William Godwin's Diary

Introduction to the resource

Searching the resource

The project has sought to code the diary so as to retain the richness and diversity of the information. Each element in a day’s entry has been coded so as to distinguish what Godwin read, what he wrote, whom he saw, where he saw them, in what activities or meals they shared, and where he went. It is possible, then, to search for dates, for particular people, for activities, for texts written or read, for events attended, and so on. In the display of the diary transcription many textual elements appear as blue hyperlinks and some (unidentified people) are underlined; the colouring and underlining can be hidden by unchecking the 'Formatting' box.

Because Godwin’s entries are cryptic, judgments have been made throughout the coding process as to what particular entries mean. Also, Godwin is often inconsistent in the way he spells or abbreviates people’s names, the titles of works he is writing, and those he is reading. Using the search facility for ‘Holcroft’ will identify all instances where he enters ‘Holcroft’ in the diary. But it will not reveal the huge number of cases in which he contracts Holcroft to ‘Ht’ or variations thereof. Nor does this facility currently allow ‘fuzzy’ searching. However, the underlying coding does allow variants to be recognised as instances of the same name if searched for under PEOPLE. As a result, when searching names, we strongly recommend searching both with the open SEARCH facility, and in the People section under ‘People (identified)’. The former will search for the name as it appears in the diary and in the editorial matter while the latter will search by the underlying coding, rather than by the exact spelling. Users may also find the CTRL+F search function on a PC or the Command+F search function on a Mac helpful on some pages of the resource.

The aim of the editorial apparatus has been to clarify Godwin’s entries and to provide additional information that will allow the user to pursue their inquiry further. In the attempt to identify the ~64,000 name entries in the diary we have created files for about 1,110 people and families, which say something about well over three quarters of the total name entries. Where there is a lack of certainty we have indicated what possibilities there are and the reasoning we have used in making an identification, usually based on the particular social contexts for that entry and/or other primary and secondary sources. Biographical information is offered for those identified but where those individuals appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, we have kept this to a minimum. We have generally excluded spouses from our identifications unless 1) the spouse is of independent historical interest or 2) Godwin had a significant relationship with them independent of the primary figure (but see also the comments under Abbreviations and names for more complex cases). We have prioritized the identification of those who appear frequently in the diary, those we deemed important to Godwin, and those we thought would be of interest to a general audience. These principles have not been followed rigidly as identifications often flowed organically (identifying one person in a group often leads to the identification of others). Users will have further information we lacked and we welcome feedback on our judgments and further information about people and entries in the diary. The editorial matter and coding of the diary will be updated on a regular basis over the first year of public access, and intermittently thereafter.

Users of the diary are strongly encouraged to consult Abbreviations and names

Abbreviations and names

Godwin uses abbreviations throughout the diary but especially when referring to people, and he has a range of shorthand entries that qualify what he has written. The abbreviations for people are many and various: He almost wholly refuses to add the second consonant of any name ending in a double consonant. For example: Thelwall is always Thelwal; Crosdill is always Crosdil, except when Godwin records his death!

Just as Holcroft becomes ‘Ht’, many others in the diary are contracted to the first and last letters of their names but they are not consistently contracted – Godwin can move back and forward between full spellings and contractions; he can also use initials rather than contractions; and he can use the same initials or contractions for different people – so M stands for Marshall, but also for his daughter Mary at one period of her life. Women are more likely to be contracted than men, but certainly not exclusively so. People can also be referred to by, or, more precisely, their presence may be inferred from, a place name. For instance, when Godwin becomes intimate with Mary Wollstonecraft the entry truncates her to ‘chez elle’ or ‘chez moi’. Another example is John Philpott Curran being referred to for much of Godwin’s visit to Ireland in 1800 as ‘Rathfarnham’ (where Curran lived in Dublin). In addition, we have recognised a problem with Godwin’s referencing, particularly of meals and the presence of the host and spouse or other family member. For example, Godwin dines frequently at Charles Lamb’s. Except when Mary Lamb was in hospital, she would likely be present and active at the dinner, as is testified by letters and diaries from the period and yet Godwin makes no reference to her presence.  The same is true for many other couples. Accordingly, we have taken the editorial decision to presume the presence of significant others when Godwin calls for meals but only mentions the host and when that significant other has an individual code.  In some cases this will overstate their presence – we do not know exactly when Mary Lamb was in hospital.  For other couples there is less risk of over-stating the spouse’s presence.  However, when Godwin records an entry such as 'call on Lamb' (as against 'call on Lambs') we have treated this more narrowly and coded only for the named person.

