Godwin, William

BORN 3 Mar 1756, Wisbech, Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire - DIED 7 Apr 1836, London
GRAVE LOCATION Bournemouth, Dorset: St. Peter's Churchyard

Son of John Godwin, the Minister of Wisbech Independent Chapel. In 1773 William went to the dissenting college at Hoxton where he studied until 1778. Then he became Minister in Ware, Hertfordshire, but in 1779 he left for London and in 1780 for suffolk. He became a deist and in 1782 a socianianist (originally a doctrine held by an Antitrinitarian sect that had sprung from the Reformation).

In 1783 he was Minister at Beaconsfield for half a year and in the same year he published his Life of Chatham. In 1783 he settled in London to become a writer. He wrote reviews for English Review and wrote letters for the Political Herald. In 1786 he met the playwright Thomas Holcroft, who became a close friend. Godwin turned into a convinced atheist and during the time of the French Revolution in 1789 he already held very radical views.

Godwin started a diary in 1788 and would continue this for the rest of his life. On 13 Apr 1791 he first met Mary Wollstonecraft during a diner at which Thomas Paine was also present. On 14 Feb 1793 his famous "An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice" was published and on 26 May 1794 his novel "Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams". Also in 1794 he first met Coleridge and the year after Wordsworth. "Political Justice" had made him famous in radical as well as literary circles.

In 1796 he and Mary Wollstonecraft met again and soon afterwards Mary broke all conventions by visiting him alone. In his diary he kept the score: they became lovers on 21 Aug 1796. Mary, who already had a daughter by the American Gilbert Imlay, became pregnant and he married her on 29 Mar 1793. Sadly, she died after giving birth to a daughter (Mary Shelley). In 1798 he published "Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1798), but he was attacked fiercely because he had written objectively about Mary's unconventional sexual habits. The political climate soon left little room for radicals and Godwin had to concentrate on literature and history instead of radical views to make a living.

In 1800 he proposed to Maria Gisborne, but she turned hm down. Also in 1800 his play D'Antonio was staged. In May 1801 he met Mary Jane Clairmont (who already had two children) and he married her on 21 Dec of that year. In 1803 their son William junior was born. In 1805 they started The Juvenile Library, a small publishing house. Godwin had many literary friends and on 24 Aug 1806 he was visited by Coleridge, who read his The Ancient Mariner to him and the hardly nine years old Mary. Mary would never forget this experience.

In 1812 the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley discovered that the author of "Political Justice" was not dead and buried in the past but alive and living in London, so he wrote to his hero. In October they met and in the same year Mary Jane Clairmont's daughter Claire saw Lord Byron in the public during a lecture by Coleridge on Shakespeare. Trouble started, because Shelley eloped with Mary in July 1814 and Claire started an affair with Lord Byron in 1816. After Shelley's first wife Harriet died he and Godwin were reconciled and Shelley married Mary.

In 1817 Godwin read Mary's Frankenstein and he was impressed (which he hardly ever was after reading a book). In 1825 The Juvenile Library went bankrupt and in 1831 he published his "Thoughts on Man". In 1832 William junior died from cholera and this was a terrible blow for Godwin. Apart from this, he was in financial trouble all the time, but from 1833 onwards the old radical received a state pension.

In 1836 Godwin died and was buried next to Mary Wollstonecraft at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard. In later years their bodies were moved to Bournemouth, where Mary Shelley was buried.

• Daughter: Shelley, Mary
• Wife: Wollstonecraft, Mary (1797-1797, London: St. Pancras Church)

Related persons
• met Byron, George Noel Gordon
• met Curran, Amelia
• was a friend of Curran, John Philpot
• has a connection with Gisborne, Maria
• was a friend of Hays, Mary
• influenced Shelley, Percy Bysshe
• was visited by Turner, Thomas

