14-20 February 1796

Mary Hays, [Little John Street], to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, Sunday evening, [14 February] to Saturday morning [20 February] [1796].1

Sunday evening.


     How is it, my friend, that after so many conversations & so many letters, we do not seem thoroughly to comprehend each other? Permit me to state to you, in a few words, the sum of my notions of philosophy & morals, & then to draw the inference from them, which, I conceive, apply to my own case! Ever talking of myself, will you not be wearied of this exhaustless theme? When you are, be sincere, & I will change my topic, or be silent: but my mind has lately been so strongly agitated, that a never ending succession of ideas pour in upon it & struggle for utterance: or else, which is most probable, I repeat the same sentiment again & again, varying only in a slight degree its form & mode of expression.        

       The system2 which I adopt recommends itself to me by its simplicity, it is properly a science, because every proposition into which it branches may be resolved into one original principle – the desire of pleasure, or the abhorrence of pain. Nature designed her children to be happy, morality, then, is not from heaven, but for earth; it consists in reciprocal duties, in promoting, to the utmost of our power, individual felicity, of which general is constituted – felicity, the only true end of existence! – All notions of morals which do not tend to this are spurious. I grieve, that, in the present distemper’d state of civilization, a perpetual clashing of interests cuts up by the roots all the sympathies of life, converts man into a beast of prey & the world into a wilderness, & renders this rule, so clear, so simple in itself, difficult to practise. Men do right when pursuing interest & happiness, it argues no depravity (this is the fable of superstition) it is the force of nature. – My heart yearns to believe, that the period will arrive, when my head is laid in the dust, that this great truth, clearly understood, will new model society, &, with but rare exceptions, will render the pursuit of individual, comparible with that of general, welfare. So far, I trust, you will agree with me, but now for my inferences!

      You call upon me to be happy, the advice is benevolent, I wish to embrace it, & I ask you to point out the means? Is it glory you wish to propose to me? I grant it is a dazzling object but my weak sight shrinks from its rays. A few human beings, only, in the present state of things, are form’d to take their place among this high order of beings, so peculiar is the combination of circumstances necessary to produce these superior minds! I feel my powers inadequate to the effort, a high rank in the temple of fame I have no prospect of attaining, a lower one does not sufficiently stimulate my ambition to make it a primary pursuit, we never vigorously pursue an object conceived to be absolutely out of our reach. The happiness I sought tho’ certainly of an inferior nature, was adapted to that indisposition which every event of my life, the education both of design & accident, had fitted me for. Twice I believed it almost within my grasp, & twice it was snatched from me, with an accumulation of aggravating circumstances.3 Having, then never realized my plans, having never had an experience of their fallacy, imagination, of course, had her full play, & brought forward, as usual, all the glowing colours, throwing the shades into the background. You tell me, & other wise men have said the same, that there are disappointments in, as well as of, attainment. Be it so, the first ^last^ I have experienced & am smarting under, the last ^first^, having never experienced, I do not clearly conceive: how then, do you expect to overcome the vivid, by the fainter, impression? My situation is now, that of destitution – I stand as on a wide plain, bounded on all sides by the horizon: none of the objects, which I see within these limits, can fix my attention – some are so lofty, my eyes ake to look up to them, others so low, I disdain to stoop for them. What then am I to do? I want a substitute, for the mind must have an object, but where am I to gain it? I have sought for happiness in love, it is an illusion, say you, perhaps so, but I have only your word for it, I have had of this no experience! – But suppose me convinc’d, for what am I to change it: I have already given you my sentiment of glory, philanthropy, the love of all mankind, is implied in them, I wish them well, with all my heart, (but the object is too vast, has too much magnitude, for my grasp) I can do little for them, they still less for me – where then is the sympathy which binds me to them? No, mankind, collectively, are an abstraction to me, which floats in my understanding, but reaches not my heart! You, we will say, are a philosopher, a man of first-rate talents, your writings will live to posterity, & the anticipation of this will console you for present persecution & injustice, shou’d you be call’d to encounter them. I am a woman, I mean by this, that education has given me a sexual character. – It is true, I have risen superior to the generality of my sex, I am not a mere fine lady, a domestic drudge, or a doll of fashion, I can think, write, reason, converse with men & scholars, & despise many petty, feminine4 prejudices. But I have not the talents for a legislator or a reformer of the world, I have still many shrinking delicacies & female foibles, that unfit me for rising to arduous heights. With these convictions, I repeat, glory, with me, will never be a primary object – The same arguments may be applied to the pursuit of every species of ambition, & to seek wealth I am still more unfitted. Where, then, shall I find this object to call forth my exertions, & preserve me from languor & apathy? Shall I love again, & subject myself to a third disappointment? this wou’d be hazardous & might be fatal. I am not now girlish young, nor beautiful – Men, I suspect, are influenced only by their senses, the love I feel, & wou’d inspire, they are incapable of. – This, then, you wou’d hardly advise! – Beside, like Rousseau’s Julia,5 strong, individual, attachment, annihilated, in my eyes, every man in the creation – for him I loved (while I loved him) was something more, all the rest, something less. Are then his qualities so high & peerless? you ask – I answer, & grieve while I answer, No! – But, in the commencement of my attachment, I took many things for granted, & judged thro’ other eyes than my own – Nor did I discover, that I had made any mistakes till association & habit had made my affection disinterested.