A complication of the abbreviations is the fluctuating degree of intimacy that Godwin has with people. This can be particularly difficult to unpick when people share surnames and more so again when it is a common surname. Godwin felt that he had no need to distinguish in his diary between various ‘Smiths’ or ‘Taylors’ who appear throughout the diary, but it seems clear from context that different people are being recorded. In other words, ‘Smith’ in 1792 is someone different to ‘Smith’ in 1802. Often context can help make an identification but occasionally there is no context (e.g. ‘Call on Smith’).

Names are usually given without initials. Women’s names may first appear prefixed with Miss or Mrs, but this is not invariably so; and that prefix may then be replaced by an initial or discarded altogether. Those given initials may lose them; those without may gain them, and may lose them again. Even when people with the same surname are involved in Godwin’s circles in the same period, Godwin does not systematically distinguish different people by using initials.

For ‘nah’, ‘nit’, ‘adv’ and other abbreviations relating to calls and meetings see Calls.


Godwin indicates when he calls on others and when they call on him. Entries may be followed, usually in superscript by nah, na, nit, or n. These mean that Godwin does not in fact see them – because they are ‘not at home’, ‘not available’, ‘not in town’, or simply not there. Similarly, callers on Godwin may be recorded with similar notes when Godwin is out or when he does not see them. When looking at an individual person record under People users will find results that indicate how many of the calls the person makes on Godwin or Godwin makes on them and of these calls how many do not result in an actual meeting. This example illustrates an important principle of searching the diary: appearance in the diary does not automatically constitute a physical encounter between Godwin and an individual. An individual can appear in the diary as an unsuccessful call, as a topic of conversation, as a correspondent, in a paratextual list, as a death, in an entry where Godwin notes meetings between two or more others where he was not himself present, and so on. In each case the entry is not a contact. Users are directed to be careful in distinguishing actual physical encounters with Godwin from these types of diary entries.

Moreover, users should note that there are some ‘meetings’ whose nature cannot be determined and that there is a grey area as to what constitutes a physical encounter in any case. When Godwin attended, for instance, the trial on Thomas Hardy on 1 November 1794, he wrote ‘see Wharton, Thomson, Walker, Roberts M., Vaughan, Harwood, Frost, Williams, Banks, Sharp, Ferguson, Symonds, Towers, C. Moore, G. Moore, Hawes, Ritson, Gray, Webb, Belmano, Macdonald’. It seems improbable that he spoke to all of these but likely he did with some. Does a wave across a crowded courtroom, a nod in the queue to gain entry, or the recognition of someone on the other side of the room constitute a meeting? The editors have taken take the view that all encounters treated by Godwin as a meeting should be acknowledged as a meeting. While it may be tempting to assume that meetings recorded by Godwin as ‘see’ are not actual physical encounters, this is not borne out by considering the use of ‘see’ in the diary as a whole, so there is no distinct subcategory of meetings systematically distinguished from other subcategories, where Godwin sees but does not meet people.

Within each person’s file, there is an option to explore the meals and meetings they had with Godwin in more detail. A chronological list is offered of all meals and meetings in which the person features. The user has the opportunity to narrow the encounters listed by category (meal or meeting), subcategory (type of meeting or meal), venue, or number of participants. The user may also determine which meetings the subject of their search attended with other specified persons. For example, if searching for Coleridge, one can then view just the meetings at which Coleridge and Wordsworth appear together and distinguish within those any n/nah/nit instances Godwin notes. One can search for meetings of up to four people (excluding Godwin): for example, if one wanted to see if Godwin, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Thomas De Quincey ever got together, the diary records one such encounter (tea at Coleridge’s on 3 March 1808). Where we have been unable to identify a person who appears in a meeting, the person’s name will be marked by an asterix.

When Godwin records calling on a number of people in one entry (call on X, Y, and Z), these calls have been treated as a sequence of individual calls. Similarly, when Godwin records a number of people calling on him (X, Y, and Z call), these have been treated as a sequence of individual calls. The project recognizes that in some cases people may be calling ensemble but there is sufficient evidence that the individual approach is most accurate with some exceptions noted below.

When Godwin records calling with someone on others (call, with X, on Y & Z), his companion is deemed to be present at both meetings. However, when Godwin records an entry such as ‘Call on X & Y with Z’, Z is treated as being at the latter meeting only.

Most meetings are clear – people call on Godwin, or he calls on them, although the etiquette of calling is complex (see, for example, the discussion in Leonore Davidoff’s The Best Circles: Society Etiquette and the Season – although this is based on slightly more formal contexts).

