Monthly Review (1797)

Monthly Review 22 (1797), 443-49.


Memoirs of Emma Courtney. By Mary Hays. 12mo. 2 Vols. 6s. Robinsons, 1796.

         These memoirs rise above the class of vulgar novels, which aspire only to divert the unoccupied mind, by occasional illusion, from an irksome attention to the daily occurrences and trivial incidents of real life. The fair writer aims at the solution of a moral problem which is eminently important; viz. whether it be prudent in minds of a superior mould, – whether it will bring to them a greater balance of happiness in the whole account, – to exempt themselves from the common delicacies or hypocrisies of life, and on all occasions to give vent to their wildest feelings, with conscientious sincerity; or patiently to submit to the incumbent mountains of circumstance, without one volcanic effort to shatter the oppressive load into ruin. The authoress informs us that her production is constructed to operate rather as “warning than example,” and thus to rivet the established system of conduct.

             Emma Courtney is a woman of beauty, accomplishment, and poverty: who, in consequence of the death of her father, enters the world as governess to the children of a distant relation. Her first singularity is manifested in soliciting the correspondence of a celebatarian philosopher, who, by encouraging her to reason, gives to the bent of her passions the obstinacy of bigotry. She then falls in love with a necessitous young man, who professes for her the affection of a brother and the esteem of a friend, but whose slender fortune was bequeathed to him on the condition of his abstaining from matrimony. This third Eloisa at length writes to him the following letter:


[what follows here is a selection from a letter to Harley, from Emma Courtney, vol, 1, 150-56]


             Emma afterwards discovers that Augustus is already privately married to a woman whom he dislikes; and she now marries, in despair, a former suitor. Augustus loses his wife, and is brought, wounded by an accident, to Emma’s house; where he is watched with the most affectionate assiduity, but dies in her arms. Her husband’s jealousy is excited: he is guilty of infidelity; next of infanticide, and lastly of suicide. She now devotes herself to the education of her own and her Harley’s child, to whom this narrative is addressed.

            The dying days of Harley are truly pathetic: and the second volume, especially, is deeply impressive. Many remarkable and several excellent reflections are interspersed; and the whole displays great intellectual powers. There are also sentiments which are open to attack, and opinions which require serious discussion: but we leave every reader to form his or her own judgment, on perusal.

             We refrain from minute criticism on plot, incident, or character, in a work which is marked by such uncommon features as those which characterize the present volumes.