WOMEN, MORALITY AND ADVICE LITERATURE
Manuscripts and Rare Printed Works of Hannah More (1745-1833) and her circle from the Clark Library, Los Angeles
Part 1: Manuscripts, First Editions and Rare Printed Works of Hannah More
Part 2: Gift Books, Memoirs, Pamphlets and the Cheap Repository Tracts
Part 3: Writings by The Eminent Blue Stockings
'Hannah More's Public Voice in Georgian Britain' by Patricia Demers
Counter-revolutionary Bluestocking and Evangelical reformer, Hannah More (1745-1833) was one of the best selling authors in Georgian Britain. Her works, experimenting with every literary genre in a range of high and low styles, actually made this intelligent, ambitious crusader very wealthy. More’s will distributed her accumulated £30,000 to major causes supported throughout her long life: education, missionary evangelism, and abolitionism. As a spiritually egalitarian Tory who promoted radical causes such as opposition to slavery and the education of the poor, and as a social critic who could engage both elite and plebeian readers, Hannah More does not fit a conventional class or ideological stereotype. The range and complexity of her writing, which appeared both in individual publications over a span of five decades and in three approved editions of Collected Works during her lifetime, are critical to understanding the literary politics of Georgian life and to enlarging concepts of Romanticism, extending horizons to embrace the culture of female sensibility, social theory, and activism.
On account of her firm blending of High Church principles and social reform, as a sort of bimetallic strip, More attracted critics and scores of admirers, lay and clerical. Although she was the darling of female Victorian biographers, the most predictable invocation of her name today is as the conservative counterblast to Mary Wollstonecraft. These cultural warriors are more aligned than most readers realize. Both envisioned transforming the state by modelling governance on a responsible and strict domestic arrangement. Both emphasized the importance of reading and its role in the development of a culture. Both articulated what came to be known as a Romantic struggle for personal and national identity, and both made strong cases for the especial power of a woman’s mind.
Like Wollstonecraft, More was largely self-educated. The fourth of five daughters of schoolmaster Jacob More and farmer’s daughter Mary (Grace) More, Hannah was a precocious, enthusiastic pupil. A brother, Jacob, who died in infancy, was born after Hannah and before her favourite sister, Martha, nicknamed Patty. The More family quarters in the Fishponds free school, in the parish of Stapleton close to Bristol, were cramped, however, Hannah quickly distinguished herself for cleverness in learning Latin and mathematics - so much so - that her father, fearful of creating a mere pedant, discontinued the lessons. Along with her siblings she learned French from the eldest sister, Mary, who returned from Bristol on the weekends to relay what she had been taught during the week. The girls’ fluency was helped when their father invited paroled French officers, prisoners during the Seven Years War, to the Fishponds home. When Mary, Betty, and Sally More moved to Bristol to establish a school for young ladies, opened in Trinity Street in 1758 with a later location in Park Street, Hannah and Patty followed, first as pupils and then as junior teachers. Unlike the Wollstonecraft sisters’ establishment at Newington Green, the school set up by the More women, offering instruction in French, reading, writing, arithmetic, and eventually dancing, was a success: “an upmarket school for the daughters of the affluent” (Stott 10).
None of the More sisters married. However, Hannah’s cancelled engagement became the target of snide comments from male critics who hid behind pseudonyms of “Peter Pindar” (John Wolcot), “Archibald MacSarcasm” (William Shaw), and “Sappho Search” (John Black) to attack More as the jilted bride or frustrated prude. Her dilatory suitor, William Turner, was the guardian of two girls at the Mores’ Park Street School. This old bachelor, twenty years her senior, invited the vivacious Hannah to accompany his wards to his country estate, called Belmont, in the village of Wraxall, south of Bristol; he proposed but postponed the wedding three times over six years. To save Hannah further embarrassment, though without her knowledge, Dr. James Stonhouse intervened, with the result that Turner settled an annuity of £200 on Hannah and bequeathed her £1,000. By not becoming the mistress of Belmont, Hannah became a writer. The critic “Peter Pindar” resorted to a form of clumsy and unfeeling psychoanalysis to explain More’s tartness about bad love poetry: “Somewhat has wounded thee, ’tis very plain! / Revenge, I fear, lies rankling in thine heart” (Works 5:201). What did lie in her heart about this matter Hannah never disclosed.
