Category Archives: Mary Shelley

Lives of the Necromancers: William Godwin’s Misunderstood Treatise Against Magic and the Supernatural

I really didn’t know what to expect from William Godwin’s The Lives of the Necromancers (1834). This was the last book of the great eighteenth century political writer and author. Considering that Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and that his ideas greatly influenced his son-in-law, Percy Shelley, I expected a work far more intellectual and scholarly in tone. Considering that Godwin wrote two extremely fine Gothic novels, Caleb Williams (1794) and St. Leon (1799), the latter full of Rosicrucian elements, I expected something more thorough and colorful in tone.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Instead, I feel like this book is a second rate work lacking in any real scholarly value although ironically, perhaps its reception proves the very point Godwin was trying to make. I’ll explain that irony in a moment. First, let me explain that this book is basically a compilation of everyone in history Godwin could find information on that ever claimed in any way to work any form of magic. Even the title is misleading since Godwin uses “necromancer” in the same sense as magician or sorcerer, rather than its more specific meaning of someone who can raise people from the dead. Godwin compiles a great deal of information from history into this one volume, some of it somewhat obscure, but most of it I believe would be knowledge most readers could have easily found elsewhere, and even in his day, I think that would have been the case.

The book begins with very brief descriptions of different forms of magic including magical beings like fairies and sylphs, magical organizations like the Rosicrucians, and general magic terms like the philosopher’s stone and astrology. Godwin then takes us through history from looking at evidence of magic and sorcery in the Bible to the Greek myths, the Roman legends, and tales of the East, including the Arabian Nights. Next, we move to medieval Europe and then the Renaissance. Finally, he discusses magic in the seventeenth century, including King James I of England’s passage of laws against witchcraft and how they were later repealed, and tales of witches in Sweden, England, and finally, the famous Salem Witch Trials of New England. He does not continue into the eighteenth century, but in passing, simply remarks that he has seen plenty of superstitious people in his own day—and that hasn’t changed even in 2015.

Some of the people Godwin treats are brushed over rather quickly, like Nostradamus, who only warrants a little over a page, but Nostradamus’s fame in Godwin’s day was not what it is today. Other people, like Dr. John Dee, have extensive sections. Dee was at the court of Elizabeth I, claimed to have had the philosopher’s stone, and with a business partner, got himself into and then thrown out of several courts in Europe because of his claims of supernatural knowledge and power.

Other famous people treated include Merlin and Pythagoras. Godwin’s treatment of Merlin initially interested me because of my interest in Arthurian legends, but there was nothing said here that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other books. Pythagoras was far more interesting because he is known for his contributions to math, but I had no idea of his claims to supernatural powers, including that he had incarnated in many previous lives—a claim I found fascinating since nowhere else did Godwin discuss reincarnation, and the major villainess of my Children of Arthur series—Gwenhwyvach—also incarnates repeatedly over centuries.

Ultimately, Lives of the Necromancers has little value beyond the biographies save for the fact that how it has been revered ever since is ironic in view of Godwin’s intentions. Godwin wrote it to show how easily man allows his imagination to get the best of him, and yet many readers have held it up as a book of value for studying the occult and going down its path. Godwin begins in his preface by saying that this will be his last published book, and I am not surprised, for he must have felt his faculties failing him. He was seventy-eight at the time of its publication in 1834 and would die two years later. He also states that something of value can be learned from exploring how easily mankind can become incredulous. Anyone who reads the preface will understand that Godwin thinks all forms of witchcraft, sorcery, and even religious belief are false. He was a noted atheist as well as a proponent of reason in the Age of Reason. Godwin states that in nature we observe things we cannot understand and consequently have to invent gods and other supernatural beings to explain them. Following are the key paragraphs of the preface that make this point clear:

“[W]ith a daring spirit inquire into the invisible causes of what we see, and people all nature with Gods ‘of every shape and size’ and angels, with principalities and powers, with beneficent beings who ‘take charge concerning us lest at any time we dash our foot against a stone,’ and with devils who are perpetually on the watch to perplex us and do us injury. And, having familiarised our minds with the conceptions of these beings, we immediately aspire to hold communion with them. We represent to ourselves God, as ‘walking in the garden with us in the cool of the day,’ and teach ourselves ‘not to forget to entertain strangers, lest by so doing we should repel angels unawares.’

