5 November 1795
Mary Hays, 30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden, to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, 5 November 1795.1
No 30 – Kirby Street. Hatton Garden. Nov 5. 95.
I have been much indisposed since I saw you,2 & being but little accustomed to bodily pain, bear it with a very ill grace. Nature (or circumstances) has given to me an exquisitely susceptible texture of nerves; both in mind & body I am alive to every passing event, the very air sometimes wounds me, & I find hostility in the looks of all I meet. I have often repeated with the poet –
“There’s not a breeze impels the passive air
But brews a tempest in a breast like mine!["]3
These dispositions are too apt to generate selfishness, by absorbing us in our own feelings: I consider you as my mentor, teach me how to rectify them. Another cause has likewise contributed to occasion a longer interval of silence than my inclination would have dictated, for I like to write to you, tho’ I have nothing to say, in the hope that my letter may procure me a visit. An accident happened to the fore-finger of my right hand, which, for some time, disabled me from holding a pen, or, at least, from writing intelligibly, that is now heal’d, but my health is not yet, perfectly, re-established.
I was thinking, while dressing, after you left me the last time you call’d, how many faults you had discovered in me, & led me to discover in myself, in the course of our short acquaintance. I am almost afraid to enumerate4 them – Bigottry, obstinacy, selfishness, ambition, indolence, sophistry, presumption, vanity, & inconsistency. I fear lest you should be discouraged from the arduous task of attempting my reformation, for I begin, myself, to suspect that I have more tenacity of temper than I was aware of. But you will, at least, allow my claims to some share of modesty & ingenuousness5 when I declare, that so far from being offended by this representation of myself, which you have given me, it has only tended to render me still more desirous of further intercourse with you, & more solicitous of gaining your esteem, the hope of which, notwithstanding the frightful mirror you have held up to me, I do not yet relinquish. I like your sincerity, &, to afford you a still greater proof of my own, I will afford ^give^ you a little more ^farther^ insight into my character, though it will make yet more against me: but we cannot expect to have our disorders heal’d by the Physician,6 however skilful he may be, while we conceal any of their symptoms. Even my ingenuousness, then I doubt, has in it a mixture of policy, & my humility is strongly tinctured with pride. I had, early in life, frequently observed, that the solicitude with which people endeavour’d to conceal their failings from others, served but to sharpen enquiry & aggravate censure, as there is a sort of activity in the human mind that incites it to search the more eagerly after that which is the most studiously conceal’d. I therefore resolved to spare myself this fruitless labour, & to make a kind of composition with, my vices, I fear you wou’d call them, but I thought they were entitled to a gentler appellation. I was always enamoured with the beauties of truth (tho’ I am by no means sure that I never swerved from its dictates) & I conceived frankness to be an essential branch of this virtue: I therefore spoke freely of myself & my foibles, conceiving that by the confession I disarm’d the severer sagacity of others, & made the expiation. And when, in an hour of closer examination, I have turned my eye inward, I have concluded that in the mixt nature of man, many frailties were engrafted on the stock of virtues, & that by harshly eradicating7 the one, we might destroy the ferment that gave existence to the other. I had been told that the earth was most fertile in the vicinity of a volcano, that in hot climates which produced spices, poisonous plants were also nurtured & ripened, likewise, that the rich soil was, from its luxuriance, most productive of weeds. To compare & find resemblances amuses my imagination, I am fond of analogical reasoning, & I applied these observations to mind. Neither am I yet convinced that they are absolutely void of foundation, but I should have no objection to the admitting of such a conviction which would strengthen my wavering faith respecting the perfectibility of human nature.
And now for my pride, I love praise, love it with an insatiable ardor, but I have lately grown somewhat more fastidious on the subject. 'Tis true, you have detected in me many faults, of some of which I was myself unconscious, but you have also mixed with your censure some commendation, the truth of which neither your principles, nor your reproofs, will allow me to doubt; & the pleasure which this has given me has been enhanced by my opinion of your sagacity & judgement. That you think me capable of entering into your ideas, & worth reclaiming, is in itself sufficiently flattering: & this, added to the gentle manner in which you have reprehended my mistakes, has preserved me from being wounded by those reprehensions, though I hope it will not render them the less effectual.
But a new difficulty here, occurs to me, I have always disliked the systems both of religion & philosophy that gave a degrading representation of human nature. As a religionist, I have conceived that the calumny glanced at the being who formed that nature, & that, in fact, this favorite topic of the church, with all its scholastic distinctions, was little better than pious blasphemy. As a philosopher, I conceived the human mind to be endowed with exquisite powers both mental & moral, & as having admirable capabilities of improvement. Now, if this be true, & man, instead of being a vile, is a glorious being I feel inclined to suspect, when I compare myself with others, that the portrait you have sketched for me is overcharged. For, freely as I have avowed my faults, I must also, comparatively,8 lay claim to some virtues, virtues which, now appear to me, scarcely compatible with the dark shadings you have given. If then, I must conclude myself to be a creature thus made up of imperfections, what must I think of the rest of the world, the majority of which it wou’d be difficult to persuade me where better. I have a strong repugnance, as I before observed, to these debasing systems, nor do I think them reconcilable with yours. I must read your work again, in the second edition, for I find one rapid perusal of it was very insufficient to enable me to enter into its principles, hence, perhaps, the cause why I perplex you & bewilder myself!
I have been thinking over the plan which you hinted to me, when I last saw you, & it is probable that I may attempt putting it into execution. Shou’d I do so, would you allow me to transmit the sheets to you from time to time, that I might avail myself of your observations as I went on? If this request is unreasonable you have only to say so!
May I hope, ere long, you will drink tea, or spend an hour or two some evening, with me?9 Your conversation, beside the hope of improvement, is to me an intellectual entertainment. I find so much finesse, so much bigottry, so many prejudices, & so much trifling, in society, so much, in short, of everything that is artificial, that I enjoy a calm, cool, philosophic investigation. I will say, with Madame Roland, I have no objection to Atheists, for at least they are reasoners.10 I must defer my call upon you till I recover a firmer tone of health. An ingenious young man of my acquaintance solicits to accompany me, but then, it seems, we must take a sunday morng.11
Since you will not reply to my letters, in writing, I think you shou’d bring them with you, for I sometimes forget their contents, &, after you have left me, always recollect something unsaid on which I wished to hear your opinion.
Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Chalton Street
Postmark: 6 November 1795, [morning].
1 MS MH 0027, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 405-07.
2 Godwin visited Hays on 23 October.
3 Source unknown.
4 ennumerate] MS
5 ingennuousness] MS
8 comparitively] MS
9 Godwin will visit her in Kirby Street on 8 November and take tea with her on 10 November.
10 Reference is to Madame Jean-Marie Roland (1754-93), a supporter of the French Revolution who was executed on 8 November 1793.
11 William Frend?