Critical Review (1799)

Critical Review, 2nd Series, 26 (August 1799), 450-52.

 

The Victim of Prejudice. By Mary Hays. Author of the Memoirs of Emma Courtney. 2 Vols. 12mo. 6sBoards. Johnson. 1799.

 

    Criticism is the mentor of genius; and, thoughtful vigilant in correcting the errors of its pupil, it never fails to behold with delight and approbation those effusions which, in the language of the moralist, tend ‘to give ardor to virtue, and confidence to truth.’ We wish that we could justly bestow this eulogium on the production before us. It is the offspring of talents much above mediocrity; but we do not hesitate to pronounce that they are employed in a manner highly dangerous to the peace and welfare of society. We do not make this serious charge without deliberation. An author collects a series of severe and unmerited misfortunes; and, under the form of a novel, represents them as originating from opinions and habits commonly adopted in the world from a sense of their utility and decorum: whether such a work be an abortion of improbabilities issuing from the frigid brain of a paradoxical sophist, or whether it possess the fascinating power of exciting the feelings to sympathy, the mischief is equally great. The superficial head and the susceptible heart are confounded and led astray: society is contemplated with [451] disgust, as a state of artificial depravity; and the salutary institutions of human intercourse are despised and violated by that rising generation, from which they ought to receive the profoundest reverence and the most ardent support!

    We are unwilling to pronounce so severe a censure without some qualification. It is not the ability or the intention of Miss Hays that we dispute: it is the accuracy of her judgement. The Victim of Prejudice is a tale of considerable interest; it has many passages which, for warmth and vigor of pathos and composition, are scarcely inferior to the effusions of Rousseau; but it also exhibits that splenetic irritability which, by distorting decorum into prejudice, and custom into tyranny, tends to excite and to nourish the contagious and consuming fever of perverted sensibility. 

    The story of Mary, an unhappy prostitute, condemned to suffer death for assisting in a murder – a story which is transmitted by her in a letter to a worthy clergyman who once sought her hand – powerfully appeals to the heart. We shall quote its conclusion as a specimen of the pathetic sophistry which we have censured. 

    ‘Lowly and tranquil, I await my destiny; but feel, in the moment that life is cut short, dispositions springing and powers expanding, that, permitted to unfold themselves, might yet make reparation to the society I have injured, and on which I have but too well retaliated my wrongs. But it is too late! Law completes the triumph of injustice. The despotism of man rendered me weak, his vices betrayed me into shame, a barbarous policy stifled returning dignity, prejudice robbed me of the means of independence, gratitude ensnared me in the devices of treachery, the contagion of example corrupted my heart, despair hardened and brutality rendered it cruel. A sanguinary policy precludes reformation, defeating the dear-bought lessons of experience, and, by a legal process, assuming the arm of omnipotence, annihilates the being whom its negligence left destitute, and its institutions compelled to offend.

    ‘Thou, also, it may be, art incapable of distinction; thou, too, probably, hast bartered the ingenuous virtues, the sensibility of youth, for the despotism, the arrogance, the voluptuousness of man, and the unfortunate daughter of an abandoned and wretched mother will spread to thee her innocent arms in vain. If, amidst the corruption of vaunted civilization, thy heart can yet throb responsive to the voice of nature, and yield to the claims of humanity, snatch from destruction the child of an illicit commerce, shelter her infant purity from contagion, guard her helpless youth from a pitiless world, cultivate her reason, make her feel her nature’s worth, strengthen her faculties, inure her to suffer hardship, rouse her to independence, inspire her with fortitude, with energy with self-respect, and teach her to contemn the tyranny that would impose fetters of sex upon mind.[’] [452]

    Is the law to be represented as completing the ‘triumph of injustice’ because it punishes a murder committed in the uproar of a brothel? Do our municipal institutions afford no redress for the seductive or forcible violation of female chastity, and has public benevolence provided no asylum for those repentant victims who would wish to escape from vice to virtue? A reform of manners cannot be promoted by indiscriminate imputations on society and the laws; and that person must be ignorant or unhanded who does not perceive or acknowledge the many grand and successful efforts of social sympathy, by which vice is attacked at its sources or stopped in its career, and by which the miseries flowing from depravity are divested of their pestilential acrimony. The ‘tyranny that would impose fetters of sex upon mind’ we do not understand, unless the remark belong to the philosophical jargon, indelicately illustrated in the precepts, and exemplified by the practice, of the advocates of the modern rights of woman. The respect due to female talent usefully employed has on no occasion been withholden by the public; and many are the instances in which that reputation is largely claimed, and brilliantly enjoyed. The writings of a More, a Barbauld, and a West, are monuments of well-directed genius, and will be deservedly admired when all the impassioned imitations of Rousseau and Diderot shall cease to be remembered. 

    The infant recommended to protection by the unfortunate female whose story has been alluded to, is the heroine of the present tale, and is made to experience a succession of miseries more cruel in their nature than, and nearly as ignominious in their termination as, those of her wretched mother. She is the victim not of seduction but of violence; and though she afterwards does not weakly yield to vice, but uses every effort of honest industry, she becomes a persecuted outcast form society, and is on the point of committing suicide in a prison. This catastrophe, however, is prevented by the unexpected arrival in England of two friends of her earlier years, whom she had generously assisted in their distress. We shall conclude with observing, that if the sad vicissitudes of this tale be founded on fact, happily they are of a very uncommon description; but that if, on the contrary, they merely be the offspring of the novelist’s imagination, the offense is more than a gross outrage on probability: it is harrowing to agony feelings which deserve more respect than to be made the idle sport of unnatural fiction. The wanton use of stimulants tends to deaden the acuteness of sensation; and it may be remembered that the shepherd’s boy in the fable, who had counterfeited a clamorous terror of the world, was not regarded when the destroyer actually committed his ravages on the flock.