Critical Review (1803)

Critical Review, 2nd Series 37 (April 1803), 415-24.


Female Biography; or, Memoirs of illustrious and celebrated Women, of all Ages and Countries. Alphabetically arranged. By Mary Hays. 6 Vols. 12mo. 1l. 11s. 6d. Boards. Phillips. 1803. 

     Many are the disputes which have been agitated concerning the comparative superiority or inferiority of the two sexes; in the course of which, the disputants have generally appeared to us too warm and too eager in their partialities, to admit a suitable compromise, or appeal, from theory and romance, to experience and the evidence of facts. In the present state of the controversy, it is probable that the work before us has been compiled to counteract the contempt in which some yet hold the female mind; and in this intention it cannot fail to produce a powerful diversion in favor of the latter. Here, indeed, are ample materials, by which contending options may be repelled or confirmed. Those who exalt the capacity of the fair sex must expect to be asked for proofs; and what more striking than a body of evidence, which comprehends the characters and actions of the most illustrious women of all nations? For producing such a testimony Miss Hays will probably receive the thanks of her sex; and, although we shall have occasion to produce some objections of considerable weight, we cannot, upon the whole, deny her the praise of much laudable zeal and industry. If she disappoint any expectations, she may console herself by the reflexion, that expectations on such a subject will be guided by prejudices and opinions, of which she could have no knowledge, and against which she could make no preparation.

        The volumes contain the lives of above two hundred and eighty females, who have been celebrated for virtue, wisdom, or fortitude, by authors of various nations, and Ballard, Bayle, and Gibbons; the Dictionnaire Historique, Biographium Faemineium, and some individual historians. The whole is compiled in a neat and uniform style, and, with some few exceptions, 'every character has been judged upon its own principles; the reflexions, sparingly interwove, have been such as naturally arose out of the subject; nor has the author ever gone out of her way in favor of sects and systems.'

        In her preface, Miss Hays has endeavored to obviate the objection, that 'but little new is brought forward in this work.' But this was merely unnecessary. Much novelty could not be expected in a compilation which boasts no other resources than are in every common library. For all the purposes of her compilation, it appeared sufficient to take the accounts reputed most authentic, to change the style for the sake of uniformity, and abridge the histories where thy appeared too prolix. Of what, therefore, she found in books, she seems to have made a judicious use; and it was assuredly unnecessary for her to repeat the researches of a Ballard or a Walpole, who had already collected the only materials which research could have procured.

        We shall, however, now advert to a plea, in which, we are of opinion, she has not been so successful. It occurs in preface, p. vi. [what follows here is a quotation from p. vi.]

        To this argument we cannot agree. Elizabeth and Catharine, although absolute monarchs in the common meaning of the word, had their counselors and advisers; and many of their actions were performed in concert with other sovereigns. We know not, and never can know, to whom the real merit of many actions is to be attributed, which are nominally the actions of an absolute prince. But Miss Hays's [417] opinion has led her to give a biography of these monarchs, and of Mary queen of Scots, wholly disproportioned to the rest of the work. The life of Catharine extends to 423 pages, that of Elizabeth to 220 (did she deserve this reduction of allowance?), and that of Mary to 286. It must, we candidly think, immediately strike the reader, that these lives are thus extended, merely because extensive materials were at command, and scarcely required more than transcription; while, on the other hand, it is equally obvious, that they increase the bulk and price of the work, without contributing int he same proportion to its moral purposes. If the fair sex be to be taught by examples, it I useless to point their attention to those exalted stations, which, in the present state of society, can never be attained by merit. In Catharine II. as a woman, we see nothing but what is grossly repugnant to the delicacy of the sex; and, as a sovereign, we are perhaps too near the period of her reign tone able to separate the true from the false. While we dwell upon this subject, indeed, we may further object, that her being entered upon the muster-roll at all is not consistent with Miss Hays's plan, if the following words in the preface have any meaning: -- she professes to have admitted but few 'who have come nearer to our own times, for reasons unnecessary to be detailed.' But why unnecessary? why are we to have no explanation of a rule arbitrarily laid down, and as arbitrarily broken? Catharine is not the only woman of recent date who is honored with a place in these Memoirs: -- we have madame Roland, and Mrs. Chapone, but not a word of Mrs. (Wollstonecraft) Godwin, who, according to the obvious intention of the author,  ought to have been admitted as the champion of her sex, and the reviver of the sexual controversy.

         With respect to madame Roland's life, we have the same objection as to that of Catharine: it occupies more than 200 pages, and is principally a transcript form her own Memoirs; and we are very doubtful whether the life of such a woman, in which the romantic spirit and egregious vanity of the original are preserved,  can contribute much to the honor or edification of her sex. We have yet a more serious objection to the retention of an abominable word in this memoir, with which we are surprised that any lady should ever have contaminated her pages. Madame de Maintenon is also allowed a far greater proportion than the life of an artful courtesan, whatever her talents, deserves in a work intended to dignify the female character, and instruct the female mind. As to the life of Ninon de l'Enclos, we shall on say that we hope there are not many ladies who can read it without a blush, and some degree of indignation at being entrapped into [418] the biography of a prostitute, whose passions even the extremity of old age could never repress.    

         We are sorry that we have been led to offer so many objections to what constitutes a large proportion of this work; but we trust it will be found, upon reflexion, that our objections are serious and important. To minuter imperfections, we shall not descend*; but shall at once present our readers with a fair specimen of the general execution of the work, in an extract from the life of Mrs. Macaulay Graham, the materials of which are original, and, our readers will perceive, worked up con amore

     After a short account of her family, Miss Hays thus details the early studies and rising genius of Mrs. Graham. [what follows is a long quotation from the account of Mrs. Macaulay.] [418-424]




         In this account, the reader will observe that panegyric has, in a great measure, supplanted biographical fidelity. The peculiar circumstances of Mrs. Macaulay's marriages are sunk, by omitting the dates; and even the age of the lady is not mentioned, nor any notice taken of the success of her history, which proved to the booksellers a most unfortunate speculation.

         From the remarks already made, our opinion of this work may be collected: it is certainly more ample than any preceding work of the kind, and sufficiently copious in entertainment. Curiosity, at least, will be gratified; but the higher purposes of biography have not, in all instances, been studied, nor have the distinctions between greatness and goodness been always preserved. The search has been for heroines -- a species of beings, who, with us, stand in no higher favor than heroes, seldom the benefactors, and frequently the disturbers, of the peace of mankind.


* A singular instance occurs in the life of Mrs. Centlivre. It is said, 'Eustace and Budgell were of the number of her acquaintance.' Surely no person conversant in literary history would wish to increase Mrs. Centlivre's acquaintance, by dividing Eustace Budgell into two persons.