by William Godwin
Published in 1794
Read on an Amazon Kindle Ereader
Caleb Williams is a book that fell into the bottom ten 18th century entries on the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die List solely on cost grounds. Both the Penguin and Oxford Worlds Classics edition are more then 5 bucks, so over ten when you add in shipping. Most of the books remaining on the Bottom 10 are relatively "hard to get" and/or not free on the Kindle or in Google IBooks.
I can tell you right now that the last book on the 18th century portion of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die is going to be Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie or; The New Heloise, his 700 + page epistolary novel. It costs more then 30 bucks on Amazon when you add in shipping, and there is only one current version. Julie costs twenty bucks on Kindle, which is ridiculous.
Other then that I've bought all the remaining titles on the "Bottom 10" : Denis Diderot's The Nun, Marquis De Sade's Justine, Confessions and Reveries of a Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau AND Dangerous Liasons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Oh and Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, which, I shit you not, is over three thousand Kindle sized pages- in 10 volumes. Not stoked about reading that last one. Did I mention is Clarissa is not only 3000 pages on a Kindle BUT ALSO an epistolary Novel? That is three thousand pages... of letters.
Returning to Caleb Williams... Caleb Williams is a 'minor classic.' The Author, William Godwin is famous for his early anarchist leanings and his philosophical type writings surrounding that subject. But he also wrote Caleb Williams, which is hailed (incorrectly I would argue) as the "first mystery novel" on William Godwin's Wikipedia page. (1)
You could argue that Caleb Williams is a late 18th century pre-cursor to the Realism trends of the early 19th century. Certainly, when you consider Caleb Williams besides to other contemporary late-Gothic efforts like Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and M.G. Lewis' The Monk, the 1790s look like either a Gothic revival or an actual flourishing of the Audience for Gothic fiction. At any rate, you can observe a distinct trend of "popular taste" during this period and that is a taste for Gothic fiction.
Godwin, writing in the 1790s did not draw from the same Romantic tropes that his contemporary Gothic-influenced writers used. For example, The Monk is set in Spain and The Mysteries of Udolpho in Italy- two of the most "Romantic" of destinations. Rather Godwin seems more influenced by Protestant confessional literature- which goes back to Daniel Defoe's use of motifs as early as Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe.
In Caleb Williams, the titular character is a boy "in service" to the wealthy Lord Falkland. During the course of his service, he learns that Falkland murdered a local bully and then let two innocent men hang for the crime. Caleb decides to leave Falkland's service because he "can't take it." and Falkland flips out- setting in motion a two hundred page chase/persecution drama that sees Caleb William thrown into jail repeatedly, adopting whimsical disguises and fleeing from place to place, always being pursued by the agents of Falkland, who is irrationally obsessed with silencing Williams and keeping him from ever exposing his secret.
I thought the actual material written by the 1001 Books staff was insightful for Caleb Williams, comparing the narrative to something Kafka would write, and I think that is the proper reference point for a Modern reader- it's an example of the literature of paranoia/persecution- a huge 20th/21st century subject.
(1) From the Wikipedia Entry:
Godwin is most famous for two books that he published within the space of a year: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, an attack on political institutions, and Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which attacks aristocratic privilege, but also is the first mystery novel.
(WILLIAM GODWIN WIKIPEDIA PAGE)
The Adventures of Caleb Williams is not a "mystery novel." Continuing with the Wikipedia centered research method in this blog post, the Mystery Novel has two main categories:
Although normally associated with the crime genre, the term "mystery fiction" may in certain situations refer to a completely different genre, where the focus is on supernatural or thriller mystery (the solution doesn't have to be logical, and even no crime is involved). (WIKIPEDIA ENTRY FOR MYSTERY FICTION)
What Wikipedia is so in-artfully trying to say is that the Mystery Novel is not just Detective/Crime fiction featuring a Sherlock Holmes style investigator, but also includes the "Supernatural Thriller." I would argue that this is incorrect, and that the supernatural thriller is not a "mystery novel" at all but rather a "horror story" or "Horror Fiction" as wikipedia calls this genre.
Godwin is not writing a "mystery novel" rather he is drawing on the supernatural themes of Gothic fiction which was pioneered by Horace Walpole's 1764 inventor of the genre, The Castle of Otranto. Gothic fiction involves the combination of horror and romance.