William Godwin's Diary


The word asthma is derived from the Greek word for panting, and has been a recognized condition from the works of Hippocrates and Galen onwards. In Godwin’s time the term could refer to the condition or to the symptom of troubled breathing. It was generally believed to be a condition of the nervous system. Blood-letting was often considered appropriate treatment, to allow the blood to flow to the lungs again, as was the use of opium, and sticking to a light diet. Frank Newton, one of Godwin’s friends, believed that his own asthma had been cured by a vegetarian diet and published a pamphlet called The Return to Nature; or, a Defence of the Vegetable Regimen (1811). See St Clair, pp. 261-265. St Clair notes that Godwin tried a vegetarian diet, which mainly benefited his constipation. For further material on the Godwin circle and Romantic vegetarianism, see also: Joseph Ritson, Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty (London, 1802) Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Vindication of Natural Diet (London, 1813) Percy Bysshe Shelley, On the Vegetable System of Diet (London, 1813) Memoirs of the public and private life of Sir Richard Phillips, knight, high sheriff for the city of London and county of Middlesex, compiled by a citizen of London and assistants (London, 1808) The first part of memoirs deals with the vegetarian diet. Timothy Morton, ‘Joseph Ritson, Percy Shelley and the Making of Romantic Vegetarianism’ Romanticism 12 (2006) 52-61.

Godwin kept fastidious diary records of his personal health problems, concerns, and moments of wellbeing. He maintained discretion when recording some of the more sensitive aspects of his health, generally referring to these issues in Latin or French. Godwin has been diagnosed, at various times, as suffering from haemorrhoids and constipation, and might have also had a form of rectal cancer (see St Clair). Another frequent issue is his ‘delerium’ or ‘deliquium’, which has been described by St Clair as fits sometimes accompanied by vomiting. Latin and French words have been translated, and we have attempted to indicate using context or various sources what Godwin might have meant by some of the health phrases he utilised. Self-explanatory health issues such as ‘fever’ or ‘constipation’ have not been annotated, nor have conjectures been made about ambiguous or uncertain symptoms or treatments such as ‘syringe’ - noted on the ninth and tenth of November, 1792 - to cite one such example. NOTE: When searching for health complaints, keep in mind that Godwin often used his own sui generis methods of spelling – for example, ‘headache’ is sometimes noted as ‘head ach’ or ‘head-ach’ and sometimes ailments have been abbreviated (such as ‘constip’ for constipation’).