The theatre was Hannah More’s initial platform and love. Her first publication, The Search after Happiness (1773), was written for student performers when she was an eighteen-year-old teacher at her sisters’ Park Street school and published when she was twenty-eight. A sober piece of juvenilia, this “pastoral drama” in rhyming couplets introduces four girls, all articulately aware of their faults, who seek the guidance of the widow Urania; through sententious nuggets in dialogue and song they are exhorted to realise that “the fairest symmetry of form or face / From intellect receives its highest grace” and to excel “In that best art - the art of living well” (Works I: 278-79). The school play had had a long tradition in the education of boys (with Ralph Roister Doister written for performance by boys at Eton and Gammer Gurton’s Needle for boys at Cambridge); More’s play, which went through thirteen editions before its inclusion in the Collected Works of 1801, was one of the first to cater for girls. Mary Russell Mitford fondly recalled “the English teacher and her favourite play . . . amongst the first, the gayest, and the tenderest of [her] school-day recollections” (Mitford 165). More’s idea of putting moral treatises into action with young performers was also prophetic. A translation of Madame de Genlis’s Le théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes (1779-80) was printed by More’s own publisher, Cadell, in 1781. With lighter touches in their dramatic pictures of family life and rowdiness, Maria Edgeworth, Barbara Hofland Hoole, and Anna Jameson wrote affecting plays for young performers.
Due in part to the successful reviews of Search and mainly to the interventions of Bristol Theatre Royal manager William Powell, Blagdon poet and clergyman John Langhorne, and Drury Lane impresario David Garrick, More’s three tragedies were produced in Bath, Exeter, London, and Bristol over the next five years. Though derivative, her plays are instructive experiments in the art of adaptation and expression of emotional torment. Each tragedy spotlights the dilemma of a daughter who espouses noble resolve but ultimately succumbs to emotional collapse in a world hostile to her virtue. These daughters, however, leave a mark because of the power of their feeling. The Inflexible Captive, her blank verse translation of Pietro Metastasio’s opera Attilio Regolo which premiered in Bath in 1775, examines the relationship between the Roman warrior Regulus, held captive in Carthage, and his daughter Attilia, who attempts unsuccessfully to secure his release. With Garrick’s sponsorship and textual editing Percy, which reset Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy’s Gabrielle de Vergy in the context of the Douglas and Percy families from Percy’s Reliques, opened at Covent Garden in December 1777 and enjoyed a remarkable nineteen performances. Elwina is the dutiful daughter who capitulates to her father’s request to marry a man she does not love and justifies her obedience to her lover Percy by recalling “the cruel tyranny” of a father’s tears: “If thou has felt, and hast resisted these, / Then thou mayst curse my weakness; but if not, / Thou canst not pity, for thou canst not judge” (Works 2:198). More’s last tragedy, The Fatal Falsehood, ran for only four nights in 1779, during which time she was distracted as much by the death of Garrick as by the groundless charges of plagiarism from Hannah Cowley. The self-possession of Emmelina, the jilted heiress of The Fatal Falsehood, impresses her father as the response of “a Roman matron . . . and not a feeble girl” (Works 2: 276), but this daughter, too, sinks into despair and death at the hands of “the afflicting angel” (Works 2: 303). A combination of mourning, distress at the scandalous suggestion of plagiarism, and continuing ambivalence about the instructive potential of the theatre probably led to More’s decision to renounce the stage as an appropriate medium. Her only other theatrical work was the treatment of biblical topics, Sacred Dramas (1782), which she designed as a closet drama for young readers. Although she included the tragedies in all the Collected Works, she confessed in the Preface to the 1801 edition that her “youthful course of reading, and early habits of society and conversation” had encouraged her “to entertain that common hope that the stage, under certain regulations, might be converted into a school of virtue,” a hope which she later dismissed as “delusive” (Works 2: 125).
