Thursday, 28 January 2010
I'd expected a novel by William Godwin to be politically charged; what I didn't expect was that it would be such a gripping and sophisticated narrative.
Caleb Williams is a young, naive and bookish man from a humble family. He is hired as a private secretary and librarian by a local country squire, Ferdinando Falkland. Falkland seems to be the best of men - a cultivated, humane, liberal and kindly man. But a shadow hangs over him - years ago, his rival, a neighbouring squire called Tyrell, a vain, cruel and tyrannical man, was found murdered shortly after an altercation with Falkland. Falkland is tried and found innocent; soon afterwards, evidence is found that the murder was done by Hawkins, a former tenant of Tyrell's, and his son. Father and son are hanged. However, reputation being such a great deal for him, Falkland is crushed by the fact that his name has been dragged into a murder investigation, and forever after becomes morose, withdrawn and moody, while retaining his benevolent side. At least, that's what an older servant tells Williams when the latter runs afoul of Falkland's more morose moods.
Williams has a severe case of hero-worship when it comes to Falkland; despite which, he has a sneaking suspicion that Falkland murdered Tyrell. What follows is a story that moves from an investigation into slumbering evil to a crazed flight from that evil, now awakened.
The rest of the novel is a tale of unrelenting suspense, but also one that is full of damning portraits of society and institutions in Godwin's times. Williams himself, in the final event, is unable to completely shake off the regard which the social structure forces him to hold his persecutor in; despite his own recriminations in the end, we are able to see that he is the victim of both individual and systemic injustices. The attitudes Godwin criticises are so deeply ingrained that Williams is even unjust to himself in the final analysis.
Political comment, social critique, an unreliable narrator and a gripping thriller-like story; Godwin accomplished many things with this novel. The only real down sides are that he tends to dilate a lot on every emotion that flits through Williams' head and his style tends towards passive reporting rather than active description. If you re-calibrate your reading sensibilities a bit, these are not major hindrances.
Posted by JP at 07:28