Mary Hays-John Eccles Correspondence 


Volume 1 (Letters 1-102)

Image above from fol. 63 of Volume 1 of the Hays-Eccles Correspondence, Mary Hays Material, Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

The letters that passed between Mary Hays and her first lover, John Eccles (they were officially engaged shortly before his fatal illness in 1780) were preserved by Hays and given to an unidentified friend, most likely Mrs Collier, who transcribed the letters into two bound volumes, using a fair hand that might suggest the volumes were designed for publication but more likely demonstrates the careful preservation and controlled dissemination of coterie manuscripts (letters, diaries, journals, poems, etc) that were a hallmark of women's literary circles at this time. Only the first of the two volumes has survived and now belongs to the Mary Hays material within the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (MH 0028). These letters were first published (except for the Introduction by Hays and the initial letter by Eccles to Mrs. Hays) in A. F. Wedd's The Love-Letters of Mary Hays (1925), though with considerable excisions by Wedd and numerous word changes and mistaken transcriptions. In this edition, all passages excised by Wedd (she noted them with ellipses) have been restored to the text and highlighted for the reader. The numbering of the letters is off by one from Wedd's numbering since she did not include Eccles's initial letter to Mrs. Hays. Wedd also omitted Hays's brief Introduction to the letters, as well as some notes by Hays, which now appear to be lost completely. Wedd provided titles to the letters resembling chapter titles in a novel. Those titles have not been retained in this edition. 

Though Wedd was a pioneer in presenting a collection of manuscript material on a woman writer, her editorial practices did little to enhance the literary career of Mary Hays as well as her friendship with Eliza Fenwick and never-ending domestic duties to her immediate and extended family. In fact, Wedd essentially erased, or we might say, "whited out," a significant body of information on Hays's life and family. As a result, Wedd's omissions, alterations, and inaccuracies helped create a skewed historical, biographical, and textual record on Hays that only until recently has finally been brought to closer scrutiny in Marilyn Brooks' Correspondence of Mary Hays (2004), Gina Luria Walker's selection of letters in The Idea of Being Free (2006) (36-86), as well as Walker's biography of Hays, Mary Hays (1759-1843): The Growth of a Woman’s Mind (2006). Wedd's deletions, though damaging to Hays, nevertheless provide a fascinating glimpse into how gender, whether on the part of the writer (Hays the 1790s Dissenter turned radical Jacobin writer) or the editor (Wedd, Hays's great-great niece raised as a proper child of Victorian British culture), determined what aspect of women's history was worth keeping and what was not. 

The Hays-Eccles letters are highly sentimental, which we would expect from two young lovers (Hays was born in 1759, Eccles in 1755) who were steeped in the sentimental literature of late eighteenth-century England (as their letters reveal). They were also devoted followers of the Dissenting culture into which they were raised as was evident in their participation each week at the Baptist "meetinghouse" at the end of Gainsford Street (also called Blackfields). The letters provide important details about Hays's circle of Dissenting friends, her family members, and the nature of her reading and ideas about education, religion, courtship and marriage, all foundational motifs and concerns that would mark her public career as a writer from the mid-1790s to the early 1820s.

To view the letters, click on the appropriate section provided above (the letters are in the same order as the bound MS volume in the Pforzheimer Collection).