William Godwin And The School That Epsom Never Had

William Godwin
Image of William Godwin from Illustrations of Phrenology (1820) by Sir George Steuart Mackenzie
via Wikimedia Commons

Mr William Godwin looks reasonably harmless, doesn't he - like a normal schoolmaster in fact. You may therefore be surprised to discover what he had in mind for Epsom back in the summer of 1784, which is not revealed by the following innocuous frontispiece to his prospectus.

That will be opened
On Monday the Fourth Day of AUGUST,

Printed for T.CADELL, in the Strand.
Of whom information respecting other particulars may
be received.

So far so good: it sounds like a nice, exclusive private school for 10 year old sons of the gentry to receive a classical education. Ten was the age which the philosopher Rousseau (Godwin's inspiration) had identified as the optimum time for a child to be receptive to instruction. The only problem was that Godwin was anarchic, intent on destroying the political, social and religious fabric of the country and attacking aristocratic privilege. But, in 1784 he was just 28 years old and an embryonic anarchist. It can be presumed, therefore, that the Epsom school was to be an experiment in indoctrination. Why he chose Epsom is not known.

William Godwin was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in 1756, son of a Nonconformist minister. He was educated at Hoxton Academy in London, having been refused admission to another school because he was suspected of being a Sandemanian. (The Sandemanians were and are a very small and strict Christian sect, known chiefly for the fact that scientist Michael Faraday was once an elder thereof.) He practised as a minister for some time and then went to London in 1782, aiming to promote anarchy through writing.

The prospectus for Godwin's school was long and wordy (the full text appears at http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives should you feel sufficiently strong to tackle it) and, if Epsom parents were hoping to read how their children would emerge splendidly educated and equipped for conventional society, they would have been disappointed. Indeed, it is not entirely clear what form the education would have taken, since Godwin was too busy expounding his philosophy. He probably came over to his readers as something of a 'nutcase' and I daresay that they expired from boredom before reaching the end of the prospectus, as did I. This document is now recognised as a valuable insight into his thinking, but it was hardly enlightening for an Epsom esquire seeking to turn young Algernon into a well-educated gentleman.

For example, 'There is something necessarily disgusting in the forms of grammar. Grammar therefore is made in our public schools the business of a twelvemonth. Rules are heaped upon rules with laborious stupidity. To render them the more formidable, they are presented to our youth in the very language, the first principles of which they are designed to teach. For my own part, I am persuaded the whole business of grammar may be dispatched in a fortnight. I would only teach the declensions of nouns, and the inflexions of verbs.'

Given the frontispiece of the prospectus, which majored on tuition in languages, parents might have found this statement rather worrying.

Godwin actually acquired premises at Epsom to house his school, but he never received enough enrolments and abandoned the project. These days the prospectus does not seem that outrageous when you get down to brass tacks. He was merely promoting the idea that a different kind of education produced a free-thinking, well-rounded adult. There are now all kinds of schools, many of them state funded, that provide 'alternative education' (Steiner schools for instance and, if you read about Steiner - see https://en.wikipedia.org, the idea might seem alarming, but there is one just round the corner from me: it is highly regarded and you practically have to put the child's name down at birth to get a place). However, in 1784 Godwin's proposition must have seemed shocking: it was an idea whose time had not yet come. He was a philosopher rather than a revolutionary and was not advocating violence at all: he believed that his aims could be accomplished peacefully.

Godwin went on to write two major works, which were 'An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice', which was an attack on political institutions, and 'The Adventures of Caleb Williams', which was both a description of the justice system and a thriller (see http://www.gutenberg.org). I have had a quick glance at the latter and it seems eminently more readable than the aforementioned prospectus.

An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Godwin's personal life was somewhat inappropriate for a minister and intending schoolmaster. He did not approve of the institution of marriage, but took the plunge when his lover, Mary Wollstonecraft, became pregnant: she already had an illegitimate child, Fanny Imlay (who committed suicide in 1816 at the age of 22), by an American merchant. Mary died in 1797, eleven days after being delivered of a daughter, also called Mary, who was destined to become famous in her own right as the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the creator of Frankenstein. Indeed, I suppose she could be regarded as an example of William Godwin's educational system, in which case the aristocracy of Epsom possibly missed a literary trick by cold-shouldering the school.

After the death of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin actively sought a new wife and settled on Mary Jane Clairmont, a widow with two children. His brand of political thinking became increasingly unfashionable and he earned a living by writing and publishing all kinds of books and essays, including children's material, such as a version of 'Jack and the Beanstalk'. Towards the end of his life he accepted a government pension, the ultimate irony for someone of his views - but by then he was very strapped for cash. He died in 1836, more or less forgotten, but today he is recognised as a major influence on political thought.

Memorial to the Shelleys and Godwins in Christchurch Priory, Dorset.
Memorial to the Shelleys and Godwins in Christchurch Priory, Dorset.
Image source: Linda Jackson © 2013

Linda Jackson
December 2012

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