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More than either Caleb Williams or St. Leon, however, Fleetwood is intended as a criticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his ideas about the virtue of natural man. Like Emile, the protagonist of Rousseau's treatise on education, Fleetwood is raised in the supposedly ideal world of nature. However, what is ideal for Rousseau turns out to be problematic in Fleetwood.
The novel, in a bildungsroman style, follows the problematic consequences of the hero's natural education.
Casimir Fleetwood recounts his early life in Merionethshire, North Wales, on a large estate near Cader Idris. The time period is between 1710 and1774 as Louis XV is King of France. Fleetwood intends the story to be a memoir of his mistakes rather than of his good actions, though he concedes he will occasionally mention his charitable acts.
An only child, he moved to the region with his father after the death of his mother. He considers himself to be a kind of savage, misanthropic, wild in his ideas and brought up by nature. Importantly, he has been unused to being checked. Casimir’s father hires a dissenting tutor to teach him Latin, Greek, French, Italian, astronomy, natural philosophy, mathematics, and history. The tutor is engaged in writing a concordance to all religions and is a bad poet. The tutor fills his poetry with the “sublime metaphysics” of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas (58). Casimir selects several formative stories that are important for the development of his character. The first concerns a young peasant, William, who plunges over a precipice into a lake when chasing an escaped pet lamb called Molly. Attempting to recuse the boy, Casimir also falls in the lake. They are both saved by William’s girlfriend, who owns the lamb, and is rowing a boat on the lake. Lack of money has delayed their marriage, and so Casimir hires a labourer to replace William on William’s father’s farm and gives them a farm of his own.
Casimir next recounts tales from his time at Oxford University. He enters the university at sixteen years old. His first story concerns his dog, Chilo, who walks from North Wales to Oxford, to find him. He compares the flat landscape of Oxfordshire with the sublime mountains of North Wales and finds it wanting. Casimir quickly adopts the manners of the university, and “became an artificial personage, formed after a wretched and contemptible model” (73). A pompous and ungainly student named Withers arrives. He has written a poetic tragedy based on the story of the fifth labour of Hercules – the cleaning of the Augean stable. Casimir’s friends get hold of a copy and ridicule it, trick Withers into staging a reading of it and manage to get him drunk during the performance. One of the students is a ventriloquist, and imitates the voice of the master of the college, while the others manipulate a puppet in an academic gown, leading Withers to believe he is going to be punished for debauched drunkenness. Withers realizes the practical joke, goes insane and drowns himself. Frewin and Morrison, the main perpetrators are expelled from the university and disgraced for the rest of their lives.
At twenty, Casimir sets out on his Grand Tour of Europe, aiming to visit his father’s old friend, Monsieur Ruffigny in Switzerland. Ruffigny is a thinly disguised portrait of Rousseau. He stops at Paris for a while, meeting Sir Charles Gleed a contemporary at Oxford. Sir Charles had thought himself a wit, but was the butt of jokes at the University, and Casimir is surprised to see him courted by the French. Sir Charles introduces Casimir to a Marchioness, a “finished coquette” with whom Casimir has a love affair. A countess is his next lover, an unfeeling and uneducated woman, who is unfaithful. Despondent, Casimir continues on to the Alps, now a confirmed misogynist and misanthrope. He nevertheless longs to have a friend, someone who is like himself. This is a persistent theme in Godwin's work. Casimir finds Ruffigny and makes a strong connection with him. Ruffigny receives a letter informing him that Casimir’s father has died, but delays telling him for two months. When he tells him, Casimir is grief-stricken and Ruffigny decides to accompany him back to Wales. Ruffigny also reveals that his father had heard of his exploits in Oxford and Paris and had asked him to assist with his son’s reformation.
