Mary Hays believed that "in the intellectual advancement of women […] is to be traced the progress of civilization." This essay traces the trajectory of Hays's own "advancement," focusing on Robert Robinson's tutelage from 1781 to her initial encounters with Wollstonecraft. The rational culture of late-eighteenth-century radical Dissent encouraged Hays to venture into the masculine strongholds of Enlightenment understanding, but here, as in the larger world, the "insuperable barriers" of gender obtained. Despite these obstacles, Hays forged an identity as female autodidact in the 1780s, readying herself to embrace Wollstonecraft's "revolution in female manners." Hays's initial contribution was to urge a new cognitive freedom, the recognition that women, too, may aspire to "the emancipated mind [which] is impatient of imposition, nor can it, in a retrogade [sic] course, unlearn what it has learned, or unknow what it has known." Hays's unfinished transition from sheltered puritan to Nonconformist apprentice to ardent feminist provides the missing link in our appreciation of her collaboration with Wollstonecraft and Godwin in the 1790s. I show how Hays was transformed into the obvious candidate for public denunciation as chief living "unsex'd female" in Wollstonecraft's stead.
Taking some distance from her extreme grief at Mary Wollstonecraft's untimely death in a second, fifty-page obituary, Mary Hays (1759-1843) articulated the enduring conviction of her own life: "In the intellectual advancement of women, and their consequent privileges in society, is to be traced the progress of civilization, or knowledge gradually superseding the dominion of brute-force" ("Memoirs" 422-23). Hays acknowledged that obdurate forces contend against this reformation, as she and Wollstonecraft learned too well:
There are few situations in which a woman of cultivated understanding has not occasion to observe and deplore, the systematic vassalage, the peculiar disadvantages, civil and social, to which she is subjected, even in the most polished societies, on account of her sex. It might be difficult to convince such a woman, conscious of superiority to the majority of men with whom she converses, that nature has placed between them, in what respects intellectual attainments, an insuperable barrier: she would be tempted to remind such partial reasoners of the reply given to the philosopher who disputed the existence of motion, when his adversary gravely rose up and walked before him.422-23
The somber tone reflects the double helix that winds through Hays's texts, a stubborn faith in progress tempered by despair. Her ambivalence derived from personal experience: the rational culture of late-eighteenth-century radical Dissent encouraged her to venture into the masculine strongholds of Enlightenment understanding, but here, as in the larger world, the "insuperable barriers" of gender obtained. Despite these obstacles, Hays forged an identity as an autodidact in the 1780s, readying herself to embrace Wollstonecraft's stark insight that "a revolution in female manners" offered the best hope for human regeneration. Hays's initial contribution to the enterprise was to urge a new cognitive freedom, the recognition that women, too, may aspire to "the emancipated mind [which] is impatient of imposition, nor can it, in a retrogade [sic] course, unlearn what it has learned, or unknow what it has known" (Letters and Essays 16). By 1792, when Hays read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she was prepared to become Wollstonecraft's "professed admirer," defender, and colleague. Wollstonecraft commented sharply on Hays's Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793) in manuscript, which revealed Hays's unfinished transition from sheltered puritan to ardent feminist. I argue that Hays's unique self-education during the 1780s provides the missing link in our appreciation of her part in the collaboration with Wollstonecraft and Godwin in the 1790s as the trio initiates a new conversation about gender and sex. In this essay, I briefly trace the trajectory of Hays's intellectual evolution, focusing on Robert Robinson's tutelage from 1781 to her initial encounters with Wollstonecraft on the eve of her departure for revolutionary Paris and all that lay ahead. I will show how Hays was transformed into the obvious candidate for public denunciation as chief living "unsex'd female" in Wollstonecraft's stead.
Annie F. Wedd, Hays's first twentieth-century editor and collateral descendant, reiterated the family lore acknowledging Hays's "considerable intelligence" but disparaging her voluble sufferings and "romantic tendencies" (1-14). In her edition of love letters between Hays and her Dissenting lover, John Eccles, Wedd reported that, following Eccles's death in 1780, "ten years, according to one autobiographical fragment, though in her 'Reflections' she gives the date as 1787, had passed before [Hays] was able to 'emerge from the deep shades' and begin to interest herself in philosophical studies and literary pursuits" (4). In the early 1790s, Hays seriously "commenced authoress" and "composed sermons which were preached by Dr. Disney of Essex Street Chapel (6). She had also, being "'possessed,'" as she afterwards told Godwin, "'with an inexpressible passion for the acquisition of knowledge, an ardor approaching the limits of pain,'" accomplished a vast amount of solid reading, and had taken up the study of French and mathematics." The autobiographical materials that Wedd refers to no longer exist, but the extant primary texts tell a divergent tale.
The culture of high moral inquiry among the Dissenters provided the catalyst for Hays's search for erudition. The Baptist meetinghouse the Hays family attended was the venue for important intellectual, social, as well as spiritual, connections. Mary Hays and John Eccles met here in 1777. They loved each other for two years when their request to marry was rejected by Eccles's father and Hays's mother. Over the next eighteen months, they conspired to tryst occasionally and correspond regularly.
In their correspondence, Eccles spoke admiringly of Hays's "polished education," while she made pointed references to her lack of Greek, Latin, Italian, and French. They shared the common culture of Sensibility, dipping into a large reservoir of poetry, as much for the sense as the sentiment. Hays attended meetinghouse services once, sometimes twice, each week where she gained aural familiarity with masculine forms of thought. Within the safe epistolary medium with Eccles, she judged that one minister was "not qualified to teach" (Letter to John Eccles); apparently, she had a basis for comparison with other men she regularly observed. She lived among subversives who conducted their own schools, printed their own texts, formed their own radical republic of letters. Her hunger for learning was palpable—"the lover must be forgot in the monitor," she wrote Eccles early on.
