The political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1836), whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) forecast the elimination of government and the triumph of reason, is not the likeliest supporter of Napoleon. Yet his sparsely annotated Diary reveals a fascination with Napoleon.
Godwin’s Diary is cryptic: it is mainly an account of what he read, what he wrote and whom he met. There are few references to public events, and these are recorded with brevity. On 1 March 1815, he writes 'Landing of Bonaparte'; on 20 April 1815, ‘Bonaparte’s entry into Paris’; and on 15 July 1815 he notes ‘Surrender of Bonaparte’. While this hardly amounts to obsessive detail we should note three things. Godwin accords no other public events this degree of detail; he has been meticulous in entering these details after the fact, since he would not have been aware of the landing, for example, until the middle of March; and while he makes these entries he starts work on a piece about Napoleon (as can be seen in today's image). For all their brevity, these jottings suggest deep engagement.
But a more subtle engagement is also in evidence. Godwin’s references are to Bonaparte, not to Napoleon – the name Godwin uses in the Diary both before and after the 100 Days. For the period of his return, Godwin accords him his status as a man, rather than that of an emperor. After 1815, only Napoleon, or Napoleon Bonaparte are used. It is difficult to read this except as Godwin paying homage to the man and popular hero, and by doing so implicitly to celebrate the return of a force for popular change in France.
On 19 May 1831 Godwin notes:
Deloraine, p. 18/2. Homer, v. 211. W calls: call on Baily: theatre, 4/7 Napoleon; adv.Poole. 65 / 69
The entry on Napoleon is a reference to a performance at Covent Garden of 'a New Grand Historical and Military Spectacle, Napoleon Bonaparte: a detailed staging over two nights of all the central events of his career. It is a striking piece of evidence of the continuing appetite of the public for a better understanding of the man.
Should we take Godwin’s note that he saw only 4 of the 7 sections as evidence of waning interest? That seems unlikely: he would go on to read 'Napoleon in exile; or, A voice from St. Helena. The opinions and reflexions of Napoleon on the most important events of his life and government in his own words.' By Barry E. O'Meara, Esq., his late surgeon (2 volumes) in 1822 and William Hazlitt’s 'Life of Napoleon Bonaparte' in 1828.
It is more likely that, at the age of 75, and in poor health, Godwin found it hard to stay the course. That he went at all is evidence of an abiding fascination with the man.