While on the journey to Britain, Ruffigny tells the story of his life. His father died when he was young and he was left in the guardianship of a wicked uncle who stole his inheritance and made him work in a silk factory in Lyons at eight years old. Ruffigny had enough education prior to this to know that he had to leave this drudgery. Godwin spends a great deal of time describing the injustices of factories and the physical and intellectually debilitating effects of forcing children as young as four to do menial work. Ruffigny’s uncle has terrified him into accepting an alternative identity in order to keep his whereabouts secret. He regards the work he is forced to do as slavery and he regards himself as having been kidnapped. Godwin tries to alert his readers that, in the same way that buying sugar while the slave trade continues feeds the injustice, so buying silk continues the degradation of the workers who produce it. Ruffigny says that in being to forced to work in this way he “was involved in a state of slavery, body and soul, such as has seldom been the lot of a human creature” (154). He resolves to run away and to appeal to Louis XIV. He escapes and makes it to Dijon, where he enters a clothier’s shop hoping to exchange his poor clothes for new ones using a Louis d’or that his uncle gave him. He is taken to the Mayor and asked to explain the origin of the gold coin. The magistrate sends him to prison and he is committed for examination. He is inexplicably released, even though they do not believe him, and he is given back his money. He arrives at the royal palace of Fontainbleau and picks up a guide who says he will take him to Versailles, where the king currently is.
Volume 2 begins with Ruffigny’s arrival at Paris. He stays overnight in an inn, but finds that his guide has robbed him, and left him to pay the bill. In order to avoid liability, the landlady accuses Ruffigny of theft and he is forced to leave. Betty the barmaid catches up with him and gives him bread, and he walks to Versailles. When he arrives, his spirit is lifted by seeing the Swiss Guard, and a Private gives him food and tells him that the king is hunting at Marly. Ruffigny leaves for Marly and meets another soldier who gives him food. He petitions a nobleman by mistake, believing him to be the king, and is cast out of the grounds. A benign gentleman who reminds him of his father gives him money and his card. He is Ambrose Fleetwood, Casimir Fleetwood’s grandfather. Ambrose invites him to come to England with him, sends him to school, brings him up with Casimir’s father. Ambrose seeks out Ruffigny’s uncle in order to bring him to justice, but discovers he has died and did not prosper from the theft of Ruffigny’s fortune. He sets Ruffigny up in the banking business in Lisbon with a loan to be repaid in installments beginning seven years after he has set up. Ruffigny lives in Lisbon for 21 years and makes a fortune, and repays the loan. Even though his uncle has declared him dead, Ruffigny is able to prove his identity and is therefore able to prove his citizenship in order to buy his family estate. He returns to Britain to find Ambrose’s son has married and had a son, Casimir. The date is around 1672 as he references the collapse of the Dutch economy. Casimir’s father loses his fortune due to bad lack and decides move to somewhere remote. Ruffigny makes Casimir’s father his heir and gives him a parcel to open after his visit has ended. It contains a large amount of money. Ruffigny finishes his tale as they reach Wales and Casimir’s father’s grave.
They spend two months at the Fleetwood estate and then go to London to attend to business matters. A new acquaintance, Sir George Bradshaw, invites Casimir to meet his mistress, Mrs Comorin. Casimir becomes infatuated with her, and Ruffigny tries to alert him to the danger of his behavior. He leaves for the Devon countryside, disappointed with Casimir, and Casimir pursues him and reconciles with him. The visit lasts several more months and Casimir makes yearly visits to Ruffigny in the Canton of Uri until his death six years later. Casimir spends some time in London, becomes involved in a literary club and becomes an MP, but cannot find a way to do good in this role and decides to go abroad again in search of someone who could be his friend.
