2-6 February 1796

Mary Hays [Little John Street], to William Godwin,  [25 Chalton Street, Somers Town], [first part below written on 2 February; finished on Friday, 5 February; postmarked on 6 February 1796].1


       You retort upon me my own arguments, & you have cause – I felt a ray of conviction dart upon my mind, even, while I wrote them! – But what then? – “I seem’d to be in a state, in which reason had no power – I felt as if I cou’d ^coolly^ survey the several arguments of the case – perceive, that they had prudence, truth & common sense of [sic] their side – & then answer – I am under the guidance of a director more energetic than you.”2 – Who wrote this sentiment, & had not the writer studied the human heart? I am affected by your kindness – I am affected by your letter3 – I cou’d weep over it – bitter tears of conviction & remorse! but argue with the wretch infected with the plague – will it stop the tide of blood, that is rapidly carrying its contagion to the heart? I blush! I shed burning tears – but I am still desolate & wretched – & how am I to help it? The force, which you impute to my reasoning, was the powerful frenzy of a high delirium. What does it signify, whether abstractedly consider’d (if there be any such thing as abstraction) a misfortune be worthy of the names, substantial, or real, if the consequences are the same? That which embitters all my life, that which stops the genial current of health & peace, is, what ever be its nature, a substantial calamity to me! There is no end to this reasoning, what individual can limit the desires of another? The necessaries of the civilized man, are whimsical superfluities in the eye of the savage! Are we, or are we not, the creatures of sensation & circumstance? I say, with you – (& the more I look into society, the deeper I feel the soul-sickening conviction) – “the general pursuit is misery” – necessarily – excruciating misery! – from the source to which you justly ascribe it4 – “the unnatural & odious inventions of a distemper’d civilization.” I am content, you may perceive, to recognise things by their “genuine appellations.” I am, at least, a reasoning maniac – perhaps the most dangerous species of insanity. – But while the source continues troubled, why expect the streams to run pure? “You know, I will tell you about the indissoluble chains of association & habit” – & you attack me again with my own arms – Alas! while I confess their impotence, with what consistency do I accuse the flinty, impenetrable, heart, I so earnestly sought, in vain, to move? – What materials, does this stubborn mechanism of the mind, offer to the wise & benevolent legislator! Had I, you say, “worship’d at the altar of reason but half as assidiously as I have sacrificed at the shrine of illusion, my happiness might have been enviable.” – But, do you not perceive, that my reason was the auxiliary of my passion – or rather, my passion the generative principle of my reason? – Had not these contradictions, these oppositions, roused my mind into energy, I might have continued tamely domesticating in the lap of indolence & apathy. I do ask myself, every day, “why shou’d I be miserable?” – & I answer – Because the strong, predominant, sentiment of my soul, close-twisted with all its cherish’d associations, has been rudely rent away – & the blood follows from the lacerated wound! You wou’d be asshamed of putting disappointed love into your ennumeration of evils – Gray, was not ashamed of this –

“And pining love shall waste their youth,

And jealousy, with rankling tooth,

That inly gnaws the secret heart!”


These shall the stings of falsehood try

And hard unkindness’ alter’d eye

That mocks the tear it forc’d to flow.”5

Is it possible, that you can be insensible of the mighty mischiefs it has caus’d – Of the great events & changes in society, to which it has operated as a spring? That Jupiter shrouded his glories beneath a mortal form – that he descended yet lower, & crawled as a reptile – That Hercules took the distaff, & Samson was shorn of his strength, are, in their spirit, no fables6 – Yet, these were the legends of ages less degenerate than this, & states of society less corrupt! Ask your own heart, whether some of its most exquisite sensations have not arisen from sources which, to nine tenths of the world, wou’d be as inconceivable? Mine, I believe, is almost a solitary madness in the 18th century – It is not on the altars of love, but of gold, that men now come to pay their offrings. The man who has sacrificed me, if I am not mistaken, is a votary at the shrine of Plutus, & has had some struggles to ice his heart & stifle his humanity. Why call woman, miserable, oppress’d, & impotent, woman, crushed & then insulted – why call her to an “independence” which not nature, but the accursed & barbarous laws of society have denied her? – This is mockery – even you – wise & benevolent as you are – can mock the child of slavery & of sorrow! – Ah! let me follow your example &, again, address you in your own words – “Excluded as it were by the pride, luxury, and caprice of the world, from expanding my sensations & wedding my soul to society, I was constrain’d to bestow the strong affections, that glow’d consciously within me, upon a few.”7 Love, in minds of any elevation, cannot be generated but upon a real or fancied, foundation of excellence – But what wou’d be a miracle in architecture is true in morals – the fabric can exist when the foundation has moulder’d away – habit, daily, produces this wonderful effect upon every principle & every feeling – This is your own theory!

