11 May 1796
Mary Hays, [30 Kirby Street], to William Godwin, 25 Chalton Street, Somers Town, Wednesday, 11 May 1796.1
May – 11th – 1796 – Wednesday Evening
“Lord, Madam, what a squinting leer!
No doubt, the fairy has been here.
The woman’s blind – the Mother cries –
I see wit sparkle in his eyes.”2
Ah! you savage-hearted & barbarous critic! And do you really expect that I shall be endowed with sufficient patience to rewrite the MS? I, whose characteristics are impetuosity & obstinacy! – to say nothing of my vanity & idleness, of which I have my full share. Thank heaven, all the world are not as delicate & fastidious as you are, or woe be to the poor authors!
Well but you have given us an example of good writing, & therefore you have a claim to attention – & did I not determine to yield you this attention, I shou’d be unworthy of the benevolent pains you have taken, both with me & my papers – A thousand times I thank you! Be not unjust to me & to yourself – say not, that you are mortified to find how little impression you have made on my mind. – What influence would you wish to possess? Remember the different circumstances by which our characters have been formed – recollect the strong enchantments which have bound my mind in adamantine spells – & then triumph, for you have cause, in the powerful diversion you have affected. How often have you poured the light of reason upon my benighted spirit! What struggles have you caused in a heart abandoned to its passions! Ah! did you fully comprehend the frenzy to which I have been a victim, you wou’d cease to wonder at the many conflicts I have sustained – the many which perhaps, I have still to endure. I own, they have shaken my health but I do not yield to them – and I am already more tranquil, more rational, than I had hoped or expected ^to be^ in so short an interval, & for much of this tranquillity I feel myself indebted to you. Be not then discouraged – be not disgusted to find I have yet advanced no further – my malady was too inveterate to be easily or quickly cured – it was a proof of strength, but strength ill directed.
I will not deceive you, unless I first deceive myself. My MS was not written merely for the public eye – another latent, & perhaps stronger, motive lurked beneath – If this in some respects has spoiled my story, (for I suspect most of your remarks are just) it has also given to it, that “energy of feeling, & ardor of expression”
that ^which^ impressed you. No, my friend, my story is too real, I cannot violate its truth, by making Augustus either a coquet or a lover – I have a melancholy satisfaction in presenting to the stubborn heart, which I sought in vain to melt, a just, but far from an exaggerated picture, of its own cruel & inflexible severity – yet tho’ ‘cruel’ he was not ‘worthless’ – I urged him too far – carried on headlong by my own sensations I did not sufficiently respect his. I confess my fanaticism – I anticipate your censures – & I submit to them.
One of your observations I confess gave me considerable pain, respecting the ‘radical defect of my novel’ – My heroine, interested only about herself, will find it difficult to interest others for her. – I understand your application but too well, & I plead not guilty. No tragedy, no fiction, can affect the passions, that does not concentrate them, in a great measure in one object. – It is the nature of strong passion, particularly in retirement, to be absorbed in its sensations – without this a passion wou’d cease to be strong – No terrible effects are to be dreaded from an impression that can easily be diverted – the moment you give the stream vent by different channels, the inundation is no longer to be feared. But my heroine (whom I by no means intended to draw a perfect character) could weep for the distresses of Augustus, unconnected with any idea which respected herself – could suspend her own emotions in attention to a sick friend (Mrs Harley) – and again, in performing her duty to the girl whom her husband had seduced – could exert herself, to return the casual civilities of a passenger in the stage coach. I do not recollect any instance in which she is wanting in proper civility or humanity – Nor do I think, your own Caleb Wms, or Falkland, allowing for the different situations in which they are placed, less absorbed in their
own peculiar sufferings – & it is those individual sufferings which constitute the interest. Whether it is natural to love, or to hope, with so little encouragement, cannot be a question with me – and I intended this book to be a memento of my own folly or madness, call it which you please! Again, you wish my heroine to reproach herself with having tried to seduce the affections of a married man when she knew not that he was married. This might be ‘dramatic’, but excuse me for saying, it is a morality I shou’d disdain – nor do I feel any thing reprehensible in the unpremeditated conversation in the library, during the storm – If there was guilt in any part of it, the guilt belonged only to Augustus – And again, I repeat, I professed to draw no perfect or sublime characters. My aim was merely to shew, & I searched into my own heart for the model, the possible effects of the present system of things, & the contradictory principles which have bewilder’d mankind, upon private character, & private happiness.
It is true, I feel, that it wou’d have been infinitely more interesting had my heroine been beloved, but this wou’d not have been the story I meant it should be, & to this scarce^ly^ any of the sentiments wou’d have been appropriate – It would also in my opinion have had less originality – in short, it would have made
a totally different characters. As to my philosophical letters, it is a hobby-horsical subject with me, & I doubt I shall not be able to prevail upon myself to omit them, nor am I at all conscious of ‘misrepresenting’ or ‘unfairly’ attempting to ‘crush’ my opponent, nor ^neither^ am I yet able to comprehend the difference between me & this respected opponent.
Your remarks on my heroines ‘vanity’ made me smile, you are right, she is vain, & so am I, I will try to correct this foible in bo
All your other criticisms, I will attentively revise & consider, when my mind regains its elastic powers. That you think the MS worth mending is praise – In some cases, I may be obstinate, but I will not be idle. When you next visit me3 bring this letter, & let us calmly talk the matter over. The trouble you have taken is a real favour conferr’d – I feel the powers of yr goodness, your friendship – words wou’d inadequately express those feelings.
Address: Wm Godwin | Somers Town | 25 – Chalton Street
1 MH 0021, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 456-59. Godwin called on Hays the morning of 11 May, apparently bringing with him a critique of her MS. of Emma Courtney, a critique that carried with it suggestions of considerable re-writing that took Hays by surprise and left her with considerable consternation. See the following letter for more on this. As Hays's responses reveal, Godwin had issues (as many readers did) with Harley's prolonged indifference to Emma yet Emma's dogged loved for him, a situation in which passion dominates over reason known all too well to Hays (and solidly grounded in her theory of the passions derived from her reading of Lavater) and one she refused to alter in her novel.
2 Lines from Fable III, "The Mother, the Nurse, and the Fairy," from John Gay's Fables.
3 Godwin will visit Hays again on 13 May.