Mary Hays and the forms of life

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Author: Julie Murray
Date: Spring 2013
From: Studies in Romanticism(Vol. 52, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Report
Length: 8,947 words

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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." Her conclusions "appear to buttress his assertion that human rights were an 'abstraction,' that it was much wiser to ... claim one's rights to be the 'rights of an Englishman' rather than the inalienable rights of man." (6) Following and elaborating the Burkean logic of the naked and the clothed, this essay will argue that the life-writing produced at the turn of the nineteenth century by radicals such as Hays is intimately linked to the politicization of "bare life" that writers such as Giorgio Agamben, Arendt, and before them, Burke, argue is a result of the discourse of the rights of man and a sure sign of the chilling effect, as we shall see, that a universalizing concept of rights has on life understood as bios.

The vicissitudes of chivalry and rights are intimately linked to the focus of this essay: Mary Hays's connection to what I am calling the forms of life. Because of her numerous contributions to various forms of life-writing, and her alignment with 1790's Jacobin and radical politics, Hays's work is especially conducive to an exploration of the relationship between the biographical and biopolitical, those multiple, overlapping, and entwined conceptions of life. Life in the late eighteenth century is the object of a biopolitical modernity at the same time as it is the object of the increasingly popular and popularizing genre of biography, and the emerging genre of autobiography. (7) Expanding our understanding of what constitutes both "life" and "life-writing" at the end of the eighteenth century allows us to see underlying connections heretofore undeveloped in Hays's work between her advocacy of the rights of man (and especially the rights of woman) and her subsequent turn to life-writing, more narrowly conceived, in the early nineteenth century. (8) In the 1790's, Hays's focus is similar to that of many other radicals such as Wollstonecraft: namely, vindications of the rights of woman in texts such as her 1798 Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women and in essays such as "Civil Liberty" and "On the Influence of Authority and Custom on the Female Mind and Manners" collected in her 1793 Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous. Hays's work takes a different turn, however, in the early nineteenth century. In 1803 she produced a collective biography of women entitled Female Biography; or, the Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries. Including the lives of women from ancient to modem times, ranging from Mary Queen of Scots, to Sappho, to Joan of Arc, to Catharine Macaulay, Female Biography was also notable, in part, for its exclusion of Wollstonecraft. (9) I will suggest that this turn is no accident, but rather connected to transformations in the discursive terrain of life at the turn of the century.

Forms of Life

Hannah Arendt establishes a connection between the biological and the biopolitical in her book The Human Condition:

   Limited by a beginning and an end, that is, by the two supreme
   events of appearance and disappearance within the world, [life]
   follows a strictly linear movement whose very motion nevertheless
   is driven by the motor of biological life which man shares with
   other living things and which forever retains the cyclical movement
   of nature. The chief characteristic of this specifically human
   life, whose appearance and disappearance constitute worldly events,
   is that it is itself always full of events which ultimately can be
   told as a story, establish a biography. (10)

Both Arendt and her more recent interlocutor Agamben invoke the ancient Greek distinction between zoe and bios. Following Arendt, Agamben defines zoe as "the simple fact of living common to all living beings," and bios as "the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group." (11) Life for Agamben is the object of a biopolitics that takes what he calls "bare life" or naked life as its predicate. Arendt's thinking about human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism is central, moreover, to Agamben's understanding of the importance of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to biopolitical modernity. Noting the incommensurable relationship between "man" and "citizen" in the 1789 Declaration, Arendt argues that the "paradox involved in the loss of human rights is that such loss coincides with the instant when a person becomes a human being in general--without a profession, without a citizenship, without an opinion, without a deed by which to identify and specify himself." (12) Arendt's refugee is thus the figure that Agamben has in mind when he argues that the "same bare life that in the ancien regime was politically neutral and belonged to God as creaturely life and in the classical world was (at least apparently) clearly distinguished as zoe from political life (bios) now fully enters into the structure of the state and even becomes the earthly foundation of the state's legitimacy and sovereignty." (13) Even though Agamben generally understates the historical distinction that Foucault makes between an older sovereign power that can "take life or let live" and modern forms of power that "foster life," Agamben still places a certain amount of stress on the revolutionary era at the end of the eighteenth century, and the importance of the rights of man for any thinking about human rights or biopolitics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. (14) "Prior to the 1789 Declaration," Susan Maslan has observed, "to be human and merely human was the basis, not for entitlement but for political exclusion." With the 1789 Declaration, she continues, paraphrasing Agamben, "human life as such (zoe) became a subject of politics for the first time." (15) As a response to the problem of bare life, Agamben posits the possibility of what he calls "form-of-life," or "a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate something such as naked life. A life that cannot be separated from its form is a life for which what is at stake in its way of living is living itself." (16) He offers "thought" as "form-of-life," contending that "it is this thought, this form-of-life, that, abandoning naked life to 'Man' and to the 'Citizen,' who clothe it temporarily and represent it with their 'rights,' must become the guiding concept and the unitary center of the coming politics." (17)

Although Agamben clearly does not have anything like biography in mind in his conception of "form-of-life," the very phrase, in a different context, evokes the figure of life-writing, for what is biography, if not a form of life? (18) Studies of life-writing typically take the "writing" as the interesting or unstable part of the term. The life is simply what is: mere fact. The writing, in this scenario, is what works on the life, or what does something to the life. In studies of life-writing, the writing is usually what gets all of the attention. The "life" in life-writing is a term that we should not pass over too quickly or dismiss as self-evident, however, especially since broadening it to include other forms of life beyond biographical life--such as political life--brings biography into the purview of biopolitics. Emphasizing the fullest possible sense of bios in life-writing thus works to establish the discursive ground that connects forms of life as seemingly unrelated as biographical life, on the one hand, and the bare life that emerges in the constitutive gap between the rights of "man" and "citizen," in the case of Arendt's refugee, on the other. The distinction between zoe and bios inscribes, moreover, a related (though not entirely analogous) distinction between life and writing in that zoe is undifferentiated life, mere fact, and bios is qualified life. Before we even get to writing, or to the textual representation of a life, there exists an earlier distinction between form and mere fact upon which biographical life must rest.

