The writer, William Godwin is perhaps not the most famous but was one of the most influential British radicals and political philosophers of the Age of Revolution. He was married to the revolutionary feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and was the father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. He established the Juvenile Library and had a powerful influence on the Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth and his son-in-law Percy Shelley.

William Godwin (1756-1836) was born in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, the son of a nonconformist minister in a strict Calvinist family. He moved to London and began to develop his own political philosophy, based on anarchism and utilitarianism. This was reflected in his defining work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, written against the backdrop of the French Revolution and published in 1793.

In this work he argued that, if human reason could be ‘perfected’, then unjust, authoritarian laws and institutions could be overturned and ordinary people would no longer be oppressed. Godwin was also a member of the radical London Corresponding Society but, unlike its most extremist members, he was against violence and believed the power of words could persuade people to accept his views about the need to dismantle existing political, social and religious institutions in the quest for equality and justice.

In 1797, he married Mary Wollstonecraft who was pregnant with their daughter Mary (the future Mary Shelley). Mary died of complications following the birth. Godwin subsequently married a neighbour, Mary Jane Clairmont. She encouraged him to establish the ‘Juvenile Library’, a bookshop and publishing company for children.


Did You Know?

William Godwin wrote some of the books for the Juvenile Library himself, but used a pseudonym (false name) in case this tainted his radical reputation.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.