Mary Hays, novelist and radical Unitarian and feminist in the 1790s, grew up in Gainsford Steet, Southwark, and attended the Particular Baptist Church in Blackfields during the ministries of John Dolman. John Langford, and Michael Brown, the latter becoming an Arian in the 1780s, as did Mary Hays, primarily through the influence of Robert Robinson, Baptist minister at Cambridge. Hays left the Gainsford Street chapel in the early 1790s and joined at Salters’ Hall in 1792, attending as well at the Essex Street Chapel, where Theophilus Lindsey and John Disney ministered. Hays had four sisters and two brothers. Her father died in 1774, the same year as Mary Scott’s father. Her early love interest with John Eccles ended with his death just prior to their marriage. She never married.
Her first work, Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public Worship (1792), was a critique of Gilbert Wakefield’s pamphlet on public worship. This introduced her more fully into the London circle of Unitarians, including the publisher Joseph Johnson, as well as George Dyer and Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Eliza Fenwick. The next year she published Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793), followed by the novel Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) (about her friendship with William Frend), Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798, but written in 1792 during her friendship with Wollstonecraft); another novel, The Victim of Prejudice, appeared in 1799, and her acclaimed Female Biography, or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries (6 vols, 1803). Her outspoken feminism made her a target of some more conservative writers, such as Elizabeth Hamilton in Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800-01), and in Edmund Oliver (1798) by Charles Lloyd. Two of Benjamin Flower’s classmates at John Ryland’s academy in the late 1760s, John Dunkin and William Hills, both from the Blackfields church, were known to Mary Hays; Dunkin married her eldest sister, Joanna (1754-1805), and Hills' brother, Thomas (1753-1803), married another sister, Sarah (1756-1836). Hays's youngest sister, Marianna (1773-1797) died in December 1797 after a short marriage to Edward Palmer (1771-1831), brother of Samuel Palmer (1775-1848), father of the Romantic artist, Samuel Palmer (1805-81). In 1808, J. T. Rutt’s nephew, George Wedd, married Mary Hay’s niece, Sarah Dunkin, further connecting Hays to several Unitarian families as well her close friend, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), whose diary, reminiscences, and correspondence are a treasure-trove of material on Mary Hays and her many family members. In fact, it is Robinson who reveals the previously unknown fact that Mary Hays was the aunt of the feminist novelist, journalist, and actress, Matilda Mary Hays (1820-97).
For more on Hays and her networks of friends and family members, see A. F. Wedd, ed., The Love-Letters of Mary Hays (1779-1780) (London: Methuen, 1925), Marilyn L. Brooks, ed., The Correspondence (1779-1843) of Mary Hays, British Novelist (Lewiston, ME: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004); Gina Luria Walker, Mary Hays (1759–1843): The Growth of a Woman’s Mind (Surrey, 2005); Gina Luria Walker, The Idea of being Free: A Mary Hays Reader (Peterborough, ON, 2005); Timothy Whelan, “Mary Hays and Henry Crabb Robinson,” The Wordsworth Circle 46.3 (2015), 176-90; Timothy Whelan, “Mary Steele, Mary Hays and the Convergence of Women’s Literary Circles in the 1790s,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.4 (2015), 511-24; Timothy Whelan, "Elizabeth Hays and the 1790s Feminist Novel," The Wordsworth Circle 48.3 (2017), 137-51; Timothy Whelan, "Mary Hays and Dissenting Culture, 1770-1810," The Wordsworth Circle 50 (2019), 318-47; and Fatal Errors; or, Poor Mary-Anne, a Tale of the Last Century, by Elizabeth Hays Lanfear, ed. Timothy Whelan and Felicity James (London: Routledge, 2019).