Her début quarto as a poet, in 1776, for which her publisher paid handsomely, consisted of two ballads about unrequited love, “The Bleeding Rock; or, The Metamorphosis of a Nymph into a Stone” and “Sir Eldred of the Bower.” The former legend fancifully explains the red spots of sandstone in the rock in Failand (which becomes “Fairy Land”), a hamlet close to Bristol, and the latter retells the ballad of Gil Morice. In couplets and alternate-rhyme quatrains More’s narratives are didactic. Both poems feature virtuous women done to death by rash men. The location of the action of “The Bleeding Rock” is close to the estate of More’s on-again, off-again suitor, and hence it has been construed as a reflection of her own situation. But it is unlikely to have been a “protest” (Jones 17) poem about ill treatment. If More made no mention of the circumstance - however tragic or liberating for her it may have been - in her private letters, it seems implausible that she would have worn her heart on her sleeve in a public poem.
“The Bas-Bleu” was More’s confident, spirited exercise celebrating Mrs Elizabeth Vesey’s conversation parties. Her support for “Vesey’s plastic genius” was a witty reflection of both the haphazard arrangement of the furniture and her hostess’s deafness. More’s vision of “sober Duchesses,” “chaste Wits,” “Whigs and Tories in alliance,” and “learn’d Antiquaries” conveyed the utopian challenge of the Bluestocking enterprise. Here was a female writer insisting on her role as “the guardian of mass sociomoral culture” (Ross 203). Her appeal to mercantilism was shrewd but highminded: “intellectual ore” and “education’s moral mint” must be transmitted by the “commerce” of conversation, “whose precious merchandize is MIND” (Works 1: 291-305). After having circulated in manuscript throughout the Bluestocking network, “The Bas-Bleu” was published in 1786, along with “Florio: A Tale for Fine Gentlemen and Fine Ladies,” a gentle Horatian satire on city and country manners.
Following her meeting in 1787 with the anti-slavery politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and the former first mate of slave ships who had become an ordained priest John Newton (1725-1807), More wrote “Slavery; a Poem” (1788) to assist Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign. She composed it hurriedly (within two weeks) to support the passage of a bill that would limit the number of slaves transported to British colonies in the West Indies. The bill passed, although the parliamentary campaign for full emancipation was protracted; her poem was circulated widely in anti-slavery societies throughout Britain. She worked with Lady Margaret Middleton to have Thomas Southerne’s dramatization of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko produced in London at the same time. More showed a critical awareness of the support of slavery by both the Church of England and George III; with compelling strength the poem’s female abolitionist voice exposed and indicted greed, covetousness, and oppression. The pathos and sentiment of her depiction of the black as ‘other’ invite comparison with contemporary female abolitionist discourse by Sarah Trimmer, Helen Maria Williams, Ann Yearsley, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld as well as the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography published in 1789.
Although More had withdrawn from the world of theatre, she did continue annual visits to London and maintained an alert insider’s knowledge of the fashionable world, as evidenced in the hard-hitting essays calling for reform: Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great (1788) and An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1791). Writing from the distance of her Cowslip Green retreat in Wrington, close to Bristol, More deftly blended first-hand observation with the bold declaration that “reformation must begin with the GREAT.” Her knowledge of apparently harmless Sunday amusements was wide and detailed; among the deceiving attempts to “patch up a precarious and imperfect happiness in this world,” she commented on hairdressers, dressmakers, card games, and the effusions of “transient sensibility.” Non-conformity to the world, especially the world of fashion, luxury, and bon ton, and consistency in “principles of the heart” are basic criteria in More’s horizon of judgement. Pithy dicta (“An extempore Christian is a ridiculous character”) also dotted her assured and unapologetic social theorizing.
Acerbic judgement and a somewhat na?ve sensibility coexisted in More, making her meliorist or philanthropic schemes easy targets for criticism as paternalistic instruments promoting subalternism. When in 1785 she started a subscription campaign among the gentry and aristocracy to publish the work of the impoverished milkmaid poet, Ann Yearsley, More insisted on control of the proceeds in a way that angered and ultimately alienated the woman she had tried to help. “[W]hat many of these middle-class and patrician patrons of Yearsley consistently failed to understand was the sense of ignominy and almost self-hatred that their support sometimes engendered in her” (Felsenstein 371). With a similar saving impulse to intervene and control, Hannah and Patty More courageously established, oversaw, and inspected eleven Sunday Schools in the poorest Mendip villages, beginning with Cheddar in 1789 and extending over the next decade to Shipham, Rowberrow, Sandford, Banwell, Congresbury, Yatton, Nailsea, Axbridge, Blagdon, and Wedmore. Not only did they rent locations and hire teachers, but the More sisters - even in their frail old age - regularly visited three or four schools each Sunday, fund-raised for the schools, and supported from their own purse the annual large-scale picnic of the Mendip Feasts. Although More’s rhetoric of authority and understanding of didacticism and poverty are subjects of critical reconsideration today (by Elizabeth Howells, Jane Nardin, Alan Richardson, Mona Scheuermann, and K D M Snell among others), her most recent biographer, Anne Stott, observes that More’s work for the immortal welfare of the Mendip people, which involved consistent attempts at being popular, “went far beyond the reinforcement of the social order” and actually proved “a surprising agent of social mobility” (Stott 119, 168).
