27-29 December 1795
Mary Hays, [30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden], to William Godwin, [25 Chalton Street, Somers Town], undated [begun prior to 27 December and finished shortly after that date, probably by the 29th].1
I love to flatter myself sometimes, as well as to be flatter’d, & I felt a pleasure in believing your last visit,2 so prompt, so immediately succeeding my letter, was a new instance of your kindness & friendship. I am affected by the pains you take to heal & benefit my wayward mind, still more by the humane & delicate consideration which, amidst your just reproofs, you shew for my feelings, & I grieve that those pains have not been more efficacious! Yet I must indeed have been insensible, & unworthy of your benevolent exertions had they not produced some powerful consequences. Yes! your writings, which fell into my hands at a critical period, & your subsequent conversations have greatly relieved me, & will, I hope, at length rescue me from a more than poetical despondency. – But some severe struggles, I doubt, are still in reserve for me. You have inspired me with confidence, & I will one day (I cannot, at present, say when) draw up for your perusal a sketch of the incidents, few & therefore distinctly marked, which have formed my character.3 I am encouraged to hope, that this may not be wholly uninteresting to you, & I will study to be brief. I consider you as my mind’s physician, I ought therefore to give you an opportunity of forming a full & candid judgement of my case: my
confidences ^communications^ will be of a delicate nature, they must there^fore^ be held sacred, to yourself alone!
I sometimes blush after you have left me from the recollection of the many follies & weaknesses I have betray’d; among which feminine foibles make no inconsiderable share: I mean, by feminine foibles, those errors which result from the present absurd systems of female education. There is a tenacity in some parts of my character, a proneness to habit, which makes the reformation of my mistakes at a great distance from their detection: this, perhaps, proceeds from the small number of my impressions, their consequent force & distinctness!
You have charged me I think, with sometimes explaining away in conversation the positions I have stated on paper, if this indeed be the case, it can arise only from two causes, the one, a want of clearness in forming, & precision in stating, my opinions; the other, some new point of view in which your observations place them; the latter, I frequently experience, & consequently have no written memorial to refer to, but am obliged to trust to my recollection, a recollection often harassed & disturbed by a variety of different impressions.
I think I can, now, clearly distinguish the terms cause & effect from antecedent & consequent – the former imply knowledge, the latter confess
es ignorance – but I do not, at present, find from the distinction any very important changes produced in my preconceived notions. We certainly have no other ground for the expectation of successive events than our previous experience, but that does not, altogether, prove to me, whether there may, or may not, be between them a strict, necessary, connection. Arrangement, and adaptation, will equally suit my hypothesis of design to a designer. – To use your illustration, if the pictures in my library are constantly hung in certain forms, that exhibit each in its proper light & most advantageous point of view, both with respect to itself and those which surround it, my taste & judgment will be evidently inferr’d, tho’ the pictures have no necessary relation to each other. – This, perhaps, you will call trifling, but I confess, the difficulties of atheism appear to me, at present, equally, if not still more, insuperable than those of theism. – or, at least, I am inclined to say, with Madame Roland – ‘When I walk, or muse, in a reflecting humour, with my soul at peace, in the midst of a rural scene, the charms of which I enjoy, I find it delicious to refer all these blessings to a supreme intelligence. I then love, & wish to believe in such a one. It is only amidst the dust of the closet, in growing pale over books, or in the vortex of the world, in breathing the corruption of man, that sentiment withers, & that a melancholy reason expands amidst the clouds of doubt & the vapours of incredulity.’4 Excuse this quotation, it is some time, I believe, since I have greatly offended in this way.
Respecting the subject of friendship & the affections, we do not, I have a notion, greatly differ. I have before hinted my approbation of the general principles which you have stated, in your second edition,5 upon those topics. In the first, I own, I was a little alarmed, because I thought the opinions there advanced liable to be misconstrued, and wrested into an apology for libertinism. Every species of gross intemperance, I confess, excites in my mind the same sensations of disgust & abhorrence, which I feel from observing the swine wallowing in the mire: drunkenness, gluttony,6 all excessive sensuality, appear to me mean, vile, selfish, sordid, degrading propensities, which have a tendency to quench all that is grand, affecting, & elevating, in the human mind. This may, in part, be the effect of taste & habit, but I conceive it to be chiefly deduced from a much higher principle: yet, I am neither cold, prudish, nor affected – chaste, virtuous, & individual, affection, I believe to be one of the highest, most delicate, & most ineffable, sources, of our satisfactions – the libertine, even as a mere voluptuary, I should suspect is impolitic, & only brutalizes, true pleasure must result from all the complicated, affecting, generous, associations & sympathies, which give to rational nature, on all occasions, its exalted pre-eminence. You have given me encouragement to scribble to you without reserve, & you may perceive how I avail myself of it – when I weary you hint to me, that a land too much exhausted shou’d sometimes lay fallow for a while, to recruit itself & recover its fertility. I need not add, the satisfaction I always experience from your society, because it must be sufficiently evident. Do not be ceremonious about hours, you wou’d not wish to find me idle, I trust, I have a great deal of the social passion, & can cheerfully lay by every employment, whether domestic or otherwise, for the higher gratification of friendship and conversation. The hour you last call’d was perfectly conventional & agreeable to me, & if I wish’d it had been earlier, it was merely that your visit might have been longer.
I am grown idle, or dissipated, or my attention has been distracted, I can scarcely tell which, but I had intended copying fair the little I had written towards my projected work, & troubling you with it as a specimen, but I can find no time, am always busy, yet do nothing.
Thus far I had written before I met you in Newman Street, & I send it you merely in compliance with your request.7
I felt as if I had disgusted your friend by interrupting the discussion on Sunday evening; I cou’d perceive his politeness struggled with his sensations; he was on the point of replying to what you had last advanced, when I seized the interval of conversation to take my leave, to which I was reluctantly impell’d by various motives. I confess, I felt inclined to take Mr Holcroft’s side in the argument, for tho’ your observations, within certain limits, were incontrovertibly just, I cannot but think, that there has been a great waste of attention and intellect in continually repeating the same facts & going over the same ground. Past experience, undoubtedly, affords the only
data ^basis^ for future enquiries, but I do not perceive the utility of endless repetition, ought we not rather to press forward, when we have once established our data, than be content thus to tread in a circle? Shall I likewise add, that highly as I reverence criticism, I cannot help suspecting, that there has been a great deal of superstitious, laborious, trifling, among commentators on ancient literature. I am probably giving a proof of presumption by thus hazarding my opinions, but I trust them to your candour, & shall be willing to receive further information on the subject.
I like your friend, tho’ I can perceive his faults, they appear to me to rise out of a generous source – Where there is A, B, C, (says Lavater) there will be D, E, F – the excess of our virtues shade, almost imperceptibly, into vices, but I could forgive a thousand errors in a frank, energetic, ardent, mind! they are the luxuriant branches of a vigorous plant, they grow on the stem of virtue, &, not unfrequently, enrich, ultimately, the soil which gave them birth – ‘A God, an animal, a plant, are not companions for man, nor are the faultless.’ Could we wholly eradicate,8 what appears to us, the foibles of every estimable character, we shou’d, perhaps, destroy the ferment which gives rise to their highest excellencies. What are energies, but passions? &, in the present imperfect state of things, those passions will, at times, necessarily degenerate into excess.9
You accused me, of not seeming to participate in the hilarity of the circle, on Sunday, shall I own, the party was too large for me; I did not feel at ease, & beside, my attention was occupied by observing them individually. I have no great relish for what is term’d wit and humour, I never had, this will, perhaps, injure me in your estimation, I cannot help it, when I write to you I write confessions. I am excessively selfish, I feel the social passion ardently & intensely, but my heart & my understanding only delight to expand the small circle of affection & friendship. I cherish a benevolence for, & wish well to, all mankind, to every rational, to every sensitive, being, & shou’d rejoice to be aiding, in the smallest degree, the grand effort for the melioration, for the happiness of society, & yet, inconsistent that I am, my attachments have the narrowness & the tenacity of a savage. – I cou’d trace all this, step by step, I could analyse into its first & simplest principles, &, while I perceive & feel, deplore the fatal mechanism! Instead of reproving me for the melancholy which too frequently pervades my
mind ^spirit^, did you know all I have suffer’d, & how much I have been excruciated by high-wrought feelings, by a peculiar combination of circumstances, you would rather wonder at my mind’s elasticity! Still, I am not ‘ill-humour’d’, as a proof of it, I have always been beloved by my family, my friends, my acquaintance, & domestics. – So careful am I not to inflict pain, that I wou’d put myself to great inconvenience rather than, wilfully, wound & incommode a reptile in my path. I pant for happiness myself, & I wou’d, had I the power, universally communicate it. – Sorrow has softened my heart, but not sour’d it, in early life I was irascible, but the fervor of my temper is now almost subdued; my sufferings have not been of a nature to create asperity because I have no injuries to complain of – I have known only good & humane people, if they have wounded me, it has not been intentionally, ^but^ either from being unable to conceive my feelings, or from unavoidable circumstances. I have met with no ingratitude, no deception, neither treachery nor profligacy, were I to judge of the world merely from the part of it with which I have been conversant, my judgement wou’d, indeed, be most favorable! – I hate suspicion, I have no distrusts, I delight to confide, & I confide fearlously – yet, much of misery has been my portion, but that misery has arisen out of general rather than individual mistakes. I will not apologize, my heart unfolds itself to you with pleasure, because it is persuaded that you understand its emotions – I know nothing of physiognomy, I have little discernment in mind if, notwithstanding your philosophy & advancement, you have not possess’d a great share of those exquisite sensibilities which prey on me. I am proud of, I rejoice in your, friendship, & I hope, still, to reap from it further benefits.
I have been reading your chapter on good & evil,10 the observations it contains are just, wise, & benevolent, but the picture of human misery ^is^ but too real! – Hence, in all ages, the ardent yearnings after immortality!
1 MS MH 0024, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 417-21.
2 Hays's visit with Godwin occurred on 16 December.
3 This material would form the basis for Memoirs of Emma Courtney.
4 Taken from the Memoirs of Madame Marie-Jeanne Roland (Manon Phlippon) (1754-93), composed during her time in prison prior to her execution during the Reign of Terror in Paris. She married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière in 1780; both were Girondists and supporters of the French Revolution who fell out of favor with the Jacobins. Mémoires de Madame Roland appeared in 1795, demonstrating the influence of Rousseau.
5 The 2nd edition of Godwin's Political Justice appeared in the autumn of 1795.
6 glutton’y] MS
7 On Sunday evening, 27 December, Hays dined at Holcroft’s residence in Newman Street with Godwin and a large group that included James Perry, Col. Barry, the Unitarian minister John Kentish, and several others, including an “E M.” On Sunday, 3 January 1796, Godwin dines again at Holcroft's, but Godwin does not mention Hays in his diary, which would seem an odd omission for him at this time. Thus, it seems more likely the reference to "Sunday evening" in the following letter of 5 January by Godwin is to the earlier Sunday evening (27th of December) when Hays was in attendance.
8 erradicate] MS
9 Quotations and some paraphrasing in this paragraph are from Lavater's Aphorisms of Man and his De l' Esprit; Hays also used some of this in Letters and Essays (pp. 49, 121) and later in a 1797 article in the Monthly Magazine (pp. 180-81).
10 A chapter in Godwin's Political Justice.