1 October 1795
Mary Hays, 30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, to William Godwin, [25 Chalton Street, Somers Town], 1 October 1795.1
Octbr 1st – 95. No 30. Kirby Street. Hatton Garden.
Your last obliging letter has restored me to freedom, & enabled me again to take up my pen & scribble to you without reserve & without apprehension. I suspected that philosophy might have its dogmas as well as religion, that there was even a possibility of being bigotted against bigottry, & that in avoiding Sylla we might be wrecked upon Charybdis:2 but you have convinced me that I may yet venture to oppose your sentiments without hazard of forfeiting your esteem or incurring your displeasure.
My judgement respecting the defects of your favourite authors (for I do not disallow either their virtues or their powers) is not materially altered: but I suspect that, in stating my objections, my meaning might be involved in some obscurity. I think, with Rousseau, that on all subjects, the plainest language is the most delicate & that simplicity is true refinement: this simple majesty I have, with many others, admired in the language of the Jewish & Christian scriptures. I am not fastidiously offended with any of the writers in question for conveying their meaning in obvious terms; neither would a gross idea have been the more acceptable to me from being cloathed in the garb of artificial refinement. Also, on the subject of morals, I have an idea, my opinions would differ but little from your own. Notions of virtue, originating in monastic institutions, appear to me, when contrasted with profligacy to be but vice in its opposite extreme.
I regard chastity as an important branch of temperance, yet I likewise suspect that, on this subject many mistakes have been made, mistakes that have rendered the generality of men dissolute, & have divided women, with but few exceptions, into two classes of victims – Those who are necessitated by the worst kind of prostitution to exchange their persons for a subsistence: (for this traffic is no uncommon basis even of matrimonial arrangements) and those whom superior spirit & taste, or the want of meretricious allurement, condemn to the severe task of stifling every natural affection, & of exposing themselves, unprotected, weakened by education & habit, to insult if not to penury.
After speaking thus freely you will not accuse me of Lady-like affectation, still less, I hope of licentious construction, when I, yet, object to many parts of the writings of Rousseau & Stern, for having a tendency to introduce ideas & excite emotions unfavorable to that equal & healthful temperature of the senses & passions which is necessary to preserve the intellect free & unclouded. The mere ribaldry of Tristram Shandy is, in my opinion, on every account more censurable, for it has not even the merit of simplicity. Also, notwithstanding all that may be alledged respecting mistakes in morals, the apparent pleasure with which some other celebrated writers have, not only represented, in delineating the human character existing circumstances but, dwelt upon & exaggerated disgusting images, can convey to the Reader no idea of that philosophical elevation of mind which only removes man from the brute. Your exalted system, which is ultimately to subject the sensitive to the intellectual nature of man, is scarcely to be promoted by such means.
Still, permit me to repeat, that in pointing out the great faults of great characters a general censure is by no means implied, nor neit^her^ am I so tasteless, nor so unjust, as not to acknowledge their merits, even though I shou’d not allow full credit to their martrydom! – I never read the works you recommend but I should be happy to have an opportunity of so doing – Will you think me very reprehensible if I tell you that on the subject of martyrdom, whether religious, political, or moral, I am inclined to scepticism? so many motives go to make up an action –
“What crops of wit & honesty appear
From spleen, from obstinacy, hate or fear!”3
I do not, as you accuse me, make taste the basis of virtue, but I cannot help thinking that a cultivated taste may frequently preserve us from mean & sordid vices. I am, also, doubtful whether it may be necessary to refine quite so much, as you seem to do, respecting disinterestedness: at least, I can form no other idea of disinterestedness than that from habit we lose sight of the intermediate links of the chain, & love virtue as the miser does his money, originally for what it would procure us, ultimately for its own sake. These are the only ideas that harmonise with my present system of philosophy, convince me that it is ill founded & unconsequent[i]al & I will gladly, after the examination, exchange it for yours.
I have said that I was a materialist & I would say so still if I knew what I meant: but, as I am very ignorant of the nature of matter, I will only say, that man appears to me to be but of one substance, capable of receiving from external impressions sensible ideas, successively formed into various combinations & trains, carried on, by means of sympathy & association with mechanical exactness, in an infinite series of causes & effects. Were I to speak as a religionist I should add – That the God of Providence either subjected our minds to mechanical principles, or leads & governs us by the circumstances with which he has surrounded us; that his power implies his goodness; & that, after the struggle of the passions has unfolded our reason, we shall be gradually prepared for greater & still encreasing perfection. – That we ought to regard the vicious in no other light than we do the diseased, & that it is a part of the duty assigned to us to aid the general effort for improvement & restoration. In speaking as a philosopher my system would not greatly differ. I should only be at a loss to reconcile moral disorder, or to discover & comprehend the first mover.4
Since you will not write, converse with me freely when I shall have the pleasure of seeing you: Point out to me the weaknesses & the defects of my principles, prove to me wherein they fail: but after destroying my fabric, if it indeed be void of foundation, allow me to claim your assistance in erecting one more consistent, more solid, more consolatory!
My present residence (in which I purpose remaining during the winter) is, I should think, more in your walks, & will I hope procure me the pleasure of more frequent conversations with you.5
I certainly ought to be satisfied with your definition of friendship, but on this, as on so many other, subjects I am not always reasonable.
Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Chalton Street
Postmark: 3 October 1795, 12 o’clock Noon.
Post pd 2d.
1 MS MH 0007, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 398-401.
2 The sea monster opposite the whirlpool of Charydis from Greek mythology.
3 Lines from Pope's Essay on Man, Epistle II, ll. 185-86.
4 Hays had previously set forth some of her ideas on materialism in Letters XII and XIII in Letters and Essays (138-70).
5 Hays moved across the Thames to 30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, the residence of Ann Cole, between 2 September and the beginning of October. Hays would remain at Kirby Street much longer than one winter, with Godwin making many visits to her quarters during the next two years.