4 April 1796
Mary Hays, [30 Kirby Street], to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, 4 April 1796.1
April 4th – 1796
I am glad you allow, that individual attachment has in it the spirit of true philanthropy – for such is the predominant fate of my character. I have often repeated, with enthusiasm, from Sterne – “Were I in a desert, I wou’d find out wherewith in it to call forth my affections – If I cou’d do no better, I wou’d fix them upon some sweet myrtle, or seek some melancholy cypress to connect myself to. I wou’d court their shade, & greet them kindly for their protection – I wou’d cut my name upon them, & swear they were the loveliest trees throughout the desart. If their leaves wither’d, I wou’d rejoice with them.”2 Yet, has this disposition occasion’d me much suffering, & some degradation – for where my affections have been, in any degree excited, my judgement is too apt to become blinded in proportion, & I labour, against conviction, for arguments to justify my fanaticism. I have been, thro’ life, a victim to high wrought, romantic, feeling – yes, you are right, to those feelings which made me hunt torture, & cherish despair – And I have grieved as the vision has melted away. I am at present struggling with emotions of this nature: I feel myself compelled to some painful retractions of judgement – I admit them with hesitation, with strong reluctance – but they force themselves upon me! The sensations they produce are uncongenial to my heart – I had a thousand times rather, that heart shou’d continue to be a victim to tender sorrow! Oh! you know not how much Satanic pride, lurks under the specious garb of gentleness & humility, belongs to my character! I suspect, however paradoxical it might appear, not to you, but to superficial observers, that my forbearance, my meekness, my lowliness, have been all the offspring of pride. I can bear to lose what I love, yes, I can part with it, tho’ the blood shou’d flow from my rending heart! – but I cannot bear to suspect that it shou’d sink in value – I wou’d have my enthusiasm justified at the expence of my peace. Is this unnatural – is it virtue – is it selfishness? Sometimes, I incline to hope the first, & then to fear the latter. However this may be, I believe my book will suffer – the elasticity of my mind relaxes with its ardor, & I sometimes suspect, that the spirit of animation is fled for ever. I dread nothing like apathy—to me it is necessary to feel emotion – Ah! do I not feel it at this minute? – In the formation of some people, brain seem’s left out, in that of others, heart. My character is changing – misanthropy and pride will claim it wholly – I shall learn to imitate the savage virtues (some miscall them) – But why do I dwell on subjects I hate?
I wonder I write confessions to you, for I have found out, notwithstanding your system, that your character is very reserved – I continually talk of myself, nor dare I indulge a hope, that I am an interesting egotist, but now I will take a better subject, & talk of you. It has been my lot to meet with people that puzzle me, & you are one of those. I have a notion, I do not know you much better now, than when we first became acquainted. I do not accuse you of duplicity, certainly not, but it appears to me, that you practise the advice of a scotch bard –
“Conceal yourself as weel’s ye can
From critical dissection,
But ken thro’ every other man,
With sharpen’d, sly, inspection.”3
Forgive me, if encouraged by your indulgence, I am sometimes saucy! Yet, some opinions of you, I have ventured to form – I do not think with Mr Thelwall,4 that your character is cold – Who that reads in your publications – Thoughts that glow, & words that burn – can think so; besides, it is a part of my creed, that, strong talents bespeak acute feelings ^sensations^ – also, your humane & delicate consideration, on all occasions for my feelings (of which I bear the full sense) convinces me of existing sympathies. I have never known persons fully able to conceive, & allow for, sensations, of which they ^are themselves^ wholly incapable – (I speak generally, not as alluding to any particular channels into which the sensibility may be thrown) – of this truth, I have experienced some pretty strong proofs. Well then, (I am in the humour to attempt your character) of your intellectual powers I cannot doubt, I am likewise convinced of your sensibility – I believe, also, that to strong perception, clear discernment, & quick sensation, you add exquisite taste – Hence your rapturous eulogium on the brilliant & fascinating, (some critics say, at times, meretricious,) ornaments of Edmund Burke’s style.5 As a consequence of these dispositions, I conceive you to be highly fastidious, nor can I ever get rid of the terror of wearying fatiguing you by trifling, or disgusting you by absurdity – And my apprehensions are the greater, because you do not, like my self, wear your feelings on the surface – They resemble, not the babbling stream, but the deep & rapid river – hence superficial observers do not discover them – Often, after you have visited me, & I have been prating, any thing that came into my head, to prolong your stay, & prevent an interval occurring, that might allow you, without being abrupt, to take your leave, I am shock’d at reflecting on the trifles, & nonsense, I have been obtruding upon you. No, you are not the disciple of your own system, & I yet know you very imperfectly. After all, I find few people so ingenuous as myself – I have in this, as in most other things, carried my principles beyond the bounds of prudence – to a romantic extreme. But before I have done, let me give you credit for what I have myself experienced – candor, humanity, kindness, patient communication of knowledge! – I shall not forget the debt I owe you, gratitude is a part of the selfish system. I perceive how kindly you try to encourage me in the work I am at present prosecuting – & perceiving, feel its full value. Yet, I have, on the subject, for various reasons, an unaffected diffidence. I no longer think, that author’s put into their works their best thoughts – the idea of publication (while engaged in composition) hangs on my mind, like a dead weight, nor can I contrive to forget it.
I wrote a letter to you while my mind was in a painful state, a wild, incoherent letter, which I suppose expressed feeling – I wish to refer to it – will you lend it ^to^ me, also, the two next, if you can readily find them among your papers – I shall esteem it a favour?6
I think you once asked me whether Mr Christie was in Town – I am informed that he is – Mrs Imlay is also return’d, & at their house7 – I am sorry to add, her health appears in a still more declining state. It does not signify what is the cause, but her heart, I think, is broken. I am in better health than I was, but weary of most things & more than all of myself – My mind has had too many caustics of late – a sort of operation which never agreed with it – yet, I have had my share – You, my friend, have administer’d only lenients – & shall I not acknowledge them – shall I not thank you? I am not miserable – but my spirit is benighted – I have lost its sunshine – the cloud sits deep.
Adieu my friend, may all happiness continue to attend you – you deserve it – you have no extravagant follies – As for myself, I cou’d now wish to live till my work is finished – & then – close my eyes on the wretched farce of life.
Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town | 25 Chalton Street
Postmark: 4 April 1796, 12 o’clock Noon
1 MS MH 0019, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 448-51.
2 From Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (London: J. Creswick, 1794), 57. Hays conflates the last two lines of the passage, which read: "if their leaves withered, I would teach myself to mourn; and when they rejoiced, I would rejoice along with them."
3 Lines from Robert Burns's "Epistle to a Young Friend" (1786), stanza V.
4 John Thelwall (see Biographical Index).
5 Edmund Burke (1730-97), one of the greatest statesmen in England during the last half of the 18th century.
6 Previous to the above letter, Hays wrote to Godwin on 2-6 February, 9 February, 14-20 February, 1 March, 8 March, 10 March, and 23 March 1796.
7 Thomas Christie (1761-96) lived in Finsbury Square and was a friend of Wollstonecraft and Joseph Johnson, assisting the latter in the founding and editing of the Analytical Review.