"Memoir of Mary Hays: With Some Unpublished Letters addressed to her by Robert Robinson, of Cambridge, and Others."1 



                                                                     Newport, I. Wight July 31, 1844.

 

Sir 

    Having the kindness of the executrix of the late Mrs. Mary Hays, of Clapton, whose death you have noticed at page 204 of your last volume, been allowed to peruse a portion of her correspondence, I have selected a few letters which I trust may prove interesting to your readers. Her high literary and moral attainments procured her the acquaintance of many of the eminent persons of her day, and it is to be regretted that so few of her own letters can be recovered.  Previous, however, to the insertion of this correspondence, a few particulars of her life may not be unacceptable. She was born at Southwark, in the year 1759. Her father who was a merchant extensively engaged in foreign trade, died at the early age of forty, leaving a widow with seven children, in circumstances far from affluent.2 At the age of twenty, the subject of this memoir experienced a severe disappointment in the loss of a gentleman to whom she was tenderly attached, and who was carried off by a fever at a time when preparations were making for their marriage.3 Sympathy for her misfortune attracted the attention of a widow lady in her neighborhood, who, being without children, attached herself to her with almost maternal affection, and who having some acquaintance with literary friends, introduced her to them – a circumstance to which may probably be ascribed the direction of her attention to literary pursuits.4 Her first publication (in 1791) was a small pamphlet in defense of Social Worship, under the assumed name of Eusebia, inscribed to Gilbert Wakefield, which excited some attention, and was the means of introducing her to the acquaintance of Dr. Disney.Her friendship for him and for the Rev. Robert Robinson, of Cambridge, with whom she was in the habit of frequent correspondence,6 had probably some influence in deciding her at this time to become a Unitarian. Her second publication (in 1793), entitled "Letters and Essays Moral and Miscellaneous" was dedicated to Dr. Disney. In the first of these letters she partly pursues the subject of her former publication, and thus concludes her argument: "Surely it is both beautiful and proper to unite in homage to our common Parent for common blessings. Nor would I apprehend any danger from priestcraft, if the State would not interfere about the manner of it. Multifarious are the human opinions, and various are the avenues to the human heart. Let every society choose its own discipline and modes, whether it be preaching, debating, singing or praying – peace be with them! We will not object to their forms, if they do not impose them on us. 'Better have any religion than none at all.' So long as Christianity is kept distinct from civil polity, it will fall like a rich dew, fructifying and fertilizing the human character. Priestcraft (I again repeat) is a creature of the State; dissolve the unnatural union, and its terrors vanish 'into thin air.' I love the Gospel; and all the different modes and forms which are pretended to be derived from it (apart from hierarchy), have something of good in them, and are a glorious proof of religious liberty."

    The next works which proceeded from her pen were entitled "Emma Courtney" (in 1796), "Victim of Prejudice" (1799), and "Harry Clinton," the latter of which still retains considerable popularity; but the production on which her reputation most depends appeared in 1803, and is entitled "Female Biography, containing the Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of all Ages and Countries," in 6 vols. It was written at the request of Sir Richard Philips, and, being well received, produced her a fair remuneration. Altho' still an ornament of our book-shelves, it may be considered peculiarly valuable as having led the way to more modern works of singular merit upon the same subject. This was followed by "Historical Dialogues," in 2 vols, which are eminently calculated to inspire in the youthful mind the purest sentiments of morality. Her remaining publications were, "The Brothers," a short tale designed for the working classes; "Family Annals," written in 1817, and "Memoirs of Queens," in 1821. She also contributed various articles to the Monthly Review, Monthly Repository, and other periodicals. Living during the exciting period of the French Revolution, she took a lively interest in the cause of Liberty, and most of her publications breathe an ardent, though tempered, zeal in behalf of the civil and religious rights of mankind. Her literary friends and correspondents comprehend the names of Priestley, Lindsey, Robinson, Worthington Disney, Estlin, Godwin, Southey, Frend, Dyer &c. Towards the close of life she lived in great retirement in Clapton, and from her advanced age (83) had survived her literary contemporaries. Her sympathy for the young, in whose welfare she had always evinced the greatest interest, may be seen in the following extract to a favorite niece, written shortly before her death, which illustrates also the clearness of her intellect to the close of life, amidst much bodily weakness and infirmity: "One more observation on the letter to which I allude, I must also add. Beware how you adopt the religious cant, the false theology, which become so prevalent in the present day, and which has on weak minds so pernicious an effect. Let your homage to the Supreme Being be that of your understanding and your heart – the offspring of love, not of fear. Confide in Him as your wise and kind Father, whom you most honor by obeying, and by fulfilling the duties to which you are called. It is easy to observe forms, to make professions of creeds and dogmas, which have little effect upon the conduct and less upon the temper. But love to God and to your fellow-beings, justice, benevolence and humility – these form the essence of a true and saving faith." We shall conclude this brief memoir with an extract from her will, as indicating the state of her mind in the new of death: "To the Being who gave them, I bequeath my life and my mind in the humble hope that I may not have lived wholly vain, or 'folded in a napkin' the talent entrusted to me. On that Being, whom, even when my understanding sought Him in vain, my heart has ever fervently acknowledged, – that Being, of whom from His attributions only we can form any notion – too wise to err, too powerful to be counteracted, too good to be unkind – whose means must be all wisdom, whose ends all benevolence (or every idea which we can form of Him involves contradiction), – on that Being my hopes rest and my expectations are funded, and humbly do I acquiesce in whatever means he has appointed to carry on His own wise and benevolent plans."7

 

                                                                                            E. Kell

 

 

1 Christian Reformer 11 (September 1844), 813-20. 

 

2 John Hays died in 1774, aged 45, leaving behind seven children: Joanna (1754-1805), Sarah (1756-1836), Mary (1759-1843), Elizabeth (1765/66-1825), John (1768-1862), Thomas (1772-1856), and Marianna (1773-97), the latter not previously known to scholars and students of Mary Hays.  John Dunkin, Jr., Joanna Dunkin, Nathaniel Palmer (he was the future husband of Joanna Dunkin, Hays's niece, and brother to Edward), Sarah Palmer, sister to Edward and Nathaniel, and Thomas Hays, Mary Hays's brother, all signed for her marriage licence with Edward Palmer (c. 1771-1831) (Nathaniel's older brother). Her marriage to Palmer suggests that Marianna remained orthodox into the 1790s, which would have placed her closer to her older sisters Joanna and Sarah *(as well as her mother) in the 1790s that Mary and Elizabeth Hays, who had already turned to Unitarianism by the beginning of the decade. Since the church book for Gainsford Street no longer exists and the Hays children were never christened (they were Baptists), no record of their births exists, since such records among Dissenters were not required at that time. 

 

3 John Eccles, who died in 1780 and whose correspondence with Hays is included in this online edition.

 

4 Mrs. Collier, most likely a Southwark Dissenter like Hays, who introduced her to the novelist Frances Brooke. It was Mrs. Collier who appears often in the Hays-Eccles Correspondence and who transcribed the letters in a fair hand into bound volumes, of which one now remains extant in the Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library.

 

5 Reference is to Hays's Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship: inscribed to Gilbert Wakefield, B.A., late fellow of Jesus-College, Cambridge, which appeared in 1792, not 1791. John Disney was at that time assistant minister to Theophilus Lindsey at the Unitarian chapel in Essex Street; he would late assume duties as senior pastor upon Lindsey's retirement. 

 

6 Robinson's letters to Hays during the 1780s are included in this collection; Robinson (1735-90) was the controversial Baptist minister at Cambridge, 1759-90. 

 

7 For Hays's will, see PROB 11/1976.