Caleb Williams: A Description of the Holograph Manuscript

By Pamela Clemit

William Godwin (1756-1836) was an English radical political philosopher of the French Revolutionary era and the head of one of Britain’s leading literary families. He married Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), the early advocate of women’s rights, but she died shortly after the birth of their daughter Mary (1797-1851). Mary grew up to marry her father’s disciple, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

Godwin rose to fame with two books: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), now seen as a founding text of philosophical anarchism, and Caleb Williams (1794), one of the great novels of the eighteenth century. He also wrote five more full-length novels, works of educational theory, children’s books, plays, philosophical biographies, essays, political pamphlets—and a four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1824-8). Sociable on principle as well as by disposition, he knew or corresponded with almost everyone of note on the political left from the 1790s to the era of the Great Reform Bill (1832)—including nearly all the major literary figures of the period. Godwin’s greatest impact was in the debates following the French Revolution, but his influence has been through several revivals, and is currently rising again among scholars and political thinkers.1

Caleb Williams was published on 26 May 1794 under the title, Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. A second edition followed in 1796, and a third in 1797, each containing extensive revisions. Two more editions during Godwin’s lifetime (1816, 1831) repackaged the novel for nineteenth-century readers.2 The 1831 Bentley’s Standard Novels edition retitled the novel Caleb Williams and included ‘Memoirs of William Godwin’ by Mary Shelley. Godwin’s celebrated account of the composition of Caleb Williams appeared in the ‘Preface to the Present Edition’ of the 1832 Bentley’s Standard Novels edition of Fleetwood; or, The New Man of Feeling (first published, 1805). Since then, Caleb Williams has never been out of print. Modern editors have nearly always adhered to the conventional choice of the last edition corrected in the author’s lifetime. An exception is Pamela Clemit’s edition in Volume III of Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, gen. ed. Mark Philp, 8 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1992), which is based on the first edition and includes a list of substantive variants from the manuscript and the four other lifetime editions. The first edition was preferred because it represented Godwin’s original intentions, while the list of variants provided a record of his changing ideas which could be studied separately. Clemit’s Oxford World’s Classics edition of Caleb Williams (2009) made the 1794 text available for classroom use.

The present publication is the first to make available online the sole surviving holograph manuscript of Caleb Williams (Victoria and Albert Museum, MSL/1876/Forster/223).3 It provides a unique opportunity to study the process of composition of the original novel and is a rare example of a printer’s copy of a late eighteenth-century literary text.

Godwin died on 7 April 1836. In his will, he gave his daughter Mary Shelley authority ‘to look over the manuscripts that shall be found in my own handwriting, & decide which of them are fit to be printed, consigning the rest to the flames’.4 The manuscript of Caleb Williams was sold, along with thirteen other holograph manuscripts, at the Sotheby’s sale of Godwin’s library in June 1836. An annotated copy of the sale catalogue at the British Museum shows that the manuscript of Caleb Williams, together with nine other Godwin manuscripts, was purchased by the Norfolk banker, antiquary, and collector Dawson Turner (1775-1858).5 When Turner’s library was sold by Puttick and Simpson in 1859, the manuscript of Caleb Williams, along with those of Political Justice, Life of Chaucer, and History of the Commonwealth of England, was purchased by the author and collector John Forster (1812-76), an admirer and acquaintance of Godwin.6

On Forster’s death in 1876, the four Godwin manuscripts, together with the rest of his collection, were bequeathed to his wife, Eliza Ann Forster (1819-94), widow of the publisher Henry Colburn, during her lifetime. Forster stipulated that after her death the collection was to be presented to the South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899). She chose, however, to pass the entire collection to the museum immediately.7

The only previous study is in D. Gilbert Dumas, ‘Things as They Were: The Original Ending of Caleb Williams’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 6 (1966), 575-97. He announced the discovery in the holograph manuscript of a first version of the novel’s ending, which Godwin cancelled in favour of the ending which appeared in the published novel. Most of Dumas’s article is devoted to a literary analysis of the two endings. There is a short bibliographical description of the manuscript in a footnote, which provides useful guidance but contains a few inaccuracies. Ever since Dumas, it has been the practice of editors of Caleb Williams to publish the manuscript ending in an appendix to the novel.

