Friday, October 28, 2011

Caleb Williams

by Susan

When the Classics Circuit announced its Gothic Lit Tour I thought I would need to take a pass on it. My sensibilities are more attuned with the Southern school of Gothic, Flannery and Faulkner, writers much too late for inclusion. Then my eyes snagged on Caleb Williams down at the bottom of the suggested titles list and I knew I'd be participating after all.

Caleb Williams had numbered among my tbrs since back in the winter, when I read what Rebecca West had to say about it:

"Once every five years or so I re-read two novels, which seem equally remarkable achievements. One is Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Everybody's heard of that. The other is Caleb Williams, by William Godwin, the philosophic radical whose political writings made a dent in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Nobody's heard of that. Yet I find it a great book, a serious, eloquent, important book with a great subject: it deals with authority, the authority of parents, guardians, teachers, God the Father, and asks the question can God the Father be forgiven for the existence of pain, can anything be made of the superior-inferior relationship. And it finds a perfect myth, a perfect plot for this discussion. Why is it not a recognised classic?"
How could I not want to read a forgotten classic, a novel that the formidable Rebecca West could not manage to suck dry on her first go-through?

Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, published in 1794, on the heels of William Godwin's Political Justice from the previous year, is often regarded as its companion piece, a way of popularizing its political philosophy for those who had not read his treatise, a way of pointing out the defects in the English social system, in its justice system. Many see it as the first detective novel, the first thriller, or as one of the first novels to address abnormal psychology. Is Caleb an unreliable narrator? Could he be gay? Is there a connection between Godwin's novel and that of Frankenstein, his daughter Mary Shelley's better-known novel? Should the novel be placed squarely in with the Romantics or the Gothics or allowed to straddle both?

Lowly-born Caleb Williams, largely self-educated and orphaned at 18, is quickly taken on as secretary and librarian by country squire Ferdinando Falkland following his father's funeral. It is a wonderful position for Caleb, a young man of insatiable curiosity who loves books.  All in the household and the surrounding area regard Falkland as a man of great benevolence and integrity. Caleb soon learns that Falkland can also be peevish and tyrannical, but believes these negatives proceed "rather from the torment of his mind than an unfeeling disposition."

One day Falkland accuses the unwitting Caleb of spying upon him, of wanting to ruin him. He says he'll trample him into atoms; later in the day he presses money into Caleb's hand by way of apology. Mr. Collins, the steward, tells Caleb a lengthy story that fills out the rest of volume I, one with elements that remind me a great deal of Trollope's The American Senator; a story that explains why the once outgoing and chivalrous Falkland has turned paranoid and gloomy: ultimately, he was publicly and physically insulted by, then suspected of murdering, another aristocrat in the community. It is this story with its parallels to Caleb and Falkland's future relationship, and, indeed, even the similarity of names between those in Collins' story and those who find their way into Caleb's own, that call into question the reliability of Caleb's narrative.

Falkland is cleared of suspicion when the aristocrat's former tenants, Hawkins and his son, are found with evidence connecting them to the murder; they are subsequently hanged. Caleb, however, becomes convinced that a man with Hawkins' principles would never stoop to murder. He begins to delight in mentally tormenting his benefactor, who he suspects framed the Hawkinses, until Falkland calls him on it. Caleb then declares himself "a foolish, wicked, despicable wretch." He begs to be punished, to be turned out of service, then declares his loyalty to, his lasting love for Falkland. Falkland keeps him on, although his own moods darken.

One day, while Falkland is off on one of his "melancholy rambles," a chimney fire blazes out of control and Caleb supervises the removal of household goods to the lawn. Caleb goes a bit nuts. With his mind, as he says, "raised to its utmost pitch," he seizes the opportunity to break into a trunk in Falkland's private apartment off the library, a trunk Caleb's long thought contains documents that will prove Falkland guilty of the suspected crimes.

Naturally, Falkland comes in and catches him in the "monstrous" act. "One short minute had effected a reverse in my situation, the suddenness of which the history of man, perhaps is unable to surpass."  Falkland points a loaded pistol at Caleb's head, then throws it out the window to keep himself from firing. The situation leads Falkland to extract an oath of silence from Caleb, then confirm all his suspicions: he's guilty as sin just as Caleb's thought. He says Caleb's to remain in his service, but will from this point never receive his affection.

The second half of the novel concerns itself with Caleb's efforts to leave Falkland's household and the extent Falkland will go to persecute him. Caleb will find that while the reputation of a man of Falkland's standing in the community is defense enough against a murder charge, Caleb's own reputation can be destroyed easily by his social better. Falkland frames him as a thief and he is thrown into jail to await a nonspeedy trial. Eventually Falkland will provide Caleb with the means to break from jail, but he will be unable to escape from Falkland's ability to track and the lengths he will go to to undermine all efforts to make a new life for himself. Things will become quite Kafkaesque for awhile. Caleb will be the first (and the last!) to tell you how no one has suffered as much as he.

Godwin wrote two endings to Things As They Are, and both are often included in current editions of the novel. In the original, Caleb gets his day in court, but he's seen only as a man out for revenge; he's imprisioned again and appears to go mad. In the version Godwin chose to publish, there is more emotional resolution, with Falkland admitting his guilt and much mutual forgiveness of wrongs committed. 

While I can see that there's enough meat on the bones of this story to bring one back for subsequent re-reads, I cannot say that I intend to return to it. Caleb feels so sorry for himself that I felt no need to do so myself. There was something so hinky in his desire to undercover his kindly employer's guilt out of nothing more than sheer curiosity instead of an actual sense that justice should be served that I often wanted to just slap him. Plus, there's the fact that I vastly preferred Collins' story within Caleb's story to Caleb's own. I'm firmly in the realism camp and there are tons more Trollope and Gissing novels for me to get to. And there's Vanity Fair. Yes, Rebecca, I've heard of that. But I still haven't read it.

Read another review of Caleb Williams at Aesop to Oz.

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