William Godwin (1756-1836) is mostly known as an “English Jacobin” and as the author of the anarchistic Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the Jacobin novel Caleb Williams (1794). However, he was also the author of essays on education – collected in The Enquirer (1797) – and children’s books (between 1802 and 1822). From 1805 to 1825, he even owned a bookselling business, the Juvenile Library, for which he wrote 9 works, from a collection of fables to a history of Classical Greece. In this paper, I want to examine these works which have too often been treated as minor, the hackwork of a penniless out-of-fashion radical, detached from the political activity that had made him famous in the 1790s. Against this view, I show that these children’s books were Godwin’s way of pursuing radical reform. To do so, I replace them works in the contexts of Godwin’s own thought, the range of similar writing for children at the time, and broader late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century intellectual debates, particularly those concerning education, morality, religion, and history. I show how Godwin challenged the foundations of middle-class education in Britain, to contribute to the growth of a new generation, better equipped to bring about social and political progress.
John-Erik Hansson is Lecturer in British History and member of LARCA.