Radical Relations: Queer(ing) Desire, Love, and Kinship in the Writing of William Godwin and his Circle

Clewes, Simon (2023). Radical Relations: Queer(ing) Desire, Love, and Kinship in the Writing of William Godwin and his Circle. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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This thesis offers a queer re-evaluation of the portrayal of desire, love, and kinship within the writing of William Godwin and his circle. With Godwin having repeatedly been labelled by critics as a deliberately ‘homophobic’ novelist who portrayed same-sex passion and gender non-conformity only as intrinsically ruinous threats from which civilised society must be continually protected, my study argues for a much needed about-turn in how we interpret and understand these thematics within his writing. I argue that, instead of portraying transgressive same-sex bonds as intrinsically and unchangeably ruinous, Godwin presents male-male desire as having manifested as such because of its inability to be expressed and explored within the virulently antisodomitical and antieffeminate post-Revolutionary socio-political climate under which his protagonists are desperately trying — but relentlessly failing — to live and to love. Moving attention beyond the author’s most famous novel Caleb Williams (1794), a work which critics have repeatedly prioritised, I conduct close analyses of his later and comparatively understudied novels St. Leon (1799), Fleetwood (1805), Mandeville (1817), and Cloudesley (1830) in order to examine the complex, detailed, and nuanced ways in which Godwin addresses and readdresses the thematics of same-sex passion and gender non-conformity across his long career. His protagonists’ perceptions of themselves and their desires take on myriad forms, from self-hatred and despair, to agonising cravings and sensations of intolerable incompleteness, to glimpses of hope, and even utopian imaginings. I argue these can be grouped as one: they each scrutinise the experience of having a deep-rooted desire that falls far beyond the boundaries of familial, social, moral, and gendered acceptability — and beyond the boundaries of that which was defined as normal or natural within the political regimes of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Through analysing Godwin’s presentation of same-sex desire and gender non-conformity in communication with his broader philosophical writings upon the body, the mind, human relationality, materiality, kinship, love, and domesticity, I argue that Godwin’s advocacy for same-sex desire signals the broader and more pervasive political project at work within and running throughout the five-decade span of his writing: exploring the fluidity, multiplicity, and capability of sexualities, genders, and ways of loving and living otherwise beyond the ideological boundaries of the marital and familial units. Through this, I uncover how Godwin’s novels connected with and/or inspired his fellow writers who similarly challenged and destabilised gendered boundaries of normativity and acceptability, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Joanna Baillie, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, William Godwin Jr., and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. My project expands beyond the Romantic era to argue that Godwin’s radical interrelated rethinking of desire, love, and kinship anticipates — and, moreover, may guide us to expand and/or reconsider — queer thinking and theorisation in our present moment, tracing connections between Godwinian thought and queer theorists including Jack Halberstam, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, and José Esteban Muñoz. This thesis builds upon existing work within Romantic studies focused upon constructions of sexuality and gender, as well as upon the emerging work on queer Romanticisms, to argue for Godwin’s integral place within a broader genealogy of queer, counter-cultural thinking. In doing so, my study responds to the recent calls within queer studies to uncover queer histories and expand the queer archive in order to formulate new ways of understanding queer, as well as to the recent calls within Romantic studies to diversify, rewrite commonplaces about, and consider the relevance of the Romantic period to the socio-political issues within our present moment.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: English, Drama, and Creative Studies
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PB Modern European Languages
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
URI: http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/13498


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