       We will now suppose, that generated by a similar process, you love glory disinterestedly, I, a frail & erring being. – You exult, & with reason, in the superiority of your choice – & I blush – but still I sigh! By exchanging our objects, you wou’d be a loser & I a gainer – Be it so! But the change wou’d, perhaps, be, to both, equally impracticable. My pursuit, being ardent, has call’d forth energies & talents suitable to it – yours has done the same. They are streams, rising from the same fountain, but parting at their source & winding different ways – Yours, makes its way up the steep ascent, mixes with the mountain torrents, swells into a rapid river, & pours its accumulated waters into the boundless ocean. Mine, glided gently thro’ flowry meadows & wou’d have fertilised their banks, but a rough blast swept over its channel, drying its scanty rills, scorching suns drew from it exhalations, thorns & brambles were thrown into it, impeding & choking its course, while its exhaust^ed^ remains settle in a stagnated pool.

       I am serious, when the present fermentation of my mind subsides, this is emblematical of the fate which awaits me. – Nor can I, at present, see the means to avert it.           

       Again, you advise, various, rational, pursuit – this is vague, you must state particulars – I read, I write, I converse, I walk – but all this is insipid without an end to which to refer it. To what purpose am I improving myself? I can do little towards mending the world, & for that little shall probably meet with reproach & malignity, instead of respect & esteem. (This has already been the case with a beloved friend of mine,6 women labour under peculiar and appropriate disadvantages.) I have no children in whom to live again in whom to perpetuate my virtues & acquirements – I shall never experience those sweet sensations of which my heart is form’d so susceptible! I may be esteem’d, you say – It is a cold word – I want to be beloved – my ardent & exquisite sensibilities hourly prey on myself! Friendship I grant, has its balms, it is my principle consolation – but the more I see of life, the more does distrust mingle its alloy even with the cordial – No common interest unites me with my friends – already I have made gross mistakes, my judgement has been but too fallible, & my confidence in humanity begins to totter!

      I repeat, incessantly, whence came I, whither am I going, & to what does all this tend?

                                    Mary Hays


      Saturday morn. It is a week since the preceding was written & laid by – it was intended for you, therefore you shall have it. I had hoped to have seen you before this time, but you do not think a mind so sunk in absurdity worth reclaiming, & you are right! I am sinking fast into the state described by Rousseau – of a being, burthensome to itself & useless to others. I thank you for the benevolent efforts you have already made – but I repent of the confidence I have reposed in you – I have tried it, but find it impracticable – I am its victim!

       Let those who would avoid contumely & misery, be politic, fair & open proceedings render them no match for mankind – let them veil their hearts in impenetrable <–> the dictates of experience!

       I am soul-sick! I am not yet sufficiently humbled. The next time you visit me tell me of all my faults – my proud heart swells with a consciousness of worth – assist me in a severe self-examination. Is it true that – the late transactions of my life – transactions remember’d with loathing & abhorrence – I have only been the aggressor? You are a cool looker on – your passions have not been engaged, you therefore are competent, to resolve this question – & you will resolve it with truth. My mind is no longer the residence of mild & gentle affections – it is agitated by a whirlwind of haughty & contrasting emotions – I wou’d not live always – life is a tragic farce! Adieu, my friend,

                                                                         M H.


Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town  | No 25 Chalton Street

Postmark: 20 February 1796, 2 o’clock afternoon.

Post pd 2d

1 MS MH 0014, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 433-36.

2 The system of human psychology and development posited by Lavater in his A Treatise on Man and De l'Esprit, some of which also appears in her essay in the Monthly Magazine 3 (1797), 193-95.

3 Her experiences with John Eccles and William Frend.

4 femenine] MS

5 Rousseau's Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) appeared the same year in England as Eloisa: or, A Series of Original Letters, 4 vols (London: R. Griffiths, 1761). 

6 Wollstonecraft.