“But, what is most deplorable, we are not contented to endeavour to secure the aid of God and good angels, but we also aspire to enter into alliance with devils, and beings destined for their rebellion to suffer eternally the pains of hell. As they are supposed to be of a character perverted and depraved, we of course apply to them principally for purposes of wantonness, or of malice and revenge. And, in the instances which have occurred only a few centuries back, the most common idea has been of a compact entered into by an unprincipled and impious human being with the sworn enemy of God and man, in the result of which the devil engages to serve the capricious will and perform the behests of his blasphemous votary for a certain number of years, while the deluded wretch in return engages to renounce his God and Saviour, and surrender himself body and soul to the pains of hell from the end of that term to all eternity. No sooner do we imagine human beings invested with these wonderful powers, and conceive them as called into action for the most malignant purposes, than we become the passive and terrified slaves of the creatures of our own imaginations, and fear to be assailed at every moment by beings to whose power we can set no limit, and whose modes of hostility no human sagacity can anticipate and provide against. But, what is still more extraordinary, the human creatures that pretend to these powers have often been found as completely the dupes of this supernatural machinery, as the most timid wretch that stands in terror at its expected operation; and no phenomenon has been more common than the confession of these allies of hell, that they have verily and indeed held commerce and formed plots and conspiracies with Satan….

…The human mind is of so ductile a character that, like what is affirmed of charity by the apostle, it ‘believeth all things, and endureth all things.’ We are not at liberty to trifle with the sacredness of truth. While we persuade others, we begin to deceive ourselves. Human life is a drama of that sort, that, while we act our part, and endeavour to do justice to the sentiments which are put down for us, we begin to believe we are the thing we would represent.

“To shew however the modes in which the delusion acts upon the person through whom it operates, is not properly the scope of this book. Here and there I have suggested hints to this purpose, which the curious reader may follow to their furthest extent, and discover how with perfect good faith the artist may bring himself to swallow the grossest impossibilities. But the work I have written is not a treatise of natural magic. It rather proposes to display the immense wealth of the faculty of imagination, and to shew the extravagances of which the man may be guilty who surrenders himself to its guidance.”

An illustration from Godwin's 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher's stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin's novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

An illustration from Godwin’s 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin’s novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

From Godwin’s perspective, everything supernatural, including Christianity, is of the imagination and show’s man’s credulity. Sadly, superstition continues today and Godwin’s book has been used for the very opposite purpose for which it was written. If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon, you will find that today, nearly two centuries after Godwin published this book, that credulity still exists. Below are some quotes from readers at Amazon who clearly did not read Godwin’s preface but have decided this book is a guide to them in learning about the occult and following their own dark paths. I have copied these three reviews word for word, including leaving the typos. The first is a believer in reincarnation:

“This book is very powerful for the person on the path as it will show them the various persons on the path, and the way they have chosen to get there. There are many paths to the same plane—but you must choose for yourself, and reading this made it much easier for me…..you will also find a list of those you feel that you want to reach on the astral plane—find someone who is like you or that you feel you could relate to—or perhaps someone you WERE in a past life?”

Godwin would have laughed at the idea of communicating on the astral plane with anyone mentioned in his book. Indeed, he would have said there was no astral plane. The next reviewer thinks Godwin’s book is his occult textbook:

“This book is a must for any serious student of the occult. In Lives of (the) Necromancers you will learn not only the different practicing Necromancers but also the historical ones. By understanding the different persons and WHAT kind of necromancy they practiced you will soon understand the route that YOU want to follow and from there research your own path with your own chosen guru. This is why this book is so useful, and why it was one of the most photocopied books until it was back in print. Not too long ago, it was impossible to get this published.”

I honestly don’t know what the history of the book’s publication and readership over the last 180 years has been, other than that Edgar Allan Poe reviewed it, without either condemning or applauding it. Apparently, it was long out of print (I read it as a Kindle ebook) and passed around and copied among its occult cult readers. The final review says it is for seekers of the black arts:

“Its like someone created not only a “Who’s Who” of Necromancers, but also lost about them, and many of their ideas and methods. Some that I thought were fictional turned out to be real, (truly that was worth the price of the book!). If you are interested in the black arts, if you are a seeker, if you are looking for the path, then seek from those who were on the path before you.”

I sincerely hope this person did not think Godwin was on the path first.

I am not one to enter into arguments online but I did post a short reviewing clarifying what the book’s true purpose is.

