Mary Hays is an eighteenth-century author obsessed with proving that she — like her romantic contemporaries — can use highfaluting language as an argument for virtue: her own virtue. Memoirs of Emma Courtney (British, 1796) is not an easy read although it is short, but the pay-offs are big. My jaw was hanging down to my feet from practically the first page. I have rarely — never? — encountered such a female heroine in English literature in my oh-so-many dimly-lit reading frenzies.
At first, there is nothing really astonishing about Emma Courtney, a well-read, imaginative orphan who blames her heightened sensibilities on her education. You think, of course, of Victoria de Lauredani or Oliphant’s Hester, or Isabel Gilbert. Except, there never was such a sentimental heroine in all of human existence. Marianne Dashwood, stand back!
When I learned about the “cult of sensibility” in my “Making Sex” class at Clark University many years ago I wish that Professor Kasmer had made me read Hays’s novel. There never was such a clear exploration of sentimentality, such a over-the-top articulation of the power of a girl gone wild with emotion. Hays’s novel, which is often in an epistolary style, becomes repetitive and excessive as Courtney actually makes her obsessive love apparent to a young man she has only seen in a portrait, stuffing a letter into his hand before he departs his mother’s estate, where Courtney is hiding out from her cruel caregivers.
I was shocked. Never before have I read of a woman from the eighteenth century who is so bold as to confess her plump lust and love for a man. But she goes on to expound about her passion many times over yet Hays never calls into question her heroine’s virtue. Contrarily, Hays insists, like Courtney, that she is an exemplar of virtue and is blameless of the havoc wreaked on characters, including a man she marries to rescue herself from poverty.
The novel was not pleasant to read: overwrought. Yet, reading this novel is a must for anyone interested in gender play during this time in England. I was floored. Here is a heroine — virtuous, no less — who throws herself at a married man, drives a husband to suicide, neglects her daughter for love, and blatantly tells off her elders and superiors (men, no less). To say that Courtney is “a romantic enthusiast” as she “melts into tears” at every turn, is a bit of an understatement. She won’t leave the object of her passion alone, stalking him endlessly until I had a headache. She practically masturbates herself through the whole novel. Three cheers.