Critical Biography  
Critical Biography

Early Years

Born in 1760 to a large Dissenting family in Southwark, near London, Mary Hays lived quietly for the first seventeen years of her life. In 1777, she met and fell in love with John Eccles, a young man of similar background who lived across the way from her home. The relationship was frowned upon by both families, and the couple began a secret intimate correspondence which lasted for more than a year. In a letter dated Thursday, 28 October 1779, John Eccles describes his initial impression of Hays:

"the first time I saw a little girl with dark hair and features soft as those of the peaceful messengers of heaven...I saw everything that was engaging and amiable in her face."

This portrait of Hays is the only complimentary description of her which survives. However, Eccles was more than just a lover, he was a friend and Hays' mentor, often influencing her studies and choice of reading materials.

In 1780, the engagement finally met the approval of both families and the couple made plans to be married. Before their long-awaited love could be consumated though, John's health began to fail and within a short time, he died from fever on 23 August 1780. Hays was devastated by his demise, and wrote afterwards that the fatal day "blasted all the fond hopes of [her] youth." To his sister, she wrote: "he was the friend of my heart, the best beloved of my soul! all my happiness--all my pleasure--and every opening prospect are buried with him!" In some ways, her sense of hopelessness was accurate. At twenty-two, she had already experienced the only mutually-reciprocated love with a man that she would enjoy for the rest of her life.

After Eccles' death, she turned to intellectual pursuits, to reading, writing, and corresponding with religious and political reformers. Between 1782 to 1789, Hays exchanged letters with Baptist preacher and philanthropist, Robert Robinson (1735-1790), who published Political Catechism. Robinson acted the part of confessor, healer, friend, and mentor, helping Hays through a difficult period in her early life. Her first literary piece was "The Hermit, an Oriental Tale" which was published in the Universal Magazine in 1786. Similar to Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, it is set in an exotic Orient and is didactic in tone. The hermit's lessons about excess passion are comparable to the theme of Hays' first novel, Emma Courtney, published ten years later. His warning that strong passions "too often accompany superior talents, and endanger the most amiable and elevated minds" is subsequently echoed by Hays' autobiographical heroine Emma. Both Emma and the hermit discover after a losing their loved ones, that human bliss is to be found in "the real solid pleasures of nature and social affection, in the serene consciousness of a well-ordered conduct," in "regulated" passions, and "tranquillized" temper. These ideas of moderation and of conduct based on reason reveal the influence of eighteenth-century thinking on Hays.

The 1790s

Her next piece demonstrates her engagement with current religious issues. Through Robinson, Hays' was exposed to the teachings of the leading Rational Dissenters or Non-Conformists of the period such as Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808), John Disney (1746-1816), and Joseph Priestley. She also met George Dyer (1755-1841) and William Frend (1757-1841) probably in the early 1790s. Her Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship: Inscribed to Gilbert Wakefied, published in 1791 as "Eusebia", was a result of her involvement with this group of liberal reformers. In the pamphlet, Hays addresses Wakefield's objections to communal prayer, and argues that public worship was necessary for the majority of men and women, who, she believed, were not ready for a purely mental and contemplative religion.

The success of the second edition brought her the attention and friendship of William Frend, a Cambridge mathematician and reformer who was impressed with her "candour" and "sound reasoning," and who provided Hays with some romance in her life in the next few years. At this time, Hays also became involved with the London circle of Jacobin intellectuals, including George Dyer, Mary Wollstonecraft and the publisher Joseph Johnson. The most influential person of this group was Mary Wollstonecraft whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) inspired Hays to publish her next work to which her sister, Elizabeth also contributed. After reading Rights of Woman Hays wrote to Wollstonecraft expressing her deep admiration for her. At Hays' request, they met in the late summer of 1792 and soon after, Hays wrote her seeking advice on Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous which was published the year after. Hays is later credited with bringing together through a tea party at her home Wollstonecraft and the philosopher, William Godwin, whom Wollstonecraft eventually married in 1797.

