20 November 1795
Mary Hays, 30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, Friday evening, 20 November 1795.1
No 30 – Kirby Street Hatton Garden.
I think, yes! I do think that you refine too much, & that many centuries must elapse ere some of your opinions will afford a proper foundation for practice. What ever capacities may exist, or may possibly be generated, in the human mind, it is certainly at present very imperfect, we must therefore be content to take the bad with the good, &, in chusing our situation be only careful to observe on which side the balance inclines! So far, perhaps, you will agree with me, & will suspect that I have in my head the subject of our last discussion.
You were not contending, I imagine, for the spirit of monastic institutions, neither I suppose would you deny, that the being who is constituted of sense & intellect may feel the voice of nature too strong, to be silenced by artificial precepts. – When we shall have arrived at that state of perfection as to be all mind, or, to stand in no need of law or restraint, your principles will not admit of dispute: but, ’till then, every violation of the institutions of the country in which we reside (I, at present, wave the moral consideration of the subject) must expose us to great & various civil inconveniencies, of which I have observed shocking & inhuman instances. This is an argument which we certainly cannot feel with an equal degree of force, because society has, in these respects, made most unjust, tyrannical, & barbarous, sexual distinctions: distinctions which, if they were not tragical in their consequences, wou’d be contemptible & ridiculous. So
fas, I can sympathise with the distresses of a Calista, & had more of mind dignified her yielding to sense, my sympathy would have been more unmixed: but Lothario was a barbarous coxcomb & an atrocious2 villain, at least, this was the impression which the perusal of the tragedy made upon me: added to which, I was disgusted by the imposition (we must here take into our account the prejudices of society) on the harmless, unsuspecting, Altamont.3 I conceive that there is much of morals involved in his question, though I do not now advert to them. But what humane & benevolent man, uninfluenced by selfish considerations, would wish to subject the woman whom he thought deserving of the highest species of friendship (for this ough^t^ marriage to be) to the worlds scorn? Supposing that she might have sufficient magnanimity (though the circumstances which attend female education render this improbable) to trample on that scorn – still, she must suffer, & sharp wou’d be the conflict, the arduous struggle: beside which, she is not only shunn’d, as if infected by some contagious disorder, by, even, some of the best & worthiest part of society (such has been the controul of prejudice) but, if she possess not an independent fortune, she loses, with the worlds respect, in most cases, the very means of procuring a subsistence, & is thrown either into habitual profligacy, or into a servile dependence on him for whom she has made these expensive sacrifices. I think you must allow, at least, the general resemblance of my picture! These reflections recurred to me with additional force from a conversation that recently took place in a company where I was present. The connexion of Mrs Woolstonecraft with Mr Imlay (which, it is said, has not received a legal sanction) was the subject of discussion.4 Some ladies present, most amiable, sensible, & worthy, women, expressed their concern on a variety of accounts, & especially lamented that it would no longer be proper for them to visit Mrs W. I started, at what I conceived to be bigotry, frankly declaring that it would have no effect upon my conduct, that I had visited her since, & shou’d receive much pleasure in having an opportunity of doing so again. – That, whatever might be the principles that occasioned or the consequences which might ensue from, the step she had taken, it was her self, only, who must be accountable for, or must suffer them, & that I did not conceive a matter so purely personal to be my concern. Every one was liable to be led into mistakes by the illusions of the imagination, or the erring conclusions of the judgement, that we must not expect to find perfection, & while the balance of excellence preponderated we shou’d regulate our esteem in due proportion – that, at present, I only saw in Mrs W—s conduct a breach of civil institution which, no doubt, would bring with it, notwithstanding her superior fortitude & resources, civil inconveniences. My friends mildly observed, that however just might be my reasoning in the abstract, certain situations & circumstances, required certain observances, which I was, only, not aware of from having mix’d but little with society. The truth is, from having been so much the child of seclusion, I am very ignorant of the forms enjoined by the varnish of half civilization, the proof of corruption, & the miserable substitute for virtue, called punctillio, & have always felt inclined to repeat with Shakespeare’s Hamlet – ‘Seems, I know not seems.’5 &c. I have since been told, that the reflection has been suggested (not by any of the party alluded to) “That as Miss Hays is so professed an admirer of Mrs W, it is to be hoped that she does not mean to imitate her conduct.” Here, was an exemplification of my friend’s observations –. If we cannot, then, render society just, surely, willful martyrdom, when no apparent benefit is to be derived from it, is not a duty, especially, when by bringing too hastily forward advanced opinions principles and acting upon them, the acceleration might probably do mischief. I know not whether, in some cases, there may not be bigotry in abstaining too scrupulously from received customs, even Socrates sacrifice[d] a cock to Esculapis,6 also, while we continue to live in every country we are obliged generally to conform to its political institutions; understood as the sovereign will of the majority, wou’d it not be captious to except only in one point, & that, possibly, not the most important? Every thing has its proper season in which it may be brought forward with most advantage; in the present crude state of things your theory reduced to practise wou’d, I suspect, encrease the tide of corruption; at least I think the experiment would be very dangerous. I am even of opinion that your writings have done less good than they might have done, by rousing at once prejudices too various & too powerful; I know many persons who wou’d as soon venture to look upon the Gorgons head7 as trust themselves in company with Mr Godwin. – A professed atheist, say they, a contemner of all laws &c, has no motives to be virtuous, & they draw a frightful picture & persuade themselves that you sat for it. It is in vain that I have contended, with all the ardor that has ever mix’d itself with my feelings, against these cruel & absurd prejudices, that I have endeavour’d to demonstrate that the energies which are thrown into speculation abstract the mind, in proportion, from the objects of sense, that the consequences which they deduce from your principles are such as you wou’d, yourself, disallow, & are the chimeras of their own creation, that they must have been convinced of this had they suffer’d themselves to examine the principles they thus arraign. – It is in vain that I have, alternately, reasoned & remonstrated – for –
“Convince a man against his will
And he’s of the same opinion still.”8
May we not, then I again ask, by endeavoring to do too much, in a given period, defeat our own purposes & effect the less?
