Locating Sources for Mary Hays’s Female Biography, 1795-1803

  In April 1803, a reviewer of Mary Hays’s six-volume Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of all Ages and Countries[1] contended that “[m]uch novelty could not be expected in a compilation which boasts no other resources than are in every common library.” By “common library” the reviewer did not mean private libraries, though some individuals might have owned certain volumes used by Hays, such as works by Pierre Bayle, George Ballard, Thomas Gibbons, David Hume, and John Adams.[2] Most likely the reviewer meant the many circulating and newly formed subscription libraries operating in London in 1803, and in that regard, the writer’s assumption was largely correct. Questions about Hays’s access to such sources for Female Biography were first raised by Gina Luria Walker in the General Introduction to her edition of Hays’s Female Biography in 2013 and reiterated in her Introduction to The Invention of Female Biography in 2018, a volume of carefully researched essays devoted to uncovering and examining Hays’s sources.[3] Nevertheless, questions remain concerning Hays’s acquisition of this substantial body of printed materials. “How and where [Hays] gained access to the more arcane sources she used remains a mystery,” Walker ponders, “because there is no evidence that she accessed the King’s Library, given to the nation by George III, where she might have found a wealth of material.” Complicating the situation is the fact that “we have few primary documents that reveal Hays’s activities while she was producing Female Biography or provide information about where and how she obtained the 100 sources that we can document she consulted.”[4]

             We know from Hays’s correspondence that she was assisted by some of her friends, most likely William Tooke, Sr. (1744-1820) and his son, William Tooke, Jr. (1777-1863), or their neighbor, Thomas Richard Underwood (1772-1835), or her Unitarian friends John Aikin (1747-1821) and Rochemont Barbauld (1749-1808), or her collaborator at the Analytical Review, George Gregory (1754-1808), to loan her books from their own libraries or from the various libraries to which they had access either through subscriptions or friends who were members. It is also possible that Hays or other members of her large family, such as her mother, Elizabeth Judge Hays (c. 1730-1812), her younger sister Elizabeth (1765/6-1825), or her wealthy brother-in-law John Dunkin, Jr. (1753-1827), already owned some of the books she used, books that may have resided with her family from her childhood. Her life as a Baptist merchant’s daughter would certainly have afforded Hays a degree of affluence reflected in a family library well-stocked in divinity, nonconformist sermons, history, and poetry.  Nor was she prohibited after 1795 from purchasing new or used books herself, for her annuity from her father’s estate (about 40£ a year) and proceeds from her work as a professional writer enabled her to live on her own for the next fourteen years, first as a tenant and then as head of household. Nevertheless, Hays could not have accessed the slightly more than 100 titles necessary to compose 300 biographies of women by relying on her friends and family members or making purchases from her own funds. Completing her task required access not only to private libraries (which may well have included Dr. Williams’s Library) but also to the circulating and subscription libraries and large bookshops (like Lackington's "Temple of the Muses") in London, some of which she may have frequented since the late 1770s.  An examination of the published catalogues and subscription lists of a select group of these libraries and bookshops not only provides compelling evidence of the availability of the sources Hays needed for Female Biography but also offers insights into the strategic importance of her move to central London and the social connections she developed as a professional writer between 1795 and 1803. 

For a complete discussion of her use of libraries, see Timothy Whelan, “Circulating Libraries and Private Networks: Locating Sources for Mary Hays’s Female Biography, 1795-1803,” forthcoming in The Library.


[1]     Hays’s Female Biography was published in 1803 by Richard Phillips (1767-1840), who operated next door to Joseph Johnson in St. Paul’s Churchyard and who, like Johnson, was a dissenter and had published Hays in a variety of forms since 1796.

[2]    Critical Review, 2nd Series 37 (April 1803), 415. According to another reviewer, these “common” sources were George Ballard’s Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (1752); Pierre Bayle’s Dictionaire Historique, published in English as An Historical and CriticalDictionary (1710, 1734, 1738); Thomas Gibbons’s Memoirs of Eminently Pious Women (1777) and The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey (1792); and Biographium Fæmineum. The Female Worthies: or, Memoirs of the Most Illustrious Ladies, of All Ages and Nations (1766). See Monthly Magazine 25 (June 1803), 622.

