In the elegant branches of literature the subject of our present biography, Mrs. Hannah More, has contributed more than any female writer of the passing age, who though in early life moving in that once-thought humble line, a schoolmistress, was even then justly celebrated for her literary accomplishments, whilst the elegant simplicity of her poems and other productions, joined to the virtuous and pious sentiments which they all inculcate, not only appeared to come with peculiar grace from a female pen, but even tended much to increase the respectability and general importance of that profession of which she has been so bright an ornament.
It would be contrary to general bienseance, and indeed to that chivalrous gallantry which we are proud to profess towards every individual of that sex for whose instruction and improvement our pages are written, to state the year in which our fair subject first opened her eyes upon a world destined to admire her; but, not to excite curiosity without an attempt to allay it, we shall just hint that Miss More's first literary production was ushered into public notice, in 1773, when the ingenious authoress was barely in her eighteenth year.
Her father was either the curate or the incumbent of Hanham, or rather officiating clergyman to a chapel of ease in that place, in the county of Gloucester, and in the vicinity of Bristol, with a family of four daughters; and though he was a man as much distinguished for his classical knowledge as for the goodness of his heart, yet so little favoured by the gifts of fortune, that he was able to give his darling children little more than a good education, with which the eldest three began their career in the world by establishing a little school in their native village, which they conducted at first upon a humble plan; but so rapidly did their reputation increase, and so well did they shew themselves qualified for the superior walks of their profession, that young females, much above the rank of their first pupils, were soon intrusted to their charge, whose morals and general improvement were so conspicuous, that several ladies of fortune and influence in their neighbourhood made it a point to patronize them, persuading them to remove to Park-street, in Bristol, in the year 1765, where their boarding school was instantly fully attended, and for many years preserved that celebrity so well known to the greatest portion of our fair readers.
At this period the youngest daughter, Hannah; was only ten years of age, yet a fondness for reading had induced a general taste for literature, further cultivated by a few good books in the library at home, as well, as by the kind accommodation of her neighbouring friends, amongst whose contributions novels did not fail to find a place, and we are told that the first opportunity she had of giving the reins to her imagination in that dangerous yet sometimes elegant path of literary amusement, was in perusing the well known Richardsonian specimen of Pamela.
Her studies, however, were soon more learnedly and usefully directed on her removal with her sisters to Bristol, where she became a near neighbour of the classical, benevolent, and Reverend Dr. Stonehouse, to whose friendly assistance she was much indebted not only for the direction of her studies, but also, it is said, for the examination and correction of her earliest productions, the first of which was the Search after Happiness, a kind of dramatic poem, printed at Bristol in 1773, and published in London, where it was most favourably received. The plot of this little piece is perfectly inartificial, but the poetry did infinite credit to the youthful authoress, whither we consider the harmony of the verse, the happiness of the sentiments, the strength of thought, or the purity of expression. Four young ladies, personated by some of her friends in private parties, set out on a tour to the mansion of Urania; and after there telling her all their faults, we beg pardon, foibles, and explaining their several characters and dispositions, the good old matron dismisses them with this sage maxim:—
Let woman, then, her real good discern,
And her true interest of Urania learn;
Her lowest name the tyrant of an hour,
And her best empire negligence of power;
By yielding, she obtains the noblest sway,
And reigns securely when she seems t' obey.
Having thus initiated our fair readers into the real, original, and infallible secret of female freemasonry, we shall proceed to notice a more regular dramatic work, called the inflexible Captive, founded on the well known Roman story of the self-devoted Regulus. The model which she took for this work was the opera of Metastasio, on the same, subject, which being only in three acts she extended to five, and in a kind of free translation of the original work, independent of her own valuable additions, she did full justice to the fine moral descriptions so peculiar to the genius and manner of that admired Italian poet.
The praises of her friends, and the success which at this period had attended Goldsmith's beautiful yet simple tale of Edwin and Angelina, induced Miss More to attempt the same style of poetic verse; and in 1776 she produced Sir Eldred of the Bower, accompanied by the Bleeding Rock, two legendary tales; of the first of which, though the story of the poem actually harrows up the soul, yet it was so ably executed as to seize upon the attention, being adorned with every charm of ease, of elegance, pathos, and melodious numbers. The accompanying tale is a pretty classical bijou, embellished with beautiful lines, and heightened by an uncommon fancy, nay, forming a happy imitation of Ovid, an author whom she appears to have studied with success; indeed we have heard it said on good authority that Miss More is not only mistress of the living. languages but also of the classics; and in this tale she has with great felicity of imitation given a description of a romantic rock near her early residence, from whence flows a crimson stream, its colour occasioned by the red strata through which it percolates in its native mountains.