But much as Mary was avid to learn what Eccles knew, as Ruth Watts and Kathryn Gleadle have documented, disparities endured "between the urbane liberalism professed by Unitarians, and the conservative, patriarchal tenor which overshadowed their personal relationships and codes of etiquette" (Gleadle 8; Watts, pt. 1). Mary Hays lived these incongruities: she absorbed the exhortation to think for herself, but even with Eccles's encouragement, there was no formal, sanctioned route to higher training in doing so.
Just as the senior Mr. Eccles made possible Eccles's economic independence and consented to the marriage, the youthful lover developed a high fever and, in a matter of days, died. In the aftermath of his sudden death, Mary Hays wrestled with the anomalous state in which she now found herself. Although there was no public language to express this, she had "known" a man through erotic explorations with Eccles. Now she was expected to spend the rest of her life grieving at the loss of domestic status and interest. Her rarified sensibilities would seem to conspire with the expectations of family and community to immure her in the past.
Hays rejected that mode of life, discovering, instead, a persistent, restless curiosity that first surfaced in her correspondence with Eccles. Like many of her female contemporaries, she pursued a vicarious life through reading, mainly novels, but this was insufficient to satisfy her. Almost immediately, the tenacity of Hays's ambitions for "intellectual attainment" compelled her to seek out other "generous men" within the Dissenting community. Confronted with Hays's determined attentions, they extended themselves to mentor her. They were in no peril of being slandered by sexual interests as Hays admitted she was a plain woman. Wedd quoted Hays on the character of the men who provided her informal support during this period—including Robert Robinson, Joseph Priestley, Hugh Worthington, John Disney, Theophilus Lindsay—as "Gentlemen not only of the first literature, but of the most distinguished virtue" (5). Their correspondence reveals that she exercised the freedom to move from one to another to satisfy her intellectual hunger.
Though she remained in her mother's home until 1795 when she was in her mid-thirties, Hays was mentally adventurous. Sheltered in the half-life of her ambiguous state as unmarried widow, she began the relentless effort necessary to transform herself into a "learned lady" that, unknown to her, had a long and honorable history (Reynolds; Pearson 80-99). Over time, her idiosyncratic education metamorphosed her pledge to Eccles of "Triumphant Constancy," modeled on "Prior's Emma," heroine of Henry and Emma, or the Nutbrown Maid (1708), into a hesitant experiment with what she described to Godwin as "the idea of being free" (Letter to Godwin, 13 Oct.). Hays's understanding of the tension between feminine freedom and sex was intensified by her intimacy with Wollstonecraft in the autumn of 1795, in the aftermath of her affair with Gilbert Imlay. Both women published texts in 1796 that made use of the bittersweet conceit of the confining "magic circle" of heterosexual love: Wollstonecraft in Letters from Norway, based on her journalistic letters to the absent Imlay, Hays in Memoirs of Emma Courtney, her scandalous roman à clef that incorporated actual correspondence between Hays and Frend, Hays and Godwin (Wollstonecraft, A Short Residence 294; Hays, Emma Courtney 11).
Hays acted quickly after Eccles's death. She had an annuity of £70 per annum, but now judged that marriage was no longer an option. Her mother allowed her to wear widow's weeds for a year after which she shed the black clothes but maintained her guise of sorrow as a protective shield. Sustaining the stance of eternal devotion to Eccles provided immunity as she devised a way to be educated that eluded gendered constraints. The only viable alternative for her was tutelage by generous men in the form of informal, primarily epistolary, apprenticeships which concealed her aggressive ambitions. She attempted to become "learned" in the masculine understanding of the word as a series of men made learning—the letter and the law—available to her, serving as mentors, guides, protectors, agents; often they were "generous" in the literal meaning of the word, equipping her with the tools of the trade, texts that, without access to university and professional venues, were otherwise unavailable to her.
At the same time as she began to pursue serious study in masculine terms, she continued, even intensified, her education in the feminine culture of Sensibility. Several of her early "exercises of fancy" met with success. "Polished society" applauded her conventional accomplishments, but Hays soon aspired to make contact with the Enlightenment debates she heard each week at meetinghouse. These were not merely polemical—they were about the ideas and practice of citizenship, rights, education, livelihood, and tolerance which mattered to her. Letters and Essays is sprinkled with references to a wide range of authors and texts, including Rousseau, Goethe, Voltaire, Lavater, Hartley, the English novelists and essayists. The "solid reading" Wedd mentions encompassed philosophical, historical, and political works, including those of such Dissenting luminaries as Enfield, Priestley, Price, and Collins. Like many women before and after her, Hays was an autodidact, structuring an idiosyncratic curriculum, learning as she could.
The principal influence on Hays's intellectual development during the 1780s was the Reverend Robert Robinson (1735-1790), to his admirers distinguished by "his earnest love of truth, and laborious search after it," as well his espousal of "unlimited toleration" (qtd. in Dyer 420, 423). In their communications, Robinson responded seriously to Hays's theological and philosophical inquiries, fostering her independence while extending her contact with Enlightenment ideas. In selecting Robinson as her first mentor, a maverick even among the independent Dissenters, she responded to his public character as "The intrepid Champion of Liberty/Civil & Religious/Endowed with a genius brilliant, & penetrating/United to indefatigable Industry" supported by "the Erudition of the Scholar/The Discrimination of the Historian/And the Boldness of the Reformer" (Addicott 74), as well as to the private man who encouraged his daughters' education. Hays first heard Robinson preach in London in 1781 after he was invited by a committee of metropolitan Baptists to collect material for a history of their sect, using the resources of the British Museum where one of the Baptists was a librarian. Robinson agreed to come to London for ten days a month from Cambridge, where he led a flourishing congregation, to collect materials for his history and to preach at various locations (Dyer 214-16).
