Mary Hays Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”