23 May 1803

Robert Southey,1 Kingsdown, Bristol, to Mary Hays, 9 St George’s Place, Camberwell, Surrey, 23 May 1803.2


Dear Madam,

       My letter would be a valuable one if the ability of suggesting any fit subject for your talents were equal to the good will with which it is attempted.

      Novels are generally interesting in proportion as they excite our attention by what is new. I think the manners & customs of other countries & other times afford mines of such novelty as yet unransacked. The materials are easily acquired from our numerous books of travels. It will be far more difficult to keep the metaphysical costume. If I did not believe you capable of overcoming their difficulty I should ^not^ offer the suggestion. Some materials for thinking may be afforded by thus contrasting the opinions & institutions of different countries, & enforcing what is true everywhere.

       The French Atala3 owed all its celebrity to its scenery & manners – it had the effect of the serious pantomimes at our theatres – Oscar & Malvina4 – or the Death of Captain Cook,5 & all its scenery, & tenfold as much painted with ten-thousand fold more genius is to be found in Bartrams Travels.6 St Pierre’s Tales have this advantage in a high degree. I do not know a single English novel that possesses it.7 Many plans have at various times occurred to me – but the seed never remained long enough to germinate. I remember one which would almost be the antithesis to Atala – a Portuguese on her way from India to the mother country to become a nun, wrecked on the coast of Africa, & falling into the power of the Caffers – the best savages of whom we have yet heard – to convert her and her fathers confessor till he married her to a negro might form the ground work of a story. If you like to dwell on the darker side of the picture, the scene ^of a gloomier action^ may be laid among the fiercer American tribes – or in Hindostan. Mango Capac, the builder of Peru, has always appeared to me an excellent hero for a philosophical romance, but I have felt the full difficulty of forming any solution, short of miracle, for his appearing where he did & improving savages by so wonderful a conquest of intellect over ignorance.8 Should you think of building any story on foreign ground I can perhaps save you some trouble by referring you to the readiest sources of information.

       Whenever I have thought of writing a novel among my own ways & means, to develope some single character has been the main object of the plan. Such for instance as a man who accustoms himself to look at every thing in a ridiculous point of view – till by laughing at every thing, he laughs away every good principle. A great mind ruined by a little failing would well deserve to be delineated – by indecision – or procrastination, or by that excess of good humour which submits to weaker intellects rather than inflict pain. I have dwelt with more pleasure upon the ideal character of a man renouncing fair prospect for principle, throwing himself upon the world with the belief that while he can obtain food, raiment & shelter, it is beneath him to be unhappy, & being happy in consequence of that belief.

       The narrative of Madam Godin has been translated, & is so very short that I once transcribed it. I should be sorry to see you employed in translation, nor is it easy to point out any work of merit which has not already been made English. I remember a wild Ariosto-like romance by Cazotte called Ollivier. Gibbons recommendation induced me to read it. One volume would comprize it & perhaps the Authors name might give it a saleable notoriety. There is a romance of far higher merit by the Abbe Terasson of which there is a translation by a Mr Lediard, some fifty years old, not enough known nor common enough to prevent the success of another. Sethos is the book I mean, it has as much learning as the Anacharsis, tho unfortunately the Author has given no references and thereby gains no credit. [T]he character of the hero is very finely conceived – a philosopher who voluntarily resigns a kingdom and a mistress & the friends If you could find a publisher who would set out this book with good maps, & prints for which Denons book woud supply noble scenery I am certain it could not fail to answer. It would fill two octavo volumes.

