In November of 1795, after William Godwin requested a sketch of Mary Hays’ life, she arrived at the idea of Memoirs of Emma Courtney. Godwin followed up his request with a “hint” that a fictional exploration of the painful experience she had undergone in her relationship with William Frend might help her to come to terms with it. It was to be an “instructive rather than self indulgent” work. The resulting novel is one of the most interesting and important explorations of gender-related issues of the time. Emma is exposed to a series of situations—motherlessness, orphanhood, poverty, dependence, and more—which encourage her to reflect “on the inequalities of society, the source of every misery and vice, and on the peculiar disadvanteges of my sex.” The novel quickly became viewed as “a scandalous disrobing in public” but it has endured as much on the basis of its readability as on its pointed social commentary.
“Marilyn Brooks’ excellent edition of Emma Courtney situates Hays’ first novel philosophically, in relation to Godwin and Wollstonecraft; biographically, in relation to Hays’ tormented love affairs; and with regard to the literary ferment expressed in the Jacobin novel. Brooks also provides essential, and in some cases rare background material in the several appendices. The result is that this wonderful formerly obscure novel now yields the intellectual excitement and scandalous frisson that it generated upon publication.” — Sandra Sherman, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville