OF MARY HAYS, 1779-1842
The 417 letters included in this site comprise the most complete and accurate collection of letters by, to, and about Mary Hays ever assembled. This collection includes some substantial new material not included in Marilyn Brooks's The Correspondence of Mary Hays (1779-1843), British Novelist (2004), the only printed edition of Hays correspondence to date: two letters by Hays not previously known (one at the Pennsylvania Historical Library in Philadelphia and the other at the British Library), one to Hays belonging to the Library of the University of Kentucky, and excised materials and unpublished letters from Eliza Fenwick's letters to Hays now belonging to the Fenwick Collection at the New York Histoical Society Library. The correspondence begins with the collection of letters Hays and her lover and eventual fiancé, John Eccles, during the final two years of his short life (1779-1780). Their letters, teeming with the excesses of romantic sentiment typical of that time, were carefully transcribed and preserved in two bound volumes, of which one volume has survived. Eccles came from Fordingbridge and lived with a family in Gainsford Street, Southwark, just across the street from the Hays family; both families attended the Baptist chapel (usually referred to as the “meeting” in these letters) at the end of the street.
Letters from the 1780s belong exclusively to those sent to Hays by the controversial Baptist minister at Cambridge, Robert Robinson (1735-90), who was instrumental in turning Hays and her sister Elizabeth from orthodoxy to Unitarianism by the late 1780s. During the next decade, Hays’s correspondence is at its height, including letters from a number of leading Unitarian ministers in London, various literary acquaintances (in particular, Mary Wollstonecraft), family members, and, most important, the letters that passed between her and William Godwin between 1795 and 1797, beginning near the end of her affair with William Frend and continuing to the death of Wollstonecraft and including the period of her composition of The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), in which portions of her correspondence with Godwin and Frend appear nearly verbatim. In 1798 her thirty-year correspondence with Eliza Fenwick (1764-1840) begins (nearly ninety letters from Fenwick have survived), an epistolary record of a literary friendship only surpassed by her relationship with Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), which began in 1799 and continued to her death in 1843. Other notable correspondents after 1800 include Robert Southey (with whom she approached about becoming a live-in companion to his wife and family in their Keswick home), Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Hamilton, William Tooke, John Aikin, Penelope Pennington of Bristol, Mary Reid of Leicester, John Prior Estlin of Bristol, Mary Shelley, and Mary Jane Godwin.
The letters that passed between Fenwick and Hays between 1798 and 1828 and Eliza Ann Fenwick to her mother after her departure to Barbados in 1811, along with other materials, including letters by Fenwick to her friends, the Moffats in New York City, and others can be found in the Fenwick Family Correspondence, 1798-1855, MS 211, New York Historical Society, New York City. Unfortunately, Mary Hays's letters to Fenwick are no longer extant. Fenwick's letters formed the basis of A. F. Wedd's The Fate of the Fenwicks in 1927, and were eventually sent to surviving members of Fenwick's family in America after Wedd's publication. It is unfortunate that Fenwick's surviving granddaughters did not manage to preserve Hays's letters to Fenwick, which the latter in one letter makes much ado about having kept all of them in her drawer. Those letters may yet surface, but their loss is immeasurable in regard to recreating a complete picture of the life of Mary Hays. Unfortunately, Wedd's book inflicted its own damage upon our knowledge of Hays's life and her family. Wedd's transcriptions were poorly done and were published with significant excisions in nearly every letter, primarily removing all references to Hays's family and friends in London, thus denying students of Hays invaluable biographical material, despite the fact that Wedd was Hays's great-great niece. All excisions have been included in this edition and highlighted for the reader. Edith Morley, in her 3-volume edition of Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers (1938), committed a similar act of excision by omitting nearly 200 passages relating to Hays and her family members, omissions that, as in the case of Fenwick, would most likely have never been allowed for the correspondence of a significant male writer. In each instance, these 20th century editors essentially “whited out” Mary Hays from two important historical sources essential to her biographical record, leaving a void finally restored in this online edition of their letters.
All of the material omitted by Wedd and Morley provides extensive insights into the lives of two single women (Fenwick lived apart from her husband for most of the period of her friendship with Hays) and their continual battles to gain an independent living while maintaining a literary life. Though they found the obstacles to intellectual and emotional fulfillment nearly impossible overcome in professional and private lives, they found immense purpose and pleasure in maintaining close relationships with members of their immediate and, in the case of Hays, their extended families, choosing to forego social and professional opportunities that might have been more satisfying in order to fulfill those familial obligations. The degree of persistence, endurance, and sheer will power demonstrated in the letters of Hays and Fenwick is a testament to their allegiance to Hays’s declaration to Godwin in 1795 about the “idea of being free,” and in so doing provides students and scholars of Hays, Fenwick, and women writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with ample material for reconstructing women’s intellectual, social, literary, religious, and familial history.
To begin reading the correspondence, click on any of the links provided in the menu on the left hand side of the page. The site is fully searchable. Biographical notes on nearly all the individual mentioned in the correspondence can be found in the Biographical Index. The Correspondence Calendar contains a complete list of the correspondence and correspondents, with all the letters listed Chronologically on the Chronological Calendar.
Work by Timothy Whelan on the correspondence of Mary Hays in the Pforzheimer Collection was supported by a summer research grant from the New York Public Library in 2016.