More’s acclaim as a writer of popular literature and her career as a propagandist was launched with the publication of a provocative, widely distributed poetic dialogue, Village Politics, in 1792. A riposte to Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which had outsold Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Village Politics was ostensibly penned by the country carpenter Will Chip. Jack the blacksmith and Tom the mason talk about freedom, happiness and rights, exactly mimicking the topics in Paine. Jack, the master of terse remarks, always has the upper hand over malleable but inquisitive Tom. The upholding of hierarchy and paternalistic benevolence shows the remarkable degree of More’s opposition to dissent and her association of restlessness with drinking, licentiousness, riots, and bonfires.
The Cheap Repository for Moral and Religious Tracts (1795-97), the monthly publication of tales, ballads, and tracts, which More managed and to which she contributed substantially (under the pseudonym “Z”), is the counteroffensive to revolution that is most immediately associated with her name today. With the execution of Louis XVI in January and Marie Antoinette in October 1793 and the declaration of war on England in the same year, the sense of alarm and upheaval about the dissemination of revolutionary ideals prompted the Bishop of London’s enlisting of More to lead the charge against disorder. He exhorted that she dispense her “porter in pewter pots not in silver tankards” (Roberts 2: 427). More’s plan for the Cheap Repository, “to improve the habits and raise the principles of the common people,… not only to counteract vice and profligacy on the one hand, but error, discontent, and false religion on the other” (Works, 3: vii), was pragmatic and daring. Although her satirist’s eye exposed hypocrisy in all social classes, she made no bones about hoping to abate the relish “among the inferior ranks . . . for those corrupt and inflammatory publications which the consequences of the French Revolution have been so fatally pouring in upon us” (Works, 3: viii). Her skilful propaganda, “a significant channel for female reformist impulse” (Myers 269), involved a deliberate expropriation of popular culture, representing what has been called “a fantasy of social order” (Kelly 153). Her stories of colliers, farmers, shepherds, merchants, sailors, barmaids, poachers, philosophers, and fortune tellers, embracing a complete span from the upright to the criminal, display the often creative tensions between enabling and containing, perceptive and authoritarian, populist and fantastic aspects of More’s contributions.
The climax of More’s accomplishments in the 1790s was the publication of her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), the most comprehensive Georgian treatment of the education of women of the middle and upper ranks, their role in cultural formation, and their duties to act as engaged social beings. In this twenty-one-chapter polemic More’s combative, astringent principles of reform permeate every part of the argument about the cultivation of women’s intellect. Strictures went through seven editions in its first year, with five separate American editions in its first decade. Though praised by Elizabeth Carter, Hester Chapone, Charles Burney, Elizabeth Montagu, and Anna Barbauld, More was criticized by the Reverend Charles Daubeny and the pseudonymous “Sappho Search,” “Archibald MacSarcasm,” and “Peter Pindar” for what they considered the borrowed, misunderstood, or meandering aspect of her text. “Sappho Search” accused her of envying Wollstonecraft: “In vigorous expression, and passion’s true tone, / Perhaps she was piqued to be greatly outshone” (Search 23). More did not temper or change her views; on the contrary, she amplified the second edition in the space of a few weeks, and let others rebut her critics. Though Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman preceded Strictures by seven years, it is worth noting how closely related the main ideas of these female crusaders are, despite the palpable differences in rhetoric between the impulsive hurry of Wollstonecraft and the measured periodicity of More. They shared a prescient mistrust of novels, yet each wrote an idiosyncratic example of the genre. Both made resoundingly effective cases for the indispensability of moral freedom. This expansive treatment of women’s education eclipsed and replaced More’s earlier Essays on Various Subjects (1777), whose severity she realized by refusing to approve any publication beyond 1791. Strictures shares some ideological allegiances with essays by contemporaries Hester Chapone, Catharine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Priscilla Wakefield. Georgian conduct books by James Fordyce, John Gregory, John Bennett, and Thomas Gisborne supply misogynous contrasts to More’s passionate commitments that played a crucial role in the changing notions of femininity and the emergence of modern notions of subjectivity and gender. Though she deliberately avoided “education” in the title, More’s two-volume Hints towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1805), tailored for Princess Charlotte and for the situation in the nation at a time when Bonaparte had just been crowned emperor in France, offers praise of and instructive cautions about the responsible moral imperatives of monarchy.
