Critical Conversation in the 1790s: Godwin, Hays, and Wollstonecraft

Jon Mee

in Conversable Worlds

Published in print September 2011 | ISBN: 9780199591749
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191731433 | DOI:
Critical Conversation in the 1790s: Godwin, Hays, and Wollstonecraft

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This chapter focuses on the particular conversable world created by London’s radical intelligensia in the 1790s. It explores the idea of ‘rational conversation’ propounded by Godwin, Hays, and Wollstonecraft and locates them in relation to their social worlds. It places Godwin’s idea of ‘the collision of mind with mind’ in relationship to the more raucous forms of sociability sometimes found in popular radical associations, and examines his dispute with John Thelwall over whether such associations could sustain rational conversation. Partly as a reaction, it argues, Godwin developed a more polite and affective notion of discourse in his Enquirer essays. This development is in turn related to Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and the idea of ‘sentient language’ explored in Hays’s novel Memoirs of Emma Courtney. If transcending conversation as a scene of conflicting social mediations seemed attractive to these writers, the chapter suggests a melancholy sense of exclusion can also be found in their writing after 1795, not least because of governmental encroachment on freedom of conversation and the dissolution of the republic of letters that had helped form their idea of the literary.

Keywords: Godwin; Hays; Wollstonecraft; Thelwall; political associations; popular radicalism; ‘sentient language’; Two Acts

Chapter.  14434 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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