Cambridge: University Press, 2013
Paperback reissue (first edition, 1952). xi+283 p. ISBN 978-1107622043. £20.99
Reviewed by Élizabeth Durot-Boucé
Université du Havre
“What William Wilberforce was among men, Hannah More was among women”. So the Christian Observer proclaimed upon More’s death in 1833. To be sure the bestselling religious writer and philanthropist, bluestocking, educationalist, anti-slavery campaigner, poet, playwright and novelist cut quite an unusual figure in an age when women were relegated to the private and domestic sphere. M.G. Jones’s biography, originally published in 1952, now in paperback edition, provides valuable information about English religious and social life in the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries through the vivid and entertaining portrait of one of the most influential females in her day. Mary Gwladys Jones brings together the correspondence of Hannah More (1745-1833) -particularly MS. letters discovered in 1951 -, her works - “the second main contemporary source for her life” [ix-x] - and the countless references to More in her contemporaries’ letters and memoirs to paint a lively picture of “the Old Bishop in Petticoats” (Cobbett) aka “the most powerful versificatrix in the English language” (Dr Johnson) and “the cleverest of all us female wits” (Mrs Thrale). Jones’s biography is divided into three parts respectively called after the main venues in More’s life (“Bristol”, “London” and “Somerset”) which correspond to the main stages in her long life as an educator, as a playwright in the circle of the Literati and as a writer on moral and religious subjects and a practical philanthropist absorbed in the reformation of manners.
The five More sisters, pious, intelligent and competent young women, educated at home by their father, opened a highly-praised boarding-school for girls in Bristol in 1757, meeting the growing demand for female education. The More sisters’ venture proved successful and the School in Park Street became a centre of intellectual life and attracted its pupils from the families of merchants but also from the gentry and professional classes [3-16]. A stimulating pedagogue, Hannah managed to amend the monotonous method of rote learning by resorting to the dramatic method: the success of her moral little drama (The Search after Happiness) together with the humiliating experience of her unhappy betrothal to William Turner urged her to return to the drama.
So in 1774 she paid the first of her visits to London where she quickly hobnobbed with the Literati, associating with Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Horace Walpole among others in the literary elite and the quality. Garrick made it possible for his ‘Nine’ (so nicknamed after the Nine Muses) to satisfy her passion for the stage, and chapter II (“The Drama”) devoted to More’s career as a playwright also throws interesting light on Garrick as a man [25-40]. Her play Percy was produced by Garrick in 1777, and Fatal Falsehood staged in 1779: both were triumphantly acclaimed but More lost enthusiasm for the theatre after her friend Garrick died and she broke with the stage.
Garrick had introduced her to his friends among the literati and quality. She soon was one of the prominent members of the Blue Stocking coteries, a world compounded of learning and fashion, led by Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (the ‘Queen of the Blues’) and she became acquainted with Frances Boscawen, Elizabeth Carter, Elizabeth Vesey and Hester Chapone. “Miss More, a nobody by birth and social position, was a persona grata in the most exclusive circles of the Blues” . She was “the fashion” (Mrs Boscawen) and the range of her friendships was remarkable as she was much appreciated by a number of women of rank and fortune and men distinguished in the world of action and affairs as well as by leading ecclesiastics. Special attention is devoted to her friendship with Horace Walpole [66-73] and Jones astutely relates Walpole’s correspondence with Hannah as part of his plan to provide future generations with an accurate and comprehensive picture of his age.
The second half of More’s life stands in striking contrast with her earlier years: after 1785 she turned to religious writing and to more distinctly Christian work, and her absorption in religion (criticised by many as ‘enthusiasm’) and philanthropy outweighed her interest in literature and the stage. The reaction of this “pious and essentially practical woman” to the Evangelical revival is thoroughly analysed and dealt with in chapter IV (“The Saints”): Hannah More slowly approached Evangelicalism through humanitarian interests. Swept by her Clapham friends, the Middletons, Ramsay, Newton and Wilberforce into the campaign for social reform, and against the Slave Trade, More was the most influential female member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. A favourite of London society, Hannah helped give the abolition movement a public voice with her writings. She developed “a passion for moral reform based on Christian standards”  and her association with the Saints together with her upbringing as a pedagogue led her to an absorption in the reformation of manners. She addressed the great, the rich and the gay, appealing them to amend their lives, expressing her ideas in prose, in her Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788), and An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1790).
The third part of Jones’s biography (“Somerset”) covers More’s later years, when she decided to cut herself off from worldly interests and all secular literature to focus entirely on writing ethical books and tracts: Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education with a View to the Principles and Conduct of Women of Rank and Fortune (1799), Hints towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1805), Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) (which went through 30 editions in the United States within ten years), Practical Piety (1811), Christian Morals (1812), Character and Practical Writings of St Paul (1815), Moral Sketches (1819). All of Hannah More's writings were permeated with a strong didactic and moral purpose. She was called upon to write some popular little tracts as a counteraction to Paine’s Rights of Man. “Antidote to Tom Paine” (Mrs Piozzi), Village Politics (1792) met with extraordinary reception and the “bishop in petticoats” continued with her Remarks on the Speech of M. Dupont stressing the horrors of French impiety.
Convinced that the poor should be supplied with “safe” books to read, she set out to write, edit and sell safe, cheap literature, the Cheap Repository Tracts [138-150]. Chapter VII (“The Schools”) relates the way Hannah and her sisters, appalled at the poverty and immorality in the mining towns, in 1787 began establishing Sunday Schools in many of the villages. Within ten years they were supporting and administering over sixteen schools, teaching the poor children to read the Scriptures, learn Christian morals, and acquire skills which would help them in life. One of the leading philanthropists of her day, and an active campaigner for education for the poor, Hannah wrote many of the books used in the schools, as is reported in chapter IX (“The Making of Many Books”). The publication of each new book caused her reputation and popularity to grow and a plethora of guests, friends and acquaintances, old and new, came to visit her at Barley Wood, where she had decided to retire. Even though Hannah deplored she had none of the leisure she had hoped old age would allow for reading, her voluminous correspondence shows her interest in literature. She was shocked and confused by the Romantic poets (antagonistic, to a man, to Evangelicalism) but she greeted Scott’s poems with enthusiasm. After all her sisters had died, she was left “more hurried and more engaged, more loaded with cares” and mourning the “total want of that article for which [she] built [her] house […] retirement” . She died in 1833, aged 89.
Though she was undeniably the most famous and influential woman in the England of her day, today Hannah More's name is virtually unknown. It is worth reintroducing Hannah More, whose writings and philanthropy deeply influenced the public mind and social character of her time, whose history-changing reforms affected every level of 18th-century British society and whose personality and charm can be ascertained by her long and sustained friendships with men and women of outstanding qualities of mind. Most importantly she did challenge the mores of her society. Her long life - stretching across a decidedly complex and changing period of English history - intersected with Wesley and Whitefield’s great Awakening, the rise of Evangelicalism, and paroxysmal effects of the French Revolution. More came at a transitional period of English social history; she provides a link as it were between the Georgian and Victorian periods, the England of Fielding and the England of Jane Austen.
Notes [237-271], two appendices [272-274], and an index [275-284] usefully supplement this work which (using previously unpublished sources) provides most valuable information about a complex and contradictory figure: a conservative who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade and the provision of instruction for the poor, an anti-feminist who enjoyed unique freedom and opened up new opportunities for female activism. M.G. Jones tries to present as unbiased and objective a portrait of Hannah More as possible and her drawing heavily from More’s letters makes this vivid and shrewd picture of considerable interest to students of social history of the later 18th century.
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