25 November 1792
Mary Wollstonecraft, Store Street, [Bedford Square], to Mary Hays, [Gainsford Street], 25 November 92.1
I yesterday mentioned to Mr Johnson2 your request and he assented desiring that the title page might be sent to him – I, therefore, can say nothing more, for trifles of this kind I have always left to him to settle; and, you must be aware, Madam, that the honour of publishing, the phrase on which you have laid a stress, is the cant of both trade and sex: for if really equality should ever take place in society the man who is employed and gives a just equivalent for the money he receives will not behave with the servile obsequiousness of a servant.
I am now going to treat you with still greater frankness – I do not approve of your preface – and I will tell you why. If your work ^should^ deserve attention it is a blur on the very face of it. Disadvantages of education &c ought, in my opinion, never to be pleaded (with the public) in excuse for defects of any importance, because if the writer has not sufficient strength of mind to overcome the common difficulties which lie in his way, nature seems to command him, with a very audible voice, to leave the task of instructing others to those who can. This kind of vain humility has ever disgusted me – and I should say to an author, who humbly sued for forbearance, ‘if you have not a tolerably ^good^ opinion of your own production, why intrude it on the public? we have plenty of bad books already, that have just gasped for breath and died!’
The last paragraph I particularly object to, it is full of vanity. Your male friends will still treat you like a woman – and many a man, for instance Dr Johnson, Lord Littleton, and even Dr Priestley3 have insensibly been led to utter warm eulogiums in private that they would be sorry openly to avow without some cooling explanatory ifs. An author, especially a woman, should be cautious lest she too hastily swallows the crude praises which partial friends and polite acquaintance bestow thoughtlessly when the supplicating eye looks for them. In short, it requires great resolution to try rather to be useful than to please. With this remark in your head I must beg you to pardon my freedom whilst you consider the purport of what I am going to add. – Rest on yourself – if your essays have merit they will stand alone, if not the shouldering up of Dr this or that will not long keep them from falling to the ground. The vulgar have a pertinent proverb – ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, and let me remind you that when weakness claims indulgence it seems to justify the despotism of strength. Indeed the preface, and even your pamphlet, is too full of yourself – Inquiries ought to be made before they are answered; and till a work strongly interests the public true modesty should keep the author in the back ground – for it is only about the character and life of a good author that curiosity is active – A blossom is but a blossom.
I am Madam
Store Street Novr 25th 92
St. Paul’s As you seemed uneasy when you wrote, contrary to my first intention I have just now spoken to Mr J. who desires me to tell you that he very willingly waves the privilege ^of^ seniority, though as it is an impropriety, I should think his name might as well be omitted –4
1 MS MW 0035, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 302-03; Todd, Collected Letters 209-11; Wedd, Love Letters 224-25 (postscript omitted); Walker, Idea of Being Free 191-92.
2 The Dissenting bookseller/printer Joseph Johnson (see Biographical Index).
3 Reference here is to Dr. Samuel Johnson (1710-91), the great poet, writer, and lexicographer; George Lyttelton, first Baron Lyttelton (1709-73), and Joseph Priestley.
4 Apparently, Hays had initially planned to dedicate her Letters and Essays to Joseph Johnson, but, as Wollstonecraft's PS. reveals, he declined, leaving Hays to dedicate the work instead to John Disney. Much of Wollstonecraft's criticisms are directed at Hays's use in her Preface and some other places of what was then a common practice among writers (and by no means women only) of using "affected modesty" (what Wollstonecraft calls above "vain humility") as a means of deferring criticism, often pleading for shortness of time before publishing, the compelling duties of daily life intruding into the writing process, and, for women often, oppressive domestic duties, poor educational preparation, and the constrictive consequences of a patriarchal society. Anne Bradstreet does this in her "Prologue" to her long poem, The Four Monarchies of the World that appeared in her 1650 volume, The Tenth Muse. The practice continued into the 19th century. Wollstonecraft is right in condemning the practice, for women especially but also for men, for it only deflected from the text itself, which would stand or fall on its own merits when read objectively. Hays knew what the traditional pose required and no doubt welcomed Wollstonecraft's liberating critique and the example she would establish with the publication of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman this same year.