I have long believed, and occasionally posted, that Jane Austen, from her teenage years right up to her death, was a passionate admirer of the writings and ideas of the radical protofeminist Mary Hays, author of the famous radical novel, Memoirs of Emma Courtney.
In light of our recent scrutiny of JA’s May 1801 epistolary description of Mr. Pickford being “as raffish in his appearance as I would wish every disciple of Godwin to be", I decided to dig a little, to see if that phrase “disciple of Godwin” had any contemporary resonance:
And boy did I get a right number on that hunch! Consider that:
“In her first book Letters and Essays (1793), Mary Hays declared herself “a disciple of Godwin” (per Derek Roper); and
During the 1790’s Mary Hays “was attacked by the Anti-Jacobin Review as “a disciple of Godwin” for her portrayal of vicious lords and virtuous commoners,”; and
Also during the 1790’s , Mary Hays was (misogynistically) referred to (per Gina Luria Walker’s The Idea of Being Free: A Mary Hays Reader) as “ ‘Mrs.Woolstonecraft’s baldest disciple’—likely a reference to Hays’s hair, which continued as a subject of satire.”; and finally
In a 1799 issue of The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine we find “Dialogue in the Shades, between Lucian and a disciple of Godwin” which ridicules Godwin’s ideas by a parody of them mouthed by the caricature of a pompous foolish Greek philosopher.
So, when JA, in her May 1801 letter, joked about Mr. Pickford being “as raffish in his appearance as a disciple of Godwin”, I believe JA had Mary Hays very specifically in mind, and expected CEA to recognize that veiled allusion. My guess is that in 1801 JA did not feel safe mentioning Hays by name in a letter that CEA would have had to show to politically conservative friends at Kintbury.
I then dug a little deeper still, and found a very interesting and substantial textual clue, that further bolsters what I have long claimed, which is that Godwin’s Caleb Williams is a key subtext for Northanger Abbey….
…Now I see that Mary Hays, who was so closely aligned with Godwin (the word “disciple” conjuring up Jesus with his apostles or Plato with his students), is part of that same politically radical (or, “Jacobin”, in the lingo of reactionaries of that era) subtextual matrix in NA.
To make a prima facie case in support of that claim, all I need to do is quote at length from the Preface to Hays’s 1796 Memoirs of Emma Courtney, and (speaking like Lydia Bennet) if you cannot guess which passage in Northanger Abbey is based upon it, I shall think you an inattentive reader, for there is one passage in NA which is multiply resonant of Hays’s Preface:
“The most interesting, and the most useful, fictions, are, perhaps, such, as DELINEATING the progress, and tracing the consequences, of one strong, indulged, passion, or prejudice, afford materials, by which the philosopher may calculate THE POWERS OF THE HUMAN MIND, and learn the springs which set it in motion—'Understanding, and talents,' says Helvetius, 'being nothing more, in men, than the produce of their desires, and particular situations.' Of the passion of terror Mrs Radcliffe has made admirable use in her ingenious romances.—In the novel of Caleb Williams, curiosity in the hero, and the love of reputation in the soul-moving character of Falkland, fostered into ruling passions, are drawn with a masterly hand. …
...Every writer who advances principles, whether true or false, that have a tendency to set the mind in motion, does good. Innumerable mistakes have been made, both moral and philosophical: —while covered with a sacred and mysterious veil, how are they to be detected? From various combinations and multiplied experiments, truth, only, can result. Free thinking, and free speaking, are the virtue and the characteristics of a rational being: there can be no argument which mitigates against them in one instance, but what equally mitigates against them in all; every principle must be doubted, before it will be examined and proved.
It has commonly been the business of fiction to pourtray characters, not as they really exist, but, as, we are told, they ought to be—a sort of ideal perfection, in which nature and passion are melted away, and jarring attributes wonderfully combined. In DELINEATING the character of Emma Courtney, I had not in view these fantastic models: I meant to represent her, as a human being, loving virtue while enslaved by passion, liable to the mistakes and weaknesses of our fragile nature.
…Whether the incidents, or the characters, are copied from life, is of little importance—The only question is, if the circumstances, and situations, are altogether improbable? If not—whether the consequences might not have followed from the circumstances?—This is a grand question, applicable to all the purposes of education, morals, and legislation—and on this I rest my moral—'Do men gather figs of thorns, or grapes of thistles?' asked a moralist and a reformer.
Every possible incident, in works of this nature, might, perhaps, be rendered probable, were a sufficient regard paid to the more minute, delicate, and connecting links of the chain. Under this impression, I chose, as the least arduous, a simple story—and, even in that, the fear of repetition, of prolixity, added, it may be, to a portion of indolence, made me, in some parts, neglectful of this rule:—yet, in tracing the character of my heroine from her birth, I had it in view. For the conduct of my hero, I consider myself less responsible—it was not his memoirs that I professed to write.
I am not sanguine respecting the success of this little publication. It is truly observed, by the writer of a late popular novel [The Monk]—'That an author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom every body is privileged to attack; for, though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment—contempt and ridicule:—a good one excites envy, and (frequently) entails upon its author a thousand mortifications.' To the feeling and the thinking few, this production of an active mind, in a season of impression, rather than of leisure, is presented.”
Is it not obvious that this passage was very specifically and multiply alluded to by JA in her famous “defense of the novel” in Chapter 5 of NA? :
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our PRODUCTIONS have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only GENIUS, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels--Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which THE GREATESTS POWERS OF THE MIND are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest DELINEATION of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it. “
And note also that Hays’s discussion of “the probable” is directly echoed elsewhere in NA, and Hays’s comment about her delineation of imperfect characters surely was recalled by JA when she famously wrote to niece Fanny: “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked”
So, whoever Mr. Pickford was, what is now very clear to me is that JA was herself, if not a disciple of Godwin, at least a disciple of one of Godwin’s and Wollstonecraft’s most passionate, articulate, (and feminist) disciples---Mary Hays, bad hair, maybe, but great mind, heart & soul.
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