Mary Hays (1760-1843) secures her place in history as one of the radical disciples of Mary Wollstonecraft. Although acknowledged alongside the likes of Helen Maria Williams, Elizabeth Incbald and Charlotte Turner Smith as an important female revolutionary of the eighteenth century, she is often eclipsed by Wollstonecraft, with her famous family and reformist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). To solidify her role as Wollstonecraft’s ‘sidekick’ it was Hays who wrote Wollstonecraft’s obituary and it was Hays alone who was by her bedside when she died. However, this post attempts to establish Hays as an important historical feminist within herself. Her doctrines of ‘free living’ and ‘strong passions’ make her writings remarkably refreshing and frank for a woman living in a society of binary, hierarchal opposites. Repeatedly, she questions the Enlightenment’s opposition to feeling and masculine order, not only advocating the education and liberation of women, but also encouraging that the barriers of Britain’s closed ideological society should be broken.
Although born into a comfortable middle-class family of Dissenters, her early life was fraught with a series of traumatic blows that gradually shaped her mature ideological values. The death of her father was the first of these blows, encouraging a deep belief of determinism evident in her later writings (Brooks). Secondly, the devastating death of her fiancé, John Eccles, impacted her mental and emotional well-being. It was a long-desired union by both Hays and Eccles, their families only recently agreeing to the match after three years of refusal. In a letter to Eccles’ sister after his death, she writes of the raw pain she felt of being denied her domestic, marital happiness:
Your loss is not to be compared to mine; mine is irreparable, unspeakable! 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!… Instead of those scenes of social and domestic bliss which my imagination had pictured to itself, I am involved in misery- left desolate in a world which cannot afford me one satisfying idea!
The death of Eccles affected Hays for the rest of her life, influencing her first work Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), a novel that has received new scholarly interest over the past decade or so. This influence was coupled with a rejection from her second love interest, the clergyman and social reformer William Frend, who’s admiration of her did not extend past the realm of the literary. The text overtly acknowledges this one-sided romance, in one instance Hays stating “My friend”, she cries, “I would give myself for you – the gift is not worthless” (126). The novel is driven by the freedom to pursue emotion, passion not confined to the sensual realm but instead repeatedly conflicting with reason. Tilottama Rajan summarises that ‘Emma tells her story partly through a series of letters: passionately rational letters to Augustus, and rationally passionate ones to Francis, to whom she writes about the economic predicament of single women and relationship between reason and passion.’ (Rajan 216) It is this dynamic between between rationality and emotion, written as a warning to her ‘passionate’ son through a series of letters, that truly destablises Enlightenment thought. Hays blurs the ‘masculine’ appeal for order and instead presents not only emotion being used as a tool of governance, but feminine emotion being used for purely sexual, desirous means.
Memoirs of Emma Courtney was received favourably by contemporary reviews, although it wasn’t long before Hays was satirised as a sexually deviant figure in Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800). Two years previously, Richard Polwheles had branded Hays un-womanly alongside other radical pro-French women – known as the Jacobins – in his critical poem ‘The Unsex’d Females, A Poem’ (1798):
Survey with me, what ne’er our fathers saw,
A female band despising NATURE’s law,
As ‘proud defiance’ flashes from their arms,
And vengeance smothers all their softer charms
Indeed, her later works somewhat solidified this rebellious stereotype. Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women was published by Hays anonymously in 1798. Influenced by Wollstonecraft, Hays’ most radical work attempted to combat the denial of women’s education through reading the scriptures. She argued that by denying women the ability to be learned, society was damaging the very ‘characters and abilities of women’ (iii). The frustration of this restrictive, patriarchal world is truly encapsulated in her second novel, The Victim of Prejudice (1799) which is discussed in Eleanor Ty’s introduction to the Oxford edition of Emma Courtney:
Continuing the arguments about the need to place women on a more equitable position with men… Hays depicts a Gothic-like world where male power and wealth are set in opposition to, and eventually overcome, female virtue. The notions of female entrapment and marginalisation become horribly real in the novel as the heroine is slowly driven out of social existence, every means of survival taken away from her.
The novel remains one of the most powerful critiques of patriarchy written in the eighteenth century, establishing Hays’s importance as a female figure in the historical women’s rights movement. Although, after the turn of the century, Hays became more conservative in nature, her commitment to feminism continued; she directed her attentions more to female biography producing Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, Of All Ages and Countries (1803) and Memoirs of Queens, Illustrious and Celebrate (1821). Ty further states, like her first novel, ’these projects reinforce her belief that an examination of the causes and effects of one’s actions was a worthwhile human endeavour’.
To conclude, Hays deserves more research and recognition as a stand alone figure. Since 2007, Judy Chicago’s feminist art piece The Dinner Party has been a permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Chicago gives Hays a floor tile, but not a ‘seat at the dinner table’, each reserved for 39 other mythical and historical women. Like Chicago’s art, Hays has often been acknowledged yet overlooked as an eminent female voice, it is only recently her feminist philosophy has been revived and celebrated – and long may it continue.
Emma Butcher is an AHRC funded PhD student based at the University of Hull. Her thesis focusses on representations of warfare and soldierhood in the Brontës’ juvenile literature. Emma’s blog can be found here
Marilyn Brooks. “Mary Hays” ODNB. Oxford University Press, Oct 2009. Web. 31 July 2014.
Wedd, A. F. The Love-Letters of Mary Hays. London: Methuen, 1925.
Hays, Mary. Memoirs of Emma Courtney. Ed. Eleanor Ty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Hays, Mary. Appeal to the Men of Great Britains in Behalf of Women. New York: Garland Fascimile, 1974.
Rajan, Tilottama. ‘Autonarration and genotext in Mary Hays’ ‘Memoirs of Emma Courtney.’ Tilottama Rajan and Julia M. Wright (Eds). Romanticism, History and the Possibilities of Genre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Polwhele, Richard. Poems by Mr Polwhele, London: Messrs, 1810.