A similarity also exists between the formalism of human rights and the formalism of life-writing. The constitutive tension between universality and particularity in human rights discourse finds an analogue in the formalism of biography and the singularity of the individual human life. (19) Joseph Slaughter has recently explored the isomorphic relationship between human rights discourse and literature, specifically the Bildungsroman of the early nineteenth century. Observing the fundamental literariness of human rights discourse, Slaughter examines the degree to which both Bildungsroman and human rights are driven by a particular logic of development. "The movement of the subject from pure subjection to self-regulation," suggests Slaughter, "describes the plot trajectory of the dominant transition narrative of modernization, which both the Bildungsroman and human rights law take for granted and intensify in their progressive visions of human personality development." Remarking that this "story of modernization is typically depicted as the course of human emancipation ... that follows the path of Kant's Enlightenment" characterized by "mankind's release 'from its self-incurred immaturity,'" Slaughter contends that it has "become natural to think of individual and collective human development in terms of this progress narrative of liberation." (20) In the reflexive schema that Slaughter identifies, to be free is to develop or progress, just as to develop or progress is to be free.

It is difficult to overstate the degree to which radicals in the 1790's such as Hays were preoccupied with questions of liberty and freedom. By way of underscoring the constitutive relationship between freedom and progress, Slaughter observes that, "even the multiple definitions for the word 'freedom' in the Oxford English Dictionary are 'plotted' ... teleologically, to track 'the development of one meaning from another,' as the individual's progressive liberation from a malignant regulatory regime and its incorporation into a benign one." (21) The mutually determining relationship between freedom and progress characterizes many genres of historical writing in the late eighteenth century. Hays's 1793 Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous, for instance, repeatedly deploys the terms of a progressive model of historical change:

   Look back through the history of the world, from its golden days of
   infancy and innocence, to the maturity of the present times, and
   you will discern various truths, first dawning like the sun through
   a misty horizon, and after encountering many dark clouds of error
   and opposition, at length beaming forth in meridian brightness....
   Our nature is progressive, and every thing around us is the
   same.... The emancipated mind is impatient of imposition, nor can
   it, in a retrograde course, unlearn what it has learned, or unknow
   what it has known. (22)

Our nature is progressive, says Hays, and her assertions here about the development of human society towards "meridian brightness" and the "emancipated mind" are entirely in step with similarly-phrased arguments by Wollstonecraft and other radical writers. Also very Wollstonecraftian is Hays's tendency to link aristocratic forms of femininity with barbarism and slavery and thus with less advanced forms of civilization: "Of all bondage," argues Hays, "mental bondage is surely the most fatal; the absurd despotism which has hitherto, with more than gothic barbarity, enslaved the female mind, the enervating and degrading system of manners by which the understandings of women have been chained down to frivolity and trifles, have increased the general tide of effeminacy and corruption." (23)

A more complex temporality marks Hays's figuration of women's relationship to the discourse of natural rights. What Slaughter refers to as the "impossibly anticipatory and retrospective (proleptic and analeptic) temporality of the story of modern citizen-subjectivation shared by human rights and the Bildungsroman" (24) aptly describes the conundrum in which a writer such as Hays finds herself when she attempts, in her 1798 vindication, Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women, to discuss the position of women vis a vis their purportedly "original and unalienated rights." (25) Tropes of blindness abound as Hays tries to capture the peculiar temporality of the always-already and the not-yet that keeps "millions of reasonable beings in ignorance of their own rights, merely that they may not have it in their power to claim them." Estranged and alienated from themselves and "with respect to their own rights," women are "chained" and "blindfolded" at the same time as they "feel conscious" of their ability to achieve "greater degrees of perfection." (26) The problem of unclaimed rights--original and inalienable but, paradoxically, seemingly impossible to grasp or possess--haunts the writings of several radical women writers in the 1790's, Hays included. A fundamental contradiction exists, I will argue, between natural law-based radical writing that vindicates the rights of woman, and forms of life-writing that inscribe female progress in the terms offered by conjectural history and chivalric masculinity. The two strands of Hays's work pit a universalizing concept of rights that eschews temporal or historical categories against histories of manners and society that take the enlightened treatment of women as an index of a more general progress. This creates an impasse between what Slaughter calls the "impossibly anticipatory and retrospective" temporality of inalienable rights and the sure-footed inevitability of teleological models of historical progress.