The most complex meeting in the diary is the frequently used ‘adv.’ which, from two entries in 1792 where Godwin spells it out in full, we know to be a contraction of ‘advenae’. The word ‘advena’ (plural ‘advenae’) is something of a rarity in Latin, being a first-declension noun with an ‘-a’ ending, which is usually feminine but here of indeterminate gender, i.e. potentially masculine, feminine or neuter. The standard dictionary of classical Latin (Lewis & Short) defines its primary meaning as ‘one who comes to a place’, but then ‘a foreigner, stranger, or alien’. Godwin uses the term to indicate that he unexpectedly encountered the person at a meal or meeting or at an event. Meals may involve a number of people with whom Godwin dines, followed by ‘adv’ and another list. This suggests that the former were part of an arranged dinner, and the latter call on the host either during or after dinner.

When Godwin records a number of people encountered ‘adv’ the individuals have been grouped collectively. Although this differs from our principle of recording other types of meetings such as calls individually, the adv encounter functions as a subset to a wider meeting/meal/activity and as such we have taken the view that individuals listed as adv encounters are more likely to encounter each other within the physical and social confines of the broader meal/meeting/activity’s parameters. The same assumption has been made about participants of an ‘au soir’ meeting who are also grouped collectively.

We have also indicated when people function as a venue for a call. This is worth noting not only for the light shed on Godwin’s relationship with the individual (for example, if Godwin calls many times on them but this is not reciprocated, this suggests a particular kind of relationship) but for the light shed on non-Godwin relationships . If, for example, Godwin only meets X when he is visiting Y, then it may suggest that there is a relationship between X and Y that is noteworthy. Users should consider the effect that Godwin’s age, income, marital status would have on the patterns of calling and dining.


Godwin is reasonably consistent in identifying meals at which he meets others. ‘X dines’ means what it says; X dines, means that X is Godwin’s guest. It is likely that meals at which Godwin is the host may include meals in inns or coffee houses that Godwin hosts, as well as those in his own home, but we have no way of knowing this for certain. The range of meals: breakfast, dinner, tea, supper are self-explanatory, although readers may wish to refer to scholarly discussions of dining practices in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century London (see bibliography) The editors have been careful to record each type of meal separately as distinct types suggest a certain level of intimacy which is very useful in mapping changes over time in Godwin’s relationship with people, or indeed, in the relationships between other people in the diary.

1796 List

The diary’s editorial matter refers frequently to the '1796 list'. The 1796 list is a series of names and dates that Godwin inserted into the last few pages of his diary notebook for February 1795-September 1796. He compiled the list – probably in 1805 – to map the growth and range of his acquaintance over the years 1773-1805. In some cases the names are underlined, probably an indication that the relationship was one Godwin considered particularly important. One of the pages is of particular interest as Godwin selects twenty-five names from his main chronological list and puts them in order of when he made their acquaintance. It seems probable that Godwin here lists those twenty-five people he considered most significant to his life and is interested in thinking about either the longevity of those relationships or how the sequence of meeting matters or both. ‘Significant’ here has a deliberate (and inescapable) ambiguity as the list excludes, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft. Other names have then been added in the margins, which suggests that Godwin revisited this list subsequently to note other important relationships. The list appears after the entry for 24 September 1796.


Godwin was a voracious reader right up until he died. He noted in his unfinished autobiography that when he was a student at Hoxton Academy he would rise at 5am and read until midnight and the passion for reading never left him. Although the diary commences in 1788, he does not record his daily reading until 1791 when the diary becomes more detailed.

There are various subcategories of reading. The overwhelming majority of entries may be found under ‘Texts Read’. Other entries can be found under ‘Cala’ which is when Godwin browses through a text ‘ça et la’; ‘Discussed’ where it appears that Godwin discusses a text with someone or reads a work aloud; ‘Texts Mentioned’ where Godwin refers to a text but is not reading it (e.g. borrowing a book); and ‘Letter Received’ where Godwin notes the receipt of correspondence (which he does not do consistently, since many extant letters do not correspond to an entry in the diary, and for many entries in the diary there is no extant letter).

The aim has been to identify the author (and where applicable translator/editor), full title, and first publication date for each item.  There has been no concerted attempt to identify the specific edition that Godwin read.  However, information from the sale catalogue of his library has been provided, as well as notations on his readings in the British Museum (now the British Library), which may serve scholars in tracing specific editions.  Occasionally, we have noted reprints and later editions available to Godwin, especially where his diary explicitly states that he is using a specific edition.

