1 March 1796

Mary Hays, [Kirby Street], to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, [Tuesday], 1 March 1796.1


March 1st – 1796


    Give me leave to say, the distress that can be laughed away is no distress at all, this is a sad perversion of terms, unless it be – “the moody madness, laughing wild, amid severest woe.”2 You & your friend appear to me to be attempting to revive, tho’ under a different modification, the old stoic doctrine, a doctrine (forgive me) originating in pride, & outraging nature. – You also treat with too unqualified a contempt those sorrows which you, perhaps, have neither suffer’d, nor are exposed to suffer; I am more than ever convinc’d, that true sympathy is only to be generated by similar feelings; Mrs Inchbald says something of this, respecting the commiseration of the younger Henry for Hannah, & she is right.3 I suspect, likewise, that you do not treat fairly either Mrs Woolstonecraft’s disappointments or my own, you select, merely the object, calculate its worth abstractedly, & say it is not worth deserving a regret, this is a point I will name, but you shou’d take into consideration all the associations, habits, and plans, connected with this object. – “Love (says Mrs Inchbald, truly) is joined with numerous other sentiments; it is but a poor dependant, a retainer upon other passions – divest the boasted sensation of these & it is no more than the impression of a twelvemonth”4 – or, I believe, still more transient. With women, the connection of this affection with other sentiments is still more wide & complicated than with men, generally speaking, their establishment, all their importance in society, yes, their very social existence, is close-twisted with it, it is then necessarily made, with them, a primary pursuit, their whole education has this tendency, & unless you cou’d make them wholly independent of circumstances, you cannot cure the effects which these trains of thinking & acting produce. Place then, for a moment, the object out of the question, still I tell you, I am unhappy because “my occupation’s gone,”5 & when the associations I have so fondly cherished are rudely torn away, I sink into apathy, because I lose everything that endears life. I abhor indifference, it is the canker of the canker of soul – it is to me synonimous  with sadness, ^with^ death – the death of the mind – my struggles to free myself, then, will hardly be sincere, while I prefer the inquietudes, even of unrequited tenderness, to the want of an object, on which to pour that fund of affection that glows within my bosom. Such is the constitution of my mind, & surely its affections, even on your own principles, have become most sublimely disinterested, while thus cherished, though producing an overbalance of misery. You tell me, a road is open where I may distinctly apprehend it, at the end of this road, or tho’ I may have the power, I shall never feel the will to enter on a dreary barren path.        

      You thought me unjust, when I said in my last letter, that I repented of the confidence I had reposed in you, be assured, I meant not to imply any distrust either of your delicacy or humanity, of which I have experience’d repeated proofs, but it was a humiliating recital – I am proud, & I felt your pity too nearly allied to contempt, it seem’d to me, that those feelings & affections appear’d to you ridiculous which, in my idea, make up the whole value of life – for when I have nothing to love, then may I cease to exist. I fancied also, that I had sunk in your esteem, I shrunk from the notion of being regarded only on a mathematical calculation of my merits, if I cou’d not awaken sympathy, I despair’d of enforcing such high claims. -- I had for some time past rested on your friendship as one of my sincerest & most unmixed consolations – I was jealous of the little progress I had made, & my confidence was shaken, for I cannot consider any attachments of a purely abstract nature. I was pleas’d with the answer of Henry to Rebekka (in nature & art) when she had falsely traduced both him & herself – “Can you forgive me,” she asks – “I love you (he replied) & in that is comprehended everything that is kind.”This, I confess, is the nature of the affections which I have experienced, & my heart has been pierced, because my tenderness was contemn’d. I fear you have, lately, thought me a little petulant, my temper was originally impetuous, & I find it is not yet effectually subdued, beside you treated me a little severely, you called me names & ridiculed me, and my mind is, at present, in a sickly state. But I do not mean to be impertinent, were I capable of being so, knowingly, I shou’d consider myself as unjust & unpardonable, I highly respect & esteem you, your conversation always interests, & takes me out of myself, but some of your principles, while they contradict my experience, I cannot adopt. I may be erroneous, but I am unprejudiced, I mean, that my opinions are the result of investigation, I have given up the notions of the nurse & the priest: had I been any man’s disciple, it would most probably ^have^ be^en^ yours, if the system of Helvetius comes with greater conviction to my mind, it is because it coincides with my experience, & on what other foundation can I rest? No!  however erroneous, I cherish no known partialities, if this be the case, & yet it be true, that I really do not comprehend you, a presumption is form’d against your principles. Two thirds of the world, I do not imagine, have greater discernment, docility, & attention, than myself: then, can those truths be very obvious, which two thirds of the world are not likely to comprehend. Truth, ought to be clear & simple, light as a sunbeam – A mind of common powers cannot go thro’ Euclid, & be at a loss to discover the properties of a triangle, but you, according to your own account, have labour’d, to little purpose, to present to my mind, principles, which I am yet, eagerto imbibe, because you tell me their consequences will be happiness. When I speak of happiness, you will again call me selfish, I do not deny it, this is the principle in which our efforts must originate, yes, the happiness of the actor, but from this principle I can raise my fabric to a heighth equally sublime with yours. Why, then, you have said, for ever revert to its origin? – Because I think it necessary to understand & set in motion, the moving spring of my machine, before I calculate its forces. After all, I do not believe we greatly differ, only, that in some of the consequences  which you deduce, I think you mysticise a little. Bear with me, while I once more go over the principles stated in my last letter, which you so unmercifully criticized, or rather, satirized. – Yet, believe me, I was not offended at your severity, on the contrary, I wish you consider’d it worth your while to examine with equal strictness all I write, it has a tendency to produce many good effects, it awakens my attention, this in itself (particularly at present) is a good, it wou’d accustom me to habits of greater precision, of deeper thinking, & of closer reasoning, if it mortifies, it, at the same time, gratifies, my pride – If you did not think I had a mind of some promise, you wou’d not fatigue yourself with useless pains. 