13/4/1791First meeting between Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin [Wollstonecraft, Mary]
27/2/1795First meeting between William Godwin and William Wordsworth [Wollstonecraft, Mary]
8/1/1796Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin meet at the house of Mary Hays [Hays, Mary][Wollstonecraft, Mary]
14/4/1796Mary Wollstonecraft visits William Godwin alone. At the time it was unusual that an unmarried woman visited an unmarried man alone. [Wollstonecraft, Mary]
21/8/1796Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin become lovers. This becomes clear from a secret diary that was kept by Godwin. [Wollstonecraft, Mary]
29/3/1797William Godwin marries Mary Wollstonecraft. At St. Pancras Church in London. [Wollstonecraft, Mary]
15/9/1797Mary Wollstonecraft is buried at St. Pancras' Churchyard. Her widower William Godwin was too upset to attend the funeral. [Wollstonecraft, Mary]
24/8/1806Coleridge recites "The Ancient Mariner" to William Godwin and his daughter Mary. Coleridge frequently visited Godwin and this Sunday he recited his own poem "The Ancient Mariner". It was an experience that the nine year old Mary Godwin would never forget. [Shelley, Mary]
3/1/1812Percy Bysshe Shelley starts his correspondence with William Godwin [Shelley, Percy Bysshe]
20/1/1812Claire Clairmont sees Lord Byron attending a public reading. Her stepfather William Godwin had taken her to a lecture on Shakespeare by Coleridge. Byron was also attending the lecture. [Byron, George Noel Gordon ][Clairmont, Claire]
7/6/1812Mary Godwin leaves for Scotland to have a holiday. There was tension between her and her stepmother Mary Jane and Godwin arranged a long stay for her with an acquaintance in Dundee, the radical Dissenter Mr. William Baxter. [Shelley, Mary]
14/10/1812First meeting between Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Godwin [Shelley, Percy Bysshe]
5/5/1814Percy Bysshe Shelley meets Mary Godwin. Shelley dined with William Godwin at Skinner Street. After this meeting Shelley and Mary soon started to spend days together. [Shelley, Mary][Shelley, Percy Bysshe]
18/6/1814Shelley arrives in London from Bracknell. Het had to negotiate a loan for William Godwin and visited Godwin frequently. [Shelley, Percy Bysshe]
6/7/1814Shelley asks William Godwin for the hand of his daughter Mary. Shelley wanted to end his marriage to Harriet Westbrook and wanted to go abroad with Mary Godwin. William Godwin didn't approve at all. [Shelley, Mary][Shelley, Percy Bysshe]
29/12/1816Reconciliation between William Godwin and Mary Godwin. It was now clear that Percy Bysshe Shelley would marry Mary Godwin and Godwin no longer objected to their relationship. [Shelley, Mary]
24/11/1817William Godwin finishes reading "Frankenstein". The book was written by his daughter Maty and he was, against his habit, enthousiastic. One day later he wrote an introduction for his own book "Mandeville". [Shelley, Mary]
0/8/1819Mary Shelley starts writing "Mathilda". She finished in in February, 1820 and sent the story to her father William Godwin in 1821. Godwin made no attempts to publish it amd it finally appeared in print in 1959. [Shelley, Mary]
27/7/1823William Godwin attends the theatre premiere of Frankenstein. The book "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus" was written by his daughter Mary Shelley. [Shelley, Mary]
29/8/1823Mary Shelley attends a theatre performance of "Frankenstein". Her father william Godwin was also there. He had already witnessed the premiere on 27 Jul 1823. Jane Williams and William Godwin jr. also attended. The venue was the English Opera House Royal and the adaption was by Richard Brinsley Peake. [Shelley, Mary][Williams, Jane]
26/1/1824Mary Shelley and William Godwin see Edmund Kean in Richard III. Mary was impressed by Kean's part and planned to write a tragedy herself. The venue was the New Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. [Shelley, Mary]
31/1/1824Mary Shelley and William Godwin sea Edmund Kean as Shylock [Shelley, Mary]
26/2/1825Mary Shelley, Willam Godwin and Pietro Gamba see Edmund Kean as Othello. Jane Williams was also there. Gamba was in England to discuss the publication of his book "A Narrative of Lord Byron's Last Journey to Greece" with publisher Murray. [Shelley, Mary][Williams, Jane]
14/4/1836William Godwin is buried at St. Pancras' Churchyard. He was buried next to Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died in 1797. The ceremony was attended by Percy Florence Shelley (chief mourner), E.J. Trelawny, James Kenney, Thomas Campbell, Dr. Uwins and Mr. Caunter. The Times reported on the funeral on 16 Apr 1836. [Trelawny, Edward John][Wollstonecraft, Mary]


The tombstone of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin at 'Old' St. Pancras Churchyard in London. Their remains were moved to Bournemouth in 1851. The cemetery was largely broken up for the construction of the railroad in 1866.
Picture by Androom (14 Dec 1993)


The grave monument for William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft at St. Pancras Old Churchyard, St. Pancras Road, London. Their remains were moved to Bournemouth following the death of Mary Shelley in 1851.
Picture by Androom (28 May 2004)


William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were married in 1797 at Old St. Pancras Church, St. Pancras Road, London.
Picture by Androom (28 May 2004)


The grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Mary Shelley at St. Peter's Churchyard, Bournemouth.
Picture by Androom (18 Jun 2010)


The grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Mary Shelley at St. Peter's Churchyard, Bournemouth.
Picture by Androom (18 Jun 2010)


The grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Mary Shelley at St. Peter's Churchyard, Bournemouth.
Picture by Androom (18 Jun 2010)


Plaque for Mary Shelley at St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth.
Picture by Androom (18 Jun 2010)


• Feldman, Paula R. and Diana Scott-Kilvert, The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987
• Mellor, Anne K., Mary Shelley, her Life, her Fiction, her Monsters, Routledge, New York, 1989
• St Clair, William, The Godwins and the Shelleys, Faber and Faber, London, 1990
• Todd, Janet, Death & The Maidens, Fanny Wollstonecraft and The Shelley Circle, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2007

Goethe, Alma

Published: 1 Jan 2006
Last update: 27 Jul 2010