Mary Hays

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Mary Hays
Born 1759
Died 1843
Nationality English
Occupation writer, feminist
Known for compiling and editing Female Biography
Title page of Female Biography, or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women (first American edition, 1807)

Mary Hays (1759–1843) was a novelist, best known for her belief in radical feminism and her provocative history of women.[1] She was born in 1759, into a family of Protestants who rejected the practices of the Church of England. Hays was described as 'the baldest disciple of [Mary] Wollstonecraft', attacked as an 'unsex'd female', and provoked controversy through her long life with her rebellious writings . When Hays's young lover died on the eve of their marriage, Hays expected to die of grief herself, but realised that she could now escape an ordinary future as wife and mother. She seized the chance to make a career for herself in the larger world as a writer.[1]

Hays was influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and eventually the two women became friends. The anti-feminist backlash following Wollstonecraft's death and posthumous publication of her Memoirs seemed to affect Hays' later, more conservative work,[2] including the six-volume compendium Female Biography: or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries, in which Wollstonecraft is not mentioned. Much like Wollstonecraft, Hays and her writing received little critical evaluation or academic attention until the twentieth-century's emerging feminist movement.

Early years[edit]

Mary Hays was born in London 13 October 1759, the daughter of Rational Dissenters John and Elizabeth Hays.

In 1777 she met and fell in love with John Eccles. Their parents opposed the match but they met secretly and exchanged over 100 letters.[3] The two were eventually engaged, but in August 1780, Eccles died of a fever. Hays wrote: "All my pleasures – and every opening prospect are buried with him".[4] This spurred her to take up writing. For the next ten years she wrote essays and poems. A short story, "Hermit: an Oriental Tale," was published in 1786 in Universal Magazine. It was a picturesque tale that warned against feeling too much passion. She exchanged letters with Robert Robinson, a minister who campaigned against the slave trade. She attended the dissenting academy in Hackney in the late 1780s.

Success in writing[edit]

In 1791 she replied to Gilbert Wakefield's critique of communal worship with a pamphlet called Cursory Remarks on An Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship, using the nom-de-plume Eusebia.[5] The Cambridge mathematician William Frend wrote to her enthusiastically about it. This blossomed into a brief romance.

In 1792 Hays was given a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, and it made a deep impression on her.[1] Hays contacted the publisher of the book, Joseph Johnson, which led to her friendship with Wollstonecraft and involvement with London's Jacobin intellectual circle. Hays next wrote a book Letters and Essays (1793) and invited Mary Wollstonecraft to comment on it before publication. Although the reviews were mixed Hays decided to leave home and to try to support herself by writing. She moved to Hatton Garden. She did not have enough money to buy Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by William Godwin. Boldly she wrote to the author and asked to borrow it. This turned into a friendship, in which Godwin became a guide and teacher. She acted on Wollstonecraft's demand that women take charge of their lives and moved out of her mother's home to live as an independent woman in London. This was an extraordinary and unaccustomed act for a single woman in Hays's time: Hays’s mother was horrified, and Hays’s friends condemned her. Although Hays’s family were outsiders from mainstream British culture, Hays’s mother still disapproved of her daughter’s social rebellion.[1]

Emma Courtney[edit]

Her next work, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) is probably her best-known work. Hays experimented with 'the idea of being free', earning her own living and actively pursuing the man she loved, a handsome Cambridge University mathematician, William Frend. However, while he supported her career, Frend rejected Hays's romantic feelings towards him. Hays used her romantic heartbreak as the subject of her best-selling novel, Memoirs of Emma Courtney, published in 1796. Readers were shocked because Hays included real letters she had exchanged with William Godwin, leading radical philosopher, and Frend. Emma, Hays's 'fictional' heroine, tells the Frend figure that her desire for him trumps every other consideration: reputation, status, and even chastity. In the most notorious statement in the book, Emma plays on Frend’s name: ‘My friend’, she cries, ‘I would give myself to you – the gift is not worthless’.[1] In real life and in the novel Frend rejected Hays. Hays's disgrace was juicy gossip in the close-knit group of London publishing. Then Scottish writer Elizabeth Hamilton published Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800), a novel that satirised Hays as a sex hungry man-chaser, and Hays became a laughingstock throughout Britain.

The novel draws on the experience of her affair with William Frend, and may also have elements of her relationship with Godwin. The heroine falls in love with a penniless man Augustus Harley, and offers to live with him as his wife, without getting married. She is rejected and then turns to Mr Francis, a character based on Godwin. They exchange philosophical letters, but in the end he advises her against becoming too emotional. The critical response to the novel was divided along political lines. Free love is seen to be aligned with social and domestic repression is shown as upholding the political order.