George Dyer, Robinson's assistant minister and first biographer, described this phase of Robinson's career as unfolding in a "new theatre." Acknowledged in Dissenting circles as a prolific writer, he was unknown as a preacher in London, a role in which he was "more conversational than oratorical, reasoning from the scriptures, teaching, pleading, persuading, delighting," demonstrating "a singular rapport with his hearers; a gift for speaking the needs of each and everyone," as well as "an impish delight in puncturing pomposity" and "a sense of humour, a flash of satirical brilliance and a touch of comic genius that scandalized those who thought ministerial dignity depended on carrying about everywhere the preternatural solemnity of a perpetual funeral" (Addicott xii). Robinson's message soon proved too radical for the majority of his audiences. His "mode of public preaching in London was thought, by many of his own party, calculated rather to make men doubt, than believe;—to inquire, rather than convince; his eloquence fascinating than solid; his hearers were rarely addressed on those points of doctrine, from whence they derived comfort; and the orthodoxy of the preacher became suspected" (Dyer 218). Such skepticism appealed to Hays: Robinson's spirit imbues Letters and Essays where Hays described the power of listening to "the discourses of my late valued friend" (8).
Robinson's reformist impulses were provocative, too. In 1782, his Political Catechism was published, part of a religious-political propaganda program sponsored by Dissenting and other reform groups like the London Society for Constitutional Information and the Cambridge Constitutional Society which Robinson founded in 1780. In his book, Robinson addressed the pressing issue of parliamentary reform through the device of a parent explaining the workings of British government to his son, George. Hays quoted from Political Catechism in Letters and Essays, in which she also included a story set in America about a Unitarian minister, Theron, modeled on Robinson, who rescues Melville, the hero, from the seductions of Voltaire and Hume, teaching him, instead, Christianity's "analogy with the conclusions of right reason [and] the pure and social morality it inculcated." In the end, Melville marries Theron's niece, Cecilia, a cultivated woman, neither young nor beautiful, perhaps a representation of Hays herself (Letters and Essays 42-66).
In Robinson's published and private representations, Hays found hospitable variations of religious and political tolerance that permeated his texts, as his life. His translations of the works of the Huguenot theologians Jean Claude and Jacques Saurin were part of this endeavor. Two thinkers of the Refuge, the second Huguenot exodus following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), Claude and Saurin participated in that conversation in which "in exile, the Huguenots of the Refuge forged and hammered out many of the precursors of the basic ideas that we now know as liberalism. They wrote about tolerance and liberty of conscience, about democracy in politics and the church, and about the separation of church and state" (Laursen, New Essays 1). I conjecture that Robinson's translations of their works, in combination with his own texts, exposed Hays to unique expressions of "general toleration" that, even before her encounter with Wollstonecraft, she gingerly applied to the condition of women.
Eight manuscript letters and one fragment from Robinson to Hays survive. The first, dated Wednesday, 13 November 1782, from Walworth, indicates that the two had met previously, and that although Robinson's business "is very much," he will visit at her mother's home in Gainsford Street the next day (Letter to Hays, 13 Nov.). The following January, Robinson wrote from his home in Chesterton. In the interim, Hays had provided him a "narration […] of yourself," which Robinson described as "a miniature portrait of a lady in danger and distress, the work of an exquisite artist calculated to touch the heart. Happy for you and your friends it is an historical portrait of what was" (Letter to Hays, 11 Jan.). This "Heart accounts" (Keeble 308) expressed her rage at God and her religious doubt, not entirely the result of her disappointment in love, for even in her letters to Eccles, Hays revealed a propensity for rebellion and skepticism. Robinson replied directly to her spiritual distress: "I can easily conceive, that a person in such a condition must be very susceptible of disagreable impressions from such objects as distort christianity [sic] and tire out the most patient spectators. The power of deism lies in its dress, that of christianity [sic] in itself. Who could not prefer innocence and beauty in rags before deformity and prostitution in fashionable finery?" (Webb 38).
With characteristic bluntness, Robinson chafed at the extravagance of Hays's flattery, demurring at her unrealistic expectations of him:
I am obliged to be silent on all that part of your letter, which [concerns?] myself, only I must take the liberty to say that you have adapted that mode of instruction, which the priests [for the] princes of Egypt formerly did, that is they ascribed to them such virtues, not as the princes had but as they ought to have. Some of them took the hint and refined their manners. I wish I could do so, and be the man you describe. If ever piety was rendered amiable by an insinuating manner of describing it, it must be so by the use of your elegant pen. No, you are not my pupil, but my friend, and if there be objections, which I can say anything towards removing, I shall always be extremely happy to contribute all in my power to so good a work, yet give me leave to say if Miss Hayes expects to meet with a correspondent equal to herself for fine sense, and delicacy of stile, she will be disappointed in her poor, dull, impoverished Robt Robinson.Letter to Hays, 11 Jan.
He meant well, but missed the nuance of her interpretation of their respective roles in calling herself his "pupil." She wanted him to be her teacher as he was to the young men about him. Her need escaped him; what he heard and rejected was her supplication to him as a superior. They began at cross purposes, but as he was a learned man, a public figure of both originality and independence, kind as well as generous, and accessible, she persisted, as he did. They were connected by their common membership in the insular, self-protective Dissenting community. He had met her mother and extended family; she was acquainted with his wife. That textual coquetry which later irritated both Wollstonecraft and Godwin may be the subterfuge she now initiated to hide the intensity of her quest from the men from whom she wanted training—and, perhaps, even from herself. Early on, Robinson warned her of the danger of over-valuing generous men. Through her long life, this is one lesson she increasingly disregarded.
Nearly a year passed before Robinson wrote again from Chesterton to explain his silence. "It does not signify, good Miss Hayes, for once, for this once you must submit to an amanuensis. Consider it in the light of a messenger bringing an apology. An apology is certainly necessary for not answering a lady's letter from July to December" (Letter to Hays, 22 Dec.). The "bishop of barns and fields" (Addicott xii) detailed his deliberate labors as farmer-preacher-scholar-activist in the practical workings of a sinewy Christianity: "Beside frequent preaching at Cambridge and elsewhere, the largeness of my family obliges me to occupy a farm of two hundred acres. A dairy of twenty cows, a team of horses, a herd of swine, ploughing, manuring, sowing, weeding, mowing, reaping, threshing, fencing, and all the etceteras of agriculture require no small time and attention." He intended to reply to her, but was interrupted by the demands of a lawsuit with the printer, Lepard, that ended in arbitration.