[3]    Gina Luria Walker, “General Introduction,” in Female Biography, ed. Gina Luria Walker, vol. 1 (London: Chawton House Library series, Pickering & Chatto, 2013-14), xi-xxxviii; Gina Luria Walker, “Introduction,” in The Invention of Female Biography, ed. Gina Luria Walker (London and New York: Routledge Press, 2018), 3-18. The latter volume contains 13 essays exploring both named and unnamed sources for the 300 women whose lives were depicted in Hays’s Female Biography

[4]     Walker, “Introduction,” 9, 13.

Examination of the Titles of Sources for Mary Hays’s Female Biography and their Locations in the Catalogues of 6 Circulating Libraries, 2 Subscription Libraries, Dr Williams’s Library, and Lackington’s and Annereau's bookshops, 1778-1829


0 titles appear in all 11 libraries 

5 titles appear in 8 libraries

5 titles appear in 7 libraries 

5 titles appear in 6 libraries

11 titles appear in 5 libraries

4 titles appear in 4 libraries

18 titles appear in 3 libraries

31 titles appear in 2 libraries 

24 titles appear in only 1 library of which 13 are only at Hookhams.

103 titles total

Five libraries:

Hookham, Lackington, Lane, Bell, and Boosey:  100 titles 

Hookham, Lane, Bell, Boosey, and DWL: 97 titles

Hookham, Lane, Bell, Boosey, and Ogilvy: 94 titles

Hookham, Lane, Bell, Boosey, and Annereau: 94 titles

Hookham, Lane, Bell, Boosey, and London Library: 93 titles

Hookham, Lane, Bell, Boosey, and London-Westminster: 92 titles


Four libraries:

Hookham, Lackington, Lane, and Bell: 96 titles

Hookham, Lane, Bell, and Boosey: 92 titles

Hookham, Lane, Bell, and Annereau: 90 titles

Hookham, Lane, Boosey, and Annereau: 90 titles

Hookham, Lane, Bell, and London Library: 89 titles

Hookham, Lane, Boosey, and London Library: 89 titles

Three libraries:

Hookham, Lackington, and Lane: 91 titles

Hookham, Lane, and Boosey: 88 titles

Hookham, Lane, and Bell: 87 titles

Hookham, Bell, and Boosey: 83 titles

Hookham, Lane, and London Library: 82 titles

Hookham, Bell, and London Library: 78 titles

Hookham, Boosey, and London Library: 76 titles


Two libraries:

Hookham and Lackington: 80 titles

Hookham and Lane:  79 titles

Hookham and Boosey: 77 titles

Hookham and London Library: 77 titles

Hookham and Bell: 75 titles

Hookham and Westminster-London Library: 68 titles

Works possibly used by Hays but not yet located in one or more of these libraries:

1.    Balzac, J. Le Socrate Chretien (Paris, 1652). 

2.   Batchiler, John. The virgins pattern, in the exemplary life and lamented death of Mrs. Susanna Perwich, daughter of Mr. Robert Perwich, who departed this life .. July 3, 1661: published at the earn[est] request of divers that knew her well, for the use and benefit of others. London, 1661.

3.   Bryant, J. A New System or Analysis of Ancient Mythology, 2 vols (London, 1774). 

4.   Buckeridge, B. An Essay Towards an English School of Painters (London, J. Nutt, 1706). Usually bound with R. Piles, The Art of Painting (London 1754).

5.   Chaudon, L. M. Noveau dictionaire historique ou, Histoire abregee de tous les hommes . . . (Paris, 1779).

6.   Du Bois, D. The Case of Ann Countess of Anglesy (London, 1766).

7.    Hopton, Susanna. A Collection of Meditations and Devotions (1717). 

8.    Kennett, W. A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Right Noble William Duke of Devonshire, in the Church of All-Hallows, in Derby, on Friday, September 5, 1707, with Some Memoirs of the Family of Cavendish (London, 1797). 

9.   Prude, John. A Sermon at the Funeral of the Learned and Ingenious Mrs. Ann Baynard (London, 1697). 

10.  Remond, Florimond de. History of Heresy