The annotations follow a specific sequence.  Each item reproduces the entry from Godwin’s diary, with the date of the entry.  In the annotation, the name of the author (and where applicable translator/editor) is given in boldface, with title in italics below author, and with publication date in roman after.  Comments stand below the bibliographical information.  Because there are many inconsistencies in how titles are recorded in our sources, we have following the practice of capitalizing only the first word of title, subtitle, proper names, and personal titles such as ‘Earl’.  Spelling has not been modernized unless the source has modernized it.

Given Godwin’s cryptic entries, absolutely certain identification has not always been possible.  We have therefore in many cases supplied a brief comment to show the basis of confidence.  When we wished to draw attention to the issue of confidence, we have used the following indicator words:

  • a. ‘probably,’
  • b. ‘possibly’ (often applied where several candidate identifications are equally possible), 
  • c. ‘unable to identify with certainty’ (usually applied to the title by an identified author),
  • d. and ‘unable to identify’ (applied to both author and title).

The basis of confidence in an identification rests on one or more of the following:  Godwin’s own footnotes in published works (though these are sometimes cryptic), listing in his sale catalogue, identification by previous scholars, likelihood from the paucity of alternative candidates, previous mention in the diary, similar topics of works read within the same time period, and already read works by the same author.

It has not been possible to check the title pages of all the works Godwin read, especially in their first editions.  For some authors, we have consulted available scholarly editions that give publication dates and titles of first editions or single-author bibliographies.  In an initial search of many items, we have consulted the extensive listing in WorldCat, but since the recording of titles in this source is not always accurate or consistent, we have followed up by consulting listings in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), the British Library Integrated Catalogue, the catalogue of the UCLA Libraries, and the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.  We have also found valuable aid in identifying authors in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A full list of the sources consulted may be seen in the bibliography.


Godwin wrote almost every morning. His rate of composition varied but he usually managed 2-5 pages per day. Users can view Godwin’s writing activities by date, by type of activity or with reference to the writing of particular texts.

The editors have distinguished Godwin’s different writing activities according to his own nomenclature so the user can see writing activity under ‘Transcribe’, Translate’, ‘Correct’ and so on. The editors have further incorporated indirect writing activities such as ‘Meditate on Writing’, ‘Notes Made’ and ‘Invent’ so that users can get a comprehensive view of Godwin’s writing process.

Searching by text allows the user to see all writing activities, direct and indirect, that have been assigned to a particular text, both published and unpublished, completed and incomplete.

When Godwin engages in two different activities on one text (for example, ‘Pol. Justice, 3pp; revise), they have been treated as two separate activities. When he records the completion of a text, it has been coded as a standard ‘write’ entry.


Godwin kept fastidious diary records of his personal health problems, concerns, and moments of well-being. 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 William St Clair as fits sometimes accompanied by vomiting. Latin and French words have been translated, and using context or various sources we have attempted to indicate 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 9 and 10 November, 1792 – to cite one such example. When searching for health complaints, users should 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’).


Godwin occasionally recorded topics of conversation in his diary. It is unclear why he records some conversations and not others although one may presume that it was because he felt the conversation or the interlocutor was worthy of note. It is also true that he records the topics of conversations more frequently in the mid-1790s than either before or after.


Godwin goes to the theatre and concerts, attends lectures, notes trials and parliamentary and public events, registers personal events, keeps track of the weather and temperature, and visits libraries and gardens. Editorial notes identify these events in the diary and provide background information about them. In the open ‘Search’ editorial matter is kept distinct from the diary, but each may be searched. Place names are also recorded in the diary, and entries relating to visits and activity outside London are also noted.

Formatting and Script

Most of the diary entries are written in Godwin’s fluent italic script in black pen. However, many public events are entered below the day’s entry and are written in red ink. Moreover, in a relatively small number of entries additions have been made in pencil. Also, there are a number of cases where Godwin seems to be adding names to a meeting after the initial diary entry, resulting in names appearing in the side margins. Finally, Godwin occasionally enters dates wrongly and does not always retroactively correct them; and sometimes it looks as if he is compiling the diary from sets of notes, which leads him to make transcription mistakes, which he then rectifies by crossings out. In each case, we have tried to signal in the transcript that there is something distinctive about the entry, so as to encourage readers to check the transcribed entry against the scan of the manuscript.

Short Titles

The editors have had frequent and grateful recourse to the work of Godwin biographers Don Locke, Peter Marshall, and William St Clair. They are referred to in brief by surname in the editorial matter; full information is available in the bibliography.