Charlotte Smith and William Godwin

This post has been a long time in coming – it has been a rather busy few weeks! I had a delightful time presenting a paper on Smith’s context in the debate on education in the eighteenth century at the Difficult Women Conference, University of York and discussing my project so far at the IHR’s annual Lightning Talks. After Christmas, I will be producing a post on the former to finally add something about eighteenth-century education to this blog. 

This post is a very brief overview of Smith’s relationship with William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, radical political philosopher and novelist, who wrote Caleb Williams (1794).


Charlotte Smith is first recorded in William Godwin’s diary on 2nd May 1797. A dinner at John King’s (Jacob Rey), a radical and money lender, and a number of other diners, the majority of whom are male (Swainson, Hewardine and Cockburne remain so far unidentified in the Godwin Diary database). This perhaps lends further evidence to the way in which Smith saw herself: a professional and, therefore, an equal to the male professionals around her. (She was notoriously difficult with her publishers as can be seen by her monetary demands in letters to Thomas Caddell Sr.)

2nd May 1797
William Godwin’s Diary,

Throughout the diary, between this first record and the record of her death in 1806, Smith is mentioned 99 times. Godwin also records reading her novels, such as Desmond (1792) and The Young Philosopher (1798).

After the death of Mary Wollstonecraft, 10th September 1797, only months after their first meeting, Smith wrote to Godwin. In a letter dated 24th October 1797, (suggested to have been written to Smith) Godwin responded warmly that

Your letter gave me great pleasure both for the feelings it expressed, and for the person from whom it came. I had always much esteem for you, and that esteem was strengthened by what I saw of you personally a few months ago. Few things would give me more pleasure than to cultivate your acquaintance, and on that account you must allow me to feel some selfish pleasure from the idea of your spending the winter in London.

Prior to their first meeting, Godwin was already aware of Smith as a writer and recorded reading her novel Desmond in his diary as early as 1793. This letter, perhaps, signals the beginning of their correspondence several months after their first meeting. The rest of the letter is very personal and heart-rending; Godwin talks about his distress at losing Mary, how meeting her changed his views on the state of marriage, and what he will do about ‘the poor children! I am myself totally unfitted to educate them.[…] she was the best qualified in the world!’ From this outpouring of feeling and personal grief to his new acquaintance, we can see this was the beginning of a warm friendship.

This led to further letters and meetings, and even collaboration and support for each other’s literary works. Godwin supported Smith’s only foray into playwriting, What Is She?, attending a performance in Convent Garden on 27th April 1799. Within the next year Smith wrote the Prologue for Godwin’s play: Antonio; A Tragedy in Verse (1800). According to Godwin’s diary, he continued to read her other works, including her earlier French translation, The Romance of Real Life (recorded in Godwin’s diary a decade after Smith’s death).

The year before her death her friends in the Godwin circle were concerned about her health. The celebrated surgeon Anthony Carlisle wrote reassuringly to Godwin that ‘Mrs. Smith is not so ill as you have been taught to believe’ and that ‘Mrs. Smith had been better for two days prior to my visit, she sat up [and] was cheerful’.

ds 1350 carlisle
Anthony Carlisle, Surgeon Extraordinary to the Prince Regent. Portrait by Henry Bone

He also teasingly suggests that ‘Mrs. Smith’s love of Doctors’ may have been halting her recovery (too many cooks spoil the broth, perhaps?) and that ‘she would do better to follow steadily some given plan – the Country Surgeon agreed with me on forming certain rules from which I trust she will derive benefit.’ Mary Jane Godwin, in her note attached to the same letter, is less reassuring: ‘These medical men often mistake. Sir A. C. in our poor Willy’s case said “you may wash him […] constantly with vinegar if you like, but he cannot survive.”‘


Letter from Anthony Carlisle to William Godwin, with a note from Mary Jane Godwin (11th Dec 1805) From the Abinger Collection, Bodleian Library

The final mention of Smith in Godwin’s diary records her death on 28th October 1806, a year after Carlisle’s letter. Smith recovered from that bout of illness, as Carlisle suggests she would, but not the next.The record of Smith’s death suggests she was a significant person to Godwin and, as their letters suggest, she was a friend.

Godwin Diary Entry
William Godwin’s Diary,