TRAVELS OF ST. LEON, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century

TRAVELS OF ST. LEON, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century

by William Godwin

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Godwin's novel, "Travels of St. Lron", is, the last—in spite of Shelley—which anybody has read in modern times, and marked a stage in his development. It appeared in 1799, and showed that he had learned something from his brief married life.

He announces in the preface that he has now learned that there is really some good in the "private affections." He adds calmly that this opinion is perfectly consistent with the rest of his doctrines—though to most readers the alteration required in them seems to be considerable. Anyhow, his new doctrine again provided him with a really striking situation. St. Leon is a French nobleman of the sixteenth century, though, it need hardly be said, Godwin takes very little trouble to give any genuine picture of the time.

St. Leon has made a happy and aristocratic marriage, when he is accidentally reduced to extreme poverty. An affectionate family, however, surrounds him, and he manages to get on pretty well in an Alpine district where the people are not corrupted by luxury. To him enters an old gentleman who has discovered the philosopher's stone. This, as is known, enables a man to produce boundless wealth and also gives the power of restoring youth. The possessor, however, has been made so miserable that he is only anxious to die, and death, it seems, can only be secured by transferring the stone to another man, who must accept the same terms and be pledged to absolute secrecy.

The purpose is to show how miserable a man would become when his exemption from mortality made him incapable of sympathy with his ephemeral companions. That is the kind of text which might have been treated effectively in the old moral tale of the Candide variety. Godwin not only expands it into a long quasi-historical novel, with all manner of impossible adventures and coincidences, but contrives to miss the moral. The point of the situation in his version comes to be the difficulty which St. Leon finds in accounting for his sudden accession to boundless wealth.

He has a perfect wife, supposed to be meant for a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, but the poor lady is tormented by a curiosity as keen as that of Caleb Williams. In those days, no doubt, it would be more difficult than it is now to account for a mysterious bound into wealth; the Stock Exchange was not invented. Still, one would have thought that it was not beyond human ingenuity to get round such a perplexity. St. Leon is unequal to the task. He comes under suspicion—pretty well justified indeed—of dealing in magic; he alienates his family by his unaccountable proceedings; he is locked up in a dungeon by a nobleman who guesses at his powers and proposes to keep him employed in making gold; he falls into the hands of the Inquisition; and, though he manages to escape and to disguise himself by again becoming a youth, he has in that capacity to repudiate his children; becomes thoroughly miserable and is left at the end of the story proposing to die in spite of his miraculous gifts. Godwin had got further from realities than he was in Caleb Williams, and makes his characters indulge in a stilted declamation which he appears to have meant for passion. A brief passage will be enough to show what was the kind of eloquence which induced contemporaries—even Shelley—to think that he was at home in describing "whirlwinds of passion." St. Leon's wife has guessed the secret. She feels that a hopeless gulf has opened between herself and her husband. Her beloved son has been forced to drop his disreputable father and she herself is dying under the shock. A page or two of eloquence ends with the remarks—

"How unhappy the wretch, the monster rather let me say, who is without an equal, who looks through the world and in the world cannot find a brother; who is endowed with attributes which no living being participates with him; who is therefore cut off for ever from all cordiality and confidence, can never unbend himself, but lives a solitary joyless inhabitant of a prison, the materials of which are emeralds and rubies. How unhappy this wretch, how weak and ignoble the man who voluntarily accepts this odious existence."

Product Details

BN ID: 2940015586879
Publisher: OGB
Publication date: 10/12/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 924,001
File size: 1 MB

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