10 September 1804

Mary Hays, No. 9 St. George's Place, Camberwell, Surrey, to Henry Crabb Robinson, Jena, Germany, 10 September 1804.1 

September 10th 1804. No– St Georges Place, Camberwell, Surry. 

My kind & good friend, it gave me real pleasure to hear of your existence, of which I had begun to entertain some doubts, & that you had not wholly forgotten your friends in England. I know not what perverse fate rules over my letters, but it is certain that I have answered, at length, every one I have received from you, & that I felt mortified at not hearing from you again in reply to my last. I cannot exactly recollect the date of this, but it was a long time ago: in it I offered to send you, if you would put me in a method of doing so, a copy of my Female Biography,2 which copy I reserved till I despaired of hearing from you, & then disposed of it to one of my family.

I am glad to hear, both from yourself & your friend so good an account of you; & shall be still more pleased to see you in spring, if you should keep your intention of visiting your native country. Yet, if this is to depend on a peace, my hopes of our meeting will be but faint; since, such is the state of Europe at present, that the prospect of so desirable an event is very obscure. I am one among those, in this little island, who have been intimidated by the fear of an invasion; nor are these apprehensions yet by any means allayed.

I envy the account you give of yourself, or rather perhaps your sex; since travelling, I believe, would afford the best cure for those disorders of the mind & imagination under which I still labour. Mine has been a singular & romantic life, its incidents arising out of a singular & romantic mind: I am not suited to the times & the persons among which I have fallen, & I will say – that I have deserved a better fate. We are at too great a distance, my friend, for confidence, & the fate of letters are too uncertain, & even if we were nearer perhaps I could not say more. I have experienced many sorrows, and the consolation of communication & sympathy is denied to me.

You will not from what I have written conclude, that I am happier than when we parted, yet I have experienced since a chequered scene – light has flashed upon the gloom, to be succeeded by thicker darkness, & over the future clouds still rest. But enough, & too much of this. If I have suffered, & am suffering the consequences of many & great errors, ought I to repine? Those who content themselves with beaten paths are not liable to stumble or stray; but if the wanderer meets in his way torrents & precipices, if he is entangled in thickets & wounded by thorns, for these accidents he ought to have been prepared, he has himself only to blame.

That energy of mind on which you compliment me, if ever I possessed it, is nearly extinguished. How is it, that I could never persuade you, that literature is with me only a secondary pursuit, nor was the ardour of my character ever thrown into it. I write for two reasons, to avoid the vacancy of indolence, & to maintain myself in independence: these purposes it has hitherto answered, & with these I am content. The money which I received for my Biographical work has enabled me to put in practice a scheme long meditated. That of escaping from lodgings & London, & fixing myself in a small clean, quiet, house of my own, with a faithful servant who is attached to me, & whom I consider as a humble respectful friend. Here I am more retired than ever, neither visiting, nor being visited by anybody any person, excepting my family, & one or two old friends.3 The ill treatment I received in the world of literature made an indelible impression on my mind, which was too delicate to sustain undeserved reproach. I have quitted it, & was I to chuse new friends, I should select them for the qualities of the heart. I still write for the reasons above mentioned, but I aim at nothing striking or original, I aspire not to fame. Yet I flatter myself I shall have done something towards enlightening & liberalising the rising generation, more especially those of my own sex. You encouraged me to write of myself, and therefore if the subject has, by its insipidity, wearied you, you have yourself only to blame.

I shall really be glad to see you in England, you are one of the few in whom I think I have not been deceived, in believing you honest, friendly, humane & sincere. And what qualities, my friend, are so valuable as these? On the intellectual advantages you possess I do not compliment you, because though they undoubtedly add worth & splendour to those before enumerated, they are in themselves far less valuable.

