c. mid-May 1796
Mary Hays, [30 Kirby Street], to William Godwin, [25 Chalton Street, Somers Town], undated [c. mid-May 1796].1
If you are susceptible of sympathy, which I have no reason to doubt, I need not attempt to describe to you, the painful situation of mind in which you left me, on your last visit.2 The repugnance
which I feel to making the alteration in my story, which you suggested, is so strong, that nothing but my friendship for you, & deference for your kindness, suspends & counteracts the strongest sentiment of my soul – & will you still call me selfish, obstinate, & immov’able? I have no strength, no independence of mind, I am govern’d in all things by my attachments – I act upon no steady principles, I am forever the victim of contending emotions. But while your influence shakes my resolution, & renders me wavering, where I thought myself determined, I cannot yield a ready assent – I must still argue the case with you. In the first place, I am by no means convinced, that a hopeless, persevering, & unrequited, attachment, is in itself uninteresting – it is a proof of a lively & strong imagination, of a sanguine, an enterprising, an ardent, an unconquerable, spirit – it is strength, though ill directed. The love of Petrarch for Laura was of this nature – The famous & unfortunate passion of Jael, with many others, that have been celebrated in the fictions of poetry & romance.3 That it is not an impossible event, my own experience affords a proof – perhaps, it is congenial to a susceptible & metaphysical4 turn of mind. Its existence is in the imagination, rather than in the senses – I doubt whether fruition might not be its grave. It is the child of chivalry & refinement. It is the illusion of a raised fancy, enamoured of the magic of its own creative powers. There have even been instances of a passion of this nature being conceived for a purely ideal object – Call it frenzy, if you please, every species of fanaticism, strictly speaking, is deserving of this appellation – Alas! then, the world is one great madhouse. The austerity of character which I have given to my hero, is by no means one of the circumstances which always quenches love – is our passions are never very strong without a mixture of the sublime in them – I mean in Mr Burkes sense5 – some emotion allied to an apprehension of power – to terror & astonishment. To what fervent excesses has the love of a Supreme Being been carried, a sentiment always strongly impregnated with fear. Neither do I allow, that the passion of my heroine had in it no mixture of hope or encouragement (you may apply the same observations, if you please, to myself) – The obstacles which opposed it were always obscurely seen – mystery is a fine material for manufacture – We are rendered credulous by our passions, & a heart sincerely affected finds it difficult to relinquish its errors, even after absolute conviction. What does Rousseau say – who seems to have experienced & understood these sensations more ^& certainly painted them better^ than any man – “The impossibility of being happy fanned the flame which it ought to have extinguished. A flattering delusion had supported me under all my sorrows – When that was gone I had not strength to oppose them. While I had any hope, I might have triumphed over my inclinations, it wou’d have cost me less to have spent my whole life in resistance, than to renounce you for ever, & the very idea of an everlasting opposition deprived me of fortitude to subdue my passion. Grief & love preyed upon my heart. I experienc’d what every virtuous mind feels, that does wrong & is fond of its mistake. I perceived that I had fallen into a state truly despicable, & felt myself completely wretched. Love did not make me blind to your faults, but it made those faults dear to me, & its delusion was so powerful, that had you been more perfect, I shou’d have loved you less.”6
And after all, perhaps, the true secret of rendering any affection interesting in description, depends not on the circumstances of that affection, but on the manner in which it is described – You allow that in this, I have not wholly fail’d – & why? Because we never paint well, but when we feel our subject. Were I now to alter what I have written – (yet, I do not say, that I will not alter it.) – I shou’d of course do it languidly – some of the most energetic sentiments wou’d be no longer appropriate – especially the letter which you have more than once mentioned with praise, & which was perhaps written with more force than any thing I ever have ^written^, or shall write again.7 – It appears, to me, that what my story may gain in one