The proliferation of genres of historical writing in the late eighteenth century that describe the progress of civilization is matched by the appearance of histories of women as both agents and beneficiaries of that progress. (27) Thus it is not surprising that conceptions of progress and development form both the method and the subject matter of Hays's Female Biography. The formal pressures already inherent in biography are only intensified when individual lives are arranged so as to form a collective biography of women, each life standing for itself but also for so much else beyond itself, and the entirety underwritten by a teleology of historical progress. (28) Writing about the eighteenth-century Republican historian Catharine Macaulay, Hays observes:

   The history of the despotism and tyranny of a few individuals, and
   the slavish subjection of uncounted millions, their passive
   acquiescence, their sufferings, and their wrongs, appeared to her a
   moral problem, which she had no instruments to solve. She had yet
   to learn the force of prescription, of habit, and of association,
   the imitative and progressive nature of the human mind, and the
   complicated springs by which it is set in motion. She deeply
   reflected on the subject of government, with its influence on the
   happiness and virtue of mankind: she became anxious that the
   distance should be diminished that separates man from man; and to
   see extended over the whole human race those enlightened
   sentiments, equal laws, and equitable decisions, that might restore
   to its due proportion a balance so ill adjusted, and combine with
   the refinement of a more advanced age the simplicity and virtue of
   the earlier periods. Fraught with these ideas, and with a heart
   glowing with goodwill towards her species, she took up her pen, and
   gave to the most interesting portion of the history of her country
   a new spirit and interest. (29)

This passage mirrors the progress of "uncounted millions" from "slavish subjection" to emancipated freedom with the progress of Macaulay's own mind from ignorance to enlightened knowledge. Helpless in the face of untold suffering, Macaulay initially has "no instruments" to solve the problem of the subjection of millions. Beginning as a blank slate, her mind nimbly progresses through the stages of eighteenth-century epistemology and moral philosophy to incorporate Lockean association, Humean habit, and the sympathetic and moral imagination. The passage inextricably links her personal Bildung to the progressive expansion "over the whole human race" of "enlightened sentiments, equal laws, and equitable decisions." Binding Macaulay's own narrative of development to the progressive unfurling of the rights of man, Hays's biography evinces the extent to which Bitdungsroman and human rights constitute, as Slaughter argues, "mutually enabling fictions." (30)

Hays's Life

In an article in the Monthly Magazine in 1796, Hays writes:

   Were every great man to become his own biographer, and to examine
   and state impartially, to the best of his recollection, the
   incidents of his life, the course of his studies, the causes by
   which he was led into, the reflections and habits to which they
   gave birth, the rise, the change, the progress of his opinions,
   with the consequences produced by them on his affections and
   conduct, great light might be thrown on the most interesting of all
   studies, that of moral causes and the human mind. (31)

Biography is in this iteration an instrument of progress, a way of organizing and arranging life so as to figure the triumph of mind. Hays was a prolific biographer of others, but not, perhaps predictably, of herself. The method of Female Biography, in which Hays ties the particular details of a life to a universal narrative of historical progress, as in her biography of Catharine Macaulay, is antithetical to the absolute singularity of Hays's own anti-Bildungsroman. In her excruciating letters to Godwin, she details the degree to which she spends much of her life trying--and failing--to find happiness. Hays writes to Godwin: "what a wretched farce is life! I wou'd willingly sleep & shut my eyes upon it for ever,--but something whispers--this wou'd be wrong. Three times for the second time has been twice repeated have I had to tear from my heart all its darling, close twisted, associations--the blood seems to follow the rending--and still I live-reserved for what?" (32) Hays shared much in common with her mentor and friend Wollstonecraft, including a suicidal despair that led her, like Wollstonecraft, to attempt to take her own life more than once. (33) About Wollstonecraft, Hays writes to Godwin in 1796, "I was glad to see her so lively tho' I knew the gaiety to be very superficial. She has been a great sufferer and with all her strength of mind, her sufferings had well nigh proved fatal--happy for her, and happy for me she is yet, preserved!" (451). Eerie and uncanny in its premonition--Wollstonecraft would die of complications from childbirth a year later--Hays's remark hints at what would become an intense identification with Wollstonecraft. Understanding her own life, ultimately, as an imposition, something with which she is burdened, Hays writes, "Who wou'd be born if they could help it? ... Torn by conflicting passions, & wasted in anguish--my life is wearing away, a burthen to myself, a trouble to those who love me, & worthless, I doubt, to every one!" (423).

Hays's letters to Godwin are filled with references to her "exquisite sensibilities" or to assertions that "much of misery" has been her "portion" (416, 421). The antidote to her misery is, for a time, the balm of philosophy, specifically Godwinian rationalism in the form of the true and candid confession. (34) The plan is that Hays will write to Godwin, exposing all, and that Godwin, in his capacity as proto-analyst, will periodically respond. In one of his rare letters to Hays, Godwin refers to their "contract," reminding her that Hays "shall communicate [her] sentiments by letter" and he will "answer" Hays "in person." (35) For her part, Hays finds Godwin to be "at once, kind & cruel, polite & rude, tender & savage, candid & intolerant." "I cannot describe," she writes, "how paradoxical you appear to me" (452). Even at a relatively early stage in the process, Hays demonstrates her frustration with Godwin's philosophical cure: "My friend! Come & teach me how to be happy--I am wearied with misery--all nature is to me a blank--I shall, I doubt, never be a philosopher--a barbed & invenomed arrow rankles in my bosom--philosophy will not heal the festering wound" (422). The "festering wound" is life itself, an impossible life that continues to be for Hays nothing short of "an inexplicable enigma" (391). Philosophy, moreover, not only fails to provide a salve for the "blank" that is "nature," but in fact exacerbates her condition, so that the very thing, "philosophy," which "should regulate the feelings," has only "added fervor" to Hays's. "What are passions," asks Hays, "but another name for powers?" (394).

