Caleb Williams

Reviews of Caleb Williams

The reactions to Caleb Williams upon its publication were extreme both in their glorification and in their denunciation. The 1790s was a time of radical political thought in Britain due to the inspiration created from the French Revolution in 1789, which inspired the questioning of the power held by King George III and the Prime Minister William Pitt. Published in 1794, William Godwin choose the date of publication as 12 May, the same day the Prime Minister had suspended habeas corpus to begin mass arrests of suspected radicals. This illustrates the weight that Godwin intended Caleb Williams to carry upon release. Godwin had already attained fame a year earlier through his publication of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which made the release of a fiction novel by a political philosopher quite intriguing. The subject matter in combination with the climate upon release resulted in the extremity of opinion regarding Caleb Williams.

Although released to outstanding commercial success, Caleb Williams attracted a great deal of negative reactions. Many saw it as an affront not only to government but also to justice, virtue, and religion. One review from the British Critic in July 1794, stated, “This piece is a striking example of the evil use which may be made of considerable talents…every gentleman is a hard-hearted assassin, or a prejudiced tyrant; every Judge is unjust, every Justice corrupt and blind.” Many critics saw Caleb Williams as having a detrimental effect on society as propaganda for anarchism. These critics saw Caleb as attacking the current established order, that Godwin was effectively spreading his "evil" principles throughout society. The same critic states, “When a work is so directly pointed at every band which connects society, and at every principle which renders it amiable, its very merits become noxious as they tend to cause its being known in a wider circle.” There were also those who viewed the novel negatively in a different manner, as fictitious to a degree of irrelevance in its form as political commentary. This argument asserted that Godwin represented the law falsely to push his anarchistic ideals. Another reviewer from the British Critic, wrote in April 1795, “a Philosopher has invented a Fable for the purpose of attacking the moral and political prejudices of his countrymen, and in all the instances in which he has affected to state the law of the land, and to reason from it, has stated it falsely; and it is almost superfluous to say, that in so doing, he has outraged Philosophy, Reason, and Morality, the foundation, object, and end of which is Truth.”

The opposite side of the spectrum is also seen in response to Caleb Williams. Ford K. Brown writes in his biography of Godwin, The Life of William Godwin, of a story in which a young boy finds out he just missed the author of Caleb Williams and “with true genuine enthusiasm, falling suddenly on his knees, reverently kissed the chair which the philosopher had just quitted, rapturously thanking heaven that he might now say he had been in company with the author of the best novel in the English, or in any language.” A particularly glorifying review was written in William Hazlitt's essay entitled, The Spirit of the Age. The review includes an immensely flattering description of Godwin and his writing of Caleb Williams, “he was in the very zenith of a sultry and unwholesome popularity; he blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation; no one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme, his name was not far off—now he has sunk below the horizon, and enjoyed the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality.” Elton and Esther Smith, in their biography of Godwin, titled William Godwin, relate an anecdote said by Godwin describing his friend Joseph Gerald's reception of Caleb Williams, “having started Volume One late in the evening, he was unable to close his eyes in sleep until he had read through all three volumes.

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