English Review (1793)

English Review 22 (October 1793), 253-57.

 

Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous. By Mary Hays. Pp. 260. 8vo. 5s. boards. Knott. London, 1793.

 

            The author intimates, in her preface to this work (which is inscribed to Dr. Disney), that ‘her Essays might, with greater propriety, have been entitled Sketches; as they are rather hints and outlines, than complete and finished pieces.’ To the truth of this remark we do not deny our assent. The question is, whether the world has much reason to be obliged to the lady for her hints and outlines? Perhaps a mere whisper from Mary Hays may be gratifying to the public ear. The fair author thus proceeds, abruptly withdrawing our attention from herself to the great advocate for the rights of woman: ‘Impressed with sentiments of the sincerest reverence and esteem for the author of a work in which every page is irradiated by truth and genius, I cannot mention the admirable advocate for the rights of woman (rights founded in nature, reason, and justice, though so long degraded and sunk in frivolity and voluptuous refinement), without pausing to pay a tribute of public respect in the name of my sex, I will say, of grateful respect, to the virtue and talents of a writer who, with equal courage and ability, hath endeavoured to rescue the female mind from those prejudices by which it has been systematically weakened, and which have been the canker of genuine virtue; for purity of heart can only be the result of knowledge and reflection.’ We have here a full display of the style, the manner, and the sentiments, of Mary Hays, who stands forward one of the boldest beneath the standard of Wollstonecraft. And yet she laments the sacrifice of all ‘the graceful sensibilities.’ ‘A reformation of manners (she tells us) is wanting; the fountain is poisoned at its source; sensible plus virtuous individuals vainly struggle against the stream, which continues to draw down the majority with destructive force.’ But how is this reformation of manners to be effected? We are partly informed by Mrs. Wollstonecraft herself. This pure and perfect female (from the simplicity* of her heart) declares that, in order to lay the axe to the root of corruption, it would be proper to familiarize both sexes, from their earliest youth, to an unreserved in discoursing on those topics which are generally not introduced into conversation from a false principle of modesty; [254] and that she sees no reason why the organs of generation should not be mentioned or called by their proper names, in promiscuous company, just as we should speak of our eyes or our hands. Mrs. Wollstonecraft adds, if we recollect rightly (for we report this from memory) that her opinion, though apparently singular, had received the sanction of a very sensible man, whom she ranked among her most intimate friends.

            The particular pieces which our author notices in her preface are, a Fragment in the Manner of the old Romances; an Eastern Tale; and Poems, ‘written at an early period of life, as exercises of fancy.’ These performances have unquestionably all the marks of youth ungifted by genius and unformed by taste. ‘The Invocation to the Nightingale (she adds has been inserted in Harrison’s Collection of British Poetry. The Ode to a Bullfinch, one of the Sonnets, and the Eastern Tale, have made their appearance in the Universal Magazine.’ They were, doubtless, well adapted to the soil where they sprung up; and, thus cruelly transplanted, they must quickly fade away and die!

            We proceed to lay before our readers a few extracts that may facilitate their judgment of his pretty miscellany.

            In the first number Miss Mary Hays ‘conceives – that the Wakefieldian controversy is a question of some importance.’ – But her conceptions are indigestia moles. The whole of this paper is a mere abortion. – ‘I am not contending about the propriety of public worship – I should apprehend no danger from priestcraft if the state would not interfere about the manner of it.’ – ‘Whether preaching, debating, singing, praying – better have any religion than none at all.’ – ‘Christianity, kept distinct from civil policy, will fall like a rich dew,  fructifying and fertilizing.’ – ‘Priestcraft is a creature of the state.’ – ‘I love the gospel.’ – Such are our author’s decisions and opinions.

            In number the second she insinuates, that ‘it needs little of the spirit of prophecy to predict, that the present just and liberal notions on the subject of civil government, which, like a flood of light, irradiate Europe, will, in future periods. Produce certain, though slow effects;’ – most devoutly prays, that a wise reformation of the gross corruptions and abuses which deform the present system of government in this country, may preclude all dreadful extremities;’ – observes, ‘that all monarchical and aristocratical governments carry within themselves the seeds of their dissolution’ – exults in the idea that ‘posterity will reap the benefit of the present struggles with France’ – and closes her triumphs with the prediction, [255] that these struggles will, ‘sooner or later, bring on a total dissolution of all the forms of government that subsist in the Christian countries of Europe.’