If, as Terry Eagleton has suggested, "the structure of biography is biology," (36) then Hays is repeatedly undone by the fact that she "has no children in whom to live again." She writes: "I read, I write, I converse, I walk,--but all this is insipid without an end to which to refer it. To what purpose am I improving myself? ... I have no children in whom to live again, in whom to perpetuate my virtues & acquirements--I shall never experience those sweet sensations of which my heart is form'd so susceptible!" (435). While Hays is elsewhere content to dismiss the search for causes or origins as futile because we can only know causes by way of their effects--this is one of her favorite iterations and gets endlessly spoofed in Elizabeth Hamilton's parody of Hays in her anti-Jacobin novel Memoirs of Modern Philosophers--here, she demonstrates a degree of frustration with Godwin's ever-shifting horizon of perfectibility. In this instance Hays wants a telos or an end to orient the otherwise endless and meaningless grind of reading, writing, conversing, and walking. Seeing herself as resolutely outside models of development or progress, she has no "end" towards which she can cast her efforts at improvement.

This is not the only instance in which Hays understands herself as out of step with developmental forms of life, biological or biographical. (37) She writes to Godwin,

   The spring of life is now past, & it has been "worn in anguish,"
   the summer is passing & will quickly fade, age is approaching to
   blunt my powers & destroy my faculties, and the dreary prospect
   will, perhaps, close in the tomb. I love action, but I have little
   to employ myself in; I love society, but my sex & acquired
   delicacy, & still more the narrowness of my fortune, deprives me of
   this resource. I would travel, I would change the scene, I would
   put myself in the way of receiving new impressions, I would sluice
   of my thoughts into various channels, I would place myself in new
   situations, I would propose to myself new labours, & engage with
   ardor in new pursuits--All this I would prescribe to another in my
   circumstances, but all this is, to me, unattainable. (402)

Hays approaches her life here via an analogy with the natural world and its cycles of life, but seems to do so only to underscore the lack of change, or the lack of variation in her life. Change, transmutation, and variation are at the core of thinking about life in the science of the period. In the early nineteenth century, as Sharon Ruston observes, "Matter is not regarded as inert, but as capable of transforming other materials to its purpose. The ability to convert matter of one kind into another is the sign of a living body." Ruston recounts the debates in the period about vitahty, arguing that "The search for a principle of vitality was motivated, on all sides, by the new definition of life that had emerged at the end of the eighteenth century.... [H]ow could life exist in so many bodies organized so completely differently, from an oyster to man?" Discussing the work of Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley in the 1790's, Ruston comments that "even scientists known primarily for their work in fields other than biology can be seen to be working on the vitalist project." (38) Indeed, even those working in a realm as far from biology as literature could be seen to be working on the vitalist project. Denise Gigante suggests, for instance, that "[v]itality was, to be sure, the mark, the distinguishing feature, of Romantic aesthetics," so that "[a]lthough Romantic life science, obsessed with the idea of life as power, has been considered a dubious episode in the history of science, it made possible the analogy between aesthetic and biological form upon which we still rely." (39) If early nineteenth-century life science is the primary locus of the idea of form as constitutive of life as such, its articulation of the relationship between form and life translates very well to Romantic-period conceptions of organicism in literary culture. "The very concept of organic development," Gigante suggests, "indicated by the German word Bildung (meaning something like education, acculturation, and ontogenesis bound up together), merges the diverse fields of biology and aesthetics." (40)

Female Biography and Bare Life

As is well known, Mary Wollstonecraft died tragically, just days after Mary Shelley's birth. (41) Both Hays and Godwin commemorated her death by writing memoirs. Hays wrote an obituary for Wollstonecraff that appeared anonymously in September 1797 in the Monthly Magazine. Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in January 1798 to "intense public and private reaction." (42) Responding in part to the vitriol unleashed in the wake of Godwin's Memoirs, (43) Hays published her own "Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft" in the Annual Necrology for 1797-8 which drew on Godwin's account, while also "more explicitly articulating Wollstonecraft's feminism" as Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker argue. (44) Observing that the publication of Burke's Reflections "stimulated into action" Wollstonecraft's "newly acquired political ardour" that produced A Vindication of the Rights of Man, Hays dwells more fully, however, on Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She credits Wollstonecraft, "the magnanimous advocate of freedom" and "the opponent of Burke," with managing to "throw down the gauntlet, challenge her arrogant oppressors," and "deny the existence of a sexual character." Emphasizing more than Godwin does Wollstonecraft's specific contributions to the cause of "her own sex," Hays concludes her memoir by noting that all women have lost in "this extraordinary woman," one who was "an able champion." Ending, finally, on a cautiously optimistic note, Hays writes that her friend "has not laboured in vain: the spirit of reform is silently pursuing its course. Who can mark its limits?" (45)

