Book Review: Memoirs of Emma Courtney by Mary Hays

Format: Paperback

Pages: 220 pages

Published: July 1, 2009 (First published 1796)

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Genre:  Fiction & Literature, Classics

Synopsis:

First published in the turbulent decade following the French Revolution, Memoirs of Emma Courtney is based on Mary Hays’ own passionate struggle with romance and Enlightenment philosophy. A feminist and ardent disciple of Mary Wollstonecraft, Hays reveals the lamentable gap between `what women are’ and `what women ought to be’.

The novel is one of the most articulate and detailed expressions of the yearnings and frustrations of a woman living in late eighteenth-century English society. It questions marital arrangements and courtship rituals by depicting a woman who actively pursues the man she loves. The novel explores the links between sexuality, desire, and economic and social freedom, suggesting the need for improvement in the laws of society which `have enslaved, enervated, and degraded woman’.


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Mary Hays is another one of those forgotten 18th-century writers, who didn’t get the attention and notoriety they deserve when she was alive. Hays is nothing like Austen or her idol, Mary Wollstonecraft, but her insight and her unique writing style gives a fresh take on female writing in the 18th century. Hays’ writing is blunt and straight to the point. What I admired about this book is that Hays doesn’t handle her audience with kid gloves. If something is unjust or she, as a woman, decides to question ideas, she has no qualms giving her opinions on subjects deemed too controversial for a woman. Hays’ personality, I feel, is reflected in the main character’s personality, Emma Courtney. I don’t think this work could be so convincing if it was the opposite.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney is not a plot-driven novel. There is a story but I found myself yearning to hear more of Emma’s opinions and thoughts. This occurs through some parts. There is a story, and trust me, it is a very interesting and intriguing read, however, be wary. It will feel that the story is rambling on and is going off the rails. But there is a reason to all this madness.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney has an interesting history. Although a fictional novel, it is partly autobiographical. Hays incorporated her struggles with romance and accepting Enlightenment ideas, but mostly it a memoir of a unreciprocated love. To make this story even more real, Hays incorporated her own letters into the work, a controversial act at the time. She may have been airing out her dirty laundry to the world, but Hays was making a bold move. She is most likely one of the first writers to use her real life in her fiction writing. Hays didn’t know it at the time but she was providing the stepping-stones of the genre “life writing”.

That being said, parts of this novel reads like an obsessive love letter. You can admire Emma Courtney for her intelligence and ideas but you will get frustrated with her obsessive nature over a man who is only not that interested in her but has proven himself time and time again to be not good enough for her. Think “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, without the songs and the music. After discovering the history of this book, it speaks to me in two ways. One: “I will make you sorry for not loving me by revealing both of our secrets.” And two: “But if you decide to love me, that is okay and I will forgive you.”

Is this a feminist novel? Yes, but not as dominant if you compare it with Wollstonecraft’s fictional works. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give this one a try. This opinionated and intriguing novel may read like a love letter to an unrequited love but its unique writing style gives it the attention that it wholeheartedly deserves.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Get It At: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Book Depository| Your local library

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