  Am I not sufficiently ingenuous? – I will give you a new proof of my frankness (if not the proof you require) – It is from chastity having been render’d a sexual virtue, that all these calamities have flow’d – Men are by this means render’d sordid & dissolute in their pleasures; their affections blunted & their feelings petrified: they are incapable of satisfying the heart of a woman of sensibility & virtue – supposing such a woman has the power (which I believe is not often the case) of fixing, in any degree, their attentions! – Half the sex, then, are the infamous, wretched, victims of brutal instinct – the other half – if they sink not in mere frivolity & insipidity – are sublimated into a sort of – what shall I call them? – refined, romantic, unfortunate, factitious, beings, who cannot but to act, for the sake of the present moment, in a manner, that shou’d expose them to complicated, inevitable, evils – evils, that will, almost, infallibly overwhelm them with misery & regret! – And beside which, their refinements, however factitious, are, in time, incorporated into, & become a part of, the real character. Woe be, more especially, to those who, possessing the dangerous gifts of fancy & feeling, find it as difficult to discover a substitute for the object as for the sentiment! You, who are a philosopher, will you still controvert the sentiments founded in truth & nature? “Gross” as is my “folly,” (& I do not deny it) you may perceive, I was not wholly wand’ring in darkness – but, while the wintry sun of hope illumined the fairy frost-work with a single, slanting, ray, dazzled by the transient brightness I dreaded the meridian fervors that shou’d dissolve the glitt’ring charm. Yes! it was madness, but it was the pleasurable madness which none but madmen know! But to what purpose disgust you, & exhaust myself, by this never ending amplification?

  I cannot answer one of your questions, do not pain me by the repetition8 of it, neither seek to ensnare me to the disclosure (forgive me) – unkindly, severely, as I have been treated, I will not risque even the possibility of injuring the man I have so tenderly loved in the esteem of any one – & were I to name him, you cou’d have but little opportunity of judging9 of his qualities. – He is not a “model of excellence” – I perceive it with pain, & I have been obliged to retract my judgement on some parts of his character with agonizing reluctance. – But I cou’d trace the sources of his errors, & candor & self-abasement imperiously compel me to a mild judgement – to stifle the petulant suggestions of a wounded spirit! Ought not our principles, my friend, to soften the asperity of our censures? Could I have won him to my arms, I thought that I cou’d [elevate] & purify his mind – a mind in which I still perceive a great proportion of good – I weep for him, as well as for myself! – he will one day know my value & regret my loss!   I do not see the utility of your last question, but I will answer it nevertheless – you have a claim upon my grateful respect & esteem – A thousand delicacies mingling with the late transactions, prevented me (I do not pretend to consistency) from making many confidents – &, yet, concealment is particularly repugnant to my disposition – You are the only man existing, beside him concern’d, who have any knowledge of the circumstances. Between one sister, Elizabeth,10 & myself, every thought has been, from infancy in common – Another friend,11 a young woman of virtue & talents (now many miles from the Metropolis) acquired a partial knowledge of my situation from local & unavoidable circumstances – And, lately a strong sympathy of feeling, & similarity, in some respects, of situation, has produced an unreserved communication of friendship & confidence between Mrs Woollstonecraft & myself – from her I also conceal’d a name I cou’d wish for ever blotted from my memory, but a combination of circumstances, thro’ a family (unknown to me) connected with both parties, led her to a discovery, which I have earnestly enjoin’d her not to disclose. I repeat – This precaution is not at all on my own account, but the contrary! I feel, that by my extravagance I have given a great deal of vexation, & some degradation to a being whom I had no right to persecute, or to compel to chuse happiness thro’ a medium of my creation. I cannot exactly tell the extent of the injury I may have done him – a long train of consequences succeed, even, our most indifferent actions – strong energies, if they answer not the end proposed, cannot be unattended with some powerful effects – morals & mechanics are here analogous – Do not, then, do not distress me by the repetition of a question I cannot answer – if my folly must have a victim, let it be myself! I cannot say how much your prompt perusal of the papers, & eloquent, friendly, remonstrance has gratified & affected me – I have, & will, peruse it again & again. – I shall see you, I hope, ere long, it is necessary, at present, to save me from myself.

                                                M H.