Marking the limits of reform's silent spirit would prove no easy task in the wake of Wollstonecraft's death. Southey's famous comment that Godwin showed "the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked" shaped the initial reaction to Memoirs and was the prevailing sentiment that dogged the text through the nineteenth century. (46) Reaction to Memoirs was harsh, to say the least. As William St. Clair notes, "With scarcely an exception [reviews] were hostile, contemptuous, and bursting with shock and outrage. 'Shameless' was the most charitable description; 'lascivious' and 'disgusting' were more common. Godwin, it was frequently noted, had flaunted his dead wife's immorality." (47) The Analytical Review referred to Memoirs as "a bald narrative," though added that it was "very eventful and touching." (48) The Anti-Jacobin Review was, perhaps unsurprisingly, much less forgiving. Quickly dispensing with any suggestion that Wollstonecraft's life be seen as a "model for imitation" or exemplary in any way, the reviewer insists that any "utility" her life holds is as a "buoy" rather than, as Godwin would have it, a "beacon." (49) Godwin issued a revised and corrected version of Memoirs several months after the first edition, but it was too late, and .public opinion had formed. One wonders, perhaps, whether one of Godwin's additions in the revised Memoirs, in which he writes that "it is better that man should be a living being, than a stock or a stone," is in some measure a response to Southey. Godwin's choice of the phrase "living being" combined with the explicit distinction he makes here between life and non-life is quite striking, furthermore, in the context of what I suggest is the convoluted relationship between the biopolitical and biographical at the turn of the nineteenth century. (50)

It is impossible not to hear in Southey's phrasing, moreover, an echo of Burke's attack on the rights of man in the Reflections. The metaphor of stripping naked resonates with ways of talking about rights in the 1790's. Recall that according to Burke, natural rights strip humankind of its "wardrobe" and "cover" and expose in its entirety our "naked shivering nature." (51) In Southey's assertion that Godwin stands accused of "stripping his dead wife naked," biography and biopolitics are inextricably linked. Indeed, the very title--Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman--yokes the biographical and the biopolitical, and adumbrates a life alternately clothed and stripped, and, ultimately, laid bare. Beset by puerperal fever, the result of an infection caused by her doctor "reaching into the womb and pulling at the placenta with his hands," Wollstonecraft was subject to various well-intentioned but ultimately misguided interventions. (52) One critic of Godwin's Memoirs points to the "ob-scene," and to many readers, simply shocking detail that Wollstonecraft was given puppies to nurse on her deathbed in an effort to save her life--a figure of bare life if ever there was one. (53) Godwin describes what happened in the following terms: "On Monday, Dr. Fordyce forbad the child's having the breast, and we therefore procured puppies to draw off the milk." (54) Discussing in detail this chilling moment from Memoirs, Cynthia Richards contends that "Godwin's including this intimate information among the many details documenting the steady dissolution of [Wollstonecraft's] body seems yet another example of his poor judgement in giving precedence to Wollstonecraft's body in a memoir intended to celebrate her work." (55)

Biography is obviously not a new genre of writing in the early nineteenth century. The number of 1790's radicals who turn from vindications of various kinds to life-writing in various forms may just be a coincidence. (56) Clernit and Luria Walker suggest, for example, that "Godwin turned to life-writing at a particular moment in his career," a turn that had to do with "changes in public mood," and which led to the "heightened interest in moral and intellectual development" that "underpins his biographical and autobiographical writings of the late 1790s." (57) Without diminishing the undeniable fact that forms of life-writing were increasingly popular in the early nineteenth century, I would argue, however, for a significance beyond mere coincidence. The reasons for the efflorescence of life-writing by 1790's radicals are multiple: the politicizing of bare or naked life that results, as Burke, Arendt, and Agamben all imply, from the discourse of the rights of man; concomitant shifts at the turn of the nineteenth century in conceptions of life in the biological science of the period; and the fact that literature is intimately bound up with the discursive terrain of life at the turn of the nineteenth century.

How does Hays's Female Biography, which positions the emancipation of women as an index of a society's progress, square with the life narratives that structure her novel The Victim of Prejudice? What is the relationship between the lives of "illustrious and celebrated women of all ages" and the arguably bare life of the mother of Mary Raymond in The Victim of Prejudice? Like many revolutionary novels written in the 1790's that denounce the exclusions that attend membership in a social or political community, such as Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, Hays's The Victim of Preju- dice takes as its focus female characters who embody the extremes of, if not always quite bare life, then certainly social death. Consider, for example, that the representation of Mary Raymond and her mother traverses the boundary between barely-human and almost-animal in its depiction of their exclusion from any social, political, or human community. At one point in the narrative, Mary calls to mind the unfortunate image of her "wretched mother," who has been "abandoned to infamy, cast out of society, stained with blood," and lies "expiring on a scaffold, unpitied and unwept." (58) Although Mary's own fate is neither as tragic nor as gruesome as her mother's, the narrative's description of her downward spiral evokes the "precarious life," to borrow Judith Butler's term, of the rightless (59):

   I sought only the bare means of subsistence: amidst the luxuriant
   and the opulent, who surrounded me, I put in no claims either for
   happiness, for gratification, or even for the common comforts of
   life: yet, surely, I had a right to exist!--For what crime was I
   driven from society? I seemed to myself like an animal entangled in
   the toils of the hunter. My bosom swelled with honest indignant
   pride: I determined to live; I determined that the devices of my
   persecutors should not overwhelm me: my spirit roused itself to
   defeat their malice and baffle their barbarous schemes. (60)

The right that Mary asserts in the face of bare life is hardly recognizable as such: the right merely to exist. So minimal is the version of rights discourse articulated here that it almost seems, strangely, as though the text is asserting a right to bare life. Unlike Female Biography, which concentrates the powerful effects of Bildung first by linking together liberty and progress, and next by aligning both with "individual and collective human development," (61) The Victim of Prejudice, in contrast, emphasizes the contingency of life and the failure of teleology, or even, as in the example of Mary Raymond and her mother, the persistence of bare life.

