Mary Hays Contribution to Charlotte Smiths History

Among the possessions Mary Hays transported from Hatton Garden to her new home in Camberwell in 1803 was a large cache of handwritten notes and papers on British and world history derived from her work on Female Biography. While composing Harry Clinton, she sifted through these notes and by the summer of 1804 had completed what appears to part of volume two and the entirety of volume three of Charlotte Smith’s History of England, from the Earliest Records to the Peace of Amiens. In a Series of Letters to a Young Lady at School. All three volumes were published by Richard Phillips early in 1806. As Smith’s Preface to volume three makes clear, she realized that completion of her task would require “a research into books which I had not access, and a degree of labour which I was quite unable to encounter,” largely due to her poor health and difficult domestic circumstances. Accordingly, Smith requested that Phillips, Hays’s primary publisher since 1796, contract with “a lady, who, I have no doubt, has proved herself competent to her task,”[i] another unfortunate instance of the common eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century use of the appellation “a lady” in prefaces and on title pages, a practice that both created and prolonged anonymity for large numbers of women writers. Hays’s use of and easy access to London’s circulating and subscription libraries (what Smith could not achieve in her isolated situation at Farnham, Surrey), coupled with the extensive notes she had already compiled from her research on Female Biography, made her an easy (and possibly the only) choice for Phillips if he wanted Smith’s History completed in an authoritative and timely fashion. It is doubtful whether any other woman in London in 1804 had read and digested more biographical and historical literature, in both English and French, than Mary Hays.

         Hays’s final draft of her contribution to Smith’s History was reviewed by her friend, John Aikin, Anna Letitia Barbauld’s brother, who then sent it to Phillips. Aikin assured Hays on June 20, 1804, that once published he would see to it that Phillips “settle the balance [of her payment] according to the original conditions.” Unfortunately, what Aikin sent to Phillips far exceeded the limits originally set for the History, which appears to have been only two volumes. Phillips demanded that Hays remove the excess material and provide him with a copy that complied with the original concept of a two-volume edition. She contended that the contract was not clear in that regard and that completion of the history through the Peace of Amiens (1802), as well as content on British manners and culture, required more text than what had originally been allocated for the project. As a result, she expected to be compensated for the work she had already completed, and, if any additions, excisions, or revisions were required, to receive additional remuneration for that work. Aikin served as her mediator in the affair with Phillips, informing her on September 27, 1805, that Phillips did not desire that she

write over again the narrative part of the history; though P. does indeed talk of the necessity of abridging some part of it before it is printed. Perhaps you may have dilated too much upon the interesting themes in Elizabeth’s reign. I will, however, take every thing fairly into consideration, nor do I find in myself (what I perceive you somewhat suspect) a leaning towards the cause of your adversary.


As Aikin’s letter makes clear, Hays’s contribution to Smith’s History began with an account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and continued through much of the reign of George III, a formidable amount of history to cover and the primary reason a third volume was needed to complete that task. 

         Her contractual dispute with Phillips was finally resolved in January or early February 1806, a year and a half after her initial letter from Aikin on the subject. Smith’s History appeared shortly thereafter, in three volumes, not two, a tribute both to Hays’s persistence and Aikin’s mediation. His letters to Hays between 1804 and 1806 reveal fascinating details about a contractual dispute between a woman writer and a male publisher that may have occurred more frequently than we know, given the paucity of records concerning such transactions. Writing to Hays on January 14, 1806 (the letter is incorrectly dated 1805), Aikin informs Hays that he has renewed his “application to Mr Phillips on your account, who positively assures me that the history is printing & that it will be out by Lady day. You may depend upon it that I shall not fail to bring him to a settlement as soon as the estimate can be made, but I believe we must have patience till that time.”[ii] He did indeed fulfill his promise, and a summation of the settlement was sent to Hays, which she kept with Aikin’s January letter. Aikin’s account contains both praise and criticism of Hays, though she emerges the clear victor. He writes, 

It appears to me that Miss Hays has executed her part in a manner not inferior to that of Mrs Smith, & particularly that she has at least as much of the state of manners & society. . . . As the work was taken from her in breach of the original agreement, Miss Hays cannot be expected to take any additional pains to render it more acceptable to Mr Phillips. Nevertheless, if he will supply her with books capable of furnishing more matter relative to manners, I would recommend that she should make some augmentation in this part, at the same rate of payment as the rest.

   I find nothing, therefore, to deduct from Miss Hays’s claim, except such excess of historical matter as may surpass Mr Phillips’s directions, & must be thrown out in the printing. If, also, any skill in authorship is required in reducing such exuberant matter, & Miss Hays does not chuse to take the trouble of it herself, she should make an allowance for the doing it.


The final form of the History indicates that Hays was successful in her suit, resulting in a more substantial publication (she composed nearly half of the History) and what appears to have been an increase in remuneration from Phillips for her work. The hint that Hays was willing to revise the work further if Phillips would “supply her with books capable of furnishing more matter relative to manners” adds further weight to Hays’s continued use of and reliance upon friends and well-connected individuals for access to books, either through their personal libraries, their subscriptions to libraries to which they belonged, or, if a bookseller, his stock of books.


[1] Charlotte, Smith, History of England, from the Earliest Records to the Peace of Amiens. In a Series of Letters to a Young Lady at School (London: R. Phillips, 1806), v, vi.

[2] John Aikin, Stoke Newington, to Mary Hays, [9 St. Georges Place, Camberwell], January 14, 1805 [1806]; click here for text of the letter.