This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
The opening stages of the French Revolution helped generate widespread enthusiasm for reform in Britain. It did so especially amongst a group of intellectual and literary women and men who contributed to the emerging ‘revolution controversy’ in pamphlets, poetry and novels and were bonded together by acquaintance and friendship in an increasingly febrile political atmosphere. As the decade progressed, many of these friendships came under strain, as the government pursued a policy of repression against ‘French principles’ and targeted societies promoting reform of the suffrage. By the following decade, William Godwin, the philosopher and novelist, was drawing up a list of ‘amis perdus’ (lost friends) – capturing his sense that the relationships he had valued so much seemed now to be irremediably broken. What is less often reflected on is the nature of the friendships that the literary radicals pursued, and the challenges they faced in doing so.
In my forthcoming book, Radical Conduct: Politics, Sociability and Equality in London 1789-1815, I explore these relationships and challenges among literary London’s radicals. To do so, I draw extensively on diaries, letters, and memoirs of the period, I use some quantitative analysis in examining patterns of friendship, and I draw on some theoretical work on the different ways in which people’s relationships can operate.
The sociologist Mark Granovetter distinguishes between strong and weak ties. Strong ties are rooted in close familial and traditional relationships and involve deep and longstanding patterns of obligation and duties; weak ties are those of acquaintance – in which the demands an individual can make of another are slight and marked by generalized reciprocity: A does a favour for B; who might do one for M, who might do one for X – and when A needs a favour, he might go to a number of people, who do not owe him anything in particular, but who have benefitted from the help of others in the past. If we look at William Godwin’s detailed lists of people he met, we can see that few were strong ties; they were networks of weak connections, some of which he was able to draw on as he developed his career – and many of which he used when trying to further the career of the talented young men whom he encountered. What was true for Godwin was true for many others.
The strong/weak ties distinction can be seen as distinguishing traditional social orders from the relationships found in commercial societies. However, as Allan Silver has shown, the Scottish enlightenment thinker Adam Ferguson believed that by separating familial and traditional relationships from transactional market relationship the development of commercial society had made it possible for people to pursue relationships which were not ‘interested’. That is, it made it possible to develop friendships that were neither traditional, familial nor connected to (commercial or business) interests but were pursued entirely for their own sake, suggesting the emergence of new forms of strong tie.
These ‘disinterested friendships’ capture well some features of the calling, meeting and dining activities of someone like Godwin. What he was most interested in was not the sheer range of people he met, but the opportunity his networks provided for developing deep deliberative relationships with a few individuals – whether with his contemporaries such as Thomas Holcroft (playwright and novelist), William Nicholson (chemist), and Joseph Fawcett (dissenting clergyman and poet), or with a younger generation whose intellectual promise he could help develop, such as Thomas Cooper, Basil Montagu, George Dyson, Joseph Gerrald, or the lawyer John Stoddart to whom Godwin wrote after their first encounter: ‘I want to know whether in exhibiting so many excellencies you have put a deception on me; or whether, as I like to believe, I have found a treasure.’ For Godwin, then, his deep friendships were essentially deliberative – where that deliberation was deeply marked by the commitment to candour and the pursuit of philosophical truth. Some form of this commitment can be recognised across radical literary circles in the first half of the decade.
We should, however, be wary of appearances, and wary of taking the deliberative hopes of the radicals as indicative of the realities of acquaintance. It is clear that class and status boundaries retained a powerful hold in London’s social order. Godwin calls on his aristocratic associates, they do not call on him; when they want to see him, they summon him. And people whom he talked to at Debrett’s, the Whig publisher, might well have not acknowledged him in the street when they met.
Gender was another major constraint. It was systematically harder for women to meet other people in the ways Godwin did. Where we have records for women from the more middling and professional orders, it is clear that their circles were dominated by family and spousal connections. When we look at the relationships between women in literary circles in the period, we find rather little sense of a community of interest. The novelist and dramatist Elizabeth Inchbald’s rejection of Mary Wollstonecraft is well known, but it far from idiosyncratic; Mary Hays, author of the Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), had to defend Wollstonecraft to her acquaintance but in doing so was warned that the connection would damage her own reputation; and Charlotte Smith (one of the most successful novelists of her generation) made her sense of proprieties clear when she wrote that she had no interest in: ‘Mrs Mary Robinson (the actress and former mistress of the Prince of Wales) & other Mistresses whom I have no passion to be confounded with.’ If there is something like an intellectual coterie of radical women it seems likely that this came into being largely after Wollstonecraft’s death and involved, Eliza Fenwick (author of Secresy (1795)), Mary Hays, and Mary Robinson. But their opportunities for meeting were limited and they relied heavily on epistolary friendships. The constraints most women laboured under involved concerns about gossip, the damage to their reputations, and the potential costs from alienating people in their personal networks on whom they might have to rely in the future.
