Mary Hays, 30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, 13 October 1795.1
Octbr 13th 1795: No 30. Kirby Street Hatton Garden
I always see you with pleasure & am sorry when you take your leave.2 Your conversation excites the curiosity & the activity of my mind: yet, so weak am I, that the unexpected entrance of a friend throws me into (shall I use a female phrase?) a flutter of spirits &, not unfrequently, involves my ideas in a temporary confusion. This, I make no doubt, you must have observed. My mind & constitution, some years since, received a shock, the effects of which I suspect I shall never wholly recover.3 Naturally (if you will allow of the unphilosophic expression, for I cannot at present recollect one more appropriate?) susceptible of strong impressions, a peculiar train of circumstances called these feelings into exercise, & privacy & retirement fixed the fatal, connected, chain. Like a skilful physician, I can retrace the causes, the symptoms, the progress, & thoroughly understand the nature of my mind’s disorders, but the remedies are not within my power. My philosophy serves but to convince me of the inveterate nature of reitera
tated habits; I do not say that they are absolutely invincible; but, I believe, in some cases the leopard may as well change his spots or the ethiopian his skin.4 Yet, what I can do I have done, & still continue to do. I do not cherish dissatisfaction from thinking that it argues a superior degree of refinement, neither am I constitutionally morose or gloomy: on the contrary, the purity of my temperament has resisted the effects of my mind’s depression: for, though sometimes lively, I am seldom cheerful, and yet I at present enjoy, without being very robust, almost uninterrupted health. I set out in life upon very wrong principles; with (what Mrs Macauley terms) the humour of being “wonderfully delighted”;5 I refused to [be] pleased with any thing that did not call forth strong emotion, (this disposition was foster’d, if not generated, by an early passion for novels & romances) that did not interest either my heart or my understanding. I was an enthusiast in friendship, an enthusiast in love, an enthusiast in my desire of knowledge! The result was, that my heart was pierced through with many sorrows, & my understanding, alternately, harrassed with doubt & bewilder’d in error. The spring of life is now past, & it has been “worn in anguish,” the summer is passing & will quickly fade, age is approaching to blunt my powers & destroy my faculties, and the dreary prospect will, perhaps, close in the tomb. I love action, but I have but little to employ myself in; I love society, but my sex & acquired delicacy, & still more the narrowness of my fortune, deprives me of this resource. I would travel, I would change the scene, I would put myself in the way of receiving new impressions, I would sluice of[f] my thoughts into various channels, I would place myself in new situations, I would propose to myself new labours, & engage with ardor in new pursuits – All this I should prescribe to another in my circumstances, but all this is, to me, unattainable. Oh! how impotent is mere reasoning against reiterated feeling! the examination of my own mind would, alone, have been sufficient to convince me of its mechanism. Will you admit of this free communication of sentiment? There are not many persons to whom I dare venture to disclose my heart, few would understand me, & still fewer would sympathise with me. You have on many subjects listened to me with indulgence, & this has inspired me with confidence, has encouraged me to speak freely. It is because you are a philosopher that I can unfold my mind without reserve or apprehension: you are able to trace, & to investigate, the sources of its disorders & its mistakes. I have found it necessary, however irksome to the ingenuousness of my temper, to practise more reserve with those by whom, from our having but few ideas in common, my meaning might be wrested, & my sentiments liable to be misconstrued. The step which I have, at present taken has exposed me to some animadversion & censure; I feel a degree of solicitude that my motives should not be disapproved by you, because I respect your judgement, rely on your sincerity, & am desirous of your esteem. I believe I hinted to you that, having been disappointed in all my plans, having too much sensibility & too little fortitude to support the disappointment with equanimity, I was unwilling to sadden the declining age of my Mother a beloved parent, & the opening prospects of a younger sister, by an habitual melancholy which I was unable to controul, & to which the privacy & uniformity of our situation afforded but little relief. Beside which, my mother felt some uneasiness from, what she conceived to be, a dangerous freedom in my opinions: It was impossible ^for^ a temper like mine to conceal those opinions in the familiar intercourse of domestic life: – She dreaded the effects of them upon the minds of the younger branches of the family; she listened to the conversation of my friends with apprehension; & complained that I had unsettled her mind, & distressed it by painful & harassing suggestions. Sixty years associations are scarcely to