The manuscript is comprised of loose leaves mounted in a guard book. This method of binding loose leaves into volumes was used extensively throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and earlier. The guard book has sponge-marbled red boards (measuring approximately 265 x 227.5 mm), half-leather binding, and gilt decorations. Single leaves of Godwin’s manuscript are pasted onto stubs or guards of uniform height. The leaves are slightly smaller than the boards, and are positioned alternately higher or lower on the guards to keep their edges even. The guard book was evidently commissioned by Dawson Turner, rather than by the Godwin family. The binding closely resembles those of other manuscripts from Turner’s collection, including the three further Godwin holograph manuscripts at the V&A, three Godwin holograph manuscripts in the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, and a number of other volumes of literary manuscripts now held at the Bodleian Library.8

The manuscript is written in Godwin’s hand, which is nearly always clear and well formed. He wrote in black ink which has uniformly faded to a medium brown. The manuscript is undated and comprises 161 leaves of laid paper, trimmed to approximately 241 x 195 mm. The total number of leaves includes several smaller slips of paper used by Godwin for revisions to the text, and tipped to the guards in the same way as the whole leaves. Most of the leaves with identifiable, named watermarks were made by Edmeads & Pine, or Floyd & Co.

Volume, chapter, and paragraph divisions were clearly marked by Godwin in the process of composition. Almost all of the leaves are paginated in Godwin’s hand, though leaves containing revised portions of text marked by Godwin for insertion are mostly paginated in another hand. There are three separate pagination sequences which correspond to the volumes in the published text.9 Volume III ends with Godwin’s original version of the novel’s conclusion, which he cancelled before sending the manuscript to the publisher. This has been misbound with pages from the rewritten ending, which appeared in the published novel.

The manuscript was incomplete at the time it left the Godwin household.10 In Volume I, the Preface, and pages 1-36 and 115-19 are missing (the page numbered ‘115’ having been misbound from Volume III). In Volume II, pages 13-20, 31-6, and 81-2 are missing. Two pages of revisions for Volume II, paginated 3-6 by Godwin, are misbound in Volume III; and pages 91-100 are missing from Volume III. Four pages from Volume III, three of them containing portions of the second ending, are misbound in Volume I (94a, 107a-108a, 109-10, and 115). One leaf in Volume I, paginated 74a, is misbound from the manuscript of Godwin’s Political Justice.

Godwin made numerous revisions as he went along, or immediately on finishing a section or volume. The manuscript has numerous cancellations of words, sentences, and longer sections, with revisions between the lines, in the margins, and sometimes on separate leaves or scraps of paper, where portions of new or altered text are keyed to insertion points in the manuscript by asterisks, crosses, or other symbols. That this became Godwin’s habitual method of composition is corroborated by his letter to the publisher Archibald Constable about his 1817 novel, Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England: ‘In finally looking over the manuscript for the press, I have been struck with the complexity of my insertions & reinsertions in the few places where I found it most difficult to please myself in writing.’11

There is an abundance of printers’ marks throughout all three volumes of the manuscript (except on the pages containing the original, cancelled ending). They include the names of compositors responsible for setting particular sections of text (for example, ‘Morton begins’), and signature indications for typesetting (in a variety of hands) which correspond exactly to the signatures for the first edition. This confirms that the book was set in type from the present manuscript (and that the pages of the original ending were never submitted for printing). Further light is shed on Godwin’s practice of overseeing the printing of his novels by his correspondence with Constable, who insisted on setting type for Mandeville in Edinburgh, separating the sole manuscript from its author. Godwin explained that during the production of Caleb Williams, St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), and Fleetwood, he had been accustomed to close interaction with, and easy geographical access to, his printer: ‘my printer was in London; the manuscript was at the distance of three streets; & upon any unforeseen emergence I could immediately have recourse to & consult it.’12

According to Godwin’s diary, he began writing Caleb Williams on 24 February 1793 (‘Write 1 page’), ten days after the publication of Political Justice. Over the fourteen months in which he was engaged on the novel, the war with France stimulated a powerful government reaction against British reformers, leading to judicial prosecutions, repressive legislation, and campaigns of intimidation by loyalist associations. Godwin returned to composition on 5 March (‘Write 7 pages’), after which he wrote steadily until 29 March, the day on which he proposed a Roman history to the publisher George Robinson, then resumed work on 22 April 1793.13 From this date Godwin worked almost daily on the manuscript. Despite receiving hostile criticisms from his friend James Marshall on 28 May, he completed Volume I on 28 June (‘Write p. 116, 117, 118, 119’).14 Godwin began Volume II on 1 July (‘Write Vol. II, p. 1, 2, 3’) and finished it on 25 October (‘Write p. 105/2, 106’).