At the age of sixty-three Hannah More wrote her only novel, Cœlebs in Search of a Wife, Comprehending Observations on Domestic Habits and Manners, Religion and Morals (1808). This originally anonymous bestseller went through eleven editions in its first nine months. A hybrid of extended conversations, interleaved instructive stories, and remarkable character studies, Cœlebs is a novel of ideas, Morean ideas, about family dynamics, courtship, and the needed reform and evangelization of English society. Her twenty-four-year-old bachelor narrator, who styles himself “Cœlebs” (unmarried), encounters fashionable, nubile women in London before he visits the Hampshire home of his deceased father’s friend, where he meets his ideal partner, Lucilla Stanley. In the nineteenth-century Eden of Stanley Grove, More’s re-cast Adam and Eve find one another. More’s new Eve exhibits a winning practicality. In her careful cultivation of languages, social responsibility, and domestic savoir faire Lucilla shows none of the anti-intellectualism associated with the domestic woman. Her non-doting parents consider her a valued friend, and she often moderates the narrator’s priggish, censorious opinions. More leads the reader to realize that, as a Christian, Cœlebs is ultimately subject to the same authority as his future wife. In this novel about the meeting of two minds, opinion and talk supersede action and intrigue, yet More adroitly stages debates, interludes and confessions. Concerned to show the ways in which a couple becomes, to use her own distinction from Strictures, “matched” as opposed to merely “joined,” she relies on a rhetorical strategy tested and perfected in her plays, poetry, essays, and tracts: the instructive contrast. In Cœlebs this device allows More to expand the predictable roster of characters, from the wealthy bachelor, his perfect companion, and her eminently sensible parents as well as high-spirited siblings, to include satirical portraits of society matrons and their daughters, testy and irreverent challengers of the Evangelicalism of Mr Stanley and Cœlebs, and the free-spirited, independent Miss Sparkes, who, in kicking against the pricks, poses unanswered questions about the restrictions of women’s education. Cœlebs invites comparison with the lessons by negative example of Sir Thomas Bertram’s education of his daughters and adopted niece in Austen’s Mansfield Park. More effectively “dismantles the microdynamic of hierarchy that disparages women’s capabilities” (Snook 136). By uniting evangelicalism and feminism in fiction she supplies “an essential link in the history of women’s public voice as it came down to the Victorians” (Krueger 119).
There is no hint that More was planning to launch a career as a religious novelist; however, some readers speculate that she was testing the market and was rebuffed by the criticism she encountered - from her friend Zachary Macaulay, editor of the official journal of the Evangelical Anglicans at Clapham, the Christian Observer, and from Sydney Smith’s dismissal in the Edinburgh Review. After the diversion - or, trial balloon - of Cœlebs More continued writing in her sixties and seventies, producing four book-length essays on religious topics: Practical Piety (1811), Christian Morals (1812), An Essay on the Character and Practical Writings of Saint Paul (1815), and The Spirit of Prayer (1825). Her idiosyncratic study of Saint Paul is the one in which More is most at ease and most revealing. Though she admits her deficiencies in Hebrew, she attends to the writerly aspect of the epistles, the “practical inferences” of their use of metaphor, and the ways in which conviction becomes the soul of eloquence. Daring to comment on the practical applications of biblical scholarship and theology, disciplines from which her sex was excluded, supplies a fitting close to the career of this determined, single-minded, and accomplished reformer.
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