Relying on the form-giving power of life narrative, however, Female Biography necessarily replays the distinction between form and content that haunts the distinction between bare life and inalienable rights. I suggest that Female Biography simply reproduces in a different register the problem of bare life, perhaps never more perversely than in the description of the death of Marie Antoinette, whose biography is included in the revamped version of Female Biography that was published as Memoirs of Queens. The similarity between Hays and Burke that I noted at the start of this essay returns in Hays's reverent description of Marie Antoinette. Indeed, Hays's 1821 representation of Marie Antoinette's final moments makes Burke's famous enconium to the Queen of France in Reflections look positively restrained:

   At half-past eleven, Maria Antoinette was placed in a tumbril, or
   dung cart, with her back towards the horses, a mode of conveyance
   considered as peculiarly infamous. A white waistcoat with sleeves
   and a white cap, both soiled by the smoke of the dungeon lamp, was
   the dress of the victim, the once beautiful, elegant, exalted,
   admired, and adored queen of the most polished nation in the
   world.... Even in these trying moments she sustained herself with
   courage and dignity, smiling disdainfully at the insults of a mob
   of sanguinary and unmanly ruffians. As she ascended the scaffold,
   she looked with some emotion towards the garden of the Thuilleries.
   She submitted to her fate, and the engine fell that was to close
   her woes, and relieve her from the endurance of sufferings in
   comparison of which death was no evil. Her head was displayed to
   the multitude, her body, like that of her husband, buried in the
   church-yard of La Madelaine, and the grave filled up with
   quick-lime. Thus perished, in the thirty-eighth year of her age,
   the queen of France and Navarre, the archduchess of Austria, the
   daughter, sister, wife, of emperors and kings. From the highest
   pinnacle of worldly glory she sunk into the lowest abyss of misery
   and wretchedness. Her history has scarcely a parallel in the annals
   of mankind; it affords an affecting and impressive lesson; flinty
   must be the heart that it touches not with sympathy. France is
   perhaps the only nation in the civilized world in which it could
   have taken place. Let Frenchmen boast no more of polish, or let
   them remember, that it is on the hardest materials only that the
   highest polish can take place. (62)

Marie Antoinette's fall from the best-dressed list is an apt metaphor to capture her seemingly impossible drop from "the highest pinnacle of worldly glory" to "the lowest abyss of misery and wretchedness," particularly given the prevalence of alternating tropes of the naked and the clothed that run through discourses of rights and discourses of chivalry in the period; think, for instance, of Burke's references to the "decent drapery of life" or "the wardrobe of a moral imagination." (63) Hays's biography of Marie Antoinette draws into stunning focus, moreover, the otherwise more obscure connection between triumphal stories of female progress and the shocking contingency of life. The life narrative of Marie Antoinette exposes the primacy of the link between "illustrious and celebrated women of all ages" and bare life. Katherine Binhammer has observed that radicals' deployments of the figure of Marie Antoinette in the 1790's were quite varied. Whereas Mary "Perdita" Robinson saw the Queen of France as a woman ruined in part by pernicious gossip and sexual innuendo, and therefore as someone with whom she could identify, Mary Wollstonecraft, by contrast, consistently held Marie Antoinette in great disdain. "If Robinson over-identified with the Queen's wronged womanhood," argues Binhammer, "and turned her into a saint to legitimate her own sexuality and erotic desires, Wollstonecraft could be seen to disavow the Queen for similar reasons." "Too much a woman," Binhammer continues, "Wollstonecraft's Marie Antoinette is a conniving, licentious, greedy, insipid, idiotic coquette whose perverse sexuality is what gives all women a bad name." (64) One assumes that had Hays written at any length about Marie Antoinette in the 1790's, her view would likely have tended towards that of Wollstonecraft's as opposed to Robinson's. My point is certainly not to underscore Hays's abandonment of her earlier Wollstonecraftian commitments, but rather to suggest the much more intriguing possibility that she cannily plays one form of life-writing (Female Biography and Memoirs of Queens) off another (The Victim of Prejudice) in order to lay bare the inextricable link between them.

"The 1990's has been labeled the decade of human rights," Sidonie Smith and Kay Schaffer argue, adding that "it has also been described as the decade of life narratives, what commentators refer to as the time of memoir." (65) The 1790's has long been understood as the decade of the rights of man; the turn of the nineteenth century might also, in a similar vein, be described as the "time of memoir." As I have suggested, this confluence is more than a mere coincidence. In giving form to the bare facts of life, biography, memoir, and other forms of life-writing may at first glance appear to clothe bare or naked life; indeed, this is a large part of their appeal. As Agamben reminds us, however, in the political realm bare life is only "temporarily.... clothe[d]" by "Man" and the "Citizen," who "represent it with their 'rights.'" Regarding Agamben, Sara Guyer observes that "the possibility of politics otherwise, a politics that no longer would be organized according to the separability of life and the production and nourishment of unlivable lives within life, would require the abandonment of the division between form and content; it would require a new symbolism." (66) The abandonment of the division between form and content leads in the direction of what Agamben calls form-of-life. One wonders, finally, whether this is precisely the direction in which Hays tried--in vain--to head. Deploying different forms of life-writing in her work--biography, memoir, fictional autobiography--Hays's career looks much like an attempt, however unrealized, to grasp a "life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate naked or bare life."

