Romantic Circles Features and Events
Chamber Music Feature


The Two Marys: Hays Writes Wollstonecraft

Gina Luria Walker, The New School

Mary Hays was born in 1759, the same year as Mary Wollstonecraft, and died in 1843, forty-six years after Wollstonecraft. She is still mainly remembered as the second early British feminist. In their time, the two Marys were linked as "unsex'd females"[1] by the conservative British public. Little attention has been paid to Mary Hays's role in shaping this twinned image, although her life-writing was among the first to frame Wollstonecraft for posterity. The two women met in 1792, at Hays's request, following her enthusiastic reading of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.[2] Hays immediately recognized Wollstonecraft's rare amalgam of conviction, character, and conduct because of her own training in the historical struggle for general toleration in which previous free-thinkers encouraged recognition of the morally heroic among the living. This tradition celebrated pioneers of unfettered inquiry and action, an exclusively male pantheon; Hays proposed Wollstonecraft as its first feminine member.

A self-taught woman, Hays bootstrapped her way into the intellectual community of English Nonconformists with no academic credentials. She relied on correspondence with "generous men,"[3] using the epistolary medium to further her education. Like other female autodidacts, she suffered the lack of formal instruction or institutional support. But the freedom of this situation allowed her to blur the boundaries between conventional literary genres.[4] During the last twenty-three months of Wollstonecraft's life, Hays's letters to William Godwin can be read, in Foucault's phrase, as life-writing of self and others.[5] In her diurnal accounts, Hays deliberately represented Wollstonecraft as heroic thinker, bruised woman, and confidante, using this persona to unite Wollstonecraft and herself as indivisible in the name of all women. Hays thus transformed the two Marys into a single emblem reflecting women's rights and woman's wrongs. She did so to each woman's peril. Despite their efforts to claim freedom for all women, ignominy, then neglect, awaited both Hays and Wollstonecraft.