His private letters to Hays reflect the qualities that Anthony Lincoln discerned in Robinson's published texts. "There is a romantic strain purely English in some dissenting authors of [the] period," Lincoln writes, "for already Romance was walking in the gardens of England. The personal character and literary qualities of Robert Robinson reveal this blend of candour and sensibility into a humane rationalism; a balance not outweighed by the emotions but setting them off harmoniously against the promptings of intellect" (64). Robinson contemplated his diurnal travails for edification, asking, "After all, what is christianity [sic] in the Bible but a display of the lovely character of God? And what is orthodoxy in us but a conformity to that lovely character? The first is a standard, by which all preaching may be tried, the last is a balance in which all professors of religion may be weighed." Robinson sustained a vital awareness of the "presence of God," without which "all theological words, all emphatical sentences, all rites and forms, all religious modes of distorting the features and convulsing the body are nothing, less than nothing, and vanity itself" (Letter to Hays, 22 Dec.).
By June, when he wrote again, Hays had been sick, and in her weakened physical state, expressed anxiety over her behavior towards him during their latest meeting in London. In answer to her question about when he would be in London, Robinson proclaimed an exuberant faith as he prepared for his "dissolution": "Now," he wrote Hays, "I snatch an hour, or steal a moment, and hover between religion and the world like a needle between two loadstones, then I shall be, I humbly hope, for ever with the Lord" (Letter to Hays, 16 June). In the hymns he composed, the sermons he preached, the causes he championed, and the younger minds he nurtured, Robinson attested to his sense of the divine in this world, and the next world as a palpable inevitability.
Robinson's reassurances point to Hays's sense of already being de trop that Godwin, Wollstonecraft, and others of their circle contended with in the 1790s. When he wrote again in March 1785, using an amanuensis because he caught two fingers in a carriage door, he could not resist admonishing her: "First, give me leave to tell you, yea to threaten you that, if you do not leave off complimenting me, as soon as I can write, I will spoil a quire of paper, and stretch every power I have to try to out compliment you. Would not that be an edifying correspondence?" (Letter to Hays, 26 Mar.). He expected to see her soon again in London.
Then he turned to questions that arose out of the course of study she was pursuing on her own. These "inquiries," he judged, "discover, as everything you write does a wise and virtuous mind bent upon the acquisition of truth." This praise from a man who resisted compliments validated her endeavors. "You are pleased to say, you have examined Claude's Essay," he wrote. "I flatter myself if you will turn to Vol. ii. Pag. 152 Note 6th abd Oag, 155, Bie 9—you will find the best answer I can give to your questions. I believe both the divine decrees and man's free agency. In my opinion it is extremely difficult to deny either, and there is no difficulty in believing that the reconciling of them is possible to God, though far above our comprehension." Hays continued to worry over this paradox in correspondence with her male mentors, culminating in the later, intense conversations with Godwin.
Robinson referred to his translation of the essay by Jean Claude (1619-1687), a minister of the Refuge who subsequently led the exiled Huguenot community in the Hague. Robinson's interest in Claude emerged from his study of Saurin, whose brilliant eloquence he heard described by older Dissenters who had witnessed Saurin's preaching during his exile in England. Robinson was intrigued by Claude's assertions of the rights of individual conscience and the autonomy of congregational communities. Claude's "Essay on the Composition of a Sermon" was intended to strengthen the heuristic differences between "preachers of the Church of Rome" and Calvinists. Robinson directed Hays to footnotes 6 and 9 for clarification. Footnote 6 addressed the subject of "Effacious grace"—"The nature and operation of that divine power, which is essentially necessary to salvation" (152), locating ongoing debates over the interpretation of "grace" as early as Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. In chronicling conflicting views among a succession of "divines," Robinson reiterated one of his core beliefs, that when "penalties, and censures, and evil disposition withdraw […] controversy may become a privilege to christians [sic]."
Robinson advised that one view—in the sixteenth century advocated by the "Synergists," Melancthon, Strigelius, George Major, Paul Eber, among them—charted "a cool medium by affirming at the same time God's free grace and man's free agency, as both declared in scripture and by considering the conciliation of them as a mystery incomprehensible to us, and not necessary to be perfectly understood in our present state" (Claude 152-54). He made reference to "Bayle Synergists"—an article in Bayle's Dictionary—for further elucidation.
In Footnote 9, Robinson analyzed Claude's belief in an omnipotent God with foreknowledge of human choice:
Not only as a Christian, but even as a philosopher [M. Claude] believes predestination, for with him prescience and preordination are the same thing. He thinks […] that God foresaw the issue, to which all things would be brought in the end, and consequently that not preventing was allowing and appointing them […]. [Claude] owns, that he himself is not able to comprehend the matter […]. I say more, without pretending to prophecy I may venture to foretell, this never can be done; because it would be drawing conclusions from unknown premises. Who can boast of knowing all the arrangement, all the extent, all the combinations of God's decrees? The depth of these decrees, the obscure manner, in which the scripture speaks of them, and (if I may be allowed to say so) the darkness with which they have often been covered by attempts to eclaircise them, place them infinitely beyond our reach.
Robinson posed a crucial question to God:
The eternal destiny of my soul, before I had a being, does it force my will? Do what they call in the schools predestination, and reprobation destroy this proposition, if I perish, my damnation proceeds only from myself? Remove this difficulty my God, and take off entirely the vail [sic], with which this interesting truth is covered.
Robinson hypothesized God's answer:
The narrowness of your mind renders this matter inconceivable to you; it is impossible, that finite creatures, like you, should be able to understand the extent of my decrees, and to see what connection they have with the destiny of my creatures. I only fully know them. I declare, then, that none of my decrees offer violence to any of my creatures, and that your destruction can come only from yourselves. Have patience; you shall one day perfectly know what now you cannot comprehend, and you shall then see with your own eyes what you now see only with mine. Cease then to anticipate a period, which my wisdom defers, and laying aside speculation devote yourselves to practice.