The very different character of women’s friendships to Godwin’s disinterested deliberative engagements comes into sharp focus when we look at how men and women related to each other. Propriety became a major issue for many, and even where there were friendships, these were often marked by dramatically different expectations. When the Norwich novelist Amelia Alderson visited Godwin in London, accompanied by the family friend she was staying with, Godwin lectured her on the importance of giving priority to reason over sentiment in her relationships. Indeed, his conduct in relation to many women was tutelary or didactic – seeking to develop their understanding, rather than really treating them as equals. And several younger women, including Alderson and Sarah Anne Parr (the daughter of the Warwickshire clergyman Samuel Parr), responded to this by spirited coquettish resistance, which successfully baffled the philosopher.
Alderson clearly sensed that there were registers of association in London that were different from the customary friendships she had developed in Norwich. She wrote to Wollstonecraft in 1797, ‘I wish you would invent some word warmer than acquaintance & less warm than friend – as the latter word owing to the poverty of language is frequently applied where it does not belong.’ She went on to say that she flattered herself to think that Wollstonecraft shared her attachment to people to whom she was connected by early impressions – and whom she has ‘long loved and have a claim on her affections to which perhaps their talents in the eye of reason give them no claim.’ In doing so, she was underlining the persistent priority accorded to traditional strong ties of friendship for women, while also recognising that London offered something different – if also attractive.
Where radical women’s relationships with men were openly transgressive, they felt the backlash. The poet Helen Maria Williams formed a liaison with the (married) radical publisher John Hurford Stone in Paris that shocked her English friends. Wollstonecraft’s affair with Gilbert Imlay in Paris was masked and presented as a marriage, causing problems subsequently when she married Godwin in March 1797. Women were systematically more vulnerable to social exclusion on the grounds of their conduct than were men. Men ignored or forgave (and often abetted) other men’s conduct in relation to women; in contrast, women were careful to avoid association with other women with damaged reputations.
In these circumstances, establishing a disinterested friendship across gender boundaries was a major challenge. And it became still more challenging when the philosophical commitment to disinterested dialogue opened the way for more sentimental, emotional and sexual feelings. The letters marking Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s affair record her resistance to Godwin’s didacticism and philosophical condescension, his baffled reaction to her states of feeling, and their growing mutual recognition that they could not see things in the same way but could live with their differences. As Wollstonecraft noted, ‘Perfect confidence, and sincerity of action is, I am persuaded, incompatible with the present state of reason.’
Radical circles in London in the 1790s have been seen as an intensely deliberative culture but when we examine it in detail we can begin to recognise that it was deeply fissured by status and gender divisions, which were intimately linked to people’s understandings and practices of friendship. Men like Godwin could preach an equality rooted in a recognition of talent, but in practice they found these deliberative relationships to be less secure than they anticipated – especially so when they crossed status and gender boundaries. The culture in which he attempted to practice his candour was so deeply marked by inequality that many of his relationships proved evanescent. His relationship with Wollstonecraft epitomises both his aspiration and the challenges it faced. After her tragic early death, and in the developing political and cultural backlash against the radicals, he fell back on more conventional expectations of the women he wooed. But the abandonment of that aspiration was linked to a wider sense that the deliberative culture in which he had made his reputation was fragmenting. His most intense disinterested deliberative friendship, with Thomas Holcroft, fell prey to a misunderstanding that entirely separated them until a final death bed reconciliation, eloquently testifying to their over-confidence in absolute candour as the foundation of their friendship.
Radical Conduct explores this complex terrain of acquaintance and friendship to chart the fate of radical aspiration in a deeply inegalitarian society, underlining the later insight that, while we can attempt to make our own history, the circumstances in which we do so profoundly affect our chances of success.
Mark Philp is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. He has published widely on the history of ideas, late 18th and early 19th century European history, and on political realism and ethics in public life. Recent books include Political Conduct (2007) and Reforming Ideas in Britain: (2013). His new book, Radical Conduct: Politics, Sociability and Equality in London 1789-1815 will be published by Cambridge in October 2020.
To follow up, readers can access Godwin’s Diary (http://godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/) and the extensive correspondence in https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/3190