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William Godwin’s diaries examined

by on July 27, 2010

Any document connected with William Godwin – political philosopher, writer for children, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley, thus (literarily) grandfather of Frankenstein’s monster – is of interest to literary scholars because of his career and associations. Fortunately for scholars, Godwin kept a diary for the last 48 years of his life from 1788 to 1836, recording brief details of his meetings with people and books. These records have now been digitized and transcribed in a Leverhulme-funded project and a conference on July 23-24 presented evidence of the scholarly potential of this work for a range of disciplines, including literary studies, history, theatre studies, political thought and statistics.

These notebooks recorded the simple facts of Godwin’s daily social and intellectual life. We find in them the names of people Godwin met at dinner and tea, so it’s possible to map a web of relationships among writers, politicians, artists, and publishers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The diaries are part of the Abinger Collection of manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, relating to Godwin and the Shelleys. (Shelfmarks of the diaries are Bodleian Library MSS. Abinger e. 1-32).

MS. Abinger e. 8, fols. 25v26r_detail

Detail from Godwin's diary of 1797, recording the birth of his daughter Mary (later Mary Shelley). Bodleian MS. Abinger e.8.

Of special interest to book historians, the entries, each only a few lines long, collectively give valuable quantitative evidence over several decades of activity in writing, reading, and publishing: Godwin’s records of his visits to booksellers, his notes of books read, and the progress in his own writing are recorded daily. In speaking about the diaries, Beth Lau drew out details of Godwin’s connections with the ‘Cockney’ publishing circles around Hazlitt, Lamb, and Keats, and the connection of this activity – as an unofficial literary agent – with his daily reading. Matthew Grenby offered insights into how Godwin became first a writer and later a seller of children’s books, even before the foundation in 1805 of the Juvenile Library as a business venture. David Fallon was able to graph Godwin’s visits to London booksellers of different political leanings as an indicator of his own changing political ambitions.

The project to digitize and transcribe the diaries has been run by David O’Shaughnessy and Mark Philp (Oxford) and Victoria Myers (California). See:
Godwin Diaries Project page

http://godwindiary.politics.ox.ac.uk/

Collection-level description of the Abinger Collection, Bodleian Library

http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/1500-1900/abinger/abinger.html

And see ‘A conspectus…’ for brief descriptions of individual items, including the diaries.

http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/1500-1900/abinger/conspectus.html

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