Robinson concluded, "Had God explained himself in this matter, would it not be the height of rashness and insolence to doubt this testimony, and to desire more light on the subject?" (Claude 155-58).
The Divine Presence in Robinson's interpretation of Claude is just and concerned, offering "express assurances, that he desireth not the death of a sinner, that he is not willing any should perish, but that all should come." Robinson's God professes "the comfortable ideas, which he has given us of his mercy, longsuffering, and penitence, Rom. ii. 4." This wise Father treats humans as his Nonconformist ministers desire that they should treat each other, not exacting blind obedience, but opening "benevolent arms to us, thou usest the properest motives to affect intelligent spirits, thou openest to us the gates of heaven, and, if we be lost among so many means of being saved, to thee will belong righteousness, to us shame and confusion of face. Wilt thou not say to us, 'O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself?'—Sur la cause de la perte des pecheurs, tom. Ix."
Robinson acknowledged his own belief in the simultaneous existence of revelation and reason, based, in part, on points of theological accord and discord between Claude and Saurin. The dialogue Robinson constructed between the two Huguenot thinkers argued that free inquiry, not doctrinal disputes, is essential to enlightened understanding: "There is no such thing as being angry with an honest man, who like Mr. Saurin proposes his sentiments with modesty and candour," Robinson avowed, "who was ever bullied into believing? Let our moderation be known unto all men, the Lord is at hand [...]" (Claude 158). Robinson inculcated Hays in an awareness of dual planes of experience, supernatural as well as empirical. The tension between what is known and what is knowable mandates continuous examination of those questions to which God has not yet revealed answers. "Mystery," she later quoted Robinson as saying, "is a fine material for manufacture" (Letters and Essays 30).
Robinson also addressed Hays's frustrated efforts to obtain copies of his translations of the sermons of Saurin:
Saurin is indeed out of print, and I am a great sufferer by it through Mr Lepard, who bought the copy to reprint, and now refuses to pay for it, having placed it in such condition that nobody can reprint it. I have been applied to within the last two months for near a hundred and had not one set. My wife had sometime ago asked for a set for each of my children, and lest any should be imperfect, we had set aside the number of sets and two over: Happily they are perfect as we can find. These two sets therefore will be sent in a few days to Mr Keene's for you. Our compliments await the whole family.Letter to Hays, 26 Mar.
He sent Hays translations of sermons on various subjects by Jacques Saurin (1677-1730), the distinguished Walloon pastor who incited scandal in 1728-1731 for publishing a dissident Scriptural analysis on the subject of "beneficial lies." The cas Saurin led to ecclesiastical and state charges, making it a telling "episode in the history of the limits of toleration of heterodox religious ideas and the free press in the Netherlands" (Laursen, "Beneficial" 96). Like Hays, Robinson was also an autodidact: his self-education in Nonconformity in the 1760s and 1770s led him to Saurin whose sermon on "The Eternity of God" he translated as his first publication in 1770. Robinson was attracted to Saurin's efforts at unblinking objectivity, reflected in Robinson's own Arcana: or The Principles of the Late Petitioners to Parliament for Relief in the Matter of Subscription [...] (1774), Plan of Lectures on the principles of nonconformity (1776), and The doctrine of toleration (1781). His attentions to both Claude and Saurin sanctioned the Dissenters' struggles for tolerance and liberty as part of a recurring historical continuum. In doing so, Robinson perpetuated the dissemination of early modern thought.
The great liberal ideas may not be the products of any one or few figures, nor even of great thinkers at all. They may have emerged at the grass roots level among men and women of letters who were simply trying to make a living and express their opinions. Hostile environments, such as those faced by the Huguenots both at home and abroad as refugees, evidently stimulated some of them to produce radical thoughts for their time.Laursen, "Imposters" 100
Through Robinson, Hays was brought into contact with the "republic of letters" that the Huguenots initiated, where, it seemed, even a self-educated woman might be tolerated. Following Robinson, she equipped herself to participate in the virtual realm of dissent. He now treated her as his pupil, as he did others, including his daughters and two young men, Dyer and William Frend, who figured importantly in Hays's life in the 1790s. Robinson was the first to welcome her to the public realm in which she desired citizenship, but he was soon too old to provide a letter of transport to that wider world.
Robinson's interest in Saurin's work was enduring. His first translation was followed by four other volumes of translations of Saurin's sermons published between 1771 and 1777. It is likely that, among others in the set he sent her, Hays read Robinson's version of Saurin's "SERMON IV. The Repentance of the Unchaste Woman," which exposed her to a unique redaction of Huguenot "toleration" applied to women (Dodge 167). Scant literature exists either by women or about their place in Huguenot thought. Laursen conjectures that "Huguenot literary circles apparently contained noticeably fewer women than the salon world described in D[ena]Goodman, Republic of Letters, perhaps because of their Calvinism" (Laursen, Introduction 8 n.8). But Bertram Schwartzbach suggests that the sermon may represent Saurin's expression of that advanced "'protestantism éclairé' that everyone is looking for." Some precedent existed in Huguenot thought for consideration of women's condition: Ruth Whelan demonstrates that the works of Poullain de la Barre "guarantee him a place in the history of feminism [as] an early modern feminist theologian," implicitly connecting him to the larger theme of toleration (Whelan 119-43).
"The Repentance of the Unchaste Woman" is based on a text from Luke vii. 36-50. Jesus is invited to the house of one of the pharisees to eat. An unidentified "woman in the city, which was a sinner," recognized Jesus, "brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment." Simon, the pharisee, thinks to himself that if Jesus were a true prophet he would recognize "what manner of woman this is that toucheth him." Jesus answers, as if he could read the man's mind, saying "there was a certain creditor, which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him most?" When Simon answers that it is the one to whom he forgave the most, Jesus points out that the woman's attentions to him have revealed that her love for him is greater than Simon's. "Wherefore," continues Jesus, "I say unto thee, her sins which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, thy sins are forgiven […] thy faith hath saved thee: go in peace."
