'Caleb Williams' has one of the most powerful beginnings I've ever read:
'My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to entreaties and untired in persecutions. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim. Every one (...) has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name. I have not deserved this treatment.'
Would you not, as I did, feel compelled to read on and find out how this sorry state of affairs came to be for Caleb Williams? What follows is a tale of passionate feelings (guilt, rage, jealousy, envy, ...) told with gusto by Caleb Williams himself. Written as a first person-narrative, Caleb Williams not only chronicles what happened to him but also how it came to pass and, specifically, his feelings, doubts, emotions, misgivings, ... at the time. Therein lies both the attraction and the weakness (if that is the correct word) of this novel.
The 'what' is an absorbing story indeed, with Caleb Williams falsely (that is, if you consider him to be a trustworthy narrator) being accused of theft, his imprisonment and escape attempts, his flight from jail and ultimate confrontation with 'his enemy'. However, before you place your order on this site or rush out to the bookstore be aware that there is more to this book than an adventure story. As I said earlier, Caleb Williams also describes (often at great length) how and why he came to do what he did, the feelings he fell prey to at the time, thoughts on the social mores that allow innocent people to languish in prison, etc. etc.
The result is that the plot does not always move along at the brisk pace we habitually expect from an adventure story. Also, these 'soulsearching' and philosophical parts are often in difficult, convoluted language, requiring rather more effort on the part of the reader, as in 'But, though this impression were at first exceedingly strong, and accompanied with its usual attendants in dejection and pusillanimity of spirit, yet my mind soon began as it were mechanically, to turn upon the consideration of the distance between this sea-port and my county prison (...).' I'm sure you'll agree that for instance Bernard Cornwell would have voiced that differently.
This is no coincidence of course. Godwin did not set out to write a mere adventure story, he also wanted to set down a sharp critique on English justice and politics ('Caleb Williams' was written just years after the French Revolution), and in that he succeeds: prison life is described in telling, gruesome detail, and in general Godwin succeeds admirably in evoking the desperation and terror felt by anyone falsely accused and how 'the system' favours wealth and rank, and offers relevant insights about the relation between an individual and society, and a lot more besides.
To sum up: this is all-in-all an admirable book, with serious food for thought and a good plot on top. However, if you are looking for nothing but a good plot to have a couple of hours of entertainment I would not recommend 'Caleb Williams'.