But to return to the subject from which I have been digressing (which is merely interesting to me as a speculation, for my plans of this nature – plans, which I confess I have meditated
on with ineffable delight, are all blasted!) The inconveniences, which you ennumerated9 as necessarily attached to the marriage state, apply, in a degree, to friendship, nay to every species of social intercourse. While human beings continue imperfect & liable to error they must make a compact of mutual forebearance; this belongs to humanity & takes place, more or less, in proportion to the progress & improvement of each individual. The affections ^& sentiments^ which arise out of the sympathies of our nature (or, if you prefer the phrase, are generated by our habits) are not the less real, tho’ the supposed excellence on which they are founded shou’d be merely the work of an erroneous fancy: the mind capable of sketching the picture is brought forward by the effort, & sacrifices (as Rousseau observes) every sordid feeling to the imaginary model.10 What ever exalts the passions & raises the imagination gives birth to talents, to great & heroic exertions – would it be desirable to sacrifice all the picturesque & delightful visions which float in the fancy, however illusive? Who wou’d wish for a microscopic eye which should discover, on the apparently polished surface, frightful & gaping chasms? Who wou’d wish for the senses of a Gulliver among the Brogdinagians?11 I confess, for myself, it is necessary to my existence, to be esteemed, beloved, & cherished, yes! I even suspect, for the qualities that I have not! The source of all my pleasures & of all my improvements has been in my attachments – I love to find excellence, to admire, & to emulate, it – when I lose this ardour I shall sink into apathy & lassitude! Hence, I have ever resisted degrading systems. I have no unfavourable opinion of the world, why should I? In the small circle of my acquaintance I have experienced, an hundred-fold, the proportion of kindness & goodness, & tho’ in the lapse of time I may discover, & have sometimes discovered, that I have appreciated objects too favourably, the benefits which I have derived still remain. All enthusiastic feelings go beyond the truth, but without a spark of this living fire, genius, virtue, affection, languishes!12 – I perceive I am in danger of rising into rapsody,13 I therefore, in time, descend.
Your observation respecting constant, domestic, intercourse, tho’ somewhat exaggerated, has some general truth in it, yet, a mind regulated by reason ought to have no ill humours to vent, but I see no particular objection against separate cells provided the parties are independent of each other, can dispense with certain fashionable arrangement, & agree in thinking it the most eligible. You, as a philosopher, it may be, lay less stress on domestic establishments, order, & management, than most other men: to say truth, the expensive style of living, which, in the present age, is conceived necessary on these occasions, has militated powerfully against the freedom, the virtue, & the happiness of mankind.
I dont know whether sudden transitions are allowable in epistolary writing, be that as it may, I find them often very convenient. I thank you for reassuring me respecting the estimation you have form’d of my character, I now begin to reckon, with more certainty, upon your esteem, my vanity often leads me to be diffident of myself in the same degree that I am avaricious of the respect of others. Some calumniators of Mr Godwin say ‘that he flatters women,’ but I will not think that a philosophic reformer can expect to improve one half of the human race, by wil<->^fully^ assisting in the degradation of the other.
Accept, also, my acknowledgements for the encouragement you have given me to prosecute my projected work! I had made a beginning, but having
since engaged, at present in a more certainly productive literary undertaking, must reserve it for a season of more uninterrupted leisure. The epistolary form I conceived the most adapted to my style & habits of composition, but I cou’d not please myself – fictitious correspondance affords me not the stimulus which I ever feel when addressing my friends. Shou’d I proceed I cou’d wish to produce a work that shou’d do me some credit, that should be written under your auspices, & that you should conceive not unworthy of being publickly addressed to you.