Saurin sets the stage by comparing the treatment the unchaste woman receives from Jesus—"a very severe legislator" who eventually comforts her—and that at "the hands of men" who treat her with "barbarity and cruelty" (Saurin 94). Rhetorically, the sermon points to the French Church, asking: "Do not a part of thy revenues proceed from a tax on prostitution? Are not prostitutes of both sexes thy nursing fathers, and nursing mothers; is not the holy see in part supported [...] by the hire of a whore, and the price of a dog? Deut. Xxiii. 18" (98). Saurin is explicit about the risks he takes in speaking out, but is undaunted even if "access to this pulpit be forever forbidden to us in future; though I were sure this discourse would be considered as a torch of sedition intended to set all these provinces in a flame," he sustains "the courage to reprove" the Huguenots' oppressors.
Hays interpreted the sermon idiosyncratically, following Robinson's example. She would notice Saurin's interest in "think[ing] through the mind of the sinner," as Laursen suggests, focusing on the unchaste woman's feelings as an expression of "tolerant empathy rather than cold and [external] observation and condemnation." Saurin portrays the tears she must have shed that "speak the language of her heart," the "perpetual sorrow" she feels, and, at last, her "sentiments [...] after the courageous steps she had taken" towards repentance. He poses the question, "What emotions did absolution produce in her soul?" (Saurin 123). Though he describes the woman in conventional terms, he refuses to judge her without further inquiry. If she is an adulteress, he asks,"What idea must a woman form of herself, if she have [sic] committed this crime; and considers it in its true point of light?" (99). This was a crucial question for Hays, allowing her to connect the moral struggle against prejudice with the constraints imposed on woman because of men's ignorance of her subjectivity. In the next decade, Hays joined Wollstonecraft in creating alternative explanations to conventional assumptions about the sociology and psychology of female behavior.
When Simon, the pharisee, would dispense rough justice, Saurin warns, "Let us not pronounce like iniquitous judges on the actions of those sinners, to whom nature, society, and religion ought to unite us in an affectionate manner. Let us procure exact informations of the causes of such criminals as we summon before our tribunals" (106). In the 1790s, more precise "informations" about the conditions of women's lives would be supplied in Hays's Emma Courtney and Victim of Prejudice (1799), Wollstonecraft's Wrongs of Woman (1797), and Eliza Fenwick's Secresy (1795). Saurin proposes an elaborate, pragmatic process in which empirical judgments of reason determine wrongdoing, even in the case of an unchaste woman. Saurin asserts that "an idea of the mercy of God is not particular to some places, to any age, nation, religion, or sect" (110). Then what about sex? Gender? How far does tolerance extend? Emboldened by Wollstonecraft's example, Hays subsequently posed these questions and posited some answers. The sermon concludes with a statement about the invisibility of the unchaste woman's repentance. "Her joy was not a circumstance that came under the notice of the historian," Saurin writes. "In the heart of this frail woman converted and reconciled to God lay this mystery concealed" (123). Here, perhaps for the first time, Hays apprehended the Dissenting mandate for heterodox scriptural exegesis applied to the female condition. The unnamed woman's crisis might not interest male historians, but Hays and Wollstonecraft soon exerted themselves to reveal the mystery of her common humanity.
Shortly before his death in 1790, Robinson advanced Hays's nascent iconoclasm as he continued to explore new versions of "unlimited toleration." Marcus Wood has suggested in "William Cobbett, John Thelwall, Radicalism, and Slavery" that since "racism and negrophobia in England were standard and deeply rooted, it took great intellectual stamina to detect them let alone resist them." Robinson accepted the challenge. In a letter describing the death of a beloved daughter in 1788, Robinson enclosed a copy of his "sermon now printing," "Slavery Inconsistent with the Spirit of Christianity," a contribution to the coalescing movement to end the slave trade. As founder of the Cambridge Constitutional Society and actively involved with several like-minded young men at Jesus College, Robinson's subsequent Parliamentary petition called for total abolition (Addicott xvi). The sermon was based on a passage from Luke x. 18, "The Lord hath sent me—to preach Deliverance to the Captives." Like Saurin, Robinson thinks through the slaves' harrowing experiences, marshaling biblical, classical, and historical examples; contemporary accounts; psychological and economic analysis; and his interpretation of God's activist grace to demonstrate that slavery in any form was indefensible by Christian believers.
Robinson extended the meaning of Huguenot tolerance, elucidating how Jesus planned to "subvert the whole system of slavery" (2). He described the function of individual subjectivity in the reformation he called for, drawing upon a long tradition within Nonconformity. "The doctrines and the ceremonies of christianity [sic] attack injustice and cruelty in their strong holds, depraved passions; and, consequently, if a slavetrade be the effect of such passions, our religion goes to subvert the whole system of slavery. Feel its influence, and the work is done" (10). In the public realm, "if there be such a thing as national sin, that is it [...] which the legislature makes its own. I fear the African slave trade is of this kind" (16). Children should be taught "the natural connexion between civil and religious liberty, and the indispensable obligation fostering both. Let us shew them where encroachments on natural rights begin, and whither they tend" (20). "Christianity," he proclaimed "is [...] a perfect law of liberty, and its natural and genuine produce is universal justice, or, which is the same thing, universal freedom" (8).
