More, Hannah (1745–1833)
More, Hannah (1745–1833)
English playwright, novelist, and tract writer whose talents were turned to evangelism within the Anglican Church, agitation against human slavery, and education for the working classes despite fame and the promise of an honored place among the most accomplished citizens of the Republic of Letters. Born Hannah More at Stapleton, Gloucestershire, England, on February 2, 1745; died without descendants in Clifton on September 7, 1833; daughter of Jacob More (a schoolmaster) and Mary Grace More; never married, no children.
Percy (1777); The Bas-Bleu; or Conversation (1786); (under name "Will Chip") Village Politics (1792); Cheap Repository Tracts (1795–98); Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788); Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799); Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809).
Made a decision in early womanhood that may now seem self-destructive, but, having once turned to God in preference to the world, never looked back and displayed a faith and a constancy that posterity is perhaps not equipped to understand; displaying intelligence at an early age, could read by age four and became proficient in the study of the classics; taught school with her sisters at Bristol and began to write (after 1757); ended long engagement with a Mr. Turner, a merchant (1773); published The Search after Happiness (1773); had first play, The Inflexible Captive, presented at Bath (1774); associated with David Garrick and other literary figures (after 1773); acclaimed for her play Percy which was performed in London (1777–78); departed London and began religious writing at Cowslip Green, near Bristol (after 1779); published Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788); opened first Sunday school in Cheddar (1789); published The Slave Trade (1790), Village Politics (1792), and Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809).
It is easy to summon up the picture of Hannah More as a quaint old woman, a relic of the 18th century who was outdated, even antiquated, long before her demise more than 30 years into the 19th century. Travelers to Barley Woods, the home of her old age, remarked on her frailty and the manners and language that seemed to belong to a time too far gone to remember. She must have seemed rigid, puritanical, and decidedly lacking in a modern point of view. All that, of course, is true. Yet such a picture does not do Hannah More justice. Born before the revolutions in America and France began the deconstruction of the unique era that was the English 18th century, Hannah did spring from a refined, elegant society that could not survive the egalitarian impulses of the modern world. She flourished in the theaters, drawing rooms, and assembly rooms of London, Bristol, and Bath, and she knew very well the pleasant pastimes, the brilliant conversation, the wit and charm of Georgian England. Yet, though at home in that cultivated company, she also saw its imperfections, its indifference to the lot of the poor, its complicity in human bondage, and its rejection of what More regarded as its essential heritage, the Christian religion. Prevented, as a woman, from taking direct political action to try to hold back the tide of vulgarity and secularism that would engulf and destroy her world, she took up the pen rather than the sword to wage a long and gallant retreat.
Hannah More, the fourth of five daughters, was born at Stapleton, a small settlement near Bristol in the western area of England, on February 2, 1745. Her father was Jacob More, a man who had lost a landed estate at law and became the schoolmaster at Fishponds at Stapleton. Hannah's mother was Mary Grace More , a farm girl with an assertive streak. Perhaps because of her father's position, Hannah grew up as a studious, intelligent girl who impressed the family and neighbors with her quick wit and superior memory. She could read by age four, probably because of the ready assistance of her older sisters, Mary, Elizabeth , and Sarah , all of whom were to become accomplished women themselves. Hannah's younger sister was Martha and, as the baby of the family, was known as Patty. Hannah's sisters shared her ambition, cleverness, and determination; they worked together all their lives and none of the girls would marry.
That the knowledge of the Bible should lay men more open to the delusions of fanaticism on the one hand, or of Jacobinism on the other, appears so unlikely, that I should have thought the probability lay all on the other side.
It was with her sister Mary that Hannah began her long career as an educator. Mary opened a girls' school in Bristol in 1758, and Hannah joined her to help teach several subjects. Her own inclination was toward the classics, but, though no mathematician, she taught the other subjects as well. The school flourished, attained an enviable reputation, and continued long after the sisters' retirement. Hannah gained valuable experience in this period that assisted her in later, more ambitious schemes to educate the poor. The school also gave the young women a measure of financial security and a place in Bristol society.