He picks up his narration again when he is forty-five years old. He describes a trip to the Lake District to meet a former friend of Rousseau’s, called Macneil. He tells the story of Mrs Macneil, who had been brought up in Italy and had been seduced by her music instructor. They elope and the Italian imprisons her in a ruined castle with his hag-like sister watching over her. Mr Macneil rescues her and they marry, but marrying a seduced woman is treated like marrying someone with a hereditary disease, and Mrs Macneil and her daughters, though educated, are not accepted in their home in Windermere. Casimir converses with Macneil about his friend, Rousseau, whom he believes to have gone mad and finds Mrs Macneil to be an exceptional woman. Their daughters Amelia, Barbara, and Mary are accomplished and Casimir regards their family as a “little commonwealth” (247). Amelia is a painter, Barbara is a musician, and Mary is a botanist and gardener. Macneil the philanthropist (“in the plain sense of the word”) and Fleetwood the misanthropist disagree on their estimation of the state of humankind. Macneil advises Fleetwood to cure his misanthropy with marriage. He responds that a woman of his own age is unlikely to give him children, and that the lack of gender equality means that a woman cannot be the kinds of intellectual companion that he needs. Macneil suggests he take a wife who is younger than him as it will make him feel younger, arguing that “Man marries because he desires a lovely and soothing companion for his vacant hours; woman marries, because she feels the want of a protector, a guardian, a guide, and an oracle, some one to look up to with respect, and in whose judgment and direction she may surely confide” (254). Casimir woos Macneil’s daughter and Macneil approves of the match.
During the courtship, Macneil decides to move his family to Italy, selling his Westmoreland property to Casimir and depositing all his money in a bank in Genoa. Mary will stay behind in Falmouth in a respectable family, and the rest of the family will set sail for Italy. Casimir makes a trip to Shrewsbury and encounters a fierce storm and is concerned that the family might be lost at sea. He receives an incoherent letter from Mary telling him that this is the case and he goes back to Falmouth to comfort her. It is later determined from the survivors that there were not enough seats for the entire family in the lifeboat, and so they all desired to perish rather than decide who should survive. The ebony box containing Macneil’s will and the deeds for the Genoan banker is unexpectedly empty, even though the seal is not broken. Even though Casimir supervised this important task, he realizes that there was so much to be done before the family moved country that both he and Macneil did not secure the copies as they had thought. The Genoan banker claims no knowledge of the transaction and steals the £60,000 that would have been Mary’s fortune. With her money, Mary would have been an “independent being” and intimidating to Casimir, but without he feels able to ask her to marry him, even though he is worried that people might think that he stole Mary’s fortune (275). After a mourning period, Mary and Casimir marry and settle in Matlock for a month. She regards herself as a subordinate in marriage, but still has an independent spirit. She says “I am not idle and thoughtless enough, to promise to sink my being and individuality in yours. I shall have my distinct propensities and preferences. In me you will have a wife, and not a passive machine […]” (281). The ‘romantic’ (i.e. deeply intense and sympathetic) friendship that Casimir hoped to find with another man, he believes he has now found in a woman: “I had not been aware that nature has provided a substitute in the marriage-tie, for this romantic, if not impossible friendship” (285).
At the beginning of volume 3, the newly-married pair go to Casimir’s Welsh estate for the first time as a couple. On arrival, Mary asks for Casimir’s favourite closet which has a spectacular view. He is shocked that she should be so insensitive as to ask for it, but gives it to her. He tries to use the library closet instead, but is resentful as it is inconvenient. Mary desires a social life and female company, hoping to model herself on good examples of female behaviour. They visit William and his wife and children. William has been visibly aged by hard work. Following the ideals of late eighteenth-century feminism, Mary is a vigorous woman and can walk ten or twelve miles with her husband, and this enables her to share his interests. She shows her sensibility in sympathizing with the characters in the plays they read together, but as their relationship progresses, Casimir perceives that she is easily distracted and seems to jump from one thing to the next. She drops the play they are reading to go with William to collect some rare plants, and Casimir believes this to signal a want in sensibility. He quickly forgives her.
One day, Mary surprises Casimir with two tickets to a dance at Barmouth, which causes further problems as he regards himself as too old and too misanthropic to attend. He finds dancing immodest, but permits his wife to dance with Mr Matthews, a celebrated beau. Casimir begins to objectify his wife, calling her his “treasure” and thinking of himself as a miser protecting it. When Matthews pays a courtesy call the next day, Casimir is angry with him as this kind of behaviour is expected in London, but not in the country. His bitterness and misogyny sets in, and Mary descends into a deep depression. Casimir is concerned that she appears to be going mad. She leaves the house in bad weather, contemplates drowning herself, and has psychotic visions of her drowned family. Casimir decides to distract her by taking her away from the coast to Bath. Here Mary recovers from her illness and returns to her life of parties.
