When Miss Austen was asked to write a historical romance “illustrative of the house of Coburg,” she airily dismissed the suggestion, pleading mirthfully:
“I could not sit down seriously to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."
If Godwin had been confronted with the same offer, he would have settled himself promptly to plot out a scheme, and within a few months a historical romance on the house of Coburg, accompanied perchance by a preface setting forth the evils of monarchy, would have been in the hands of the publisher. Unlike Miss Austen, Godwin had neither a sense of humour nor a fastidious artistic conscience to save him from undertaking incongruous tasks. He seems never even to have suspected the humour of life, and would have perceived nothing ludicrous in the spectacle of the author of Political Justice embarking on such a piece of work. Those disquieting flashes of self-revelation that more imaginative men catch in the mirror of their own minds and that awaken sometimes laughter and sometimes tears, never disturbed Godwin’s serenity. He brooded earnestly over his speculations, quietly ignoring inconvenient facts and never shrinking from absurd conclusions. In theory he aimed at disorganising the whole of human society, yet in actual life he was content to live unobtrusively, publishing harmless books for children; and though he abhorred the principle of aristocracy, he did not scruple to accept a sinecure from government through Lord Grey. Notwithstanding his stolid inconsistency and his deficiency in humour, Godwin is a figure whom it is impossible to ignore or to despise. He was not a frothy orator who made his appeal to the masses, but the leader of the trained thinkers of the revolutionary party, a political rebel who, instead of fulminating wildly and impotently after the manner of his kind, expressed his theories in clear, reasonable and logical form. It is easy, but unprofitable, to sneer at the futility of some of Godwin’s conclusions or to complain of the aridity of his style. His Political Justice remains, nevertheless, a lucidly written, well-ordered piece of intellectual reasoning. Shelley spoke of Godwin’s Mandeville in the same breath with Plato’s Symposium and the ideas expressed in Political Justice inspired him to write not merely Queen Mab but the Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound. Godwin’s plea for the freedom of the individual and his belief in the perfectibility of man through reason had a far-reaching effect that cannot be readily estimated, but, as his theories only concern us here in so far as they affect two of his novels, it is unnecessary to pursue the trail of his influence further.