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Memoirs of Emma Courtney

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Wikipedia article

'Memoirs of Emma Courtney' is an epistolary novel by Mary Hays, first published in 1796. The novel is partly autobiographical and based on the author's own unrequited love for William Frend [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37525?docPos=1]. Mary Hay's relationship with William Godwin is reflected through her eponymous heroine's philosophical correspondence with Mr Francis. Contemporary moralists were scandalised at the novel's treatment of female passion, but Hays has more recently been called a "feminist pioneer" [http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1566410,00.html]. Contemporary critics wrote of the apparently contrived ending that it was fantastical and unbelievable.

Plot summary

The novel consists of a series of philosophical letters from the heroine, Emma Courtney, to Augustus Harley. Emma is deeply in love with Augustus Harley but her pursuit of him fails - his income is only secure as long as he remains unmarried. Although she initially refuses to accept a life of security by marrying her admirer Mr. Montague, Emma eventually accepts when Augustus Harley is revealed to be already married, and Emma herself is facing financial hardship. Emma's marriage results in a series of tragedies, despite the appearance of a beloved daughter, and her passion for her first love never ceases. Near the end of the novel the two will meet again under unfortunate circumstances. Harley dies after an accident, and Montague commits suicide after a sexual encounter with a maid, whom he leaves pregnant. Emma adopts Harley's eldest son, and devotes herself to the lives of her children.


Reviews of the novel were mixed. 'The Memoirs of Emma Courtney' was taken to be the true story of Hay's own life, and led various critics to mock and caricature her [http://www.chawton.org/library/biographies/hays.html].

The novel addresses issues of female sexual passion, adultery, infanticide and suicide, as well as philosophical musings on the status of women in society. Emma reflects on "the inequalities of society, the source of every misery and vice, and on the peculiar disadvanteges of my sex". Conservative readers would have been particularly shocked when Emma at one point offers herself to Augustus without demanding marriage.

Category:1796 novels

Category:English novels

Category:Philosophical novels

Category:Jacobin novels

Category:Suicide in fiction

Category:Adultery in fiction

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