Do you wonder, at the interest I felt in the fate of the artless, affectionate, Emily Melville – That I lamented in Falkland, the mind of promise destroy’d by one strong prejudice – That I sympathised in the restless, ardent, curiosity of Caleb Williams?12 I look’d into my own heart, read its responsive emotions, & respected the writer who cou’d thus, analyzing the consequences back to their sources, penetrate into the recesses of the mind. One more observation & I have done – That we can “admire, esteem, & love,” an individual – (for love in the abstract conveys to me no idea) – which must be in fact, depending upon them ^that individual^ for a large share of our felicity – & not lament their loss, in proportion to our apprehension of their worth, appears to me a proposition, involving in itself an absurdity, demonstrably false.

             I wish you had ever loved!


Friday morng.

      I replied to your letter on the evening on which I [receiv’d it] & threw it by, for a day or two – Run’ing my eye over what I have written I perceive, that dazzled by the force of your expressions, I have granted you too much. – My conduct was not altogether so insane as I have been willing to allow. It is certain, that, cou’d I have gain’d the end propos’d, my happiness wou’d have been encreas’d – I will say, with my friend Mrs W, – “It is necessary for me to love & admire or I sink into sadness.”13 – And the behaviour of the man I sought to move was too inconsistent to be entirely the result of indifference. To be rous’d and stimulated by obstacles – & those obstacles admitting hope, because obscurely seen – is no mark of weakness! Cou’d I have conquer’d, what I conceiv’d to be, the prejudices of a worthy man, I cou’d have encreas’d his happiness as well as my own. I deeply reason’d & philosophised upon the subject – perseverence, with little ability, has been known to effect wonders: perhaps I flatter’d myself, that I had the power of uniting some ability with perseverance, & confiding in that power, I was the dupe of my own reason! Even now, the affair, altogether, appears to me a sort of phenomenon which I am unable to solve – I doubt, if there be another man in existence who cou’d have acted, exactly, the part this man has done – how then was I to take such a part into my calculations? – I mean not to say – it is a miracle, that I did not inspire affection – perhaps, on this subject, the mortification I have endured has humbled me, even unduely in my own eyes, my pride has suffer’d little less than my heart, tho’ I have not given its emotions words – What ever I might have felt, I wou’d have disdain’d to express the rage of slighted love – neither was this, with me, a predominant emotion: yet, I feel the power of those charming lines of Pope –


“Unequal task, a passion to resign

For hearts so touch’d, so pierc’d, so lost, as mine!

Ere such a soul regains its peaceful state

How often must it love, how often hate,

How often hope, despair, resent, regret,

Conceal, disdain, do all things – but forget!”14


Will you allow me another quotation?


“Love, various minds, doth variously inspire

It stirs, in gentle natures, gentle fire,

Like that of incense, on the altar laid!

But raging flames, tempestuous souls invade

With <–> pride it mounts, & with revenge it glows.”15


The former discription bears the most resemblance to my mind. – But to return. I pursued what I was convinc’d, if attain’d, wou’d be, comparitively a certain good, & when, at times, discouraged – I have said to myself – What! after taking all this trouble, shall I relinquish my efforts when, perhaps, on the verge of success? – To say nothing of the pain of forcing an active mind out of its trains – And if I desisted, what was to be the result? – The sensation I, at present, experience! – apathy, stagnation, abhorr’d vacuity – You cannot resist the force of my reasoning, for tho’, I am convinced, you never felt similar emotions, you, yet, know the human heart – you, who cou’d paint, in colours true to nature, the frenzied curiosity of a Caleb Williams, the romantic honor of a Falkland – you, who admire the destructive courage of an Alexander, even, the fanatic fury of a Ravaillac16 – you, who, if I am not much mistaken, pant with a love of distinction (even separated from its [paper torn]) that bespeaks the powerful, energetic, mind – Why, [paper torn] to be intolerant to a passion, tho’ differing [paper torn] generated on the same principles, & by a parallel process? The capacity of receiving sensation is the power – Into what channels this shall be directed, depends not on  ourselves – Are we not the creatures of outward impression, & without such impression, shou’d we be any thing? – Are not passions & powers the same thing, for can the latter by generated without the lively interest that constitutes <-> ^the former^? – annihilate the one, & what becomes of the other? With the apostle Paul, permit me to say – “I am not mad, but speak the words of truth & soberness.”17 To what purpose did you read my confessions,18 but to trace in them a character, form’d like every other human character, by the chain of necessary events, [the] result of unavoidable impressions? I feel that my arguments are incontrovertible – I suspect, that, by affecting to deny their force, you will attempt ^endeavour^ to deceive either me or yourself. – I have acquired the power of reasoning on this subject at a dear rate – at the expence of inconceivable suffering – do not attempt to deny me the miserable, expensive, victory! – I am ready to say (ungrateful that I am!) why did you put me upon calling forth my strong reasons? I perceive that there is no cure for me (for apathy is the morbid energy of the soul, not the restoration to health) but by a new train of impressions, of what ever nature, equally forcible with the past. – You will tell me, it remains with myself whether I will predetermine to resist them – Is this true – is it philosophical – ask yourself? What! can even you shrink from the consequences of your own principles? – But I only use vain repetition!19

