Without exception, it is fair to say, every one of William Godwin’s many books was intended not only to impart information but to engage the reader in a debate. Godwin also wrote many letters, often in answer to strangers, with the purpose of sharing experiences in what his age could regard unapologetically as an ongoing search for truth. As Godwin wrote to Shelley (one of the many readers of An Enquiry into Political Justice who had asked to meet him), the life of a thinking man ‘is a series of Retractations’. Since Godwin kept drafts of some letters as he was composing them and made copies of others before he sent them, and given that he and his family later retrieved many from the recipients, the corpus is extraordinarily full, with around 1,200 known to survive.
The Letters of William Godwin, Volume 1: 1778–1797, which contains nearly 200, is now out. There will eventually be five volumes plus a sixth, Selected Incoming Letters. Although the huge archive of Godwin and Shelley family manuscripts from which most of the letters have been drawn has been