In 1777, Miss More published an Ode to Dragon, Mr. Garrick's House Dog at Hampton, a witty compliment to that celebrated actor on his retiring from the stage; and in the same year appeared her Essays for Young Ladies, written in very elegant language, and useful as a guide to proper subjects of study. Of these we shall merely, quote the words of a cotemporary critic, that though equally calculated to direct the morals and the taste of those to whom they are addressed, yet would there be no impropriety in putting them into the hands of grown gentlewomen, nay, even of those
—for whom Time hath turn'd, unseen,
His hundred thousand glasses,
who hath given to trumps and spadille as undivided power in trust over the life estates of those venerable beings, and who, though in taste incorrigible, might yet improve in morals.
Miss More had about this period been strongly recommended to Garrick by Dr. Stonehouse, with whom he was particularly intimate, and that performer, or rather manager, as he was at that time, entered warmly into her interests, exerting himself much for her tragedy of Percy, which was partly founded on the celebrated French play of Gabrielle de Vergy, by Belloy, and was first performed in 1778, meeting with great success from the original story being most ingeniously ingrafted upon our popular tale of Chevy Chace, and holding itself no contemptible station in the ranks of modern tragedy, the sentiments being natural and delicate, and the language flowing and easy. But when we speak of the success of this piece, we must not forget that both the prologue and epilogue were written in the highest style of English wit and humour by Garrick himself. Her next tragedy of Fatal Falsehood, in the style of Otway, came out in 1780, and was well received, though not equal to Percy: the prologue was from her own pen, but perhaps no play could fail when Sheridan, as in this instance, contributed the epilogue.
Laying aside all further writing for the stage, Miss More, now employed herself in her leisure hours in producing what has been generally esteemed the most popular of all her works, the Sacred Dramas, with Sensibility, a Poetical Epistle, which made their appearance before the public in 1782, but had previously been performed by her sister's pupils, affording such satisfaction to those who had seen or heard them, as dramatizing in a most natural and feeling manner several of the affecting and instructive narratives in sacred history, that their publication was loudly called for. The accompanying poem of Sensibility was also much esteemed, as presenting a just mode of thinking on a subject on which young ladies are very apt to form mistaken ideas, particularly respecting that sympathetic tenderness which is so often supposed to have its source in the amiable affections of the heart.
Florio, and Bas Bleu, a satire on prevailing follies, and founded on Mrs. Montague's well remembered Blue Stocking Club, displayed great wit and taste, entertaining the mind whilst they chastised the injudicious modes of modern education as well as the affectation of female learning. This took place in 1785, soon after which, so successful had been the industrious efforts of the four sisters, that they were enabled to resign their school, and to retire to a sweet little cottage in a rural situation at the foot of the Mendip Hills, in Somersetshire; where they instituted a Sunday school, on a plan so benevolent and successful, that in a very short time they were enabled to prevail upon the wild inhabitants of that region to attend to instruction; and soon after no less than ten schools were established in the surrounding villages, at which upwards of one thousand children of both sexes have already been educated in useful knowledge.
It was about this period that Miss Hannah Moore drew forth from obscurity the well known poetess, Ann Yearsley, the milkwoman of Bristol, in whose cause, aided by Mrs. Montague, she exerted herself most successfully. That poor, woman, however, no doubt led astray by some of her ignorant officious acquaintances, became displeased at the subscriptions and profits of her works being retained by her best friends for prudential purposes, and a contest began in which she had the folly to accuse Miss More of envy!
We shall not, however, enter into all the gossip of that period, only mentioning the curious coincidence that a poem appeared from the pen of each on the Slave Trade, in the year 1788: on which occasion the reviewers, having given the meed of superiority to the cultivated poetess, may have thereby added considerable fuel to the existing flame.
Miss More's best exertions were given also, about this period, to that unfortunate unknown, the Maid of the Haystack; and in 1788 she published, but without her name, Thoughts on the Manners of the Great, which at first were attributed to the Bishop of London, to Mr. Wilberforce, and to several other gentlemen of eminence.
In 1791, Mrs. More produced her Estimate of the Knowledge of the Fashionable World; from which period no remarkable work issued from her pen until lately, when Coelebs made its appearance: but that admirable and estimable production is too well known to require comment, we shall therefore close this sketch by stating, that the world is principally indebted to this elegant authoress, in concert with Mrs. Trimmer, for that extensive and benevolent plan of the Cheap Repository, for the circulation of tracts likely to improve the rising generation of the lower classes.
In the cause of piety and virtue Mrs. Hannah More is still active; dividing her time between her public exertions in favour of the poor, and in the superintendence and encouragement of the schools formed in her vicinity; where she and her sisters have long set an example well known to, and we trust, well followed by many of our fair readers.