            But it cannot be expected that we should pursue the lady through all her wanderings. That her political ideas are diametrically opposite to ours, is sufficiently obvious; yet a difference in opinion would not operate to prejudice our minds against good-sense, or taste, or genius. In the work before us, however, we have nothing to commend: it every where excites our contempt. We despise dogmas that originate in affected wisdom – we are disgusted by flippancy and frivolousness that betray all the conceit of a half-educated female. In vain may Mary Hays exhibit her lucubrations to prove, that ‘woman possesses the same powers as man’ – that (as she modestly expresses herself) ‘there is no sexual character’ – and that ‘the name of Wollstonecraft will go down to posterity with reverence’; whilst, we supposes, 

 

                        ------------- ‘her attendant fail,

            Pursues the triumph, and partakes the gale.’

 

Is it for woman (or for man either) – we cannot repress our indignation – to despise authority – to speak evil of dignities – to scoff at priests and kings – to point her sarcasms at the best of sovereigns, ‘who, with paternal solicitude (she says) endeavours to guard his people from light and knowledge by royal proclamations’ – and, to complete the climax of impertinence and malignity, ‘by dragging the usurper to punishment, the victim of his usurpation? – But we are as one that ‘beateth the air’: the thing is too weak to be dangerous. In conclusion, however, we shall leave it to our readers to comment on the following passages: ‘Numbers of women I have known, whose studies have been confined to Mrs. Glasse’s Art of Cookery, and whose time has been spent in the kitchen, altercating with and changing of servants; who have muddled away their time and money in the disorderly management of hands without a head.’ – ‘the vindicator of female rights is thought incompetent to form any just opinion of the cares and duties of a conjugal state, from never having entered the matrimonial lists. – What nonsense this! From such notions (most devoutly I repeat a part of the Liturgy), good Lord, deliver us!’ – ‘I am no advocate for cramping the minds and bodies of young girls, by keeping them for every poring over needlework. – I doubt whether there will be any sewing in the next world! How then will those employ themselves who have done nothing in this?’ -- A good mother, forsooth, must [256] oblige her children to say their prayers, and go statedly to church.’ – ‘In some minds there is a congeniality – were I not a materialist, I should say, a recognition of souls. – Young women without fortunes (who do not marry) have scarce any other resource than in prostitution.’ – ‘Women (she thinks) designed for higher purposes than the drudgery of bearing and suckling children!’ – From ‘an invocation to the Nightingale’ –

            

            ‘Sometimes hush’d in still attention,

                        Leaning pensive o’er a stile;

            Fancy bids her sound delusive

                        Lull the yielding sense awhile.’

 

Charming poetry!

 

            ‘Little trembler, hither fly,

            In my bosom safely lie;

            Sympathy and tenderness

            Do that bosom still possess! – Qu.?

            There thy glossy plumes unfold,

            Plumes of azure and of gold!’ –

 

            Such are the crude effusions of Mary Hays, to whom we cannot but acknowledge we have paid a greater attention than our duty to the public may strictly warrant. Yet we have been sedulous to bring forward into full view every female politician and philosopher that meet us in the paths of literature; since to render these characters conspicuous, is, generally speaking, to expose them to the contempt and ridicule which they deserve, by detecting their affectations, their vanities, and their follies. And thus the pupils of Mrs. Wollstonecraft actually invalidate, by these specimens of themselves, the very doctrines which they are labouring to establish. Proudly to vaunt their intellectual powers, and to exhibit, at the same instant, the most ‘damning proofs’ of mental imbecility, has (providentially, we had almost said) been the fate of these literary ladies. And soon will it appear, that, to be a skillful housewife, just as well accords with the female character, as to be a quibbling necessitarian; that, to be clever, as an economist, is not less creditable, than to be wise as a republican; that, to instruct her family in those good old maxims by which ‘her whiskered sires and mothers ‘mild’ had regulated their conduct, may be as amiable in a woman, as to give lessons to the world at large, on princely domination and popular resistance; and, that even to manage her needle with dexterity (though there be no sewing in the [257] next world) may be as rational a mode of preparing herself for hereafter, as to weave the web of sophistry, in attempting to disprove the existence of an immaterial soul! 


* In an introduction to a book published professedly for the use of young ladies! – Blush, blush! Miss Mary Hays.