28 July [1795]

Mary Hays, 2 Paragon Place, Surrey Road, to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, 28 July [1795].1


July 28th No 2. Paragon Place – Surry Road.


     If it were not unreasonable (you have said) I would ask you, when your mind was full of thought, to write to me as you would to your genius in the moon! I am sensible of the distinction which this permission implied & I have several times been about to avail myself of it, but have endeavoured to repress the inclination as it arose – for to what purpose should I trouble you with a thousand wayward, contradictory, ideas & emotions, which I am myself unable to disentangle, which have perhaps floated in every mind that has had leisure for reflection, which are distinguished by no originality, & which I may express, though not feel, without force? I sought to cultivate my understanding & exercise my reason that, by adding variety to my resources, I might encrease the number of my enjoyments, for happiness is, surely, the only desirable end of existence! But when I ask myself whether I am yet nearer to the end proposed? I dare not deceive myself – sincerity obliges me to answer in the negative. I daily perceive the gay & the frivolous, among my sex, amused with every passing trifle, gratified by the insipid routine of, if I may so express myself, mindless, heartless, intercourse, & fully occupied, at intervals, alternately by domestic avocations & the vanity of varying external ornaments & ‘hanging drapery on a smooth block’[.]2 I do not affect to despise, & regularly practise, the necessary employments of my sex, neither am I superior to their vanities: the habits acquired by early precept & example adhere tenaciously & are never, perhaps, entirely eradicated.– But all these are insufficient to engross, to fill up, the active, aspiring mind! Hemmed in, on every side, by the constitutions of society & not less so, it may be, by my own prejudices, I perceive, indignantly perceive, the magic circle, without knowing how to dissolve the spell! – While men pursue honor, pleasure, interest & ambition, as accords with their several dispositions – Women, who have too much sense, spirit, & delicacy, to degrade themselves by the vilest of all interchanges, remain insulated beings, & must be content tamely to look on, without taking any part in the great, tho’ absurd & often tragical, drama of life. – Hence the eccentricities of conduct with which women of superior [minds have] been accused! the struggles, the despairing, though generous, efforts of an ardent spirit denied a scope for its exertions. The strong feelings & strong energies which properly directed, in a field sufficiently wide, might – ah! what might they not have aided? – forced back, & pent up, ravage & destroy the mind that generated them! Yes, I confess, I am unhappy, because perhaps, I overrate myself – unhappy in proportion as I believe myself (it maybe erringly) improved. Philosophy, it is said, should regulate the feelings, but it has added fervour to mine – What are passions, but another name for powers?4 The mind susceptible of improvement, from whatever causes, either moral or physical, is the mind having capabilities of receiving forcible impressions; such minds, into whatever trains they are thrown by outward circumstances, are prone to enthusiasm. ‘Those are fools (said Dr Priestley to me one day) who will be taught only in the school of experience.– This taken in one sense, & perhaps in every sense is a mistake. The weak & the timid, from the first failure [are pre]vailed on to relinquish their pursuits, but the bold & the persevering frequently derive from repeated disappointment, even in visionary plans, new ardor! I feel that I am writing in a desultory manner, that I am unable to crowd my ideas into the compass of a letter, & that, could I do it, I should only weary you. There are but few persons to whom I venture to complain, few would understand me, & still fewer would sympathise with me. – ‘You are in health, (they would say) in the prime of life, have every thing supplied you without labour (so much the worse) nature, reason, open to you their stores?’ All this is partly true – but, with inexpressible yearnings, my spirit still pants for something more, something higher – the morning rises upon me with sadness & the evening closes with distaste – imperfection, uncertainty, is impressed on every pursuit, & I seek to day what to morrow disgust’s me. I entered life flush’d with hope & all my plans have fail’d – had they not fail’d, their completion it may be would have proved an equal disappointment! The few worthy people I know appear to me to be struggling with the same, half suppressed, emotions. – Whence is happiness? why is intellect & virtue so far from confer’ing happiness – or do we form mistaken ideas respecting the nature of intellect and virtue? I will frankly confess that the general good, did we indeed know how to promote it, would be nothing to me if I were to experience no individual benefit. However we refine, every individual is a world to himself, & happiness, I must again repeat, is the only valuable end of existence, or existence must be vain! I cannot dissemble my sentiments however selfish, however defective in benevolence, they may appear, I am solicitous to preserve, or I should rather say to gain, your esteem, but this, I believe, would not be attained by the sacrifice of truth. I meet many people who arraign your sentiments & call your principles in question, but to me your writings & conversation are particularly impressive. – Not that I am prepared to accord with you on every subject, for though I felt the force of many things you [said] in the discussion, which took place the last time I [had the] pleasure of seeing you, they did not bring conviction [to my mind.] I own that I am bewildered when talking of a open mind & that when from this unknown substance all ideas of impression, succession, motion, matter &c, are abstracted, there is little that remains either for the fancy or the understanding – yet, I do not conceive that my inability to conceive of such a substance demonstrates its nonentity, & though hardly pressed in the argument on which the negative side is, undoubtedly, the easiest, I still cannot help going back to something uncaused & that something I call God: & after having from effects imagined a cause may be deduced, from that cause I again endeavour to infer effects, & wish to look beyond the disorders that now appear so inexplicable & to hope (I was going to say demand) from its inscrutable Being, in future unconceived periods, the end of which I believe myself capable, & which capacity has hitherto served little other purpose than, like a tormenting ignus fattuus, to mislead & betray! The animal rises up to satisfy the cravings of nature & lies down to repose, undisturbed with care or anxiety: has man superior powers only to make him preeminently wretched? – wretched, it seems to me, in proportion as he rises, & I think I could prove this if, to you, it needed [any] proof. But it is implied in what I have already said, nor need I, by repetition, further intrude on your valuable time, employed, I trust, to so many better purposes.

       When you have leisure you will, I hope, favor me with a line or a call.6 I am sensible of, & have been gratified by the courtesy with which you have already treated me & have been careful not to presume too7 far upon it. You are, I doubt not, the disciple of your own system & will not spare to reprove, or correct, where you see occasion.

                                                            Mary Hays

Address: Mr Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Chalton Street | post pd

Postmark: 28 July 1795, 7 o’clock Evening.


1 MS MH 0006, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 393-96.

2 Taken from Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. IX ("Of the Pernicious Effects which arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society") (London: David Campbell, 1992), 157.

3 erradicated] MS

4 One of Hays's favorite ideas from Helvétius, De l'Esprit, primarily from Chapter 5, "Of the Powers that Act upon the Soul."

5 Hays visited Priestley on several occasions with George Dyer. See Dyer's letters to Hays in January 1793, July 1793, and February 1794. 

6 Godwin dined with Hays again on 24 August 1795, also at Paragon Place, not long before her move into town.

7 to] MS