Carleton University, Canada


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(1.) For discussions of the Queen Caroline Affair, see Thomas Laqueur, "The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV," Journal of Modern History 54 (September 1982): 417-66; Anna Clark, "Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of Popular Culture in London, 1820," Representations 31 (Summer 1990): 47-68; and Dror Wahrman, "'Middle-Class' Domesticity Goes Public: Gender, Class, and Politics from Queen Caroline to Queen Victoria," The Journal of British Studies 32, no. 4 (October 1993): 396-432. Gary Kelly observes: "The coronation of George IV and the return of his long-estranged consort to claim her royal rights focused popular opposition to the monarch and the entire system of 'Old Corruption.' The king's extravagance, his mistresses, decades of scandal surrounding him and his brothers, his failure to maintain his youthful support for political and institutional reform, recent economic distress, rioting, Luddism, the 'Peterloo Massacre', and demands for Catholic emancipation--these events seemed to culminate in what was seen as a glaring instance of court government's exploitation of women, now a symbol for many vocal but powerless groups in society.... T. & J. Allman, who published books for the popular market and advertised themselves as 'Booksellers to Her Majesty', commissioned Hays, as a writer familiar with issues of the wronged woman and experienced in writing female biography, to produce a book for the occasion, Memoirs of Queens Illustrious and Celebrated, published in the summer of 1821" (Women, Writing, and Revolution, 1790-1827 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 257-58.

(2.) Hays, Memoirs of Queens Illustrious and Celebrated (London: T. & J. Allman, 1821), 127.

(3.) Hays, The Victim of Prejudice, ed. Eleanor Ty (Peterborough: Broadview, 1998), 174.

(4.) "Things as They Are" is famously the subtitle of Godwin's Caleb Williams. Much of the critical scholarship on Hays takes as its focus two of her novels from the 1790's, Memoirs of Emma Courtney and The Victim of Prejudice. On Memoirs of Emma Courtney, see Tilottama Rajan, "Autonarration and Genotext in Mary Hays' Memoirs of Emma Courtney," SiR 32, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 149-76; Georgina Green, "Fiction and Autobiography in Mary Hays's Memoirs of Emma Courtney," Literature Compass (2007); and Katherine Binhammer, "The Persistence of Reading: Governing Female Novel-Reading in Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers," Eighteenth-Century Life 27, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 1-22. On The Victim of Prejudice, see Eleanor Ty, "The Imprisoned Female Body in Mary Hays's The Victim of Prejudice," Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790's, ed. Linda Lang-Peralta (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999), 133-53.

(5.) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (London: Penguin, 1968), 171.

(6.) Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), 295.

(7.) For recent scholarship on life-writing in early nineteenth-century Britain, see James Treadwell, Autobiographical Writing and British Literature, 1783-1843 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) and Romantic Biography, eds. Arthur Bradley and Alan Rawes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

(8.) Hays is not the only 1790's radical writer to produce life-writing in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Godwin, too, published in 1804 his Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, and in 1815 his Lives of Edward and John Philips, the nephews of Milton. See April London's Literary History Writing, 1770-1820 (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2010), 27-46 for a discussion of the latter.

(9.) In fact, Hays wrote a Memoir of Wollstonecraft's life that appeared as the first installment of Richard Phillips's The Annual Necrology for 1797-8. See Gary Kelly, Women, Writing, and Revolution, 234-64, for a comprehensive discussion of Hays's post-1790's writings, and Gina Luria Walker, Mary Hays (1759-1843): The Growth of a Woman's Mind (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 222-29, for a discussion of the publishing context of Female Biography.

(10.) Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 97.

(11.) Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 1.

(12.) Arendt, Origins, 297.

(13.) Agamben, Homo Sacer, 127.

(14.) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1990), 138.

(15.) Susan Maslan, "The Anti-Human: Man and Citizen before the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen," South Atlantic Quarterly 103, nos. 2-3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 362.

(16.) Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 3-4.

(17.) Agamben, Means without End, 12.

(18.) Rather than biography, Agamben invokes "intellectuality" and "thought" as "the unitary power that constitutes multiple forms of life as form-of-life" (Means without End, 10).

(19.) Ian Balfour and Eduardo Cadava argue that "discourses of human rights" which are "by definition, an affair of universals," tend to invoke "the universal in a mode that is always less and other than universal" ("The Claims of Human Rights: An Introduction," South Atlantic Quarterly 103, nos. 2-3 [Spring/Summer 2004]: 282).

(20.) Joseph Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 9-10.

(21.) Slaughter, Human Rights, 10.

(22.) Hays, Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous, intro. Gina Luria (New York: Garland, 1974), 13, 16.

(23.) Hays, Letters and Essays, 19-20.

(24.) Joseph Slaughter, "Enabling Fictions and Novel Subjects: The Bildungsroman and International Human Rights Law," PMLA 121, no. 5 (October 2006): 1415.

(25.) Hays, Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women, intro. Gina Luria (New York: Garland, 1974), 149. Hays's Appeal was published in 1798 but written much earlier, around the time that Wollstonecraft published her own Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

(26.) Hays, Appeal, 97-98, 104.