For a few years, Hannah, although a lovely woman with a pleasant demeanor, seemed to be content to remain single like her sisters. Then, in 1767 she was engaged to Edward Turner of Belmont, a man of property who admired Hannah's poetry but who was 20 years older than she. At his estate, More would have had a comfortable life, but Turner repeatedly postponed the wedding, possibly because, while fond of her, he did not find her sufficiently tranquil for his taste. The engagement was eventually terminated in 1773, but the shamefaced gentleman smoothed the separation by granting Hannah an annuity of £200 per year. At his death, he bequeathed her another £1,000. She never seriously considered marriage again, though she was close to a number of men, including the actor David Garrick, the brilliant writer Horace Walpole, and William Wilburforce, the single greatest influence in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.
It is just as well that More did not marry Turner, for she likely would have become a country lady without the driving motivation to write that led to the prodigious publications that flowed from her pen. In the event, Hannah turned to drama in a city, Bristol, that was an important center for the 18th-century theater. Several players came from London to perform in the town's theaters, and Hannah met many of them. She had written The Search after Happiness, according to her account, as a young girl, but it was not published until 1773. It was a simple story, in verse, about the need for women to be modest and accepting of the role assigned to their sex in this world. Mary Alden Hopkins , More's biographer, wrote: "Hannah believed destiny imposed one set of duties upon men and a completely different set upon women, although an exceptional woman might push her way a very short distance into what was essentially a male province." Although the work of an amateur, performed only at the girls' school, The Search represented More's entry into that expanding circle of "scribbling women" of the high 18th century.
The year 1773 also saw More's first visit to London. In the metropolis, she encountered a number of notables through the good offices of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the celebrated painter. Along with her sisters, Hannah was considered a delight, and more than them, she was considered a vivacious intellect. Not the least of the luminaries she encountered was the formidable Dr. Samuel Johnson, the most honored literary figure of the time. Johnson enjoyed her company, perhaps because he liked her poetry, perhaps because he liked pretty young women who adored him. Still another famous gentlemen who found Hannah irresistible was David Garrick, just then coming to the end of one of the great careers in theatrical history. Their friendship was widely noticed, but More was not simply the favorite of older men. Women liked her as well, and Mrs. Garrick (Eva-Maria Veigel ) treated her as she would a beloved daughter, even taking her into her house for weeks on end. It was a distracting experience for a young provincial woman of 24 to be so quickly taken to the bosom of London's finest circles, but Hannah handled herself very well and prepared to make the best of her new and exciting connections.
More's visit to London probably inspired her to arrange for the performance of her tragedy, The Inflexible Captive, in Bath at the Theatre Royal. She had published the play earlier, and her friends, including Garrick, came for the opening night. The story involved noble characters of ancient Rome and Carthage, and the self-sacrifice of the hero, Regulus, appealed to the tastes of the time. In fact, the sentiments of the piece reflected the high-minded sense of dedication to a code of behavior that marked its author's long life. It was a huge success, making Hannah More a name known throughout the kingdom.
More's growing public expected more from the talented author, and they were not disappointed. In 1777 came Ode to Dragon, an elegy to the career of Garrick, and Percy, a historical tragedy, partly produced by Garrick, concerning conflict along the medieval Scottish border and the disasters attendant upon blood feuds. It, too, was a triumph, and Hannah reached the apogee of her critical success. Britain might be losing an empire in America, but in fashionable circles the talk was of the immensely talented Miss More. These were pleasant years for the West Country schoolmaster's daughter.
When David Garrick died in 1779, his passing wounded More deeply, and she discovered he had left a gap in her life that was never quite filled. She still moved in brilliant sets, and her play, Fatal Falsehoods, was performed the year of Garrick's death; but gradually she withdrew from the theater, a loss to her time and to posterity. Her friend's demise seemed to turn her thoughts back to the faith of her childhood. By degrees, her piety grew, and though she visited London annually to reaffirm old acquaintances, she spent more and more time in the Bristol region. In 1782, she built a cottage she called Cowslip Green in Somerset, close to Bristol and the Mendip Hills. Soon her sisters came to join her. There she took to the country life and a searching investigation of her spiritual life. Inevitably, Hannah felt the need to write about this developing interest.