Both women were more hopeful in June, 1792, when Hays initiated contact. Before Wollstonecraft left for France, the two women breakfasted together and discussed the travails of women writers. Soon after, Hays asked Wollstonecraft to read her "Cursory Remarks on the Propriety of Public or Social Worship" (1791) in which Hays defended the practices of Enlightened Dissenters. The text opened with an apology for Hays's "great presumption" as "a woman, young, unlearned, unacquainted with any other language but her own," in responding to the erudite man whose polemic had provoked hers.[6] Wollstonecraft reacted sharply to her new friend's supplicating pose: "An author," she wrote Hays, "especially a woman," must not apologize for her writing to win the approval of men. Instead, she must summon the "great resolution to try rather to be useful than to please. With this remark in your head I must beg you to pardon any freedom whilst you consider the purport of what I am going to add.—Rest on yourself."[7]
4. While Wollstonecraft was on the Continent, Hays completed Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793), a collection of theological, philosophical, and feminist "sketches." Hays dedicated the work to Dr. John Disney, a Unitarian minister who may have preached sermons actually written by Hays at the radical Essex Street Chapel. The presiding spirit in the book, however, was Wollstonecraft's. Hays acknowledged the feminine flaws of her essays in the preface, but now understood that such defects were the result of inadequate female education. Hays sounded the tones of masculine discourse in her salute to "the admirable advocate for the rights of woman (rights founded in nature, reason, and justice)," paying "a tribute of public respect . . . to the virtue and talents of a writer, who with equal courage and ability hath endeavoured to rescue the female mind from those prejudices, by which it has been systematically weakened."[8] Here Hays posits Wollstonecraft as the champion of the enduring belief of Hays's life, that "the intellectual advancement of women, and their consequent privileges in society"[9] calibrate the progress of civilization. Critical reaction to Letters and Essays was swift. The conservative English Review attacked the work as "an abortion," described Hays as "the baldest disciple of Mrs. Wollstonecraft," and judged that "female philosophers while pretending to superior powers carry with them . . . a mental imbecility which damns them to fame."[10] Infamy is more like it: The two Marys were invoked to give feminism a bad name for the next 150 years.
5. Earlier in her life, before she met Wollstonecraft, Hays's own ambition for "intellectual attainments" compelled her to pursue a haphazard course of self-education. The primary vehicle for her autodidactism was correspondence with a succession of "generous" learned men. Her first mentor was Robert Robinson, the maverick Baptist preacher, whom she later described as "the awakener of my mind." In their letters from 1782 to 1789,[11] Robinson responded seriously to Hays's substantive inquiries, fostering her independence while extending her contact with Enlightenment notions of "unlimited toleration." Robinson advocated "the absolute freedom of the press," cautioned Hays to take nothing for granted, to recognize truth according to her own lights, and to protect passionately her right to "the emancipated mind."[12] He insisted on emotion as a spiritual force. Robinson also taught Hays that it was possible to construct retrospectively the tradition of free-thinkers, so that adherents could identify and model themselves upon free-thinkers from among their contemporaries as well as from the past. This concept offered Hays a chain of enlightened heroes extending from Jesus to the French Huguenots to English Nonconformists like Locke, Hartley, Collins, Priestley, and Price.
6. Hays read Robinson's translations of the works of Jacques Saurin, a distinguished Huguenot pastor who incited scandal in 1728-1731 for publishing a dissident scriptural analysis on the subject of "beneficial lies," a landmark in "the history of the limits of toleration of heterodox religious ideas and the free press in the Netherlands."[13] Robinson portrayed Saurin as one among other exiles from persecution participating in the republic of letters at the beginning of the century. His life-writing of Saurin incorporated interviews with older English Dissenters who had known Saurin during his refuge in London, heard him preach, and could thus confirm that Saurin lived what he believed.[14]
7. Hays read Robinson's translation of Saurin's "Sermon on the Repentance of the Unchaste Women" with keen interest for its unique redaction of Huguenot "toleration" applied to women.[15] Saurin refused to judge the fallen woman described in Luke VII:36-50 without knowing her private history. If she were an adulteress, he asked, "What idea must a woman form of herself, if she have committed this crime; and considers it in its true point of light?"[16] This was a critical question for Hays, connecting the ongoing struggle against prejudice with the constraints imposed on woman because of men's ignorance of her experience. By the 1790s, Hays was ready to join Wollstonecraft in creating alternative explanations to conventional assumptions about female behavior. Hays's contribution was to apply the idea of general toleration to the predicaments of women.
8. In October, 1794, Hays also initiated correspondence with William Godwin, the leading radical political philosopher of the day, asking to borrow a copy of his new, controversial book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, recommended to her by William Frend, a mathematician recently discharged from Jesus College, Cambridge, for refusing to take the University's loyalty oath.[17] Hays's request was the impetus for an intense, occasionally turbulent, relationship with Godwin that endured over the next several years. In the fall of 1795, Hays and Godwin established the ground rules for their interaction in which Hays wrote ruminative letters that Godwin answered in person. Once William Frend moved from Cambridge to London, Hays acted on Wollstonecraft's directive for "a revolution in female manners," by moving out of her mother's house into rooms of her own in London in October, 1795. Like Wollstonecraft, Hays now joined the "new genus" of professional women writers; occasional paid employment reviewing novels for several radical publications provided additional income she needed to supplement the small annuity inherited from her father. Away from the judgmental eyes of her family, at the age of thirty-seven, Hays was at liberty to experiment with the subversive ideas she had been contemplating, in particular to transform her friendship with Frend into love.
