Matilda Mary Hays

Matilda Mary Hays (1820-97) was born on 8 September 1820 and christened on 7 October 1820 at the Old Church, St. Pancras, London, so it may be that John Hays, probably at the behest of his wife, had become an attendant at the Anglican church. She received much of her education from her aunt, Mary Hays, who lived with her family from late 1831, just after the death of her mother, Elizabeth Atkinsono Breese Hays, in late 1831, until Mary Hays moved into a boarding house in Clapton in 1841. Like her aunt, Matilda Mary became a writer, with her earliest writings appearing in the late 1830s in The Mirror and in Ainsworth's Magazine, and possibly the New Monthly Magazine. Her first novel was Helen Stanley, published in 1846; her second novel, Adrienne Hope (1866) was published by T. Cautley Newby. She also translated novels by George Sand.  Her editions of Sand appeared in 6 volumes in 1847 published by Churton (she was the general editor, assisted by Eliza Ashurst and Edmund Larken, a cleric.  Hays translated the first volume, La Derniere Aldini. Ashurst was a member of the Carlyle circle and daughter of the radical reformer W. H. Ashurst, who greatly admired Sand’s work on ideological grounds. Ashurst was a strong feminist and stayed for a time with Sand in Nohant, though Sand thought her ‘a prude without modesty’. Matilda Hays was, like her aunt, a radical reformer and moved in those circles in London. She was also a lesbian and had several lovers, widely known for their affairs. She was friend to George H. Lewes and Guiseppe Mazzini, the Italian reformer.  Lewes thought Hays’s translations somewhat bold and wished her to tone them down and make them conform more to British taste, but he left it to Hays’ discretion. Mazzini thought Lewes should have insisted on it. Hays corresponded with Sand, but those letters are no longer extant. She traveled to Paris to meet Sand but Sand was not in town at that time.  Hays wanted to translate all of Sands’s novels, but she did not, and the Westminster criticized her translations as not meeting Sands’s standard of prose. Her last translation of Sand was Le Petite Fadette in 1851. She co-founded the English Woman’s Journal in 1858. 

    In her will, Mary Hays left £10 to Matilda, and in a letter to her shortly before her death (a portion recorded in a ‘Memoir’ of Hays that appeared in the Christian Reformer in September 1844 (11: 813-20), in which Hays advises offers her the following advice: 

Beware how you adopt the religious cant, the false theology, which is become so prevalent in the present day, and which has on weak minds so pernicious an effect. Let your homage to the Supreme Being be that of your understanding and your heart – the offspring of love, not of fear. Confide in Him as your wise and kind Father, whom you most honour by obeying, and by fulfilling the duties to which you are called. It is easy to observe forms, to make professions of creeds and dogmas, which have little effect upon the conduct and less upon the temper. But love to God and to your fellow-beings, justice, benevolence and humility – these form the essence of a true and saving faith.

A year after the death of Mary Hays, Crabb Robinson was still in contact with the Hays family. He notes in his diary on 24 May 1844 that Matilda, now 24 years old, has written to him asking advice ‘about the character of a publisher of a novel she has written (Bently)’, the parenthetical reference being a publisher, not the title of her novel, Helen Stanley, which was not published by Bentley but rather by Churton in 1846. He later adds this telling comment about her on in his Reminiscences for 1819, composed on 31 July 1859: ‘It is a curious fact, that a niece of Mary Hayes (a daughter of her Brother John,) is become an authoress, being as her aunt was, in advance of the age – if advance be the proper term, which it is to be hoped, it is not; for that implies that the age is to follow = She is the translatress of several of George Sand’s novels!!!(Crabb Robinson Reminiscences for 1819, vol. 2, f.  243). For more on Matilda Mary Hays, see Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, ed. Olive Classe (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), vol. 2, p. 1226.