Perhaps William Godwin, aware of the disturbed imagination of mankind, would not be surprised that rather than read his words, people have chosen to imagine what his book says and interpret it for themselves.

In any case, it is interesting that this great thinker and one of the biggest influences on the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement, should turn to the occult as the subject of his last book. It is a pity it is not a better work, and that misguided individuals seek to find in it the exact opposite of what Godwin set out to do. Godwin’s own use of Gothic elements was always to expose irrational behaviors, but instead, his readership’s interpretation of him may have become his own Gothic nightmare.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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New Biography Shows Fascinating Parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon’s new biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley provides a fascinating look into the lives of these two remarkable, though often misunderstood and maligned, women who were groundbreaking writers of the Romantic and ultimately the Feminist movements. The book is newly published this year by Random House, and while much of what it contains is the same biographical information provided in other books, Gordon has provided much more powerful connections between this mother and daughter by discussing them both in the same book.

"Romantic Outlaws," a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother's influence on her daughter.

“Romantic Outlaws,” a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother’s influence on her daughter.

I decided to read this book because while I have studied and written about Mary Shelley, most notably her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man, and also about her father William Godwin’s novel St. Leon, in my own book The Gothic Wanderer. I have also read Shelley’s other novels—Valperga, Mathilde, Lodore, and Perkin Warbeck (I have yet to read Falkland)—and I wanted a better sense of how her life influenced those novels, especially after finding some comments about how her husband Percy Shelley influenced her depiction of Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne, believed to have been Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes in the tower. I knew a lot about Mary Shelley’s biography but I had never sat down and read a full biography all the way through, and I wanted more insight into her life especially after the well-known years she was married to Percy Shelley, since the bulk of her writing occurred after his death.

So I intended to buy a biography of Mary Shelley, but then I stumbled on this book which also discussed her mother, whom I felt I really didn’t know much about. I knew Wollstonecraft had written some famous treatises and a couple of novels and of her affairs with Gilbert Imlay and Fuseli, but I was intrigued by the idea that she had a huge influence, despite being dead, on Mary Shelley’s life, and I thought it would be interesting to understand that influence better.

Romantic Outlaws is divided into alternating chapters about Wollstonecraft’s life and then Mary Shelley’s life. To some extent, Gordon has done this to tie together similarities and influences from mother to daughter, and that is apparent in a few places, but in others, less so. I have mixed feelings about this structure. Some other reviewers have complained that they had just get interested in one woman when the story flipped to the other woman. That is true, and at times, I got so caught up reading about Mary Shelley that when the chapter changed to be about Mary Wollstonecraft, I momentarily was confused which “Mary” was being referred to, but I quickly realized my mistake. It is possible the book would feel more organized if the book were divided in half, as two books in one, the first about Wollstonecraft, the second about Mary Shelley, but perhaps readers would ignore half then and only read the other half. Gordon made a decision to organize the book in this way, and despite its faults, it does have some advantages and did help to make the influence of Wollstonecraft on her daughter, as well as on Mary’s stepsister and half-sister and Percy Shelley, much more clear. I don’t think I would have ended up understanding Mary Shelley as well without having read so extensively about Wollstonecraft, and I think Gordon really showed that influence in a more complete way than any of the other books I have previously read about Mary Shelley.

I did learn a lot more about Mary Shelley than I knew in terms of her relationships, but I also was disappointed in the later chapters about her. Once Percy Shelley drowns, Gordon quickly wraps up the last half of Shelley’s life in a few chapters, which I wish had been spread out more. For example, she makes one passing reference to Mary Shelley’s friendship with the Carlyles, but I would have liked to know more about that friendship. I was also hoping to learn a little about her friendship with Frances Trollope, mother to the novelist Anthony Trollope and a novelist in her own write, but Frances Trollope is not even mentioned. Perkin Warbeck is only mentioned in passing. There is a little analysis of the other novels, but not what they warrant, especially in the case of The Last Man, which is arguably, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, although I do appreciate that Gordon refers to it as the single voice of protest against war and manifest destiny in this time period. I suspect part of why these later years are brushed over is because Wollstonecraft’s life did not provide enough detail to provide more alternating chapters to juxtapose with Shelley’s, or maybe Shelley’s life was simply not as fascinating once her husband died, and Gordon was more interested in events than literary analysis. In any case, I was disappointed that I did not get out of this book what I initially wanted.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