Though most of Letters and Essays was already written before Hays met Wollstonecraft, Hays pays tribute to her in the Preface as the writer who "hath endeavoured to rescue the female mind from those prejudices by which it has been systematically weakened." As the title suggests, the work is made up of miscellaneous epistles on subjects ranging from civil liberty, to female mind and manners, to reading romances, to friendship. The style is mixed, sometimes it takes the form of conversational essays, at times, of didactic narratives. Hays returns to the subject of female education in several of the letters protesting against the "degrading system of manners by which the understandings of women have been chained down to frivolity and trifles." She defies "Authority" which she feels limits women, and, using language suggestive of French revolutionary supporters, boldly asserts:

"bolts and bars may confine for a time the feeble body, but can never enchain the noble, the free-born mind; the only true grounds of power are reason and affection."

In practical terms, the consequence of the system of education is that women have little employment opportunities:

"Young women without fortunes, if they do not chance to marry...have scarce any other resources than in servitude or prostitution," she wrote.

This concern for opportunities for single women without fortunes would re-surface in her first novel, in her essays in The Monthly Magazine, and, to a lesser extent, in her second novel.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney

Memoirs of Emma Courtney, published in 1796, was based on Hays' real life love and pursuit of William Frend. Frend, who first communicated to Hays in April 1792, admired her work, and carried on a correspondence with her, but evidently did not reciprocate her passionate feelings for him. The disappointed Hays turned to William Godwin for consolation and advice. In October 1794 after having already read his novel, Caleb Williams, Hays had written to Godwin to ask him for his copy of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice which she could not obtain. He agreed to lend her the book, and this exchange began a strong intellectual bond and friendship between them which lasted six years. Godwin played the role of mentor in the same way as Eccles, Robinson, and Dyer had earlier in Hays' life. As he was a sympathetic listener, Hays poured out to him her unhappiness over Frend. On Godwin's recommendation, she gathered together her letters to Frend and to Godwin, and used them in her philosophical novel which attempted to explore the link between reason and a woman's passion.

Structurally as well as thematically, Hays demonstrates her contention that women are prevented from participating in many of the important functions of society, or to use one of her metaphors, they are "confined within a magic circle." Written partly in an epistolary form, partly in the form of memoirs, Emma Courtney traps both the reader of the novel, and the reader within the text, young Augustus, in an endless circle of suffocating repetition. Emma's sexual and intellectual disappointments are mirrored by the novel's incessant and stifling pattern of frustrated desire and unfulfilled expectations. As an epistolary novel, the work is deliberately imbalanced and one-sided. Through a strong first-person narration, we hear Emma's story of exclusion, of rejection, and of self-torture. Hardly anyone else's voice is heard in the narrative so that the reader's attention is focused and directed on Emma's affecting plight. What Hays believes to be the female experience of confinement by the "constitutions of society" becomes literal in the novel as we, too experience narrative entrapment.

Another important achievement of the novel is that Hays' heroine, Emma Courtney, like Mary Wollstonecraft's Maria in The Wrongs of Woman, dares to assert female sexuality and desire. The notion that women had or could express sexual feelings was one that eighteenth-century moralists and authors of conduct books tried hard to deny or ignore. Hays' Emma pronounces: "I feel that I am neither a philosopher, nor a heroine--but a woman, to whom education has given a sexual character." Unfortunately this assertion of female desire was condemned by conservative thinkers and moralists who equated female philosophers, such as Hays and Wollstonecraft, with licentiousness and sexual liberation towards the end of the decade.

Magazines & Polemical Essays

After the publication of her first novel, Hays contributed short articles on topics ranging from women's education to gender differentiation to political philosophy and novel writing to the Monthly Magazine. Many of these letters were signed M.H. One such letter, published in June 1796 throws some light on Hays's ideas of the importance of biography: "were every great man to become his own biographer, and to examine and state impartially, to the best of his recollection, the incidents of his life, the course of his studies, the causes by which he was led to them, the reflections and habits to which they gave birth, the rise, the change, the progress of his opinions, with the consequences produced by them on his affections and conduct, great light might be thrown on the most interesting of all studies, that of moral causes and the human mind." At this time, she also reviewed novels for the Analytical Review whose fiction editor in 1796 to early 1797 was Mary Wollstonecraft.