I ought not to ask to see you frequently for, beside its being unreasonable, my intellects will be soon exhausted, but while yours appear to me to be inexhaustible I cannot help making the requisition, I can sincerely say you have greatly benefited me, my present way of life, also, accords more with my disposition, I am more employ’d, more amused, & more chearful. I was glad you mentioned Mr Draper,14 because it gave me an opportunity of obliging you. I have much, in my disposition (excuse me) of the vice of gratitude. I wrote immediately to Mr D, who will meet you with pleasure in the vacation, at present every moment of his time is occupied. Mr D has raised himself in society, has a strong & a clear head, much scientific knowledge, & many good qualities, but he wants delicacy of taste & feeling. – you smile! – There are, likewise, some very glaring inconsistencies in his conduct: he is, besides, the most unqualified admirer of himself, & as little apt to allow merit in others, as any person I know, not that he is of a destructive or splenetic temper, far from it, but his sense of admiration is absorbed in the contemplation of his own acquirements, oweing in some measure, perhaps, to his having risen very superior to those who were originally his equals & having had but few opportunities of comparing himself with his superiors. I have know[n] him long, but I have not discover’d in him those social qualities of the heart (notwithstanding all he says of having been in love) which please me. He had communicated knowledge to me, which I consider as the first & highest of all gifts, & I was disposed to feel grateful, but not a single advance has he ever made in friendly cordiality, & his manners were as frigid the fiftieth time of meeting as the first: he boasts of stoicism, his sinews are of brass & his nerves of iron: the only time I ever heard him speak of being at all moved, was in accidentally hearing the miserable groans & cries of a soldier suffering under execrable martial discipline, &, even, this he minutely described – a description that harrowed up my soul – with an unaltered voice & gesture.
I am almost ashamed of the length of my letter, but I will not add to it by apologies – Remember, you are to bring Mr Holcroft to visit me, let it be to drink tea,15 & favor me with a line of information that I may preserve myself disengaged, tho’ I wou’d not wish you to suppose that because you found me in company when you last favor’d me with a call that I am generally engaged in an afternoon,16 for, I do assure you, this is by no means the case. I shall always be glad to see you, at any time that best suits you, but, I confess, I feel most disposed for conversation towards evening. My eyes and hand are quite wearied, I fear my writing will be scarcely legible, it is time I relieved both you & myself – Farewell!
Friday evening 11 o clock – Nov 20th – 95.
Address: W Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Chalton Street.
Postmark: 21 November 1795, 2 o’clock Afternoon.
Post pd 2d
1 MS MH 0009, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 407-13.
2 attrocious] MS
3 Lothario, Calista, and Altamont are characters from Nicholas Rowe's tragedy, The Fair Penitent (1703).
4 Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828) was an American writer, businessman, and diplomat who became known in the 1790s for three things: his influential Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1792), his novel The Emigrants (1793), and his brief relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft. They met in Paris in 1793 where he was working for the American Embassy and she was reporting on the French Revolution. Their passion appeared mutual at the beginning, but Imlay began to absent himself from Paris, leaving Wollstonecraft alone at the height of the Reign of Terror. She escaped imminent danger by registering at the Embassy as Imlay's wife. She joined him at Havre in 1794, where she gave birth to their daughter, Fanny. Imlay soon left for London and Wollstonecraft returned to Paris. When he did not come for her, she returned to London in April 1794 on her own, only to discover Imlay living with an actress, producing her first attempt at suicide. Between April and October 1795 she traveled in Scandinavia, but upon her return found Imlay living with yet another woman, prompting a second attempt at suicide on the part of Wollstonecraft that October. By December 1795, reconciliation with Imlay looked hopeless (it would officially end the following March), opening the door for the resumption of her acquaintance with Godwin through the assistance of Mary Hays.
5 See Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2, l. 76.
6 See Plato's Phaedo, taken from Socrates last words to Crito that he (Socrates) owed a cock to Asclepius.
7 The Gorgon was a mythological female figure who hair was composed of living snakes and whose visage was so terrible as to turn to stone any who looked directly into her face.
8 Though often quoted in the form Hays uses above, the lines probably owe their origin to Samuel Butler's Hudibras, Part 3, canto III, ll. 547-48.
9 ennumerated] MS
10 Reference taken from Rousseau's Emile.
11 The "microscopic eye" is taken from Pope's Essay on Man, Epistle 1, ll. 193-94; Brobdingnagians are the people on whose island Gulliver lands in Book II of Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
12 See Brooke's Emily Montague, 4.71.
13 raphsody] MS
14 Rev. William Draper (see above, Worthington to Hays, 17 January 1794).
15 Godwin will call on Hays on 25 November, and they have tea together in Kirby Street on 2 December, this time with Holcroft and Stephen Weaver Browne, at which time they “talk of causes, etc.”
16 Godwin writes that among the “company” at their previous meeting were "miss Hayes, w. Hills etc.” This would be Mary Hays and her younger sister, Elizabeth, and their older sister, Sarah Hays Hills (1756-1836), a Calvinistic Baptist turned Independent who most might well have remembered Godwin the Dissenter (he had once been an Independent minister) but who would not have found appealing conversations with Godwin the Sceptic.