These days, William Godwin (1756-1836) is better known as the father of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist who wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women. Considering all the talented women whose names have been erased from the literary canon over the years (if they were there in the first place), it is perhaps fair that Godwin’s has by now been largely forgotten. He is an important figure, though, both in the history of the novel and the history of ideas.
Late eighteenth-century Britain, like its colony in North America and its neighbor across the Channel, was in foment over the proper role of the monarch and the aristocracy. Godwin, who had started adulthood as a member of the clergy, quickly changed his tune under the influence of the Enlightenment and the revolutions in America and France. He is now considered the first liberal or philosophical anarchist and Caleb Williams the first novel to overtly embrace a political ideology. It also happens to be the first thriller, as well.
The novel is centered on the development of the character of Caleb Williams. An innocent young Caleb comes to work as a secretary for Squire Falkland. Caleb gradually uncovers Falkland’s brutal past, and though Caleb has sworn an oath of loyalty, Falkland exacts a cruel revenge anyway. Terrorized, Caleb is then confronted with a choice: to break his oath and expose the corruption of Falkland and his ilk, or to slink away quietly and soak his bruised conscience in a vat of beer.
It’s trite to say “they don’t write them the way the used to” and, indeed, most readers are thankful novelists have evolved away from the didactic style so popular in Godwin’s day. (Godwin was one of the most-celebrated and best-selling writers of his time.) That may be true, but there are still all kinds of reasons to read Caleb Williams today. Political activists will find Caleb’s moral crisis instructive in a day when most citizens are asleep at the wheel. Caleb’s speeches, as brilliant set pieces, would be useful to anyone interested in politics. For students of history, the novel is invaluable: Godwin held a mirror to the events of his day, and his fiction is an accurate reflection of Britain in the late eighteenth century (Maurice Hindle’s excellent introduction provides a useful sketch of the novel’s historical background as well as a thorough bibliography of all things Godwinian). Serious students of the spy novel (such as fans of John Le Carré; forget Ian Fleming), the thriller and the mystery will be fascinated by this early example of genre fiction. And of course, readers of Mary Shelley will find Godwin bracing; Caleb Williams is ammunition in the battle between those who argue Mary wrote Frankenstein all by herself and those who claim Percy Bysshe is the real author.
Finally, though, the novel simply kicks ass. Yes, there is a bit more “tell” than the “show” that the modern reader typically cares for, and it is a little more introspective than the tag “thriller” implies today. But rarely has there been a more exciting study of the consequences of knowing something you’re not supposed to know.