Your present plans & pursuits are prudent as laudable, if you can determine on leading a bachelors life. The wants of the heart are, I believe, but little felt by the generality of men, who, content with the coarser gratifications of sense, are satisfied with living unloving & unbeloved. The indulgences to which I allude I am convinced destroy the affections, &, as the Scottish bard emphatically expresses it

    “Harden all within,

    And petrify the feeling.”4

How far these reflections apply to you I ask not. I am inclined to hope favourably of the country you are in, if [&] its simple & virtuous habits. But in this I perhaps deceive myself, since I know but little of the actual world. Italy, I am told, is a sink of profligacy, from which it is scarcely possible to escape untainted. Beware then, my friend! Dissolute pleasures produce on the character effects of which but few persons are fully aware. In rendering men cold & selfish, they weaken humanity, the only true basis of morals. You see, I talk to you with the freedom of an elder sister. Can you pardon this preachment? But you have gratified me by the assurances of your continued regard & friendship, & I was willing to prove to you, that I really took an interest in your welfare.

Of your friend Tomalin, I can say but little, since he stayed with me but a very short time; &, not opening your letter till he had left me, I observed him less particularly than I might otherwise have done. My nephew & niece5 were with me, & he appeared somewhat embarrassed; but modesty, in a young man, is too rare a fault (if it be one) to incur censure. Modesty is also to be distinguished from bashfulness; if the last is sometimes a little awkward, the first is always interesting, & gives of the worth of the character a favorable presage.

Of your friends here, I can tell you but little. Dr Reid, as perhaps you have heard, is married. His sister still remains single, & travelling from place to place. Of course I seldom see her. Mr & Mrs Fenwick are not very differently situated than they were when you left us, still struggling with pecuniary difficulty.6

You are, I am told by your friend become [quite] a German, but that your ardor for Kant is somewhat abated. If I were to sit at the feet of a German philosopher, I should chuse Herder for my oracle.7 I have been more delighted with his Philosophy of History than with any work which I have read [in] a long time. In it is combined, with a sound & enlightened understanding, a fine imagination, splendour of diction, (if that may be judged of through the medium of a translation) ingenuity, purity & benevolence of heart. It is only too good to be popular. Should this letter escape the fate of my former ones, & ever reach your hand, I flatter myself you will give me a long gossip in return. My last was sent through Mr Rutt, & the one before put into the general post with a shilling. You perceive, therefore, that I omitted nothing that might secure their safety. For this uncertainty, I shall sign only the initials of my name, with assurances, that I am, with esteem,

                                    your sincere friend M H.


Address: Mr Henry Crabb Robinson | Jena | Germany.

1 Crabb Robinson Archive, DWL/HCR/5/3/55, Dr. Williams's Library, London; Brooks, Correspondence 566-69.

2 Hays’s Female Biography, 6 vols (London: Richard Phillips, 1802). 

3 Hays had been living for about two years with her mother (Mrs. Hays is listed as the head of household in Holden’s London Directory for 1805) in Camberwell, along with her sister Elizabeth and most likely her younger brother John. Elizabeth had married Ambrose Lanfear in March 1804, and it appears that John Hays may have participated in his sister’s scheme to move to Islington, for in the 1806 Survey Map of St Mary Parish, Islington, John Hays appears at 3 Park Place. John may have helped her get into the property initially but it does not appear he ever lived there with her. In the 1805-06 Poor Rate Book, a James Trimmer has been marked out and Hays written after his name, with ^Mary^ written above the marked through name. On the day the tax collector made his rounds, most likely Hays was at home and when the collector rang, she had him change the name to “Hays,” and then apparently had him write her name above the previous name (the “Mary” is not in Hays’s hand), a means of asserting her own identity into the rate book (at this time, it was common only for a last name to be entered into the book) and indicating her role as head of household, something she had wanted for many years. By 1809 she is living with her bother, Thomas, in his home on Wandsworth Common, South London.

4 Lines from Robert Burns’s “Epistle to a Young Friend” (1786).

5 Given the large number of Hays’s nephews and nieces, the ones mentioned here cannot be identified.

6 Hays’s friends, John Reid and Mary Reid and the Fenwicks, all of whom had become known to Robinson prior to his departure for Germany in 1800.

7 Reference is to Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Menschheit, which appeared in an English translation by T. Churchill as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (London: Joseph Johnson, 1800).