Frustrated what he perceives as a lack of independence, Casmir turns his attention to some penniless distant cousins of his who are in need of help and invites them to stay with him in Bath. Their Welsh mother, Mrs Gifford, took “a West Indian of colour” as a lover, and became pregnant with a son, Gifford. Her husband divorced her and she became a prostitute. Seven years later, Mrs Gifford married Mr Kenrick, a surgeon, who then died leaving her nothing. Mrs Gifford dies in the workhouse leaving her mixed-race son, Gifford, and her white son, Edward Kenrick, to fend for themselves. Gifford’s mother did not love him, and he did not love her, and he grows up to be “graceful and prepossessing,” with a “superior understanding” but devious and persuasive (333, 334). He is put under the tutelage of a clergyman, Father Parkhurst, whose wife and daughter he tries to disinherit, but the priest recovers from his illness in time and sends Gifford away to sea. Kenrick becomes a soldier, and is open, honest, and modest.
Casimir is unaware that Gifford’s aim is to discredit his brother, and to become Casimir's heir. Mary is pregnant by the time the men come to stay; and when the cousins are told, Gifford’s “machinations became principally directed against his unborn adversary” (338). Mary enjoys the company of Ensign Kenrick and they attend parties together, while Casimir becomes increasingly jealous of their behaviour. Casmir confides in Gifford, who uses reverse psychology to imply that more might be going on between them than appears. A woman who is unknown to Casimir approaches him after a party and tells him that she is shocked by his wife’s behaviour with Edward and that he should be vigilant. Casimir frequently alludes to Othello in his account of this affair, “Mary, Heaven has moulded its own image in thy features: if thou art false, oh, then Heaven mocks itself!” (346). Casmir asks Gifford to spy on Edward and Mary, and he reports that he saw them blush when he encountered them in the assembly rooms. He sends Edward on an errand to the Macneil estate in Westmoreland in order to get him out of the way, telling him that he also has work for him to do in Wales after that, explaining that their time in Bath will have ended by the time he gets back. Edward is so ingenuous at his departure that Casimir confesses his jealousy and realizes his mistake, telling Edward that he believes his love for his wife to be innocent. Edward and Mary visit the grave of his father at Bath Abbey before he goes, and Casimir follows them curious and desperately fighting his jealousy. Moved by Edward’s comments about his father, who died when he was three, and whose honesty and integrity Edward has always aimed to emulate, Casimir writes a letter to him telling him he believes him to be honest.
Casimir’s relationship with Mary improves and he takes a house in Newbury, Berkshire. Gifford moves in with them, and Casimir continues to try to gain advancement for him in the navy. Casimir discovers a letter in his wife’s dressing room, reads part of it and concludes it is a love letter from Edward. He plans, with Gifford to steal Mary’s keys to see if she has more. While he waits for her to fall asleep, he goes to a heath in Hampshire and considers shooting himself in the head, but decides that revenge is a better option. On his return, he finds no letters, but he does find that Mary has a secret miniature of Edward in her trinket box. Gifford tells him to break the glass and place it back in the trinket box, and see if Mary complains to him of her maid being clumsy. This, they think will tell them if she is keeping the miniature secret. Casimir reveals to Gifford that his wife may have known Kenrick before they met him in Bath as he seemed to be similar to the description of the man who saved Mary from drowning herself. Gifford insinuates that Edward could be the father of the child Mary is carrying and offers to write a letter to him in Mary’s handwriting inviting him to visit as if she were his lover. The next day, Gifford claims to have seen her examine the miniature with surprise and put it back in the box, but she says nothing about it. Casimir becomes convinced not only that Mary is having an affair, but that his child is Kenrick’s. Mary falls on one knee in despair at not knowing why her husband rejects her, but Casimir walks away from her and stays at an inn. He goes for a walk with Gifford the next day and sees Mary and Kenrick. Mary denies meeting Kenrick and Casimir calls her a harlot and leaves for France with Gifford, writing to his steward to evict his wife and to give her no money.
While abroad, Casimir reconsiders and gives Mary £1000 per year. At Marseilles, Casimir sends Gifford to arrange a divorce. His lawyer advises him to give Gifford power of attorney and to make him his heir. Gifford pretends to be opposed to the scheme. Casimir commemorates his wedding anniversary alone by dressing life-size wax dolls in the appropriate clothes to make them look like Mary and Kenrick. He gives Kenrick a devil’s face and he buys a cradle and linen for a child and a barrel organ. He replicates the songs Kenrick and Mary sang together and plays them on the organ, and begins to think of the dolls as real. He is now mad. Eventually, he breaks the dolls and the organ, and stays in bed for fifteen days, recovering.
Gifford writes that he has witnesses for the divorce case and a confession from Mary that the child belongs to Kenrick. The divorce is granted and Kenrick and Casimir arranges to meet Gifford in Paris. As he approaches the city, however, Casimir is set upon by men who drag him from his carriage. He is hit with a gun that has misfired, and the attackers run off. Four men attempt to rescue him, and pursue the fugitives. Casimir is taken to an hotel (town house) to recover. Martha, the wife of William the Merionethsire peasant, arrives and tells Casimir that he is in the house of Mr Scarborough of Berkshire and that Gifford and his valet are both in prison. She says that they tried to murder him for his estate. Scarborough arrives and is an impressive man with “native rank” rather than inherited rank (396). He denounces Gifford, reveals that he is a friend of Kenrick and that it was Kenrick who rescued him from the attackers and Gifford who tried to shoot Casimir. Scarborough says he has proof that Kenrick and Mary are innocent. He reveals that Kenrick’s love letter was written to Louisa Scarborough, his daughter, and not to Mary; the miniature was kept by Mary for Louisa, the meeting between Mary and Kenrick was about Louisa, and the witnesses in the divorce case are being prosecuted for perjury. He also reveals that Mary had written to Casimir to vindicate herself, but the letter had been intercepted by Gifford.
Scarborough gives his history. He is a widower, whose son died at age thirteen due to a decline health that Scarborough attributes to his own persistent perfectionism. Louisa was brought up by his relations, and he had ambitions for her to marry Lord Lindsey, an unattractive peer who needed money, but was persuaded of the merits of Kenrick. Scarborough’s initial disapproval had caused Mary to act as Louisa’s go-between. Kenrick confided in Mary and Gifford in order to help promote the match, but Gifford attempted to prevent their elopement with an anonymous letter to Scarborough. Kenrick visited Scarborough and asked for Mary’s hand openly, and revealed the difficulties between Casimir and Mary. Scarborough offered Mary a home during her separation from Casimir. Scarborough and Kenrick pursued Gifford’s false trail to Poland when they learn of the divorce and return to England. Kenrick was named in the divorce case and was liable for £10,000 damages. Kenrick and Scarborough attempted to prosecute for perjury, and Gifford delayed the trial. Louisa and Mary also travelled to Paris, where Mary gave birth. Eventually Gifford and Kenrick meet in Paris and agree to be enemies. When Scarborough finishes his story, Kenrick arrives and asks for forgiveness for having kept his interest in Louisa secret. Casmir forgives Kenrick and is introduced to his baby son. Casimir makes a will, giving his wife his possessions, Kenrick an estate worth £18,000 and he plans to live in the Pyrenees on £400 a year. A veiled woman visits him. It is Mary. She is even more beautiful than before, because she is now seen as virtuous. Gifford is executed in France as a highwayman and swindler, and Casimir thinks that, although he does not approve of the death penalty, Gifford deserved it as “His whole existence had been a series of the most monstrous and unnatural crimes” (423). Kenrick and Louisa marry.
Godwin, William. Fleetwood: Or, The New Man of Feeling. Ed. Gary Handwerk and A. A. Markley. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2001.