    My acquaintance with you has I am convinced improved, because it has exercised, my understanding. Never, then, spare me, & I trust you will allow of my freedom in return! Two predominant passions form’d my character, one the desire of intellectual advancement, the other of exercising the gentler affections, the latter, thro’ adverse circumstances, has been turn’d into bitterness, the former only remains – it was, I confess, the subordinate propensity, but it must be my resource. – Habit, has render’d them both disinterested, for, more than ever entangled & bewilder’d, I have ^in either^ no distinct end in view. My principles are afloat, uncertain every step I take, I know not what is likely to produce good, or what evil.

      But to return to my philosophy, which I will endeavour more perspicuously to state.8 As you objected to the metaphorical expression – ‘That nature designed the happiness of her children’ – I will say, that it appears to me – that the planet, or globe, which we inhabit, is capable of producing materials to afford proper sustenance & enjoyment to the beings, or animals, which inhabit ^exist on^ it. That, the capacity of receiving sensation (synonimous with the desire of pleasure, or the abhorrence of pain) is the generating principle of every power, whether physical or moral (if you allow of the distinction). Happiness, then is the end we all seek, the moving spring of every action (however unconscious to ourselves) – the happiness of the actor – Consequently, in the first stages of society every thing wou’d be decided by brute force, till, at length, man finding himself a gregarious animal, & that his highest & proper enjoyments are not of a solitary nature, cannot be secured but by social agreement, establishes, either directly, or indirectly, social conventions, or relinquishes the lesser, to secure the greater, good. Those are, consequently, the truest morals which ensure to every individual, which makes up the whole, the largest share of this good, or pleasure, the only valuable end of existence, for it is better not to be, than not to enjoy[.] I distinguish then rational, from theological morality – The former is the knowledge of what is oweing to ourselves & others, the latter, a wild notion of pleasing a spiritual, inconceivable, being by whimsical & useless sacrifices. Men, I contend, are not depraved when pursuing their own interest – it is the law of nature, in this everything commences, & the self-oblivion you speak of, is merely the habit produced, at length, by the mechanical operations of the mind – It must not be proposed as an antecedent, it has in it nothing of the nature of motive, but will invariably follow as a consequent. Every human being (every animal) in a course of time acts disinterestedly, whether it be virtuous or vicious – It is merely, & necessarily, a course of fix’d habits, from a reiteration of principles & actions, of which, when, arrived at a certain distance from the spring which set them in motion, the intermediate ideas are forgotten. These appear to me simple, yet important truths, & the only truths which can new model society. In vain you will exhort mankind to self oblivion till you have first convinced them, that duties & pleasures are comparible, great exertions can only be produced by strong motives, you must begin by making it our interest to be virtuous, before virtue can become disinterested, & it is as necessary to revert to these first principles, in our efforts to reform others, as to make the learner ^in geometry^ understand the nature of a right angle before you can demonstrate to him the 32 problems in Euclid, that the 3 internal angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. If I have used repetition, it is, that I am anxious not to be misconstrued. I know not how to express myself with more perspicuity, nor am I conscious of any change having taken place in my ideas (tho’ I do not allow myself to be more selfish than my neighbours) I call upon you, then, once more to point out the defects of my reasoning.I am at present suffering from the effects of my disinterestedness, if I had not foster’d a disinterested affection, half the severe returns I met with, wou’d long since have cured me – Your Falklands love of honor, Caleb Wms curiosity were, from habit (& they are just, if not common, pictures) equally disinterested – It is true, the pursuits were all erroneous, but not on that account, the more selfish – Vice, generated by a similar process, is as disinterested as virtue, & error as truth. Selfishness exists only in the outset of any pursuit, & it is the moving spring of all. Mistake is the only mischief against which we ought to guard mankind, modify them by equal laws, or what is still better, enlighten their judgement, & you may permit them to retain their self love, & erect on this foundation the sublimest fabric. If I have expressed myself too decisively, it is because my convictions are strong, they flash upon my mind with a light that I cannot resist, & their consequences [appear] to me to follow, in an unbroken chain. Yet, I hold them not as prejudices & am prepared to attend all that may invalidate them.

