1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah More

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:578-80.



MRS. HANNAH MORE adopted fiction merely as a means of conveying religious instruction. She can scarcely be said to have been ever "free of the corporation" of novelists; nor would she perhaps have cared much to owe her distinction solely to her connexion with so motley and various a band. Hannah withdrew from the fascinations of London society, the theatres and opera, in obedience to what she considered the call of duty, and we suspect Tom Jones and Peregrine Pickle would have been as unworthy in her eyes. This excellent woman was one of five daughters, children of Jacob More, who taught a school in the village of Stapleton, in Gloucestershire, where Hannah was born in the year 1745. The family afterwards removed to Bristol, and there Hannah attracted the attention and patronage of Sir James Stonehouse, who had been many years a physician of eminence, but afterwards took orders and settled at Bristol. In her seventeenth year she published a pastoral drama, The Search after Happiness, which in a short time went through three editions. Next year she brought out a tragedy, The Inflexible Captive. In 1773 or 1774 she made her entrance into the society of London, and was domesticated with Garrick, who proved one of her kindest and steadiest friends. She was received with favour by Johnson, Reynolds. Burke, &c. Her sister has thus described her first interview with the great English moralist of the eighteenth century:

"We have paid another visit to Miss Reynolds; she had sent to engage Dr. Percy (Percy's Collection, now you know him), quite a sprightly modern, instead of a rusty antique, as I expected: he was no sooner gone than the most amiable and obliging of women, Miss Reynolds, ordered the coach to take us to Dr. Johnson's very own house: yes, Abyssinian Johnson! Dictionary Johnson! Ramblers, Idlers, and Irene Johnson! Can you picture to yourselves the palpitation of our hearts as we approached his mansion? The conversation turned upon a new work of his just going to the press (the Tour to the Hebrides), and his old friend Richardson. Mrs. Williams, the blind poet, who lives with him, was introduced to us. She is engaging in her manners, her conversation lively and entertaining. Miss Reynolds told the doctor of all our rapturous exclamations on the road. He shook his scientific head at Hannah, and said 'she was a silly thing!' When our visit was ended, he called for his hat, as it rained, to attend us down a very long entry to our coach, and not Rasselas could have acquitted himself more 'en cavalier.' We are engaged with him at Sir Joshua's on Wednesday evening — what do you think of us? I forgot to mention, that not finding Johnson in his little parlour when we came in, Hannah seated herself in his great chair, hoping to catch a little ray of his genius: when he heard it, he laughed heartily, and told her it was a chair on which be never sat. He said it reminded him of Boswell and himself when they stopt a night, as they imagined, where the weird sisters appeared to Macbeth. The idea so worked on their enthusiasm, that it quite deprived them of rest. However, they learned the next morning, to their mortification, that they had been deceived, and were quite in another part of the country."

In a subsequent letter (1776), after the publication of Hannah's poem, Sir Eldred of the Bower, the same lively writer says — "If a wedding should take place before our return, don't be surprised — between the mother of Sir Eldred and the father of my much-loved Irene; nay, Mrs. Montagu says if tender words are the precursors of connubial engagements, we may expect great things, for it is nothing but 'child,' 'little fool,' 'love," and 'dearest.' After much critical discourse, he turns round to me, and with one of his most amiable looks, which must be seen to form the least idea of it he says, 'I have heard that you are engaged in the useful and honourable employment of teaching young ladies.' Upon which, with all the same ease, familiarity, and confidence we should have done had only our own dear Dr. Stonehouse been present, we entered upon the history of our birth, parentage, and education; showing how we were born with more desires than guineas, and how, as years increased our appetites, the cupboard at home began to grow too small to gratify them; and how, with a bottle of water, a bed, and a blanket, we set out to seek our fortunes; and how we found a great house with nothing in it; and how it was like to remain so, till, looking into our knowledge-boxes, we happened to find a little 'larning,' a good thing when land is gone, or rather none; and so at last, by giving a little of this little 'larning' to those who had less, we got a good store of gold in return; but how, alas! we wanted the wit to keep it. 'I love you both,' cried the inamorato — 'I love you all five. I never was at Bristol — I will come on purpose to see you. What! five women live happily together! I will come and see you — I have spent a happy evening — I am glad I came — God for over bless you! you live lives to shame duchesses.' He took his leave with so much warmth and tenderness, we were quite affected at his manner. If Hannah's head stands proof against all the adulation and kindness of the great folks here, why, then, I will venture to say nothing of this kind will hurt her hereafter. A literary anecdote: Mrs. Medalle (Sterne's daughter) sent to all the correspondents of her deceased father, begging the letters which he had written to them; among other wits, she sent to Wilkes with the same request. He sent for answer, that as there happened to be nothing extraordinary in those he had received, he had burnt or lost them. On which the faithful editor of her father's works sent back to say, that if Mr. Wilkes would be so good as to write a few letters in mutation of her father's style, it would do just as well, and she would insert them."