be disunited & if shaken, perhaps, would produce no beneficial effects. Added to which, my days passed on too invariably the same, ^my^ mind often stagnated, I wanted outward stimulus to rouse it, I felt myself in a situation that absolutely seemed to require change (such are our imperfections) even though it should be for the worse. So circumstanced, I seized (I confess for a sort of ostensible pretence) the opportunity of my family’s meditating a further remove from the metropolis, to make trial of a scheme that had frequently occurred to me. And thus have I (as the world would say & as some of my friends say) very foolishly thrown myself out of the asylum of my youth, & exchanged a life of what is called easy indolence, that is, one of worldly cares, for one more exposed & less assured. It has been asked of me, & I have put the question to myself, what benefits I propose to reap from this eccentric step? Shall I reply, a kind of, I know not what, satisfaction in the idea of being free, a wish to break by the necessity of greater of exertion, (I acknowledge the weakness which this implies) & even by local change, certain fatal, connected, trains of thinking, a desire of strengthening my mind by standing alone, & of relieving the relations I love of the burthen of my wayward fancies, also, I will own, a latent hope of enjoying, occasionally, more of the intercourse & conversation that pleases me.6
Tell me, frankly, do these reasons appear to you satisfactory, for the step is by no means too decided for retraction, or do you likewise think I have judged wrong? I have been, in some measure, fortunate in the situation I have chosen, my apartments, consisting of a parlour, chamber & little dressing room, are commodious, & the terms reasonable.
M rs The Mistress of the house is a decent, well-behav’d woman, of some education; she carries on the profession of her late father, who was an engraver of exchequer bills, bank drafts &c; her time therefore, like mine, is fully occupied. She has never before let out any part of her house, of course, has not acquired the mercenary manners too common, I believe, on such occasions. I dine with her, which makes a break in the day, all the little attendance I want her servant affords me, beside which, at the intervals of business, a clever lad about 12 years old has orders to go of any message or errand for which I may have occasion.7
Is not this detail of particulars presuming on your friendship? I confess I feel a pleasure in this presumption, though, after what you have written on the subject, some vanity is implied in saying so. The circumstances that I have been enumerating,8 however unimportant in the eye of philosophy, have to me, who have been sheltered too much like a hot-house plant, some value; I should have added another, which may perhaps provoke a smile, that my landlady is as nice, as regular, & as methodical, as myself, & that her behaviour is observant, attentive, & obliging.
And now I am going to take with you a still greater freedom. I have said that employment is necessary both for my spirits & to make some little addition to my income. Dr Gregory9 has been kind to me on this subject, but there are too many intervals in my present occupation, & too many uncertainties in my future expectations, to satisfy my mind. Many persons, with the best intentions, afford hopes which they really mean to fulfil, but the performance is dilatory, it keep’s not pace with the ardor & rapidity of the expectant’s disposition. In the little intercourse I have had with you I have, thought I have, observed a promptness & punctuality which particularly accords with my principles & temper. Should it lay in your way, to assist & occupy this restless spirit of mine, I trust you will not refuse your aid! There are two sorts of writers, I am told, one who live to write, the other, who write to live; the former I cannot afford to do, the latter I should despair of doing; something, I wish for, between them both, that would amuse &, at the same time, render my situation easier. I have been applying closely to my french to qualify myself for translating, and, for the present, I could wish to engage in some work of this kind. I am very ignorant of literature, as a business, & would most willingly put myself under your direction; my wishes are modest, & my expectation moderate; but the constant exercise of my faculties is necessary to preserve me from sinking into that painful lassitude, that want of the radical principle of happiness (the ha
viving something to do, to hope & to fear) which is of all states the most intolerable. I would rather, as the late Dr Johnson express’d it, be worn to death with scouring than eaten up with rust.10 Something of all this I had meditated to say to you when I saw you, but I had not sufficient courage. I must not ask for a line in reply, but I will hope for an early & a longer visit! Whenever you are inclined to relax, & will favor me with a call, be assured you are confer’ing pleasure &, I trust, improvement, for, indeed, if I am really ‘obstinate’ I know not myself! Yet, on all occasions, speak to me with perfect freedom, I shall never think you “rude” because I am convinced you will never design to be so.