Her next major work was Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) which was published anonymously. The Appeal stresses the necessity of reforming the system of education for women and refutes the claim that women are naturally inferior to men. Its style is more spirited and direct rather than anecdotal and illustrative as Letters and Essays was. Like her earlier works, Hays attempts to point out that women are socially and culturally constructed, rather than inherently weak and lacking in abilities:

"Of all the systems...which human nature in its moments of intoxication has produced; that which men have contrived with a view to forming the minds, and regulating the conduct of women, is perhaps the most completely absurd."

Katharine Rogers suggests that compared to Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman, Hays' Appeal is less theoretical, and more pragmatic:

"Hays's basic to confront conventional formulas with daily experience, so as to demonstrate by common sense their internal inconsistencies and their deviations from what actually happens and what is obviously desirable."

The Victim of Prejudice

The ability to particularize and render concrete her feminist assertions is what makes her second novel, The Victim of Prejudice (1799) so powerful an indictment of patriarchy. Similar to her first novel, Victim is concerned with female economic and social dependence, sexuality, and subjectivity. But Hays adds another important dimension to this novel which is the critique of social hierarchy based on class. Written at the end of the revolutionary decade, Victim of Prejudice exploits the politicized climate and demonstrates the uneasy tensions and potentially explosive situations between those with power and those without, between male and female, between oppressor and victim.

The heroine of the novel, Mary, despite her determination not to fall prey to seduction like her mother, ends up with an equally tragic fate. The younger Mary's worst nightmares become real in the novel, giving the work an dreamlike, Gothic quality. This mother-daughter link and the subsequent literal re-enactment of the first Mary's written memoirs create much of the force and the sense of foreboding in the novel. Mary's life follows that of her mother's, as she is systematically seduced, abandoned, and cast out of society. Through a replication of the mother's life in the daughter's, Hays shows how challenging the patriarchal system can become a form of female punishment in contemporary eighteenth-century culture. The attempts of both the first and the second generation Mary to rebel, oppose, and curtail masculine will and desire only create further constraints in their lives. Yearning for more space and freedom, they become physically and spiritually more constricted and circumscribed.

Turn of the Century

After Mary Wollstonecraft's death in 1797, and Godwin's publication of her Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) which gave an account of her suicide attempts, her illegitimate daughter, and her love affairs, there was an increasing wave of anti-feminist sentiment in England. At the same time, the atrocities of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France in the middle of the decade made the supporters of the revolution extremely unpopular. Along with Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, and others, Hays was cited among Wollstonecraft's female band of rebels who despise "Nature's law" in the Reverend Richard Polwhele's poem The Unsex'd Females (1798).

Hays was also caricatured in a couple of novels published at this time. In Charles Lloyd's Edmund Oliver (1798) which satirizes Coleridge and the English Jacobins, Hays appears as Lady Gertrude Sinclair. Similarly, Elizabeth Hamilton modelled the comic female philosopher Bridgetina Botherim after Hays and after Emma Courtney in Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800). Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of her in a letter to Robert Southey dated Saturday 25 1800-Jan.:

"Of Miss Hays' intellect I do not think so highly as you, or rather, to speak sincerely, I think, not contemptuously, but certainly very despectively thereof.--Yet I think you likely in this case to have judged better than I--for to hear a Thing, ugly & petticoated, ex-syllogize a God with cold-blooded Precision, & attempt to run Religion thro' the body with an Icicle...I do not endure it!"

With the turn of the century and possibly, as a result of this anti-feminist backlash, Hays' radicalism and her criticism of society seemed to have mellowed. Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries published in 1803 was a work commissioned by Richard Phillips. As the title indicates, it was an ambitious project which took nearly three years to complete. The work in six volumes consists of the lives of around 290 women, about one-third of whom were Englishwomen. In her Preface Hays implies that the work included "every woman who, either by her virtues, her talents, or the peculiarities of her fortune, has rendered herself illustrious or distinguished." She wishes to be objective, to "serve the cause of truth and of virtue," yet her stance is very feminist:

"My pen has been taken up in the cause, and for the benefit of my own sex. For their improvement, and to their entertainment, my labours have been devoted....I have at heart the happiness of my sex, and their advancement in the grand scale of rational and social existence."