In 1777 Garrick brought out Miss More's tragedy of Percy at Drury Lane, where it was acted seventeen nights successively. Her theatrical profits amounted to £600, and for the copyright of the play she got £150 more. Two legendary poems, Sir Eldred of the Bower, and The Bleeding Rock, formed her next publication. In 1779 the third and last tragedy of Hannah More was produced; it was entitled The Fatal Falsehood, but was acted only three nights. At this time she had the misfortune to lose her friend Mr. Garrick by death, an event of which she has given some interesting particulars in her letters.

"From Dr. Cadogans's I intended to have gone to the Adelphi, but found that Mrs. Garrick was at that moment quitting her house, while preparations were making for the last sad ceremony: she very wisely fixed on a private friend's house far this purpose, where she could be at her ease. I got there just before her; she was prepared for meeting me; she ran into my arms, and we both remained silent for some minutes; at last she whispered, 'I have this moment embraced his coffin, and you come next.' She soon recovered herself, and said with great composure, 'The goodness of God to me is inexpressible; I desired to die, but it is his will that I should live, and he has convinced me he will not let my life be quite miserable, for he gives astonishing strength to my body, and grace to my heart; neither do I deserve, but I am thankful for both.' She thanked me a thousand times for such a real act of friendship, and bade me be comforted, for it was God's will. She told me they had just returned from Althorp, Lord Spencer's, where he had been reluctantly dragged, for he had felt unwell for some time; but during his visit he was often in such fine spirits, that they could not believe he was ill. On his return home, he appointed Cadogan to meet him, who ordered him an emetic, the warm bath, and the usual remedies, but with very little effect. On the Sunday he was in good spirits and free from pain; but as the suppression still continued, Dr. Cadogan became extremely alarmed, and sent for Pott, Heberden, and Schomberg, who gave him up the moment they saw him. Poor Garrick stared to see his room full of doctors, not being conscious of his real state. No change happened till the Tuesday evening, when the surgeon who was sent for to blister and bleed him made light of his illness, assuring Mrs. Garrick that he would be well in a day or two, and insisted on her going to lie down. Towards morning she desired to be called if there was the least change. Every time that she administered the draughts to him in the night, he always squeezed her hand in a particular manner, and spoke to her with the greatest tenderness and affection. Immediately after he had taken his last medicine, he softly said, 'Oh dear!' and yielded up his spirit with a groan, and in his perfect senses. His behaviour during the night was all gentleness and patience, and he frequently made apologies to those about him for the trouble he gave them. On opening him, a stone was found that measured five inches and a-half round one way, and four and a-half the other; yet this was not the immediate cause of his death; his kidneys were quite gone. I paid a melancholy visit to the coffin yesterday, where I found room for meditation till the mind 'burst with thinking.' His new house is not so pleasant as Hampton, nor so splendid as the Adelphi, but it is commodious enough for all the waists of its inhabitant; and besides, it is so quiet that he never will be disturbed till the eternal morning, and never till then will a sweeter voice than his own be heard. May he then find mercy! They are preparing to hang the house with black, for he is to lie in state till Monday. I dislike this pageantry, and cannot help thinking that the disembodied spirit must look with contempt upon the farce that is played over its miserable relics. But a splendid funeral could not be avoided, as he is to be laid in the abbey with such illustrious dust, and so many are desirous of testifying their respect by attending. I can never cease to remember with affection and gratitude so warm, steady, and disinterested a friend; and I can most truly bear this testimony to his memory, that I never witnessed in any family more decorum, propriety, and regularity, than in his; where I never saw a card, nor even met (except in one instance) a person of his own profession at his table, of which Mrs. Garrick, by her elegance of taste, her correctness of manners, and very original turn of humour, was the brightest ornament. All his pursuits and tastes were so decidedly intellectual, that it made the society, and the conversation which was always to be found in his circle, interesting and delightful."