Later years[edit]

Hays and Godwin drifted apart, and she turned her attention to other writers, including Robert Southey. There is no known portrait of her in later life, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge considered her ugly. Her next novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799) is more emphatically feminist and critical of class hierarchies. Hays was considered too radical and hysterical. In 1803 Hays proved her determination and earnestness by publishing Female Biography, a book in six volumes, containing the lives of 294 women. By this stage Hays perhaps realised that it was dangerous to praise Mary Wollstonecraft, and so omitted her from the list. Moving to Camberwell, Hays became known to many of the literary figures of the time, including Charles and Mary Lamb and William Blake. The last 20 years of her life were somewhat unrewarding, with little income and only moderate praise for her work. In 1824 Hays returned to London where she died in 1843. She is buried at Abney Park Cemetery, Church Street, Stoke Newington, London.


Mary Hays is memorialised in the Heritage Floor of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, near the place setting for Mary Wollstonecraft.[6]

List of works[edit]

All by Mary Hays; dates are for first editions.

  • Female Biography, or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries (6 volumes). London: R. Phillips, 1803.
  • Cursory remarks on an enquiry into the expediency and propriety of public or social worship: inscribed to Gilbert Wakefield (as Eusebia). London: Knott, 1791.
  • Letters and essays, moral, and miscellaneous. London: Knott, 1793.
  • Memoirs of Emma Courtney (2 volumes). London: G.G. & J. Robinson, 1796.
  • Appeal to the men of Great Britain in behalf of women (as Anonymous). London: J. Johnson and J. Bell, 1798.
  • The victim of prejudice: In two volumes. London: J. Johnson, 1799.
  • Harry Clinton: a tale for youth. London: J. Johnson, 1804.
  • Family annals, or, The sisters. London: W. Simpkin & R. Marshall, 1817.
  • Memoirs of queens, illustrious and celebrated. London: T. & J. Allman, 1821.
  • The love-letters of Mary Hays (1779–1780). Ed. A.F. Wedd. London: Methuen, 1925.


  1. ^ a b c d e Walker, Gina Luria (2014). "Mary Hays". Project Continua. Retrieved 28 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Ty, Eleanor. "Mary Hays: Critical Biography". Wilfrid Laurier University. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  3. ^ Scott, Elma. "Mary Hays" (PDF). Biographies of Women Writers. Chawton House Library. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  4. ^ A. F. Wedd, ed. (1925). The Love-Letters of Mary Hays. London: Methuen. p. 80. 
  5. ^ Ty, Eleanor. "Mary Hays: Critical Biography". Wilfrid Laurier University. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  6. ^ "Mary Hays". The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
  • Hays, Mary; Walker, Gina Luria (ed.). The idea of being free: a Mary Hays reader. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2006.
  • “Introduction,” Mary Hays, Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries (1803) Chawton House Library Series: Women’s Memoirs, ed. Gina Luria Walker, Memoirs of Women Writers Part II (Pickering & Chatto: London, 2013), vol. 5, xiv.
  • Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1988.
  • Kelly, Gary. Women, Writing, and Revolution, 1790–1827. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • McInnes, Andrew. (September 2011). "Feminism in the Footnotes: Wollstonecraft's Ghost in Mary Hays' Female Biography". Life Writing, v.8(3): pp. 273–285.
  • McInnes, Andrew. (30 November 2012). "Wollstonecraft's Legion: Feminism in Crisis, 1799". Women's Writing: pp. 1–17.
  • Mellor, Anne K. Romanticism and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Sherman, Sandra. "The Feminization of 'Reason' in Hays's The Victim of Prejudice". The Centennial Review 41.1 (1997): 143–72.
  • Sherman, Sandra. "The Law, Confinement, and Disruptive Excess in Hays' The Victim of Prejudice". 1650–1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era. Vol. 5. New York: AMS Press, 1998.
  • Spencer, Jane, The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.
  • Spender, Dale. Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen. New York: Pandora, 1986.
  • Todd, Janet, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660–1800. London: Virago, 1989.
  • Ty, Eleanor. "The Imprisoned Female Body in Mary Hays" The Victim of Prejudice. Women, Revolution and the Novels of the 1790s. Ed. Linda Lang-Peralta.
  • Ty, Eleanor. "Mary Hays". Dictionary of Literary Biography 142: Eighteenth-Century British Literary Biographers. Ed. Steven Serafin. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1994.
  • Ty, Eleanor. Unsex'd Revolutionaries: Five Women Novelists of the 1790s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
  • Walker, Gina Luria. "Mary Hays." Project Continua (2014): Accessed: 28 August 2014, ""
  • Walker, Gina Luria. Mary Hays, (1759–1843): The Growth of a Woman's Mind. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Walker, Gina Luria. Chawton House Fellow’s Lecture, Pride, Prejudice, Patriarchy: Jane Austen Reads Mary Hays, (University of Southampton English News, Jane Austen Society of North America, 2010).

External links[edit]