Scholars of British women writers of the 1790s have long wished for a book-length critical biography of Mary Hays. Now Gina Luria Walker fulfills that wish with a study that combines a comprehensive and absorbing portrait of Hays's life with integrated readings of her entire corpus. Walker has already produced a substantial body of Hays scholarship as well as edited the Garland Press series, The Feminist Controversy in England, 1788–1810, that brought out facsimile editions of several works by Hays and numerous texts significant to her intellectual development. Mary Hays (1759–1843) extends that achievement by situating Hays in the London circles of rational dissent and radical publishing. In these communities, she encountered the Enlightenment philosophical and scientific ideas that shaped her feminism and determined the direction of both her writing and her life. This biography is an exciting contribution to Hays studies that meets a long-felt need.
Walker's book is divided into three parts of three chapters each. The first section, "Preludes," briefly sketches Hays's early childhood, chronicles her tragically foreshortened engagement to John Eccles, and charts her subsequent immersion in intellectual circles dominated by the radical elite of rational dissent. Hays's relationship with Eccles was a deeply passionate one, well documented in Hays's own compilation and arrangement of their love letters. One might wish for greater detail in the description of Hays's collection regarding ordering, extent of expurgation, and the like. Nevertheless, Walker's admirable reading of the correspondence contextualizes it in the discourse of conduct and female educational literature, religious rational dissent, Enlightenment philosophy, ladies' magazines, and popular novels, revealing on Hays's part a self-constructed persona of naïve sensibility and forthright desire. Partly for consolation, after Eccles died suddenly and shortly before their marriage was to take place, Hays immersed herself in a course of scholarly training mentored by some of the most radical intellectuals among rational dissenters.
During this period, Hays's life seemed on course for a career marked by intellectual and literary success. Her first appearance in print, "Cursory Remarks on An Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship" (1791), signed "Eusebia," took to task arguments published by controversial, yet admired, dissenting minister Gilbert Wakefield. The pamphlet earned Hays respect from the dissenting community and brought her into acquaintance with William [End Page 177] Frend, who was later to figure in Hays's first novel. Her circle of acquaintances and mentors expanded as she continued to publish and eventually included several of the more radical among religious dissenters. She also became acquainted with Mary Wollstonecraft, who gave her pointed advice on Letters and Essays, Moral, and Miscellaneous (1793) before departing for France. Though Hays's writing frequently aligned her with theological and political radicalism, these early publications gradually brought her a notable degree of respect as a "public woman intellectual" (66).
Part 2, "Promises," finds Hays well integrated into the New College, Hackney circle of rational dissenters, and with developing romantic projections about William Frend. Walker composes a convincing portrait of the effect on Hays of dissenting models of egalitarian heterosexual sociability and companionate marriage that Hays witnessed among the New College tutors and their wives. These women performed their roles as wives and mothers as public functions, meanwhile confirming for Hays the existence of a strong market of serious female readers. Hays left her family home, determined on a life of freedom unconstrained by gender convention, and began to rely on William Godwin as her most significant literary mentor. On Wollstonecraft's return from France, Hays grew close to her as well, and Walker's depiction of the depth of their friendship is one of the particularly satisfying aspects of this biography.
The events leading up to the publication of Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), wherein Hays offered herself to Frend, found herself rejected, and on Godwin's encouragement turned her reactions to these events into a novel, are well known. But Walker's sympathetic yet skeptical reading recasts...