respect, it will more than lose in another. At any rate, I cannot make any material alteration ^on this subject^ without rendering useless the greater part of my MS. Whether the affection was reciprocal must still remain, in some measure, equivocal – & at present it is not, nor did I mean it to be, a circumstance perfectly clear & unambiguous. I will also add – (but do not ridicule me, it is a subject on which I cannot yet, nor I believe ever shall be able to, bear jesting – The wound is too recent, & the scar too deep.) – Yes, I confess, I cannot be unaffected by private motives. I would not wish a certain individual to suppose, that I had the vanity to believe myself beloved – much less wou’d I be thought to insinuate a notion false & injurious to him, that he ^had^ sacrificed my peace to cold-hearted & vilely selfish coquetry. By writing to divert, perhaps to disburthen, my mind under the immediate pressure of disappointment, I feel that I have entangled myself – nor do I now see any satisfactory method of removing the difficulties that press on every side. Yet I have made no determinations, nor do I ask to spare my feelings (except that you must not treat the subject with levity) Good God! What a train of circumstances does one error involve, how does it mix with, & poison, every source of action! You tell me, I seem to understand but one sort of love – You are mistaken – had I never tasted the sweets of reciprocal affection – a sentiment so congenial to my heart! – I had never pursued, with frenzied extravagance, a renewal of those delightful emotions, for the absence of which nothing can compensate.
If it were possible for me to repent of insincerity, I shou’d regret the confidence I have reposed in you – I cannot hide from myself, that I have forfeited your esteem – your compassion for my errors borders on contempt – it mortifies without consoling, me. – You see in me nothing but vice & selfishness, & you begin to consider me as incorrigible – yet, I ask no lenity – I respect you when you tell me the truth, & the pains which I suffer will, I trust, be salutary.
Respecting the philosophical part of my MS, I shall be less tenacious, & I will labour to remove the inferior defects which you have pointed out – neither have I absolutely decided respecting your grand objection.
I am mortified to find how frequently we differ, because it inspires me with distrust for my own principles. You treated coquet’ry as a light & venal fault – to me, it appears an odious & contemptible vice – While I feel the passion I seek to inspire, my views do not terminate wholly in myself – I am hurried on by an imperious & uncontrollable instinct – I am at once the sport & the victim of my own sensations – the ardor, the energy of my feelings excuse, while they enhance, my crime. But those appear to me incapable of either love or friendship, incapable of every generous affection, who coldly & deliberately trifle with the happiness of another for the mean, the [MS ends at this point]
1 MS MH 0025, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 454-56.
2 Godwin’s visited Hays on 11 May with the first news about his advice that she rewrite portions of the MS. of Emma Courtney. She responded to Godwin that same day, and he visited her again on 13 May. This letter may be in response to that visit. Hays visited Godwin on 17 May, which may have been to gauge his response to the above letter.
3 The Italian poet Fransesco Petrarca (1304-74), best known as Petrarch, envisioned in his famous sonnet sequence his ideal of love and beauty in the person of Laura, whom he first saw in a church in Avignon 1327. Jael (12th c. BC), the wife of Heber the Kenite, drove a tent peg through the temple of Sisera, military commander of Jabin, King of Canaan, while he slept in her tent, believing his death would end the twenty-year oppression Israel had suffered at the hands of Jabin. Jael was celebrated in the "Song of Deborah" (Judges 5:24-26) and in numerous works of art during the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Hoel is possibly a reference to Hoel, King of Brittany (6th c. AD), who appears in the Welsh poem, The Dream of Rhonabwy, and in two other Welsh Arthurian legend prose tales, Peredur and Geraint vab Erbin (sometimes appears as Hywel).
4 metaphisical] MS
5 Burke's idea of the sublime was expounded in his important work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful 1757), in which he associated a sense of the sublime with thoughts generated by such qualities as terror, fear, and awe.
6 Passage is from Rousseau's Eliosa, 2.199.
7 Most likely her letter of 2-6 February 1796.