I flatter myself that on many, tho’ not on all, subjects, my sentiments have a general conformity to yours: & this I conceive to be paying myself no little compliment. The topic we have lately touched upon, that of morals, is a very interesting one to me, & one respecting which I have long entertained many suspicions. But I will no longer, at present, intrude upon your time.
Address: W Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Chalton Street.
Postmark: 14 October 1795, 8 o’clock Morn.
Post paid. 2d
1 MS MH 0008, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 401-05; Walker, Idea of Being Free 199-203.
2 Godwin visited Hays at 30 Kirby Street on 12 October, the day before the above letter.
3 Reference is to Hays's engagement to John Eccles, which ended with his tragic death in 1780.
4 Taken from Jeremiah 13:23.
5 Catherine Macaulay [née Sawbridge] [later Graham] (1731-91) was a celebrated historian, poet, and political writer best known for her multi-volume History of England from the Accession of James I, to that of the Brunswick Line, (1763-83), an achievement that challenged the conventional opinion among the literati that history was not a proper subject for women writers. Macaulay’s praise of the Commonwealth’s republican ideals, her sympathies toward the American colonists, and her calls for parliamentary reform in her own day caused even the Rockingham Whigs to distance themselves from her radical voice. Her political position in the mid-1770s, however, was shared by many Dissenters, with many ministers publishing political sermons at that time that reflected Macaulay’s opinions. Dissenters welcomed Macaulay’s bold criticisms of the established powers, both in church and state, such as this statement from her History of England: "That the people might learn to kiss the rod of power with devotion and, becoming slaves by principle, reverence the yoke, priests were instructed to teach speculative despotism, and graft on religious affections systems of civil tyranny" ([London: E. and C. Dilly, 1769], vol. 1, p. 348). Her Letters on Education (London: C. Dilly, 1790) was also influential in terms of furthering the discussion concerning women's education, something Wollstonecraft had previously written about and Hays would do in her Appeal to the Men of Great Britain (1798). The quotation above may be from Macaulay's Letters (p. 49). See also Bridget Hill, Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
6 This paragraph is particularly rich with biographical details on Hays's life in the autumn of 1795. She had been living for the past year in the home of John and Joanna Dunkin, Hays's eldest sister, at 2 Paragon Place, along what was then known as the Surrey Road (Kent Road today), a large home built by the architect Michael Searles. The Dunkins' wealth increased dramatically between 1780 and 1790, and by 1795 John Dunkin would have been considered wealthy (hence, Hays's comment above about exchanging "a life of what is called easy indolence . . . for one more exposed & less assured"). Godwin and others visited Hays in the Dunkins's home, and apparently their conversations (and reputations, most likely) gave them and Mrs. Hays (always an orthodox Calvinist and Baptist, like the Dunkins) considerable distress. The homes in the Paragon were spacious, enough for nine Dunkin children, servants, and Mary Hays, though clearly such a large household would have provoked from the aspiring writer complaints about a lack of "privacy" or personal space. The Dunkins were preparing to move to an even more palatial home at Champion Hill, near Denmark Hill, Camberwell, where he would live close to the wealthy doctor, Jonathan Coakley Lettsom, who ministered to the dying John Eccles in 1780; Benjamin Tomkins, a member at the Baptist congregation in Maze Pond and a relation of the poet Mary Steele of Broughton; and by 1803 Sarah Norton Biggs (1768-1834), schoolteacher and niece of Thomas Mullett (he will later move to Denmark Hill), a close friend of Mary Steele and Anthony Robinson who would also become known to Hays and Crabb Robinson.
7 Ann Cole, daughter of George Cole, printer and engraver, resided at 30 Kirby Street (also called Great Kirby Street), Hatton Garden, after 1790. A William Cole, her relation, was a printer/engraver first at the Crown, Great Kirby Street, c. 1765, and later in Newgate Street. George Cole died in January 1795, aged 72. Ann Cole was listed as an engraver/printer at 22 Hatton Garden in 1802, where Mary Hays lived for a time with her.
8 ennumerating] MS
9 George Gregory (1754-1808) was an Anglican minister at the Foundling Hospital, London, and editor for a time at the Critical Review, the New Annual Register, the Biographia Britanica, and the Analytical Review (1791-99). Hays contributed several reviews and essays to the the Monthly Magazine and the Analytical Review between 1795 and 1800. For the texts of these reviews, see Periodical Contributions.
10 Lines appear to be from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, I.2.219-21.