"The Dear-Bought Lessons of Experience": Mary Hays's the Victim of Prejudice and the Empiricist Revision of Burke's Reflections

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The opposition mistook the moral character of the revolution; the ministers mistook its force: and both parties, from pique, resentment, pride, habit, and obstinacy, persisted in acting on these mistakes after they were disabused by experience.

--Sir James Mackintosh

An early defender of the French Revolution's "Rights of Man," Mackintosh denotes the fundamental tension between things as they are and things as they should be, emblematizing the culture of disillusionment that permeated British radical circles in the 1790s. (1) Indeed, some stalwart British adherents to the principles of the French Revolution maintained their allegiance, finding in the Terror only the moral equivalent of "the premeditated cruelty [that] has been invariably practiced by the present enemies of the French Revolution" (James i). Yet in many ways such persistence simply secured the radicals' reputation for political violence and fueled perceptions that the bloodshed in France was symptomatic of something more pathological than aberrant excesses of an otherwise just movement for change. For many erstwhile supporters, it seemed that the Revolution had replaced an absolute monarchy with an absolute state, one that arbitrarily could bestow--rather than one that would honor--natural rights (Hunt 17).

Nevertheless, scholars have often assumed, in some cases rightly, that the Enlightenment program, however distorted by the Revolution, remained for committed reformists the best chance for historical and cultural renewal and a retreat from the superstitions, institutions, and oppressions of the past. In fact, the Revolution's current reputation as a forerunner to modern human rights movements has nourished the idea that competing factions of this time either persisted in their embrace of revolutionary ideals or uncritically rejected even the most innocuous of reform programs. It is less common to examine politically moderate novels of this time as apprehending as much the radical response to systemic injustices as any perceptibly nativist defense of them. This failure to engage the specter of what many erstwhile radicals perceived as a flawed philosophy exhibits what Glenn Burgess has called the "interpretative mood" (64), which serves to transpose current cultural and doctrinal logics onto the era under question. This tendency has hampered insight free from the rigid dichotomy that has historically separated political left and right in postrevolutionary Britain. (2)

It may thus be instructive to revisit the work of the feminist Mary Hays, whose novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799) demonstrates the inadequacy of the right/left dichotomy and reflects the author's attempt to fictionalize through metaphor the importance of enacting reform without resorting to the corrosive and ultimately self-defeating violence of revolution. Hays had earlier hinted of such a movement in her "Thoughts on Civil Liberty" (1793):

The feeble efforts of prejudice and interest must in the end give way to truth, however gradual may be their declining struggles. Most devoutly do I pray that a wise and peaceful reformation of the gross corruptions and abuses which deform the present system of government in this country, may preclude all dreadful extremities; If there be proper laws existing to prevent these shocking depravities, so destructive to the morals, to the population, to the well-being of a country--Say! why, are they not enforced? (14)

By confirming the place of law and constitutional right, Hays rhetorically reminds readers that such laws as they would claim for themselves were neither exclusionary nor discretionary. Hays seemed to recognize the danger of revolution, not for its hopeful effect on the status quo, but its adverse effect on reform movements begun in the years prior to the French Revolution. (3)

There is perhaps little dispute that the Terror forestalled reform efforts in England by the magnitude of its violence. …

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