      One word more, respecting the confidents [sic] I have made. My sister ever tried to discourage me, with a degree of impatience, at times, bordering on asperity – “She hated the name of the man who had robbed her of her friend.” My friend20 who is absent [(]& whom I have not seen for the last six months) never express’d any other sentiment than that of regret. – He, who had inspired them, was alone the depository of my most secret thoughts – My heart was unreservedly open before him – I coverd my paper with its emotions & transmitted them to him – I did it at length, mechanically, as the man, of whom it is related, that he whisper’d his secret into the earth to relieve the burden of uncommunicated sensation21 – my secret was equally safe & received in equal silence He was not, then, ignorant of the effects it was likely to produce! Mrs W—ft was not acquainted with the affair till the mischief was done – & now alas! we can each be wiser for the other than for ourselves. Is not this what you meant to enquire?

                                                                         M H.


In the last letter I address’d to —— (of which you have a part of the copy) I ask’d the return of my letters. – I wish ^(said I)^ to employ myself in a work of fiction, to engage my mind, to sluice off its impressions. A philosophical delineation of the errors of passion, of the mischiefs of yielding to the illusions of the imagination, might be useful – Nothing coolly written cou’d express, with equal force, the feelings, mistakes & miseries, I mean to depicture. I have only some imperfect copies of the papers in question – they <–> may afford materials for my plan, & the circumstances [that] might be sufficiently disguised to delude impertinent curiosity – It was necessary ^(I added)^ for my mind to be empl[oyed] but I cou’d not write of what I had not felt. This was the plain & [sole] reason of my requesting the letters – I had no distrust either of his honor or delicacy – This my whole conduct had proved &, in those respects, my opinions had receiv’d no alteration – Three weeks have nearly elaps’d & I have neither letters nor reply – He does not vouchsafe to answer me.22


Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Chalton Street

Postmark:  6 February 1796, 12 o’clock Noon.

post pd 2d


1 MS MH 0012, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 424-31. This letter follows the previous letter in Emma Courtney, Book, 2, Ch. XII. 

2 Passage taken from Godwin's Caleb Williams (London: B. Crosby, 1794), 142.

3 Godwin's letter to Hays on 2 February 1796 (see previous letter).

4 Godwin's reference to Mr. Collier (see previous letter). 

5 Lines from Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, ll. 65-67, 75-77.

6 Jupiter (Zeus), Hercules, and Samson (two figures from classical mythology, the latter from Judges 16), all possessed great strength yet were debilitated on occasion by their weakness for women. 

7 Passage taken from Thomas Holcroft's The Adventures of Hugh Trevor, 2nd ed. (London: Shepperson and Reynolds, 1794), vol. 3, p. 159; Hays, in Emma Courtney (2.108), mistakenly attributes the passage to Caleb Williams

8 judgeing]MS

9 repitition] MS

10 Elizabeth Hays. 

11 Mary Reid (1769-1839), Hays's friend from Leicester whom she met in 1795.

12 Characters from Godwin's Caleb Williams.

13 Line is from Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden.

14 Taken from Pope's Eloisa to Abelard, ll. 195-200.

15 Lines from Act II of Dryden's tragedy, Tyrannick Love. 

16 Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who conquered most of the Middle East, and François Ravaillac (1578-1610), a Catholic visionary and zealot who murdered the French King Henry IV in 1610.

17 Acts 26:25.

18 The letter (no longer extant) of significant biographical import sent to Godwin by Hays that provoked Godwin's letter of 2 February. 

19 Matthew 6:7. 

20 Mary Reid.

21 After Apollo turned the ears of King Midas into those of an ass, only his barber knew what had happened and was sworn to secrecy by Midas. To relieve his urge to tell, he dug a hole in a mountain and let out the secret there, not knowing he had dug into a piece of Echo, which soon resounded throughout the land with the news of the King's ears. 

22 Further corroboration that the rupture between Frend and Hays occurred at the end of 1795 or possibly the early days of 1796, with her more formal request for her letters coming c. 15 January.