Elizabeth Hays Lanfear

Elizabeth Hays Lanfear (c. 1765-1825) was the younger sister of the radical novelist Mary Hays (1759-1843) and a gifted writer in her own right, having composed two essays for her sister’s 1793 volume, Letters and Essays, Moral, and Miscellaneous, and moved with her sister in the Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle in the mid-1790s, maintaining a friendship with the Romantic poet and writer, George Dyer (1755-1841) into the 1820s. Like her sister, she was raised in a Baptist home in Southwark and by the 1790s had become a Unitarian, remaining so the rest of her life. She married Ambrose Lanfear in 1804 (he committed suicide in 1809) and had two sons, one dying in 1817 and the other in 1830. Through her sister she came to know the diarist Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), meeting him at various times in the home of her sister Mary or brothers John and Thomas. On 25 Mary 1820, Crabb Robinson dined in the home of John Hays with Elizabeth and her son, Francis (Mary Hays was absent). Robinson’s diary entry is surprisingly negative concerning Lanfear, her language that day reminding Robinson of conversations he shared with Mary Hays and her friends during their radical phase in the late 1790s. ‘She is a radical’, Robinson writes,

And offensively violent in the expression of her opinions – A vulgar declaimer, adopting all the commonplace notions So that the very words were familiar to me – There is an unfeminine severity in her manner as well as a charr of her opinions themselves not suited to the fair sex so that she gave me no pleasure – But she is a strong minded clever woman I have no doubt –  (HCR Diary, vol. 8, f. 31, Dr Williams’s Library, London)

Lanfear’s novel, Fatal Errors; or Poor Mary-Anne. A Tale of the Last Century. In a Series of Letters (London: Valpy [1819]), was composed c. 1796 and was critiqued by Mary Wollstonecraft at that time, but for whatever reason, Elizabeth Hays did not publish the novel until 1819, after much goading from her niece and neighbor, Emma Dunkin Hills. Robinson probably knew of the novel at the time of their meeting and would have known of its overtly feminist tone and message, consistent with Mary and Elizabeth Hays during their time within the Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle of radical writers in the 1790s. He novel and her conversation that day probably reminded Robinson of a time he now viewed through a more conservative political and social lens, though Lanfear was probably just as radical in 1820 as she was in the late 1790s. By November 7, 1824, Robinson’s attitude toward Lanfear had softened; during a visit to Hays’s residence at Vanbrugh Castle in Greenwich, he discovered that her sister ‘has a cancer And it threatens her with an early death. Probably it is of a . . . malignant nature . . . At least the surgeons hold a much more serious language about it’ (Diary, vol. 11, f. 2). On January 1, 1825, he visits Hays again, this time in the home of ‘Mr Hills of Cannonbury [sic]’, the same William Hills he had met at George Wedd’s home in September 1812. ‘Her sister is still alive’, he adds, ‘but in a deplorable state’ (HCR Diary, vol. 11, f. 27). A month later, on February 6, he finds ‘Miss Hays in deep affliction at the death of her niece Mrs [Elizabeth Dunkin] Francis, and the dying condition of her sister Mrs Lansere [sic] – rather a melancholy visit’ (HCR Diary, vol. 11, f. 41). Elizabeth Hays Lanfear died later that month in her 59th year and was buried on February 25, 1825, in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Islington, alongside her son John. The year before her death, Lanfear published a second work, Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World (London: J. Robins, 1824), the title page bearing the appellation ‘Mrs. Lanfear, author of “Fatal Errors”, etc’, a work noted by scholars of adolescent conduct literature but without any identifying facts attributing the work to Elizabeth Hays Lanfear. For the most complete biographical amount of Elizabeth Hays Lanfear, see Timothy Whelan, "Elizabeth Hays and the 1790s Feminist Novel," The Wordsworth Circle 48.3 (2017), 137-51. See also Timothy Whelan and Felicity James, ed., Fatal Errors, or Poor Mary-Anne (London: Routledge, 2019), a new edition of Lanfear's 1819 novel, published as part of the Chawton House Library Series of Women Novelists.