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Mary Hays, an early British feminist writers, was a contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and William Blake, and like them she was excited by the French Revolution and the prospect of toppling the privileged classes.  Of course, at that time all men were comparatively privileged, at least as compared to women.  In The Victim of Prejudice she mounts a twin attack on the lowly status of women within society and on the exalted status of the landed gentry, who still dominated life in that pre-industrial age.  The former attack is fairly successful, the latter is not.

Mary Raymond, the heroine of the novel, is orphaned at an early age, but is raised and well-educated (perhaps too well for the time) by her guardian, Mr. Raymond.  Two brothers, sons of the Honorable Mr. Pelham, come to Mr. Raymond's for instruction too, and Mary falls in love with William Pelham, and he with her.  But Mary is an unacceptable match for such a wealthy youth, more unacceptable than she realizes until Mr. Raymond reluctantly reveals the sordid circumstances of her birth, and so the young lovers are separated.

Meanwhile, Sir Peter Osborne, the brutal local landowner, has taken a fancy to Mary and is reluctant to accept her protestations of his advances.  In a symbol laden early scene, William coaxes the teenage Mary into stealing some "forbidden fruit" from Osborne's vineyard.  But he catches her and expels her from the garden, calling her "a true daughter of Eve."  In the ensuing years they have several more equally unfortunate encounters, with Osborne becoming ever more determined to have her.  Finally, after the death of Mr. Raymond, who had tried to get her to accept a more appropriate marriage offer to no avail, has left Mary particularly vulnerable, with no money and nowhere to go, Osborne kidnaps and rapes her.

At this point William returns to the scene and finds Mary wandering, broken and ill.  Though by now married to another, he nurses her back to health.  But when he proposes that she become his mistress, the outraged Mary refuses and flees.  She tries to find employment several places but finds that her reputation as a fallen woman, resulting not merely from the incident with Osborne but from her time with the married William, follows her, causing scandal and encouraging other men to be forward with her.

Throughout these various travails, she remains admirably loyal to the moral upbringing which Mr. Raymond provided :

    'Let it come then!' exclaimed I with fervour; 'Let my ruin be complete! Disgrace, indigence,
    contempt, while unmerited, I dare encounter, but not the censure of my own heart.  Dishonour,
    death itself, is a calamity less insupportable than self-reproach.  Amidst the destruction of my
    hopes, the wreck of my fortunes, of my fame, my spirit still triumphs in conscious rectitude; nor
    would I, intolerable as is the sense of my wrongs and of my griefs, exchange them for all that guilty
    prosperity could bestow.'

but is quite annoyingly passive in the face of these injustices :

    I revolved in my mind, selected, and rejected, as new obstacles occurred to me, a variety of plans.
    Difficulties almost insuperable, difficulties peculiar to my sex, my age, and my unfortunate
    situation, opposed themselves to my efforts on every side.  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!

Somehow this ambition--mere existence-- just seems inadequate.  More appropriate, particularly as long as her life is ruined anyway, would be to wreak a horrific vengeance on the reprehensible Lord Peter.  But as the rather unfortunate title of the book indicates, this is a story about unrelenting victimization.  And because Mary never really seeks to do more than exist, never even seeks redress against Osborne, she somehow makes herself a participant in her own victimization.  Would that she had just a smidgen of Lorenna Bobbit in her; she'd be easier to root for.

A system which would punish the victim rather than the rapist is so obviously unjust, that the purely feminist angle of the story does work to a degree.  However, Osborne is so awful that it is hard to accept him as a genuinely representative figure of the British aristocracy.  Eleanor Ty, editor of the Broadview Text edition of the book, suggests in her introduction that the character Osborne is intended as a specific rebuke to Edmund Burke and his conservative views on the value of ancient institutions like the aristocracy.  Though I'm a fan of Burke, there are coherent arguments to be made in opposition to his theories : this is not one.

The book works well enough as a kind of Gothic thriller, and is adequate as a protofeminist tract, but it fails as a radical polemic against the prevailing institutions of the time.  The existence of one evil fictional nobleman doesn't serve to turn 18th Century Britain into a den of horrors.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Women Authors
Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : From Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous, by Mary Hays 1793
    -Mary Hays Website (created by Eleanor Ty)
    -Mary Hays
    -Hays, Mary (1760 - 1843) (xrefer)

GENERAL :
    -Eighteenth-Century Resources (Jack Lynch of Rutgers University)

Comments:

I find your review problematic, because it seems like you haven't read many other novels of this time. This is certainly not the only novel to suggest the system punishes the victim of rape rather than the actually rapist. For instance, see Clarissa or a number of other novels where noblemen dictate the destiny of women under their control. If you study 18th-century rape law in England, you'll find that the courts often put the character of the victim on trial rather than the offenders. This, of course, led to an inordinate number of not guilty verdicts in rape trials. You might also be interested in the case of a famous nobleman brought up on charges of rape and seduction (Charteris), which Hays would have been familiar with and which certainly also played into Richardson's Clarissa and Pamela. The striking difference in Hays' novel is that Mary's immediate reaction to the rape is not to believe she is damaged by it but to try to persevere over it, believing only she dictates her virtue. Most other 18th-century heroines fall into an immediate spiral of self-doubt which ends in death or prostitution. At least Mary attempts to overcome her rape, which makes her a uniquely feminist character.

- Jennifer

- Mar-25-2007, 21:41

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