Mary Hays (1759-1843), radical novelist and feminist, grew up in a staunchly Calvinistic Baptist family who worshiped for many years in the Particular Baptist chapel at the end of Gainsford Street in the Blackfields, Southwark, during the ministries of John Langford and Michael Brown. Hays had four sisters and two brothers. Her father, John Hays, died in 1774, the same year her eldest sister, Joanna, married a fellow church member, John Dunkin, Jr., an individual who would figure prominently in the affairs of Hays and her family thereafter. Hays's youth was spent in a house on Shad Thames, adjacent to Gainsford Steet on its north side along the Thames. In 1776 Mrs Hays moved her family to a house in Gainsford Street, next door to the Dunkins. By the late 1780s Michael Brown had moved away from the tenets of Calvinism into Arianism and Unitarianism, the same movement Mary Hays and her sister, Elizabeth, would participate in. Mrs Hays and her two eldest daughters, Joanna Dunkin and Sarah Hays Hills, remained orthodox, with Mrs Hays and the Dunkins most likely leaving the Gainsford Street chapel in the early 1790s to worship in another Baptist chapel, most likely at nearby Dean Street. Both Brown and Hays were influenced in the religious opinions by Robert Robinson, the controversial Baptist minister at Cambridge. Mary and Elizabeth Hays left the Blackfields chapel in Gainsford Street and joined at Salters’ Hall in 1792; they also attended occasionally at the Essex Street Chapel, where Theophilus Lindsey and John Disney ministered.
Hays's early love interest with John Eccles, whom she met in the Gainsford Street chapel, ended in 1780 with his death just after their official engagement. Her next (and only other known) love interest occurred between 1794 and 1808 in the person of William Frend, but his choice of another marriage partner proved devastating to Hays, and she never pursued marriage again, choosing to live as much as possible as an independent woman, supporting herself by her publications and small legacies. Eventually, through the marriages of several of her nieces, Hays and her extended family would become interwined with the extended family of her long-time and faithful friend, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), whose diary, reminiscences, and correspondence are a treasure-trove of material on Mary Hays and her numerous family members. For a walk through her life, click on A Mary Hays Chronology, the most detailed and complete history of her life ever assembled.
Hays's first significant work, Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public Worship (1792), was a critique of Gilbert Wakefield’s pamphlet on public worship. This introduced her to an important circle of Unitarian ministers as well as the publisher Joseph Johnson and his friends George Dyer, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Frend. The next year Hays published Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793), and in late 1794 met William Godwin. Her friendship with the celebrated political philosopher and novelist further expanded her circle of liberal, free-thinking men and women to include Mary Robinson, Eliza Fenwick, Elizabeth Inchbald, Amelia Alderson, and Thomas Holcroft, and, by the late 1790s, such young Romantic figures Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lloyd, and Crabb Robinson. Her controversial novel, Memoirs of Emma Courtney, appeared in 1796, followed by her feminist pamphlet, Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in behalf of Women (1798), and her second novel, The Victim of Prejudice (1799), also overtly feminist. In 1803 she brought out her invaluable work on women's life writing, Female Biography, or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries (6 vols, 1803), a publication that significantly altered critical and biographical approaches to women's historiography.
Hays's outspoken feminism and support of Godwin and Wollstonecraft made her a target of satire and abuse by several writers, some even who had once been her friends and acquaintances, such as Elizabeth Hamilton and Charles Lloyd. Despite her loss of friends and social standing after 1799, Hays continued to write, producing a substantial body of historical writings for young readers, some appearing in the third volume of Charlotte Smith’s The History of England (1806) and a substantial amount in Hays's three-volume series, Historical Dialogues for Young Persons (1807-08). Hays closed her publishing career with Memoirs of Queens (1821), her final contribution to life-writing and the history of women.
After 1800, she continued her efforts to implement her ideas about women’s education that she had first opined upon in her letters to John Eccles and later developed at length in her correspondence with Godwin, her essays in the Monthly Magazine, and her novel Emma Courtney. Hays spent several years teaching some of her young nieces, three in her own home in Islington c. 1807-08, and one, the daughter of her brother, Thomas Hays, during her time in his home in Wandsworth between 1809 and 1813. During 1811-12 she also assisted in the education of Orlando Fenwick (1798-1816), the son of her close friend, Eliza Fenwick, during his time in a boarding school not far from Wandsworth. In addition, Hays was instrumental in the education of one of her youngest nieces, Matilda Mary Hays (1820-97), daughter of Hays's brother, John Hays, in whose home the aging Mary Hays lived for most of the 1830s. In 1826, as a result of her extensive experience with women’s education from her work with family members and specific educational establishments (Hays lived with women who operated their own schools in 1813-14, 1818-19, 1823-31), Hays composed an essay on educational ideals and practices designed for a female high school which she sent to Eliza Fenwick for publication in New York (see Eliza Fenwick to Mary Hays, 15 October 1826). Along with her interest in education, Hays also contributed to the growing interest in social reform in the early decades of the 19th century, publishing three didactic works for young and working-class readers between 1804 and 1817 – Harry Clinton. A Tale for Youth (1804), The Brothers; or, Consequences: A Story of What Happens Every Day; Addressed to that Most Useful Part of the Community, the Labouring Poor (1815), and Family Annals, or The Sisters (1817) – modeled after such popular forms of fiction as Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts from the 1790s and the voluminous publications of the Religious Tract Society and the Unitarian Tract Society that flourished in the first half of the 19th century.
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