He began work on Volume III on 30 October 1793 (‘Write Vol. III, p. 1’), received criticisms from another friend, Thomas Holcroft, on 4 November,15 and stopped writing from 5 to 19 November. Godwin’s writing was further disrupted in December by his visits to the imprisoned Scottish radicals Thomas Muir and Thomas Fyshe Palmer, who had been tried for sedition in August and September 1793 respectively, and were awaiting transportation to New South Wales in the hulks at Woolwich.16 He broke off writing Volume III on 2 January 1794 (‘Write p. 21, 22, 23’) in order to begin an extended period of revision which lasted to the end of March.

There is no further evidence about the nature of these revisions, but some light may be cast on them by his later account of his compositional method in his correspondence with Constable: ‘It has been my habit … to write with so much deliberation & thought, that I have never hesitated to send my work to the press by the time the half of it was completed; & as it drew to its conclusion, the printer & the author generally finished within three days of each other’.17 It is therefore possible that Godwin set aside Volume III in order to revise earlier volumes to send to the press. This phase of revision coincided with a period of intense engagement with persecuted radicals: he had frequent contact with the political reformer Joseph Gerrald, both before and after Gerrald’s trial for sedition in Edinburgh on 13 and 14 March 1794, and on 3 March he wrote a letter to the Morning Chronicle protesting at the conditions in which Muir and Palmer were held.18

Godwin resumed work on Volume III on 1 April (‘Write p. 24-28’) and wrote steadily until 30 April 1794, when he recorded completing the manuscript (‘Write p. 112-117/2, fin.’). On the next day he revised, and for the next two days he did no work on the novel. From 4 to 8 May, the following diary entries occur:

4. Su. Write 1½ pages.

5. M. Write 2 pages.

6. Tu. Write 4 pages.

7. W. Write 1 page: revise.

8. Th. Write 1 page: revise.

In a later memorandum of the composition of Caleb Williams, Godwin bracketed these entries together under the heading ‘new catastrophe’—referring to the rewritten ending which appeared in the published edition.19 Leaving aside missing and misbound pages, there is an exact correspondence between the notation of pages in the diary and the pagination of the manuscript. The present manuscript is evidently the one whose composition Godwin recorded and sent to press, and is hence the unique manuscript of this work.

Queen Mary University of London


  1. Pamela Clemit and Avner Offer, ‘Godwin’s Citations, 1785-2005: Highest Renown at the Pinnacle of Disfavor’, Nineteenth-Century Prose, 41 (2014), 27-52.

  2. Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, 3 vols., 12mo (London: B. Crosby, 1794); second edition corr., 3 vols., 12mo (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1796); third edition corr., 3 vols., 12mo (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1797); fourth edition, 3 vols., 12mo (London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshal, 1816); The Adventures of Caleb Williams; or, Things As They Are, revised and corr. with a memoir of the author (London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831).

  3. A microfilm of the manuscript was published in The Forster and Dyce Collections from the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Brighton: Harvester Microform / Reading: Research Publications, 1987-9), Part Three, Reel 42.

  4. Godwin’s will, 12 Mar. 1827, Pforz. MS G 0022, fol. 2.

  5. In the British Museum copy of the sale catalogue, the following autograph manuscripts are listed (lots 913-26), and annotated in an unknown hand with their price and purchasers:

    The Enquirer–: 5:6Miller
    Political Justice1: 11:6Turner
    Caleb Williams–: 10:6Do
    St. Leon–: 10:6Do
    Fleetwood–: 7: –Do
    Reply to the Attacks of Dr. Parr
    in his celebrated Spital Sermon
    –: 4: –Black
    Mandeville–: 5: –Turner
    Cloudesley–: 5: –Do
    Deloraine–: 5: –Do
    Life of Chaucer, 2 vol.–: 10:6Do
    Lives of Edward and John Philips1: 15: –Rodd
    History of the Commonwealth, 4 vol.2:16: –Turner
    Thoughts on Man–: 15: –Do
    History of Necromancers–: 7: –Do

    (Catalogue of the Curious Library of that Very Eminent and Distinguished Author, William Godwin, Esq. to which are added, the very interesting and original Autograph Manuscripts of his highly esteemed Publications, which will be sold by auction, by Mr. Sotheby and Son, Wellington Street, Strand, On Friday, June 17th, 1836, and following Day, at Twelve o’Clock (London: Sotheby & Co, 1836), 38; see also Shelley and his Circle, 1773-1822, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron, Donald H. Reiman, and Doucet Devin Fischer, 10 vols. to date (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961-), i. 335, n. 3.)

  6. In the Turner sale, the manuscripts (lots 203-13) are all described as quarto volumes bound in ‘half-morocco’ (Catalogue of the Manuscript Library of the Late Dawson Turner, Esq. … Which will be Sold by Auction, by Messrs Puttick and Simpson … On Monday, June 6, 1859, and Four Following Days, at One o’Clock Precisely (London: Puttick and Simpson, 1859), 85-6; see also Shelley and his Circle, i. 335, n. 3). Forster first called on Godwin with Leigh Hunt on 2 Dec. 1831 and they exchanged visits occasionally throughout the winter of 1831-2 (The Diary of William Godwin, ed. Victoria Myers, David O’Shaughnessy, and Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford Digital Library, 2010),; hereafter GD). In a letter to James Whiteside, dated 31 Dec. 1831, Forster wrote of Godwin: ‘I reckon now with pride among my acquaintances and visitors that remarkable & immortal man. Oh James how little he is in stature!—but in mind how great. He is less than (not to be profane in mentioning them in the same sentence) Johnson. (Not Doctor Johnson!) He sits in his little library in Gower Place surrounded by musty folios Quartos & octavos in plentiful abundance … He is all intellect—you feel that in looking at him—and the slightest word he says fixes your attention—for you feel raised by his presence. He talks slowly—and his hands move meanwhile with a nervous fidgettiness—which however does not appear or have vent in any other way.—But I must defer a great deal about him to my next. He has visited me twice & I manage to see him as often as possible. I have a general invitation from him to call when I please.’ (Pforz. MS S’ANA 0248, fos. 3-4.)

  7. Henry Morley, ‘Biographical Sketch of Mr. Forster’, Handbook of the Dyce and Forster Collections in the South Kensington Museum (London: Chapman and Hall, 1880), 53.

  8. Holograph MSS of Political Justice (V&A, MSL/1876/Forster/222); Fleetwood (Pforz. MS G 0060); Life of Chaucer (V&A, MSL/1876/Forster/224); History of the Commonwealth of England (V&A, MSL/1876/Forster/225); Cloudesley (Pforz. MS G 0056); Lives of the Necromancers (Pforz. MS G 0002); Bod. MS Lat. misc. c. 19; Bod. MS Bodl. 1013; Bod. MS Bodl. 1003; Bod. MS Bodl. 1004-6; Bod. MS Eng. poet. d. 13.

  9. These pagination sequences are listed in the same other hand in a note entitled ‘Paging of this Volume’ pasted inside the front cover of the guard book.

  10. In Catalogue of the Curious Library, 38, Caleb Williams (lot 915) is described as ‘The first and the most celebrated of Mr. Godwin’s Novels: a few leaves wanting’.

  11. Godwin to Archibald Constable, 29 Dec. 1816, NLS MS 327, fos. 246-7.

  12. Ibid.; for a study of the composition of Fleetwood, see Shelley and his Circle, i. 335-73.

  13. GD, 29 Mar. 1793; Godwin to [George Robinson], 29 Mar. 1793, The Letters of William Godwin, gen. ed. Pamela Clemit, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-), i. 80-2.

  14. ‘Marshal’s criticism’ (GD, 28 May 1793); these pages are missing from the manuscript.

  15. ‘Holcroft at tea, critique C. W.’ (GD, 4 Nov. 1793).

  16. ‘Walk to Woolwich … visit Muir & Palmer’, ‘Dine at Woolwich, w. Muir [and others]’ (GD, 7, 17 Dec. 1793); A Complete Collection of State Trials, ed. William Cobbett and T. B. Howells, 30 vols. (London: T. C. Hansard, 1816-22), xxiii. cols. 117-238, xxiii. cols. 237-382; see also Letters of William Godwin, i. 97-100; Albert Goodwin, The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 287-90.

  17. Godwin to [Archibald Constable], 18 Dec. 1815, NLS MS 327, fos. 207-9.

  18. Gerrald had been charged with sedition in Edinburgh in Dec. 1793 and subsequently released on bail, when he returned to London to consult with his friends, including Godwin; at his trial he was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation, after which he was held at Newgate, where Godwin visited him regularly until he was moved to Gosport to await transportation on 2 May 1795. Godwin visited Palmer at Woolwich on 17 Jan. 1794 and Muir at Newgate on 20 and 28 Jan. (State Trials, xxiii. cols. 803-1012; Letters of William Godwin, i. 90-4, 93, nn. 1-2, 97-100; GD.)

  19. Bod. MS Abinger e. 65, p. 55. This list of the dates of composition of Caleb Williams is in Godwin’s late hand and was probably written in connection with his account of the novel’s composition which was first published in the ‘Preface to the Present Edition’ in the Bentley’s Standard Novels edition (1832) of Fleetwood.