Monthly Review (1794)

Monthly Review 13 (April 1794), 472-73.

Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous. By Mary Hays. 8vo. pp. 260. 5s. Boards. Knott. 1793.

     Every amateur is not an artist. The fair writer of these letters appears to be a great admirer of metaphysical and theological questions; and has certainly the merit of having exercised her intellectual faculties with freedom, on important subjects not commonly studied by women: – but, in those parts of this volume which touch on these subjects, particularly materialism and necessity, the observations are slight and general; such as will scarcely afford the inquirer after truth much information or satisfaction. They are, in short, nothing more than a faint echo from the Priestleyan school, in which Miss Hays appears to be a devoted disciple. – She is more successful in the field of polite literature. Several domestic tales are related, in the course of these letters, which will be read by young persons with pleasure, and which are adapted to awaken in juvenile minds a desire of mental improvement, to impress them with a sense of the value of religious principles, and at the same time to encourage in them the chastised and regulated exercise of the fancy and affections.

     As a subaltern to Miss Wollstonecraft, the fair writer asserts the independence and dignity of her sex, in the following spirited apostrophe:

     ‘Lovers of truth! be not partial in your researches. Men of sense and science! remember, by degrading our understandings, you incapacitate us for knowing your value, and make coxcombs take place of you in our esteem. The ignorant and the vulgar prove their cunning by leveling principles; but you! how impolitic to throw a veil over our eyes, that we may not distinguish the radiance that surrounds you!

    ‘Objections are also made against the vindication of our rights, under the presence, that by enlarging and ennobling our minds, we shall be undomesticated, and unfitted, (I suppose is meant) for mere household dredges. With the excellent Dr. Priestley, I repeat [433] “this is a sordid and debasing prejudice,” of the fallacy of which I have been convinced both from experience and observation. Numberless women have I known whose studies (incapable of the “epicurism of reason and religion”) have been confined to Mrs. Glasse’s Art of Cookery, and whose whole time has been spent in the kitchen, altercating with and changing of servants, provoking them to dishonesty by mean cautions, and narrow distrust; and immersed in unnecessary and dirty drudgery, have ruined their health, spoilt their tempers, neglected their persons, laid waste their minds, and sacrificed their friends; and after all these expensive forfeitures, have never attained the end; but have (to use a feminine phrase) muddled away their time and money in the disorderly management of hands without a head; been cheated by their dependents, because, neither feeling respect or attachment, they have gloried in outwitting them; and their acquaintance, turning with disgust from their expensive and labored treats, have sighed for the plain dish, the cordial and hospitable manners, “the feast of reason and the flow of souls.” Contrast with this the following picture from Fitzosborne’s charming Letters, “Her refined sense, and extensive knowledge have not raised her above the necessary acquisitions of female science; they have only taught her to fill that part of her character with higher grace and dignity. She enters into all the domestic duties of her station with the most consummate skill and prudence; her economical deportment is calm and steady; and she presides over her family like the intelligence of some planetary orb, conducting it in all its proper directions without violence, or disturbed effort.”

     ‘But the vindicator of female rights is thought by some sagacious married men, to be incompetent to form any just opinion of the cares and duties of a conjugal state, from never having entered the matrimonial lists, because perhaps she has not met with the man who knows how properly to value her, or having met, may, alas! have lost. Wonderful free-masonry this! and ridiculous as wonderful. To be sure those who are eagerly engaged in play, with all their self-interest up in arms, are much better judges of the game than the cool impartial looker on; and a West India Planter must understand the justice of the Slave-Trade far better than an English House of Commons, to say nothing of the very superior and extraordinary political wisdom necessarily belonging to the office of Prime Minister, of which the profane vulgar can form no idea! What nonsense this! Does it need a serious refutation? From such notions (most devoutly I repeat a part of the liturgy) good Lord deliver us.’

     Four small poetical pieces close the volume, which appear to have been the first trembling excursions of an unfledged muse: they are written with ease and feeling, but they do not afford us great encouragement to expect, in future, any very elevated flights into the region of fancy.