Possibly because More was herself an honored figure among the English elite, knowing well Dr. Johnson, Edmund Burke, Elizabeth Montagu , David Hume, and Edward Gibbon, she thought that such people could and should directly affect the greater society by the force of example. It was this idea that led her to publish anonymously Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society in
1788. The book was popular despite its criticism of the very people Hannah had embraced in London society. It was, in fact, an admonishment to the cream of society to reform their worldly lives for the betterment of themselves and others. This certainly was not the same Hannah of Percy or of the clever, witty correspondence with Horace Walpole or David Garrick. But it was earnest. For whatever the younger Hannah More had conceived about her duty as a Christian, by 1788 she was convinced that her mission was to uphold the established church, defend the British state, and conserve social position and wealth. As Hopkins noted, Hannah "enjoyed that conviction of being right which is the reward for wholehearted acceptance of authority." More had become a conservative, but she soon came to see that she did not want to conserve everything.
One of the customs of her time that Hannah detested was the trade in African slaves. In this she was greatly influenced, as were so many others, by that tireless, crusading parliamentarian, William Wilburforce. Her poem, The Slave Trade, published in 1790, came as a direct result of her close friendship with Wilburforce whom she had known for years and to whom she had introdu one of the founders of Methodism, Charles Wesley. But More and Wilburforce had broader reform interests. They also hoped to rekindle a spirit of true faith in the Anglican Church.
The Church of England became the center of More's life from the 1780s until her death. Both she and Wilburforce were recruited into a band known as the Clapham Sect, a circle of individuals who gathered in the London suburb of Clapham. Worried by the popular disorders attendant upon the developing Methodist movement, but repelled by the worldliness and indifference of the Anglican establishment, the Clapham Sect undertook an evangelical movement to encourage piety and at least some spiritual spark in their beloved English Church. For her part, More was encouraged by Wilburforce to follow the example of Robert Raikes, the founder of English Sunday schools. Wilburforce had accompanied Hannah on a short outing to the town of Cheddar in 1789. Depressed by the poverty and ignorance of the ordinary folk, he challenged More to act on their behalf. It was just the kind of project she could promote with her energy and her pen, and she threw herself into the effort to provide the children of the area with the rudimentary teachings of the Church. Naturally, she persuaded her sisters to help.
Hannah shortly encountered opposition to the new Sunday schools. Some believed any education, even in the faith, would encourage social envy and cause people to forget their duty to their betters. The sisters pressed on, however; they rented a house in Cheddar, hired a teacher, and soon had 500 children studying the Bible and the catechism, singing hymns, and saying prayers. They even managed to found a form of insurance society for the poor women of the area called Women's Benefit Societies. In time, Hannah undertook to have the children taught some simple skills during the week as well, and schools were opened at Axbridge, Barnwell, Barley Wood, and other locations, but she never intended that the children receive academic training. On the contrary, More believed that the poor of the earth must learn to accept their lot in life. She certainly did not sympathize with any attempt to overturn the established ways of the kingdom. Years later, in 1801, she wrote to the bishop of Bath and Wells defending her instruction and denying that she in any way, religious or political, encouraged "enthusiasm." "I do not vindicate enthusiasm," she wrote, "I dread it. But can the possibility that a few should become enthusiasts be justly pleaded as an argument for giving the all up to actual vice and barbarism?" Still, she was dismayed when decades afterward, the Sunday school movement was expanded to provide education to the poor beyond her simple curriculum.
It was suspicion of the evangelical movement and of More's Sunday schools that touched off the Blagdon Controversy. Between 1800 and 1804, conservative elements in the Anglican Church, seeing in the evangelicals a species of Methodism, charged that illegal religious meetings were being held at the Blagdon school by a master named Younge. There were demands that Younge be dismissed, but Hannah stubbornly refused, seeing the entire business as an attack on her activities. Inevitably, she was accused of Methodism. Many persons of distinction rallied to More, but her health suffered in the controversy that seemed to go on and on. Harsh pamphlets were published against her, and church officials eventually intervened and the Blagdon school was closed. Hannah was deeply hurt by the slanders to her good name and withdrew from the world for some time.