All Christians have affinity with African slaves, but woman's affinity is even more subversive than that. While previous commentators have elucidated the parallels drawn by women between the female condition and that of African slaves (Ferguson 89-103), I argue that Hays's exposure to this text locates the specific genesis of her understanding of the nexus between gender and the existential condition of enslavement. Later, in Letters and Essays, Hays explicitly yoked together Wollstonecraft's feminism, skepticism, and the perniciousness of slavery:
The vindicator of female rights is thought by some sagacious married men to be incompetent to form any just opinion of the cares and duties of a conjugal state, [she wrote], from never having entered the matrimonial lists, because perhaps she has not met with the man who knows how properly to value her, or having met, may, alas! have lost. Wonderful free-masonry this! And ridiculous as wonderful. To be sure those who are eagerly engaged in play, with all their self-interest up in arms, are much better judges of the game than the cool impartial looker on; and a West-India Planter must understand the justice of the Slave-Trade far better than an English House of Commons."29
Robinson's teaching continued to the end of his life. In March, 1789, he wrote appreciatively of Hays's concern for his daughters:
Dear Miss Hayes
I owe you so many thanks, that I know not where to begin. Your polite attention to my children gives us great pleasure, and Nancy, who is very delicate in her friendships, is, as Mrs Brown is, extremely gratified. You are one of the few, who most coincide with their views, which are far, very far, from those of the popular Londoners. Nancy has diverted and grieved us by informing us, that one chief pulpit commandment is, Do not criticise. By criticism they mean finding fault, and is not this curious? One person ascends to the rostrum, and finds fault with five hundred hearers, at the same time prohibiting every individual to find fault with him! Such self important sacred men utter oracles, which they expect their hearers to receive with reverence, and they are offended when their hearers doubt what they affirm. Thus they murder free inquiry [...]. My young folks have not so learned Christianity, they have been taught to set out on a mathematical principle, that is, Take nothing for granted.Letter to Hays, 4 Mar.
Robinson feared that his daughter, whom he raised as "a child of liberty," might sink into "credulousness and submission […]. Such tame believers are not at all to my taste. I love the inquisitive, the reasoner, who never takes my sayso, and who wants to know the why, and the wherefore." His words were potent: Hays had become his spiritual daughter, assuming nothing, doubting everything, yet, like Robinson, believing in the ongoing transformation of this world in anticipation of the next.
Robinson died in June, 1790, while on a preaching visit at Joseph Priestley's meetinghouses in Birmingham, and was buried there. In a sermon on his death, Priestley praised Robinson especially for his
exemplary conduct in the education that he gave to his numerous family, not only in religion, but in all branches of useful knowledge; by no means neglecting his daughters. To their understandings his good sense taught him to give the same cultivation as to those of his sons, that is, the highest of which they were capable. Getting over a vulgar and debasing prejudice (that women, being designed for domestic cares, should be taught nothing beyond them), and finding his daughters capable of it, he himself taught them the learned and the modern languages, and got them instructed by others in mathematics and philosophy. Certainly, the minds of women are capable of the same improvement, and the same furniture as that of men, and it is of importance that, when they have leisure, they should have the same resources in reading, and the same power of instructing the world by writing, that men have.Reflections 419
A year later, Hays demonstrated her adherence to Robinson's teachings in defense of metropolitan Dissenters. Her pamphlet, "Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship: Inscribed to Gilbert Wakefield, B.A....by Eusebia," affirmed the practices at New College Hackney when these came under attack by the classicist Gilbert Wakefield, formerly of the faculty, whose "An Inquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship" (1791), was a scholarly, tri-lingual assault on the "dissenters of our time." "Eusebia" drew on her own experiences to protect this forum which made intellectual life conspicuous to women. She fluttered the fan of female self-deprecation, predicting that Wakefield would "probably charge the writer with great presumption; a woman, young, unlearned, unacquainted with any other language but her own; possessing no other merit than a love of truth and virtue, an ardent desire of knowledge, and a heart susceptible to the affecting and elevated emotions afforded by a pure and rational devotion." The pamphlet received favorable reviews, and a second edition was published.
According to Wedd, in June, 1792, Dyer lent Hays a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the ticket to the next destination in her quest. Hays was exhilarated and wrote Wollstonecraft to request a meeting which was soon granted. The year ended with two new figures in her life: Wollstonecraft, who became her radical magistra, and William Frend, a Tutor in Mathematics at Jesus College, who wrote praising "Eusebia" and to request an introduction to her by their mutual friend, Mr. Brown.
Spurred on by courtly Hugh Worthington, Hays followed Wollstonecraft's lead in "instructing the world by writing," assembling some existing and new pieces into Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous which Wollstonecraft commented on in manuscript. Unlike Hays's male mentors, Wollstonecraft discerned Hays's weaknesses. She seems to have read "Cursory Remarks"; her initial impression was that "your sensible little pamphlet" had "fewer of the superlatives, exquisite, fascinating, &c, all of the feminine gender, than I expected" (Letter to Hays). She advised that, with practice, Hays would "learn to think with more clearness, and consequently avoid the errours naturally produced by confusion of thought." Wollstonecraft refused to cosset Hays just because she was that anomaly, a woman who contemplated serious subjects.
In a subsequent letter, Wollstonecraft may have read at least the preface to Letters and Essays, which she criticized soundly. Wollstonecraft objected to the rhetoric of "obsequiousness"; she reproved Hays for her disingenuous, apologetic tone: "Disadvantages of education &c ought, in my opinion never to be pleaded (with the public) in excuse for defects of any importance," she counseled. "If the writer has not sufficient strength of mind to overcome the common difficulties which lie in his way, nature seems to command him, with a very audible voice, to leave the task of instructing others to those who can. This kind of vain humility has ever disgusted me." She reserved her severest criticism for the last paragraph:
Your male friends will still treat you like a woman—and many a man, for instance Dr Johnson, Lord Littleton, and even Dr Priestley, have insensibly been led to utter warm elogiums in private that they would be sorry openly to avow without some cooling explanatory ifs. An author, especially a woman, should be cautious lest she hastily swallows the crude praises which partial friend and polite acquaintance bestow thoughtlessly when the supplicating eye looks for them. In short, it requires 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 —if your essays have merit they will stand alone, if not the shouldering up of Dr this or that will not long keep them from falling to the ground.Wollstonecraft, Collected Letters 219
This astute blast signaled the next phase in Hays's education. She had lived for a decade now on the "shouldering up of Dr this or that," much of it helpful instruction. But Wollstonecraft struck at the heart of Hays's dilemma: to be good and pleasing, or to be honest and useful.
