Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mary Hays and the Forms of Life

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mary Hays and the Forms of Life

Article excerpt

THE 1790'S RADICAL WRITER MARY HAYS, BEST KNOWN FOR HER BY TURNS painfully earnest and, to some, utterly scandalous 1796 fictional autobiography The Memoirs of Emma Courtney, found it impossible to avoid weighing in on the infamous "Queen Caroline Affair" of 1820. Precipitated by the Queen's return to Britain after many years in exile, having been unceremoniously dismissed by the Prince Regent in favor of his preferred mistress, the divorce trial galvanized public opinion in Britain and became a particular cause celebre of political radicals. (1) Discussing Queen Caroline in her 1821 Memoirs of Queens, Illustrious and Celebrated, Hays invokes Edmund Burke's famous lament for the passing of the age of chivalry in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Describing the collective response to the Queen's ostensibly shabby treatment, Hays writes:

   Burke, had he now lived, would have retracted his assertion, that
   the age of chivalry had passed away; it revived, in all its
   impassioned fervour, amidst the soberest and gravest people in the
   civilized world. Every manly mind shrank from the idea of driving,
   by protracted and endless persecutions, a desolate unprotected
   female from her family, her rank, from society and from the world.
   Woman considered it as a common cause against the despotism and
   tyranny of man.... With the feudal institutions fell the childish
   privileges and degrading homage paid to the sex; and to equity not
   gallantry do they now prefer their claim. Oppression and
   proscription, it is true, still linger, but old things appear to be
   passing away; and, in another century probably, should the progress
   of knowledge bear any proportion to its accelerated march during
   the latter half of the past, all things will become new. (2)

This is a stunning series of claims coming, as they do, from the same writer who twenty years earlier published her novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799), often referred to as a female version of William Godwin's 1796 Caleb Williams. Whereas the Hays of 1799 would have argued in stark contrast to Burke that chivalry was alive and well in the form of "barbarous prejudice" and the victimizations wrought by distinctions of rank, here she argues from the other side, insisting that a reformed chivalry is happily robust. (3) By 1820, the "feudal institutions" appear to have fallen away, as has the "degrading homage" paid to women. Particularly striking is the Whiggish stance captured by her claim that "old things appear to be passing away and in another century all things will become new," especially given that she writes this in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, after which point it must have felt to many radicals and reformers as though "old things" would never pass away.

Compared to her texts from the 1790's such as The Victim of Prejudice, moreover, which is so decidedly deterministic about the possibility of change because of the sheer tenacity of "things as they are," as Godwin puts it, Hays's lauding of a reconstituted chivalry in her treatment of the Caroline Affair is without question a long way from what she implies about chivalry in her earlier novel. (4) In the polarized political climate of 1790's Britain, chivalry either rendered one naked and vulnerable, or, in contrast, clothed and protected, depending on one's point of view. Burke's memorable defense of chivalry in Reflections is inseparable from his attack on the rights of man; the latter, for Burke, reduces humankind to its "naked shivering nature," whereas chivalry covers and protects. (5) In his figuration of the rights of man as a kind of stripping naked, Burke anticipates Hannah Arendt's twentieth-century critique of what she calls the "perplexities of the rights of man." In an oft-cited passage from The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt observes that her own arguments about the incommensurable relationship between "man" and "citizen" offer "ironical, bitter, and belated confirmation" of the ones with which "Burke opposed the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man. …

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