    I am melancholy, because, I conceive, I am out of the sphere in which I cou’d be most useful, cou’d the most receive, & reflect, happiness, because my views, my plans, my purposes, are broken off,10 & I have no distinct apprehension of any other situation, or course of action, that cou’d be equally productive either of enjoyment or utility, & till I am awakend to a sufficiently interesting pursuit (of which at present there is little prospect) I shall continue to languish. My plans did not, from their nature, involve misery, the event was totally independent of the principles, & might have been reversed. I shall write, to get rid of vacuity, without having any certain end in view, for I am doubtful whether I may do good or mischief. I think still, as I did when I perused your work, that you do not sufficiently consider the mix’d nature of man, he will never, I doubt, be refined into pure intellect. I confess, I do not comprehend you, for, sometimes, I think you almost platonize, at others profess what appears to me a laxity of principle, or else we affix to terms very different ideas – When you speak of ‘dissoluteness being a virtue,’ you convey to me no idea. I do not affect to be insensible to the sensations of nature, but, in proportion, as my mind has been advanced, they have become exalted & purified. Here sensuality, without the charm of delicacy, where the mind has no part, appears to me brutality, yes, degrading brutality, & inspires me only with disgust. Another subject I will just touch upon – Justice is in my opinion, the summary of virtue, I shou’d suffer a considerable degree of uneasiness under the apprehension of having acted towards, or charged, another unjustly, & should not rest till I had made restitution, or acknowledgement, this I intimated to you, on a certain subject, & you treated it lightly.

      Upon the whole, I never felt more unpleasantly after conversing with you, than on Monday seven-night.11 Do let me see you before it is long, & let us try if we cannot comprehend each other better?

      I shall have in a short time a quire of paper ready for your inspection. I am not satisfied with it myself, nor do I expect that you will – You are very good to take so much trouble with me. Were you sincere, when you told me, you thought the interval of my writing to you long? I shou’d have conceived such a complaint (I am at a loss for a word) as a very high compt, for I am always afraid of wearying you either by pertinacity or repetition. My sensations are too acute – this is not a state of society in which to foster excessive sensibility – Let your friend beware how he cherishes this disposition in his daughter,12 it will produce to her, or I am much mistaken, an overbalance of misery – misery that cannot be laugh’d away. – I perceive in the countenance of Mr H, himself, or I am much mistaken, strong traces of the ravages of passion. Everybody have their feelings & their vexations, I believe, tho’ everybody are not equally candid with myself.

      Farewell, my friend, may the tranquility you at present experience never fail, & may you live, & retain your admirable faculties, beyond the age of man.


                                                            Mary Hays.


Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Charlton Street

Postmark: 1 March 1796


Post pd 2d

1 MS MH 0015, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence  436-41. According to Godwin's diary, Godwin and Holcroft dined at Hays's residence on 28 February, two nights before the above letter. 

2 Taken from the closing lines of Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College

3 Reference is to Elizabeth Inchbald's recently published novel, Nature and Art, 2 vols (London: G. G. & J. Robinson, 1796).  Inchbald (1753-1821), novelist and actress, was originally from Suffolk. She married the actor Joseph Inchbald (1735-79) in 1772 and  made her stage debut in Bristol on 4 September 1772. They toured and acted in various locations until her husband's death in 1779. Elizabeth continued acting for ten years, during which she begand writing her own theatrical productions which she continued for more than twenty years, producing such works as Appearance is Against Them (1785), Such Things Are (1787), Wives as they Were and Maids as they Are (1797), Lover's Vows(1798), and To Marry, or not to Marry (1805). Her friendships with Holcroft and Godwin preceded the entrance of Mary Hays into that circle by several years, though her political leanings toward reform would have been shared by Hays both before and after the French Revolution.  Besides Nature and Art, Inchbald is best known today for her novel, A Simple Story (1791), and later editorial work, including her 25-volume The British Theatre (1806-09), 17-volume Collection of Farces and Afterpieces (1809), and the 10-volume Modern Theatre (1811).  She possessed considerable wealth from her various writings, but did not live ostentatiously and appeared to have a religious renewal in her later years. 

4 See Inchbald, Nature and Art, ed. Shawn Lisa Maurer (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004), 81.

5 From Shakespeare's Othello, Act III, scene 3. 

6 See Inchbald, Nature and Art

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8 Portions of this paragraph are presented in a similar fashion in Hays's article on Lavater in the Monthly Magazine 3 (1797), 26-28. 

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11 Godwin spent Monday evening, 22 February, at Hays's apartment.

12 Fanny Holcroft, Holcroft's daughter.