Well before the Blagdon Controversy, More had, like many English leaders, been alarmed by the French Revolution and its call for a radical restructuring of politics and society. Predictably, Hannah reacted fiercely to the anti-religious aspects of the Revolution and even overcame her distaste for anything "popish" by actively aiding the French refugee clergy and aristocrats who had fled to England. In 1792, she published Village Politics, by Will Chip, a Country Carpenter. It was a tract, rather than a book, condemning the dangerous notions of those who thought working people could either understand or responsibly exercise the "rights of man." Hannah rejected such propositions, believing activist writers like Tom Paine to be sowing the wind in stirring up ordinary people who must in the nature of things be poor and subservient. Her religion and her training persuaded her that society was fundamentally unchanging, that men and women have an appointed place in the state and that to challenge the political order was to challenge the natural order. It would only, as it had in France, unloose the devil in humanity and produce rivers of blood. More than likely, More accepted Plato's strictures in The Republic to the effect that society must be divided into rulers, guardians of the state, and workers. Each group's part should be determined by the education, wisdom, and capacities of the individuals within it. So, while sympathetic to the impoverished, Hannah could not condone providing them a secular education; it would do them no good and could cause both them and the state great harm.
She especially detested the atheistic elements of the Revolution in France and feared their propagation in England. With eloquence, More slashed at the presumption of the French leaders who supposed their nation had freed itself from the need of a transcendent God. In On Religion and Public Education in 1793, Hannah urged English people to demonstrate the purity of Anglicanism by befriending the French refugees, despite their erroneous Catholic religion. She argued that the French republicans were rebelling against God, not a king, and that French liberty was nothing more than license that would eventually destroy both liberty and happiness. Only religion, she declared, can "tame that savage, the natural human heart."
As she grew older, More's faith increased and her impatience with the failures of the human fancy grew apace. In the Cheap Repository Tracts, published between 1795 and 1798, the familiar condemnation of any alteration of the status quo was drummed into all who would read the repetitive, if earnest, pamphlets. As Claudia Johnson has written, in an introduction to Considerations on Religion, More simply did not regard politics and religion as separate spheres. Each was essential to the other.
Hannah More's last important literary achievement was a novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, published in 1809. It went through many editions and was popular in America as well as in England. Coelebs is, however, a sad story, though Hannah did not intend it so, because in it she essentially rejects much of what had been her greatness. So frightened had she become of the vices surrounding the young, that the heroine of Coelebs encounters all her difficulties because of an absorption in literature. So far had she traveled from her carefree days with David Garrick that Hannah, in her old age, denounced the stage and all its productions as ruinous of faith and morals.
More left Cowslip Green in 1802 and built a spacious house at Barley Wood. Her last years were passed in that comfortable home, and many of the great of the day came to converse with her. All of her sisters preceded her in death, and Hannah, no longer able to care for herself, was removed to a house in Clifton, near Bristol, in order for friends to watch over her. She died on September 7, 1833, at age 89, and was buried near her sisters at Barley Wood.
The reader of Percy may find it difficult to recognize the same author in Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Hannah More had become "Saint Hannah" in her old age. Yet the piety of the elderly spinster was but the continuation of the faith of the young playwright. It will not do simply to dismiss More as a reactionary without the wit to deal with change. Hannah understood better than most the far-reaching changes occurring in her society, and she did not fear them only because they challenged a familiar and comfortable way of life. She fought them because, for her, they constituted a challenge to faith and morality and, therefore, to God. Unlike many of her contemporaries, More did not see man as sufficient to himself. It was that very pride, that arrogance which bred atheism, revolution, and destruction. Within the context of her beliefs, she was perfectly logical and perfectly consistent. That is more than one can say for many of her critics, and most of them could not match her eloquence, nor probably her conviction.
Cropper, Margaret. Sparks Among the Stubble. London: Longmans, Green, 1955, pp. 145–180.
Hopkins, Mary Alden. Hannah More and Her Circle. London: Longmans, Green, 1947.
More, Hannah. Considerations on Religion and Public Education. Introduction by Claudia Johnson. The Augustan Reprint Society, 1990.
Thompson, Henry. Life of Hannah More with Notices of her Sisters. Cadell, 1838.
C. David Rice , Ph.D., Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri