‘Godwin’s Case: Melancholy Mourning in the Empire of Feeling’

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

The publication of Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798 had an adverse effect on Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation. Despite Godwin’s respect and good intentions, the book – with an honest account of his wife’s sexual affairs, suicide attempts, and unorthodox religious ideas – scandalised contemporaries, and was an inevitable blow to the feminist views associated with Wollstonecraft’s life and work. Even friends like Southey were disappointed and accused Godwin of a “want of feeling in stripping his dead wife naked.” Roscoe condemned him for mourning her “with a heart of stone.” While in our time successful critical attempts have greatly restored Wollstonecraft’s significance and incorporated her works into the study of literary and cultural history, Godwin’s mourning has not yet been fully understood. What does it mean to mourn “with a heart of stone” a person one deeply loved? How is it possible to demonstrate a paradoxical “want of feeling” under the influence of the most powerful emotions? Through tracing the immediate affective response to Wollstonecraft’s death in Godwin’s literary activity, this article argues that the growth of affectivity as seen in Godwin’s Memoirs and unpublished letters, papers, and diary is the result of a complex and emotionally ambivalent psychological process, “melancholy mourning.” The controversial image of Wollstonecraft presented in the Memoirs is a further product of Godwin’s language of melancholia. Godwin’s case reaches beyond the boundaries of the eighteenth-century understanding of melancholia, raising questions that point towards the ideas of Freud and his successors. His mourning – as registered in his writings – offers an alternative case study, which in many respects differs from, and poses new questions to, existing psychoanalytic views.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)491-519
JournalStudies in Romanticism
Volume48
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes

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