mischief and subtly spoke to that fact in her last published novel.

Godwin's Caleb (1794) and Jane Austen's novels (1811-1818) are set in exactly the same social settings, the country village. How very differently the two authors depicted social conditions. Jane Austen depicts none of the arbitrary and abusive power that is the central focus in Caleb Williams. The closest thing we have to a evil master in our Lady's novels is in the person of Lady Catherine (Pride and Prejudice); and, the closest thing to a Tyrrel is General Tilney of (Northanger Abbey). If Caleb is a call to revolution, Jane Austen's novels answered, "what for?" I had always thought that Henry Tilney's admonishment to Catherine Morland was our Lady's admonishment to readers of Gothic novels. However, in the context of Caleb, Jane Austen's intent may take on a deeper, fuller meaning. The timing is interesting, Northanger Abbey was published in 1818, which seems a bit late to reply to another's novel published in 1794. However, remember that Crosby had actually promised Jane Austen's novel in 1803 which would have made her reply more timely.

There is one striking correspondence: if you will take the trouble to read Caleb, you may come to believe that Catherine Morland and Caleb Williams share an obsession. Both come to believe a local Squire to be guilty of murder and both are driven, in spite of themselves, to ferret out evidence of the crime. However, the two investigations end quite differently.

Let us review Tilney's admonishment to Catherine. Catherine had begun to imagine that General Tilney might have done away with his wife. That seems a wild flight of imagination if Catherine had read only Radcliffe novels - BUT, under the influence of a novel like Things as They Are or the Adventures of Caleb Williams, the imagining is not quite so fanciful. The passage opens just as Catherine had closed the door on her clandestine visit to the late Mrs. Tilney's room. There, she had realized that her ideas about General Tilney's conduct had been mistaken. Then, Henry Tilney's surprise entrance at that moment led to questions that brought out the whole truth about Catherine's ill-founded suspicions. Henry then exclaims to Catherine,

" 'If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained.? What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live.? Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you.? Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?' "
Northanger Abbey - Volume II, Chapter IX

Later, Catherine was thinking back upon the reading she had indulged, her flights of imagination, and her performance; she concluded,

"... Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France, might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. ..."
Northanger Abbey - Volume II, Chapter X

Was the novel, Caleb Williams, with its explicit political message, an important target in those passages? What say you?

References and Links

My chief references, from printed resources, are from the Penquin Classics edition of Caleb Williams (1987). In particular, I have reference to

In addition, I can provide these links to external web pages.

Remotely related links are these:

Also peripheral - if fascinating - are these local links:

Ashton Dennis
Spring, 2002


Table of Contents

Index and Archive

References and Links

The Male-Voices Home Page

Male Voices Newsletter Index