Mary Hays

Mary Hays (1759-1843), novelist and radical Unitarian and feminist in the 1790s, grew up in Gainsford Steet, Southwark, and attended the Particular Baptist Church in Blackfields during the ministries of John Langford and Michael Brown, the latter becoming an Arian in the 1780s, as did Mary Hays, primarily through the influence of Robert Robinson, Baptist minister at Cambridge. Hays left the Gainsford Street chapel in the early 1790s and joined at Salters’ Hall in 1792, attending as well at the Essex Street Chapel, where Theophilus Lindsey and John Disney ministered. Hays had three sisters and two brothers. Her father died in 1774, the same year as Mary Scott’s father. Her early love interest with John Eccles ended with his death just prior to their marriage. She never married. Her first work, Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public Worship (1792), was a defense of Gilbert Wakefield’s pamphlet on public worship. This introduced her more fully into the London circle of Unitarians, including the publisher Joseph Johnson, as well as George Dyer and Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Eliza Fenwick. The next year she published Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793), followed by the novel Emma Courtney (1796) (about her friendship with William Frend), Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in behalf of Women (1798, but written in 1792 during her friendship with Wollstonecraft); another novel, The Victim of Prejudice, appeared in 1799), and her acclaimed Female Biography, or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries (6 vols, 1803).  Her outspoken feminism made her a target of some more conservative writers, such as Elizabeth Hamilton in Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800-01), and in Edmund Oliver (1798) by Charles Lloyd. Two of Benjamin Flower’s classmates at John Ryland’s academy in the late 1760s, John Dunkin and William Hills, both from the Blackfields church, were known to Mary Hays, with Dunkin marrying her sister, Joanna, and a relation of Hills (Thomas Hills, 1753-1803), marrying her sister, Sarah. In 1808, J. T. Rutt’s nephew, George Wedd, married Mary Hay’s niece, Sarah Dunkin, further connecting these Unitarian families and joining Hays's extended family with that of her close and long-serving friend, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), whose diary, reminiscences, and correspondence are a treasure-trove of material on Mary Hays, her many family members, and even her controversial niece, the feminist novelist Matilda Mary Hays (1820-97).  For more on Hays, see A. F. Wedd, ed., The Love-Letters of Mary Hays (1779-1780) (London: Methuen, 1925), Marilyn L. Brooks, ed., The Correspondence (1779-1843) of Mary Hays, British Novelist (Lewiston, ME: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004); Gina Luria Walker, Mary Hays (1759–1843): The Growth of a Woman’s Mind (Surrey, 2005); Gina Luria Walker, The Idea of being Free: A Mary Hays Reader (Peterborough, ON, 2005); Timothy Whelan,  “Mary Hays and Henry Crabb Robinson,” The Wordsworth Circle 46.3 (2015), 176-90; and Timothy Whelan, “Mary Steele, Mary Hays and the Convergence of Women’s Literary Circles in the 1790s,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.4 (2015), 511-24