Published in 1805, Fleetwood; Or, The New Man of Feeling is the third novel by William Godwin. Godwin, perhaps known more today for being the father of the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, was a radical figure of renown by the time Fleetwood hit booksellers across England. Caleb Williams had already established his reputation as a novelist since its publication, Godwin had made a name for himself as one of the most outspoken liberal thinkers of the day.
Fleetwood follows a pattern set by Godwin’s first two novels of being titled after the name of its protagonist. The novel is very much an attempt to make a sustained argument through example against the educational theories propounded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau made famous the idea that man in his natural state is uncorrupted and therefore it is the only true state of freedom; it is society and its governing principles that creates conflict through the imposition of arbitrary values.
In terms of influences on the text, Fleetwood takes as its model Rousseau’s own novel Emile and subverts most of its main ideas and concepts. The novel is an example of the genre academically referred to as Bildungsroman, but more popularly known as coming-of-age story focusing on the philosophical and sociological education of its main character through life experience. Whereas Rousseau’s education of Emile within the pretext of being raised in a “natural state” proves to be a progressive and positive experience, just the opposite is true of Godwin’s hero, Casimir Fleetwood. According to novel—and back up by non-fictional essays on the subject of education—Rousseau’s approach to teaching children is too self-indulgent and likely to create a narcissistic adults always on the lookout of easy either/or approaches to conflict which inevitably leads to emotional solipsism. Rousseau could only make his approach work for his hero Emile, according to Godwin, through a trickery and stage-managed experiences lacking honesty and integrity.
Fleetwood failed to find a receptive audience at the time its publication, though it was highly regarded by many critics and it critical status has only risen in stock since. Many consider Fleetwood to be superior to the more famous and often-read Caleb Williams, citing it as a huge influence on the psychological novel made more palatable to average readers through the later success of authors like Emile Zola and Dostoyevsky.