Mary Hays Essay - Critical Essays

Hays, Mary


Mary Hays 1760-1843

English novelist, essayist, and biographer.

An important writer on women's rights in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Hays is best known for her two novels and her feminist polemic, Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798). Among her contemporaries she is ranked second only to her friend Mary Wollstonecraft in advancing such feminist causes as sexual autonomy, intellectual freedom, and political power.

Biographical Information

Hays was born in 1760 in Southwark, near London, to a large family of religious Dissenters. She became engaged at a young age to John Eccles, also a Dissenter, who served as her mentor and friend, as well as her intended husband. Although neither family approved of the match initially, both eventually consented; however, Eccles became ill and died before the couple married. Grief-stricken, Hays buried herself in intellectual pursuits. The preacher Robert Robinson, with whom her family was acquainted, introduced her to a radical circle of intellectuals led by London publisher Joseph Johnson; the group included John Disney, George Dyer, and William Frend. Hays began writing and reviewing books for various publications, among them the Critical Review, the Analytical Review, and particularly, the Monthly Magazine. She was able to earn a meager living from her work, which at first consisted of poems and a prose fable. With the encouragement of her friends, she soon turned to weightier and more controversial subjects such as theology and women's rights. After reading Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 attack on conventions, titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Hays, along with her sister Elizabeth, produced Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793), a collection of pieces on various feminist issues; she later published anonymously another feminist polemic, Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women. Meanwhile, she became friendly with Wollstonecraft, whose work she admired and whose advice she often sought.

Inspired by English philosopher William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Hays wrote to the author and began an intellectual correspondence that would last many years. In January of 1796, Hays served as matchmaker for Godwin and Wollstonecraft, who married the next year. At about the same time, Hays was pursuing William Frend, whose rejection of her advances formed the basis of her autobiographical first novel, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796). She continued to produce feminist pieces for the Monthly Magazine, and completed a second novel, The Victim of Prejudice (1799).

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Reign of Terror in France had made all revolutionary and reform causes, including feminism, extremely unpopular in England, and Hays moderated her position somewhat. Although she was leading a much more secluded life after the turn of the century, she continued to write, producing a six-volume series of biographies on famous women, several didactic novels, and in 1821, her last publication, Memoirs of Queens, Illustrious and Celebrated. Hays continued to live in and around London for more than twenty years after she stopped publishing, but she eventually lost contact with the members of the literary circles she had earlier enjoyed. She died in 1843 at the age of 83.

Major Works

Hays's first important work was her 1793 collection Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous, written with her sister Elizabeth, although the former's name appeared alone on the title page. The collection includes pieces on topics generally considered acceptable for female writers as well as those on issues more conventionally reserved for males, including works on politics and philosophy. Hays's first novel, Memoirs of Emma Courtney, combines the features of two popular genres of the time: the first-person narrative associated with the English Jacobins was interspersed with elements of the epistolary form associated with the Novel of Sensibility. As narrator, Emma espouses many of the same reformist opinions on social and cultural issues held by Hays, and also like Hays, she openly declares her affections to a man—considered unseemly behavior for a woman both in fiction and in life.

Two years later Hays anonymously published her feminist tract Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women, a work often compared to Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although considered less strident than Wollstonecraft's text, Appeal offers evidence of women's oppression taken from the experiences of everyday life, rather than from a purely theoretical standpoint. This emphasis on the concrete also informs Hays's second novel, The Victim of Prejudice, a work that deals with seduction, imprisonment, suicide, rape, and prostitution. Like Hays's earlier work, the novel is concerned with the economic and social oppression of women, but adds issues of social class to those of gender. The heroine, Mary, is thus doubly victimized not only as a woman, but also as a poor woman, dependent on the generosity of her benefactor.

After the turn of the century, amid an antifeminist backlash, Hays's writing became more temperate. Female Biography consists of six volumes of some 290 biographies of varying lengths on famous women from Anne Boleyn to Catherine the Great. Curiously, Hays did not include a biography of Wollstonecraft, although she had earlier written two obituaries of her friend—one for the Monthly Magazine and another for The Annual Necrology, for 1797 to 1798. Some critics believe Hays was avoiding further controversy by omitting Wollstonecraft from the compilation.

