The Godwinian psychology of hope and its legacy in the work of Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley
This thesis examines the work of William Godwin in terms of a conjunction between secular Enlightenment optimism and the psychology of Christian hope. This conjunction produced his particular inflection of human perfectibility, where the idea of liberal improvement in society becomes a semi-fictional narrative of faith. This political philosophy is developed alongside a Dissenting literary theory that understands literature as discussion, locating the means of improvement in the written text's influence over the mind of the reader. Godwin's interest in altering the mindset of his readership as a means of political improvement sees him emphasise the idea of hope in his novels, seeking to sustain the progressive project through literature in the face of the rise of anti-Jacobinism and Malthusian political economy in the late 1790s. Percy Shelley defined his literary project as an attempt to revive liberal hope in the wake of the `failure' of the French Revolution, a definition initiated by his reading of Godwin. His reaction against Wordsworthian conservatism is framed in the terms of Godwinian psychology. Percy Shelley's theories on the poet as `legislator' emerge from his encounter with Godwin's ideas on reader-response as the vehicle of improvement. However, there is also a reaction against Godwinian hope, which sees Percy Shelley explore a countervailing anti-humanist disappointment. A key theme of Mary Shelley's novels is the persistence of Godwinian hope. She discusses Godwinian ideas on benevolence and the absence of innate disposition to crime as a means of reviving the progressive project. While Mary Shelley explores the collapse of liberal optimism, she makes a paradoxical attempt to sustain Godwinian hope through a disappointed lament for its demise. The thesis contends that the work of these authors constituted a coherent debate on the liberal Enlightenment, forming an important presence in British literary culture from 1793 up to the verge of the first Reform Bill in 1832.