That said, I got a lot that I did not expect in regards to Mary Shelley. I especially appreciated the discussions of Frankenstein and its composition. Gordon makes clear that while Percy Shelley did do some editing of Frankenstein, it is less than the editing done to many famous books, such as The Great Gatsby, and furthermore, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein was heavily rewritten by Mary Shelley, years after Percy Shelley’s death, and made to be much darker in tone. Charges that Percy Shelley was the genius behind Frankenstein have hopefully now finally been laid to rest. I have always thought it ridiculous he should get so much credit anyway since his own novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, while written before he was twenty, are far inferior to Mary Shelley’s first novel, which she wrote at about the same age. Percy Shelley was no great fiction writer and even his poetry I have usually found tedious with a few exceptions. Furthermore, as Gordon makes clear, Mary grew up in a very literary home and would have inherited her parents’ talent and have developed writing skills early from all the reading she did and her father’s influence. She knew her mother’s writings well and this no doubt developed her literary skills. I suspect had Percy Shelley never entered the picture, she would have been a writer regardless given her family background, and while Gordon doesn’t mention it, Mary’s half-brother, William Godwin, Jr. (another person I wish Gordon had spent more time on) wrote a novel also. They were a literary family, regardless of Percy Shelley being involved with them.

But the most valuable part of this book is the treatment of Mary Wollstonecraft. I grew to have so much respect for her. Yes, perhaps she acted like a stalker in her pursuit of Fuseli, but she also was a true revolutionary, trying to create a new world for women. Whatever faults she had I think we can dismiss as being the result of the confines of her time and the strain she experienced in going against the grain of her society. As Gordon says in the book’s conclusion of both women, “They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.” I will not go into details here about how they did this, but will instead encourage people to read the book.

Finally, what I found fascinating about Gordon’s book was her treatment of how literary legacies are fought over. She discusses Godwin’s biography of Wollstonecraft, his desire to publish a biography before anyone else, and the harm it did to his wife’s reputation, despite his intending otherwise. Gordon also makes passing reference to how women who might be inspired by Wollstonecraft’s ideas were treated in the literature of the time, notably Harriet Freake in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). That said, both of those characters, while meeting bad ends, have been read by modern literary scholars less as a condemnation of Wollstonecraft’s ideals and more as a subversive statement of how women were treated—a point Gordon overlooks. I wish again that more literary analysis had been included in this case, especially since The Wanderer is a feminist masterpiece in my opinion, as I discuss in more detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, and I would have liked more comparison between Wollstonecraft and Burney, who was arguably the greatest female novelist of the late eighteenth century and very much a woman who used her novels to champion women, even if in more subtle ways—yet, while Gordon never directly says so, when she cites the female novels of the day that Wollstonecraft disapproved of, it often sounded like she was referring to plots found in Burney’s novels.

Mary Shelley also had to fight to preserve her husband’s literary legacy, and in many ways, she chose to whitewash it to remove the scandal and atheism Percy Shelley was known for. Similarly, Gordon explores how Mary Shelley’s own literary legacy has changed over the years. Ultimately, both of her subjects were rediscovered in the 1970s and today have been given their place in the canon of British literature, a place well-deserved.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband's shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband’s shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Personally, I found Romantic Outlaws to be a valuable and eye-opening book. It adds to and expands on the conversation about these two fascinating women, and it leaves room for further exploration. I will definitely be reading Wollstonecraft’s novels now, and Romantic Outlaws also made me want to read more of Godwin’s work. In truth, I found the book hard to put down, and while I wish it had even more information about these women, at 547 pages of primary text, it is a good length and reads with excellent pacing. Both informative and entertaining, Romantic Outlaws is literary biography made to read almost like a novel (in a few places early in the book I felt like Gordon bordered on fiction in presenting viewpoints of the subjects in the book, something she’s been charged with in her biography Mistress Bradstreet). My criticisms of this book are minor really when placed aside the tremendous amount of research and the vivacity of the presentation throughout that Gordon has accomplished. I was won over by Gordon’s style, and since I am a fan of Anne Bradstreet (and relative), I will be interested in reading that Gordon biography in the near future. Most importantly, Gordon has achieved what she set out to accomplish—to convince her readers of the powerful voices these two women had and to help us better understand them and their time.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism, Mary Shelley