THE GODWINS AND THE SHELLEYS: The Biography of a Family by William St. Clair

THE GODWINS AND THE SHELLEYS: The Biography of a Family

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Clearsighted group biography covering the careers of William Godwin, Mary Wollstone-craft, their daughter Mary W. Shelley, and son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley. The emphasis here falls on Godwin, an intellectual powerhouse and idea man straight out of the Hegelian model, embodying the most potent ideas of his age: rationalism, materialism, and anarchism. St. Clair covers Godwin's birth into a dissenting Puritan community charged with debate and variance, as well as his schooling and early career as dissenting minister. Ironically, the anti-authoritarian slant of Godwin's religious background provided the intellectual matrix out of which Godwin the agnostic flourished. Less thoroughly examined is Mary Wollstonecraft, whose life study here begins in earnest with St. Clair's examination of Wollstonecraft's career in Paris as an ally of leaders of the French Revolution. Perhaps it was inevitable that the feminist author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) should eventually strike up a friendship with the rationalist author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). But St. Clair points out that it came as a disappointment to friends that two leaders of the New Philosophy should fall into what Godwin called ""the most odious of all monopolies,"" getting married in 1797. Despite Wollstonecraft's death in childbirth shortly thereafter, the radical connections continued to extend through the life and career of Wollstonecraft's daughter Mary, who eventually married that famous admirer of Godwin's, Percy Bysshe Shelley. A lucid account of some of the major personalities developed in the pre-Romantic rationalist hothouse. Extra points for St. ClaWs appendix on Shelley and publishing pirates, and for the author's observations about attempts to suppress literary dissent by force.

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 1989
Publisher: Norton