Book of the Week: The Love-Letters of Mary Hays, ed A.F. Wedd

The Love-Letters of Mary Hays (1779-1780), edited by her great-great-niece A.F. Wedd, Methuen 1925.

 Tortured by her sensibility, for one blissful year 17-year old Mary Hays enjoyed – or suffered – a romance with John Eccles, a fellow non-conformist who lodged close by her family home in Southwark. Initially opposed by their families, the romance appeared to be approaching a happy conclusion when, shortly before the marriage, John died. However that year had produced an abundance of correspondence, letters treasured by Mary Hays for the rest of her life. In her Introduction to the edited version, her great-great-niece explains how:

 ‘After many years of oblivion, the papers from which this book has been compiled were discovered stored away in a cupboard of the little old house inhabited by the descendants of Mary Hays’s sister “Sister Dunkin”. The Love-Letters, with Mary’s own introduction and notes, had been copied, in the exquisite writing of her friend Mrs Collier, into two volumes, from which the handsome morocco covers, stamped with the initials M.H. and J.E., had fallen.. The other letters, dusty, stained, and nibbled by mice, but still tied in packets and labelled with the names of their famous authors, were contained in a small wooden chest.’

Is that not a researcher’s dream? For, 230 years later, Mary Hays attracts attention. Having struggling to surface from her great grief – it took about 10 years – she turned from letter to book writing, producing novels, polemics – including Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on Behalf of the Women, 1798 – in which she refutes the contemporary rationale for the subjection of women –  and, most importantly, her six volumes of Female Biography, 1802. In these years she moved in the London literary and philosophical circles that included Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, letters from whom are printed at the end of Love-Letters.

By editing these letters Annie Frances Wedd played her part in the renaissance of Mary Hays. In her Introduction she noted that ‘Mary Hays is now unknown; her books are unread; even her connection with the literary celebrities of her day has been forgotten’. However, when the late 20th-century ‘female turn’ in literary studies ensured that novels such as Hays’s Emma Courtney were reprinted, The Love-Letters was there to provide quotable material to place Mary Hays firmly in Mary Wollstonecraft’s circle. Miss Wedd’s Introduction is delightfully tart. She makes clear that, while feeling a sympathy with her forebear, she did not herself suffer from the ‘exquisite sensibility’ that rendered Mary Hays’s days so melancholy – noting, for instance, that when, after Eccles’ death, Mary upbraids ‘the nightingale for not joining in her plaint, as the month was August this was hardly to be expected’.

The book is in very good condition, is quite scarce – £45 (plus postage). To buy contact: e.crawford@sphere20.freeserve.co.uk

 

 

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