9. Wollstonecraft's return to London in October 1795 as a "fallen woman" and her failed suicide attempt were of philosophical, as well as personal, importance to Hays, for the woman and her situation joined the crucial issues of Hays's female life that she had been debating with Godwin during the previous year. Hays pressed him to acknowledge the role of private feeling; to give credence to the cognitive, religious, sexual, and economic debility of women; and to heed the obstacles in the way of achieving general adherence to his advanced notions. Within the tiny, self-protective network of English Jacobinism, Hays kept abreast of Wollstonecraft's movements, and, in turn, let Godwin in on her friend's depressed state, representing its meaning in her own terms, frequently comparing Godwin's lack of romantic experience with Wollstonecraft's excess, identifying Wollstonecraft and herself as objects of intolerance from even Godwin and his friends.
10. Hays challenged Godwin about the relative importance of sense and the sensibilities. She acknowledged that as man and woman, "This is a subject which we certainly cannot feel with an equal degree of force, because society has, in these respects, made most unjust, tyrannical, & barbarous, sexual distinctions."[18] She described a recent conversation among her women friends about Wollstonecraft's illicit affair with Gilbert Imlay and their illegitimate child, which some of the women judged made it impossible for them to visit Wollstonecraft. "I started at what I conceived to be bigotry," Hays wrote, "frankly declaring that it would have no effect upon my conduct."[19] She had since heard it said, "that as Miss Hays is so professed an admirer of Mrs W, it is to be hoped that she does not mean to imitate her conduct.'" Of course, it was assumed that she did.
11. Once Wollstonecraft was sufficiently recovered from the rupture with Imlay to set up residence nearby, she and Hays saw each other frequently, discussing suicide, chastity, and the somatic, as well as psychological, effects of their singular status as unmarried intellectual women. They compared notes about what Wollstonecraft described as the irrational "magic circle" of male-female relations.[20] "Now alas! We can each be wiser for the other than ourselves," Hays commented wryly to Godwin of the women's deepening friendship.[21]
12. On Friday, January 8th, 1796, Hays had Godwin and Wollstonecraft to tea, reuniting her two friends, who had met several years earlier and disliked each other. She reported to Godwin that after their visit, Wollstonecraft commented on Godwin's sympathetic attitude toward Hays, "remarking that it has raised you greatly in her esteem."[22] Hays was moved to play matchmaker, but once she sensed the growing intimacy between her friends, Wollstonecraft noted its effect on her, writing Godwin that Hays had told her that "she cannot endure to see others enjoy the mutual affection from which she is debarred."[23] Despite his support of Hays,[24] Godwin was frustrated by her failure to modify her behavior through reason, and anxious about Hays's influence on Wollstonecraft. Soon after they became lovers, he urged Wollstonecraft to resolve to be happy. "You deserve to be so," he wrote. "Every thing that interferes with it, is weakness & wandering; & a woman, like you, can, must, shall, shake it off. Afford, for instance, no food for the morbid madness, & no triumph to the misanthropical gloom, of [Miss Hays], your afternoon visitor. Call up, with firmness, the energies, which . . . you so eminently possess."[25] Godwin represented Hays as the self-absorbed, dependent woman, who despite her serious intellectual competence was incapable of acting upon her insights into the disparity between male and female autonomy, especially in romantic love.
13. Hays wrote the first notice of Wollstonecraft's death from the effects of childbirth on September 10, 1797, although it was published without attribution in October. Hays incorporated all the elements of her Wollstonecraft, elucidating how "this extraordinary woman, no less distinguished by admirable talents and a masculine tone of understanding than by active humanity, exquisite sensibility, and endearing qualities of heart," was "quick to feel, and indignant to resist the iron hand of despotism, whether civil or intellectual."[26] In 1800, Hays published a more objective life, portraying Wollstonecraft as both partisan and victim of the historical struggle for women's freedom. As Robinson represented Saurin as a significant actor in the reformist republic of letters a century earlier, now Hays formulated Wollstonecraft as continuing this work, adding her to the imaginative lineage of free-thinkers—the first woman, the first feminist, in the chain. "Cut off prematurely," she wrote, Wollstonecraft "has not laboured in vain: the spirit of reform is silently pursuing its course. Who can mark its limits?"[27] In representing Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays validated her own life-in-writing. Her Wollstonecraft evolved to reflect Hays's understanding in changing times. In this way, the two Marys sustained each other.

Electronic Editions | Features & Events | Reviews | Praxis Series
Scholarly Resources | Publications | RC High School | Villa Diodati

Romantic Circles is published by the University of Maryland.
General Editors: Neil Fraistat, Steven E. Jones, Carl Stahmer
- Conditions of Use - Inquiries and Comments -