(27.) See Harriet Guest, Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 155-267, and Mark Salber Phillips, Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 147-70.

(28.) See Alison Booth, How To Make it as A Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 49-88.

(29.) Hays, Female Biography; Or, Memoirs of illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries, Vol. III (London: R. Phillips, 1803), 291.

(30.) Slaughter, "Enabling Fictions," 1407. For a discussion of Hays's Female Biography in the context of the vogue for biographical dictionaries, see Jeanne Wood, "'Alphabetically Arranged': Mary Hays's Female Biography and the Biographical Dictionary," Genre XXXI (Summer 1998): 117-42. Female Biography was one of four collective biographies of women published in 1803 alone, when the entire previous century saw only ten published in total. Mary Matilda Betham's A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country appeared in 1804, and Lucy Aikin's Epistles on Women was published in 1810. See Booth's exhaustive bibliography of collective biographies in How to Make It as a Woman, 347-87.

(31.) Hays, "Reply to J. T. on Helvetius," Monthly Magazine (June 1796): 386-87. Quoted in Luria Walker, Mary Hays, 169.

(32.) The Correspondence (1779-1843) of Mary Hays, British Novelist, ed. Marilyn L. Brooks (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), 423. Hereafter cited in the text by page.

(33.) On the friendship between Hays and Wollstonecraft, see Laura Mandell, "The First Women (Psycho)analysts; or, The Friends of Feminist History," MLQ 65, no. 1 (March 2004): 69-92, and Mary A. Waters, "'The First of a New Genus': Mary Wollstonecraft as a Literary Critic and Mentor to Mary Hays," Eighteenth-Century Studies 37, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 415-34.

(34.) See Georgina Green's "Fiction and Autobiography in Mary Hays's Memoirs of Emma Courtney" and Laura Mandell's discussion of the Hays-Godwin relationship in "The First Women (Psycho)analysts."

(35.) Godwin, letter to Hays, dated Sept 7, 1795, in The Correspondence (1779-1843), 398.

(36.) Terry Eagleton, "First Class Fellow Traveller" [Review of Sean French, Patrick Hamilton: A Life], in London Review of Books, 15, no. 23 (2 December 1993): 12.

(37.) Recent studies devoted to the topic of "life"--variously construed--in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century include Denise Gigante's Life: Organic Form and Romanticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), and Sharon Ruston's Shelley and Vitality (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2005).

(38.) Ruston, Shelley and Vitality, 9, 3-4, 5.

(39.) Gigante, Life, 4, 3.

(40.) Gigante, Life, 46.

(41.) Modern biographies of Wollstonecraft include William St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Claire Tomahn, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974); Gary Kelly, Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996); and Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2000).

(42.) Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker, eds., Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Peterborough: Broadview, 2001), 32. For discussions of Godwin's Memoirs, see Tilottama Rajan, "Framing the Corpus: Godwin's 'Editing' of Wollstonecraft in 1798," SiR 39, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 511-31; Ildiko Csengei, "Godwin's Case: Melancholy Mourning in the 'Empire of Feeling,'" SiR 48, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 491-519; Cynthia Richards, "The Body of Her Work, the Work of Her Body: Accounting for the Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft," Eighteenth-Century Fiction 21, no. 4 (Summer 2009): 565-92; and Angela Monsam, "Biography as Autopsy in Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,'" Eighteenth-Century Fiction 21, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 109-30.

(43.) See Clemit and Walker's "Introduction" for a fuller discussion of the reaction to Godwin's Memoirs, especially 32-36.

(44.) Clemit and Walker, "Introduction," 34.

(45.) Hays, "Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft," Annual Necrology for 1797-8 (London: R. Phillips, 1800): 421-22, 459.

(46.) Robert Southey to William Taylor, 1 July 1804, A Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor of Norwich, ed. J. W. Robberds, 2 vols. (London, 1824), 1:507. Quoted in Clemit and Walker, Memoirs, 11.

(47.) St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys, 184.

(48.) Analytical Review 27 (Mar. 1798): 238-40. Quoted in Clemit and Walker, Memoirs, 169.

(49.) The Anti-Jacobin Review 1 (July 1798): 94-99. Quoted in Clemit and Walker, Memoirs, 172.

(50.) Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Second Edition, Corrected (London: J. Johnson, 1798), 91.

(51.) Burke, Reflections, 171.

(52.) Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft, 451.

(53.) See Richards, "Body," 567.

(54.) Godwin, Memoirs, 116.

(55.) Richards, "Body," 565.

(56.) In addition to Godwin and Hays, one might add the autobiographical writings of Mary Robinson and Thomas Holcroft: Robinson's Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, and Holcroft's Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcrofi.

(57.) Clemit and Walker, "Introduction," 14-15.

(58.) Hays, Victim of Prejudice, 72.

(59.) Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2004).

(60.) Hays, Victim of Prejudice, 141.

(61.) Slaughter, Human Rights, 9.

(62.) Hays, Memoirs of Queens, 399-400.

(63.) Burke, Reflections, 171.

(64.) Katherine Binhammer, "Marie Antoinette was 'One of Us': British Accounts of the Martyred Wicked Queen," Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 44, nos. 2-3 (2003): 247.

(65.) Smith and Schaffer, Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2004), 1.

(66.) Sara Guyer, Romanticism After Auschwitz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 69.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A338523589