Letters and Essays melds the strands of Hays's previous education—rational faith, Dissenting skepticism, the fictions of Sensibility, philosophical study, Materialism and Necessity—with Wollstonecraft's critique of gender applied to the realities of feminine life that Hays daily observed. The narrator is woman teacher/preacher instructing an imagined female audience in imitation of Robinson and Wollstonecraft. The most lucid passages ring with collaborative "chamber music" that welds Robinson's tactile faith and Hays's newly galvanized feminism. Hays resists the historical imperative of "women's work." "I confess I am no advocate for cramping the minds and bodies of young girls by keeping them for ever poring over needlework (and when I see the tapestry and tent-stitch of former times, I sigh at the waste of eyes, spirits, and time)," she wrote, "nor do I think it so very important a part of female education as has generally been supposed." Even in the domestic domain, earthly existence was preparation for the divine. "Surely the covering of the body ought not to be the sole business of life. I doubt whether there will be any sewing in the next world, how then will those employ themselves who have done nothing else in this?" (Letters and Essays 33).
Wollstonecraft left for Paris in December to begin the next chapter in her own education with ungenerous men. Letters and Essays was published in March to mixed reviews. The Analytical Review applauded "the perspicuity with which [Hays] explains to her female readers some of the leading arguments on philosophical or theological subjects" ("Review" 464-65). Hays's friend Mr. Evans copied out the comments from the conservative English Review in a letter to her, with the assurance that she need not take notice of the calumny. The English Review attacked Letters and Essays as "an abortion," described Hays as "the baldest disciple of Mrs. Wollstonecraft," and belittled the "conceit of an half-educated female" (Letter to Hays). The male critic concluded that "female philosophers while pretending to superior powers carry with them […] a mental imbecility which damns them to fame." He was more prescient than he imagined, for Hays, like Wollstonecraft, could not now "unlearn" what she had learned, and would not "unknow" what she had struggled to know.
This essay forms the basis of a chapter from my forthcoming Mary Hays: The Growth of a Woman's Mind. An earlier version of this essay was presented as "'Sewing in the Next World': Mary Hays as Female Intellectual in the 1780s," Colloquium, "Learned Ladies/Femmes Philosophes," Feminism and the Enlightenment, Royal Holloway College, University of London, 27 May 2000.
As part of my doctoral research under the direction of Kenneth Neill Cameron, and with the help of Donald H. Reiman, I located one hundred and fifteen letters in private hands in London which the Carl H. and Lily Pforzheimer Library at The New York Public Library subsequently purchased in 1971. These letters and other documents are now part of the Collection of Mary Hays Correspondence. To date, there is no comprehensive edition of the letters. The biographical information on Hays is drawn from my dissertation, "Mary Hays: A Critical Biography," as well as other sources as cited. In a letter to Godwin, Hays quotes the opinion of several ladies that she is "the professed admirer" of Wollstonecraft. See Letter to Godwin, 20 Nov.
The earliest surviving text by Mary Hays is a morocco-bound volume of letters, titled and copied over at her direction by Hays's friend Mrs. Collier following Eccles's death. Volume One of the manuscript "Love Letters" is now included with other Mary Hays documents in The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection. Volume Two has not been located.
For a fuller discussion, see my "Mary Hays's Love Letters."
In Letters and Essays, Hays notes that one of the poems she included was published in Harrison's Collection of British Poetry; other poems and "Zebriel the Hermit—an Eastern Tale" appeared in the Universal Magazine ("Preface," ix-x). Hays's "observations" on "the Sorrows of Werter" were subsequently included, without attribution, in a new edition of the work. See 94-95.
Hays makes no mention of Claude-Adrien Helvetius (1715-71) in Letters and Essays, despite Marilyn Brooks's assertion that "sometime in the 1780s Hays was introduced to [his] writings" (Brooks, Introduction, Emma Courtney 22). I can find no evidence that Hays read Helvetius before the mid-1790s. It is likely that she read The Cabinet in 1795, a short lived periodical based in Norwich that drew its contributors and readers, in part, from men associated with New College, Hackney, including William Enfield and Gilbert Wakefield. In volumes 1 and 2 of The Cabinet, William Dalrymple, a Unitarian, published brief translations of passages from Helvetius. See "Contributors to The Cabinet." The "Preface" to Emma Courtney (1796) includes a quotation from Helvetius's A Treatise on Man, His Intellectual Faculties and His Education, translated by W. Hooper, published by Law and Robinson (1777), which Brooks asserts is the edition Hays read. In 1796, Hays contributed to a lively debate among readers in The Monthly Magazine about free inquiry, women's intellectual capabilities, and "female education" in which Helvetius was invoked. Hays's commentary on Helvetius was the subject of some derision by others, including Robert Southey. See my "Benevolent Misogyny: Mary Hays in The Monthly Magazine." For a nuanced analysis of Helvetius's controversial contributions to early modern liberal thought, see Wooten.
Also, see Graham W. Hughes, With Freedom Fired. More reliable information is found in Len Addicott's introduction to Church Book and his annotations passim. Information on Robinson is drawn from this source, unless otherwise noted.
Robinson, or his amanuensis, consistently misspells Hays's name with an "e."
In An Essay on the Composition of a Sermon, Robinson translates Claude's text but creates his own footnotes in which he also quotes Saurin.
Bertram Schwartzbach, personal communication, April 7, 2000.
John Christian Laursen, personal communication, January 2000.
Worthington, Letter to Hays, 3 Sept. and 9 Dec. Hays, Letter to Worthington, 3 July.
Confusion continues about which "little pamphlet" Wollstonecraft read, but I argue that Hays revised Letters and Essays before publication to incorporate Wollstonecraft's admonitions. For another view, see Kelly 84-85.
See Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women's Work.
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- Claude, Jean. "An Essay on the Composition of a Sermon." Posthumous Works. Trans. Robert Robinson. 3rd ed. 2 vols. London: T. Scollick, 1788. 152-58.
- "Contributors to the Cabinet." 1795. Youth and Revolution in the 1790s: Letters of WIlliam Pattisson, Thomas Amyot, and Henry Crabb Robinson. Ed. Penelope J. Corfield and Chris Evans. Phoenix Mill: Alan Sutton, 1996. 187-95.
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