She acknowledges that there is "little new" in the work, however, the aim is to "collect and concentrate in one interesting point of view, those engaging pictures, instructive narrations, and striking circumstances that may answer a better purpose than the gratification of a vain curiosity." Her skill in Female Biography comes largely from her ability to compile and weave materials into an interesting narrative.

One prominent woman whose life does not appear is Mary Wollstonecraft. Hays had written two obituaries for her which were published in the September 1797 issue of The Monthly Magazine and in the Annual Necrology, 1797-1798. In the former, she had praised Wollstonecraft as an "extraordinary woman, no less distinguished by admirable talents & a masculine tone of understanding, than by active humanity, exquisite sensibility, and endearing qualities of heart." The omission in Female Biography is striking, and reveals Hays' fear of the public's less tolerant attitude towards those who had spoken on behalf of women's rights following the French revolution.

Later Years

During the second half of her life Hays continued to write novels, but the works were more didactic and conservative than her earlier productions. In 1804, Joseph Johnson published Hays' Harry Clinton; or a Tale of Youth which was a reworking of Henry Brooke's popular sentimental novel, The Fool of Quality (1765-70). Hays edited out much of what she termed "fanaticism and extravagance" from the original, and in the Advertisement, she says that her interest in the work lies in its "exhibiting a history of the practical education and culture of the heart." Around this time, she moved out of London and lodgings and into a small house in Camberwell, Surrey where she lived a more retired and quiet life than previously. Her faithful correspondents during this period were Henry Crabb Robinson and Eliza Fenwick, both who remained devoted to Hays through her later years. In Eliza Fenwick's letters, Hays emerges as a faithful and generous friend who willingly helps her through various domestic and financial crises.

Hays' last two novels show the influence of evangelical movement, especially the teachings and works of Hannah More (1745-1833) and Elizabeth Hamilton (1758-1816). Both novels, The Brothers; or Consequences (1815) and Family Annals; or the Sisters (1817), are didactic works, designed in their simplicity to teach the lower classes the values of economy, frugality, and self-discipline. Both novels contain a pair of contrasting characters, brothers in the former and sisters in latter work. In the Preface of Family Annals, Hays gave credit to Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) who inspired her with literature which happily blended "amusement and instruction." The story of the two sisters, one who is romantic, and the other who is sensible, is reminiscent of Jane West's A Gossip's Story (1796) which Hays had reviewed for the Analytical Review in January of 1797, and of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) which was also influenced by West's novel.

Hays' final publication, Memoirs of Queens, Illustrious and Celebrated was written when she was already in her sixties. In the Preface Hays speaks of herself "declining in physical strength and mental activity," and of compiling the memoirs of queens only at the "request of the publishers." The work contains more than seventy lives of queens, more than half of them already found in her earlier Female Biography. Hays insists upon the assertions she made earlier about the capabilities of women:

"I maintain, and while strength and reason remain to me, ever will maintain, that there is, there can be but one moral standard of excellence for mankind, whether male or female, and that the licentious distinctions made by the domineering party, in the spirit of tyranny, selfishness, and sensuality, are at the foundation of the heaviest evils that have afflicted, degraded, and corrupted society."

She believes that "the powers and capacity for woman for rational and moral advancement longer a question," yet laments that, for the most part, "the education of woman is yet directed only towards the embellishment of the transient season of youth."

Though Hays lived for more than twenty years after the publication of Memoirs of Queens, it was her last work. She complained, more than once, that "the world forsrch 1842, she told him that should he fail to see her soon, he could next "seekakes me" as her circle of friends and correspondents grew smaller. In her final letter to Henry Crabb Robinson written sometime in Ma my remains in a humble grave in the Newington cemetery with the simple memorial Mary Hays engraven on the headstone." Hays died quietly the next year in the early months of 1843.

Written by: Eleanor Ty
© June 2000


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Eleanor Ty
Department of English and Film Studies
Wilfrid Laurier University
Ontario, Canada

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