       There is a good history of Charlemagne in four duodecimo by Gaillard – a history of the Arabs of the same length by the Abbé Marigny – but this last I think has been Englishd. Booksellers are the people to judge of the saleableness of such books – their merit is another thing. Travels are more saleable. Sir John Chardin is the best traveller that ever went eastward & only one volume was ever translated – this would be expensive on account of engraving many prints – but books sell well the better for prints. Something might be added to his accounts from modern later travellers. There exists no translation of Niebuhr’s travels except a miserable mutilation by that wretched Scotchman Heron. These writers are both of great & established merit. The former I should prefer were I a bookseller, & should be sanguine in my expectations of success. I think it extends to six small volumes – about half was published in our language in one folio – three quartos might comprize it, but your powers of language ought not to be wasted upon translation.9   

       In whatever plan you may adopt, if there is any way in which I can be of the smallest service, I shall be very glad to prove that the proffer is not deigned a mere form of courtesy. Should you like my first suggestion I have a trick of dreaming stories & could send you some rude outlines which you might work upon at your pleasure, & fill up – or use as painters use their daubs.

       In the course of next month I expect to visit London, & will then look for Ollivier (which is somewhere among my poor scattered books) that you may cast your eye over it. Meantime if you can make me in any way useful, command me freely – the points on which we differ are fewer than those on which we agree, & our hopes of mankind are the same.

                         Yours truly & respectfully

                                     Robert Southey


Kingsdown, Bristol.

May. 23rd 1803.


Address: To Miss Hays | 9 St Georges Place | Camberwell  | Surry

Postmark: 24 May 1803, Bristol

1 Robert Southey (1774-1843) was an early friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth and met Hays in 1797. They remained on friendly terms thereafter, enough so that in 1812 Hays would propose that she live with his family at Keswick (see below, Fenwick to Hays, 28 April [1813]). For more on Southey, see his entry in the Biographical Index. 

2 Misc. 2213, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 333-36; Wedd, Love Letters 242-45 (dated 3 May); see also The Collected Letters of Robert Southey (Romantic Circles edition), gen ed. Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford, and Ian Packer.

3 Reference here is to Atala, ou Les Amours de deux sauvages dans le désert (1801), a novella by François-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848).  

4 Oscar and Malvina, or, The Fall of Fingal: A Heroic Drama (1791) was a ballet pantomine begun by the music director at Covent Garden, William Shield, and completed by his successor, William Reeve (1757-1815). 

45 Possibly “The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779” (1794) by the painter by Johann Zoffany [Zoffani] (1733-1810), a German active in England during the latter half of the 18th century, becoming a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. Other possible renditions of Cook’s death include one by John Webber (1751-93), official painter on Cook’s final voyage, completed sometime in 1783-84, and one by John Cleveley the Younger in 1784.

6 Reference is to the American writer, William Bartram (1739-1823), and his important work among the 1790s Romantics, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, etc. (Philadelphia, 1791; and London: J. Johnson, 1792). 

7 Bernard de St-Pierre, author of Paul et Virginie (1787), is mentioned on several occasions in the Hays Correspondence.

8 Manco Capac, founder of the Inca Empire in Peru c. early 1300s.

9 The works mentioned in this and the previous paragraph are Account of the Adventures of Mad. Godin des Odonais [1728-92] in passing down the River of the Amazons, in the year 1770 (finally appeared in Constable’s Miscellany in Edinburgh, vol. 11, in 1826); Jacques Cazotte (1719-92), Le Diable amoureux (1772; English edition in 1793); Edward Gibbon (1737-94), The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776); Jean Terrasson, The Life of Sethos [. . .] Trans. from a Greek MSS into French [. . .] And now faithfully done from the Paris ed., by Mr Lediard (2 vols, 1732); Anacharsis was a 6th century BC philosopher who traveled from Scythia to Athens and became a phenomenon as a barbarian philosopher leaning toward skepticism; Gabriel-Henri Gaillard, Histoire de Charlemagne (Paris, 1782);  Francois Augier de Marigny, TheHistory of the Arabians, 4 vols (London, 1758); Jean Chardin, Travels into Persia and the East-Indies (1686); and Carsten Niebuhr, Travels through Arabia, and Other Countries in the East, trans. by Robert Heron (Edinburgh, 1792).