Critical Reception

Hays was severely criticized by her contemporaries not only for the unconventional ideas on social reform manifested in her writings, but also for her unconventional approach to courtship in her personal life. Her unsuccessful pursuit of William Frend, and later of Charles Lloyd, made her the object of ridicule among the literary circles of London. Some modern critical evaluations of Hays repeat the personal gossip that hounded her during her lifetime. M. Ray Adams, for example, focuses less on Hays's writings than on her perceived “unfeminine” qualities, on her lack of physical attractiveness, and on her pursuit of men. According to Adams, “in her relations with men she carried out the doctrines of reason, sincerity, and the emancipation of woman with a thoroughness that shocked her own sex, as well as the men for whose favor she bid. With her, woman was the hunter, man the game.” But later critics dismiss the personal scandal and concentrate on her serious work as a social reformer and champion of feminist causes. Katharine M. Rogers compares Hays's arguments on behalf of women's rights with those of her friend, Mary Wollstonecraft, pointing out that while Wollstonecraft grounded her arguments in rational theory, Hays used experience to shore up her position. According to Rogers, Hays's approach is “disarmingly common-sensical,” and as such it complements, rather than competes with, the work of Wollstonecraft. “Together, the two authors make the points that need to be made on the theoretical and the domestic level,” according to Rogers.

Terence Allan Hoagwood extends the comparison between Hays and Wollstonecraft to their novels, examining Wollstonecraft's unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, together with Hays's The Victim of Prejudice, claiming that although the former begins to take on similar issues, the latter “is a finished work, sophisticated alike in its social theory, its narrative design, its historical hermeneutic, and its pervasive feminism.” Hoagwood also condemns earlier criticism that concentrated on Hays's personal life as “malicious gossip,” claiming that “Hays's vigorously intellectual social criticism was belittled by propagandistic focus on her supposed flirtations. Even in the twentieth century, Emma Courtney has sometimes been trivialized, as if it were primarily about nothing more important than the author's private feelings for a particular man. In 1800 Charles Lloyd tried to start a rumor that Hays had flirted with him; and this humiliating triviality has sometimes seemed to eclipse the important contributions that Hays made in feminism, social theory, and fiction.”

Principal Works

Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship: Inscribed to Gilbert Wakefield [as Eusebia] (pamphlet) 1791

Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous [with Elizabeth Hays] (letters and essays) 1793

Memoirs of Emma Courtney 2 vols. (novel) 1796

Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (essay) 1798

The Victim of Prejudice 2 vols. (novel) 1799

Female Biography; or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries 6 vols. (biographies) 1803

Family Annals; or The Sisters (novel) 1817

Memoirs of Queens, Illustrious and Celebrated (essays) 1821


Monthly Review (essay date 1800)

SOURCE: Monthly Review 31 (January 1800): 82.

[In the following review of Hays's The Victim of Prejudice, the protagonist Mary Raymond is depicted as a character worthy of both love and pity owing to the disreputable circumstances surrounding her birth and history.]

Mary, the heroine of this little tale, is, to the credit of the author's pencil, a spirited and affecting sketch, but somewhat out of nature; and the principle which it is designed to inculcate by no means follows from the premises. By the novels which issue from this school, love, which is a transient passion, is to be complimented, in all cases, at the expence of the regulations and institutions of...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

J. M. S. Tompkins (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Tompkins, J. M. S. The Polite Marriage, pp. 150-90. London: Cambridge University Press, 1938.

[In the following excerpt, Tompkins analyzes how Hays's notably brash, Godwinian character and philosophical beliefs are reflected in her novels, particularly The Memoirs of Emma Courtney.]

Of all the small writers whom [we] commemorate, Mary Hays is the least likely to be quite forgotten. This is not because of the quality of her literary work, which is, with the exception of The Scotch Parents, the worst we have handled, since she rejected the discipline of eighteenth-century taste and acquired no other; but because she passed many years of her life on the...

(The entire section is 14227 words.)

M. Ray Adams (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Adams, M. Ray. “Mary Hays, Disciple of William Godwin.” In Studies in the Literary Backgrounds of English Radicalism, pp. 83-103. Lancaster, PA: Franklin and Marshall College, 1947.

[In the following essay, Adams provides an overview of Hays's major writings and discusses Hays's relationship with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.]

Mary Hays was one of that remarkable coterie of women, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Amelia Alderson, Mrs. Reveley, Mrs. Fenwick, and Mrs. Inchbald, who afforded William Godwin a sort of philosophic seraglio. Little is known of her life: no biographical sketch of her exists. As the information left by others is sparse, we...

(The entire section is 5546 words.)

Burton R. Pollin (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Pollin, Burton R. “Mary Hays on Women's Rights in the Monthly Magazine.Etudes Anglaises 24, no. 3 (July-September 1971): 271-82.

[In the following essay, Pollin examines Hays's contributions to the late eighteenth-century reform movement in the form of letters and essays she produced for the Monthly Magazine.]

While sifting the earliest issues of the Monthly Magazine for references to William Godwin, I was struck by the frequent mention of his name in the letters to the editor, from February 1796 through September 1797, chiefly on the subject of women's rights and education1. The series included several signed “M. H.” and...

(The entire section is 5752 words.)

Katharine M. Rogers (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Rogers, Katharine M. “The Contribution of Mary Hays.” Prose Studies 10, no. 2 (September 1987): 131-42.

[In the following essay, Rogers describes Hays's writings on women's rights, comparing them to those of her friend Mary Wollstonecraft, whose approach was more theoretical than Hays's.]

Over a lifetime of writing, from her Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793) to her Memoirs of Queens (1821), Mary Hays argued for women's rights and celebrated their achievements. Like her friend Mary Wollstonecraft, she was an ardent feminist whose assertion of the rights of women was reinforced by the ideals of the French Revolution. Mary Astell...

(The entire section is 5890 words.)

Terence Allan Hoagwood (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Hoagwood, Terence Allan. Introduction to The Victim of Prejudice, by Mary Hays, pp. 3-12. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1990.

[In the following essay, Hoagwood discusses the connections between Hays's polemical writings and her novel The Victim of Prejudice.]

Mary Hays's The Victim of Prejudice (1799) is an important feminist novel, intellectually and aesthetically. Its author was a prominent figure among British writers who, during the period of the French Revolution and afterward, advocated feminist and politically radical forms of thought. A friend of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Priestley, and many others in the...

(The entire section is 3472 words.)

Eleanor Ty (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ty, Eleanor. “Breaking the ‘Magic Circle’: From Repression to Effusion in Memoirs of Emma Courtney,” and “The Mother and Daughter: The Dangers of Replication in The Victim of Prejudice.” In Unsex'd Revolutionaries: Five Women Novelists of the 1790s, pp. 46-72. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Ty discusses Memoirs of Emma Courtney, suggesting that the novel's true thesis, despite Hays's stated intentions to the contrary, is to demonstrate the fatal consequences of female repression. Ty further examines Hays's The Victim of Prejudice and claims that it is far more pessimistic than Emma Courtney, and...

(The entire section is 12026 words.)

Terence Allan Hoagwood (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Hoagwood, Terence Allan. “Literary Art and Political Justice: Shelley, Godwin, and Mary Hays.” In Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World, edited by Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran, pp. 30-38. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hoagwood suggests that Hays, Shelley, Godwin, and Wollstonecraft all drew from the ideology of the philosophes and incorporated their political philosophies within their novels and poems.]

Shelley's major poems represent a dialectical theory that, like works by William Godwin and Mary Hays, is developed from arguments expressed by the philosophes and the...

(The entire section is 3905 words.)

Sandra Sherman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Sherman, Sandra. “The Feminization of ‘Reason’ in Hays's The Victim of Prejudice.The Centennial Review 41, no. 1 (winter 1997): 143-72.

[In the following essay, Sherman discusses The Victim of Prejudice as a departure from Hays's belief that reason was instrumental for achieving the independence of women.]

Mary Hays's novel, The Victim of Prejudice (1799), is read alongside a cadre of “revolutionary” texts inspired by events in France, rebutting the Reflections of Edmund Burke (1790) which idealized patriarchalism.1 Yet its address to texts which challenged Burke, and aligned themselves with Mary...

(The entire section is 11327 words.)

Tilottama Rajan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Rajan, Tilottama. “Autonarration and genotext in Mary Hays' Memoirs of Emma Courtney.” In Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre: Re-forming Literature 1789-1837, edited by Tilottama Rajan and Julia M. Wright, pp. 213-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Rajan refutes critics who consider Memoirs of Emma Courtney scandalously autobiographical, suggesting instead that the novel is a self-conscious attempt to explore the relationship between experience and textuality.]


Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, long written out of the canon by being used as a...

(The entire section is 11292 words.)

Eleanor Ty (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Ty, Eleanor. “The Imprisoned Female Body in Mary Hays's The Victim of Prejudice.” In Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790s, edited by Linda Lang-Peralta, pp. 133-53. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Ty discusses The Victim of Prejudice, claiming that Hays's concern in this novel was the construction of female subjectivity according to the hierarchies associated with class and gender.]

In her Advertisement to the Reader, Mary Hays states that what she wants to question in The Victim of Prejudice (1799) is the “too-great stress laid on the reputation for chastity in...

(The entire section is 7841 words.)

Further Reading


Grove, Allen W. “To Make a Long Story Short: Gothic Fragments and the Gender Politics of Incompleteness.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 1 (winter 1997): 1-10.

Discusses several fragments of Gothic fiction, among them Hays's “A Fragment,” which appears in her 1793 Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous.

Jacobus, Mary. “Traces of an Accusing Spirit: Mary Hays and the Vehicular State.” In Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Reading, pp. 202-34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Uses Freud's theories to examine Emma Courtney, focusing on the epistolary portions of the novel....

(The entire section is 146 words.)