In 1782 Miss More presented to the world a volume of Sacred Dramas, with a poem annexed, entitled Sensibility. All her works were successful, and Johnson said he thought her the best of the female versifiers. The poetry of Hannah More is now forgotten, but Percy is a good play, and it is clear that the authoress might have excelled as a dramatic writer, had she devoted herself to that difficult species of composition. In 1786 she published another volume of verse, Florio, a Tale for Fine Gentlemen and Fine Ladies; and The Bas Bleu, or Conversation. The latter (which Johnson complimented as 'a great performance') was an elaborate eulogy on the Bas Bleu Club, a literary assembly that met at Mrs. Montagu's. The following couplets have been quoted and remembered as terse and pointed:—

In men this blunder still you find,
All think their little set mankind.

Small habits well pursued betimes,
May reach the dignity of crimes.

Such lines mark the good sense and keen observation of the writer, and these qualities Hannah now resolved to devote exclusively to high objects. The gay life of the fashionable world had lost its charms, and, having published her Bas Bleu, she retired to a small cottage and garden near Bristol, where her sisters kept a flourishing boarding-school. Her first prose publication was Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society, produced in 1788. This was followed in 1791 by an Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World. As a means of counteracting the political tracts and exertions of the Jacobins and levellers, Hannah More, in 1794, wrote a number of tales, published monthly under the title of The Cheap Repository, which attained to a sale of about a million each number. Some of the little stories (as the Shepherd of Salisbury Plain) are well told, and contain striking moral and religious lessons. With the same object, our authoress published a volume called Village Politics. Her other principal works are — Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, 1799; Hints towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess, 1805; Coelebs in Search of a Wife, comprehending Observations on Domestic Habits and Manners, Religion and Morals, two volumes, 1809; Practical Piety, or the Influence of the Religion of the heart on the Conduct of Life, two volumes, 1811; Christian Morals, two volumes, 1812; Essay on the Character and Writings of St Paul, two volumes, 1815; and Moral Sketches of Prevailing Opinions and Manners, Foreign and Domestic, with Reflections on Prayer, 1819. The collection of her works in comprised in eleven volumes octavo. The work entitled Hints towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess, was written with a view to the education of the Princess Charlotte, on which subject the advice and assistance of Hannah More had been requested by Queen Charlotte. Of Coelebs, we are told that ten editions were sold in one year — a remarkable proof of the popularity of the work. The tale is admirably written, with a fine vein of delicate irony and sarcasm, and some of the characters are well depicted, but, from the nature of the story, it presents few incidents or embellishments to attract ordinary novel readers. It has not inaptly been styled "a dramatic sermon." Of the other publications of the authoress, we may say, with one of her critics, "it would be idle in us to dwell on works so well known as the Thoughts on the Manners of the Great, the Essay on the Religion of the Fashionable World, and so on, which finally established Miss More's name as a great moral writer, possessing a masterly command over the resources of our language, and devoting a keen wit and a lively fancy to the best and noblest of purposes." In her latter days there was perhaps a tincture of unnecessary gloom or severity in her religious views; yet, when we recollect her unfeigned sincerity and practical benevolence — her exertions to instruct the pour miners and cottagers — and the untiring zeal with which she laboured, even amidst severe bodily infirmities, to inculcate sound principles and intellectual cultivation, from the palace to the cottage, it is impossible not to rank her among this best benefactors of mankind.

The great success of the different works of our authoress enabled her to live in ease, and to dispense charities around her. Her sisters also secured a competency, and they all lived together at Barley Grove, a property of some extent which they purchased and improved. "From the day that the school was given up, the existence of the whole sisterhood appears to have flowed on in one uniform current of peace and contentment, diversified only by new appearances of Hannah as an authoress, and the ups and downs which she and the others met with in the prosecution of a most brave and humane experiment — namely, their zealous effort to extend the blessings of education and religion among the inhabitants of certain villages situated in a wild country some eight or ten union from their abode, who, from a concurrence of unhappy local and temporary circumstances, had been left in a state of ignorance hardly conceivable at the present day."

These exertions were ultimately so successful, that the sisterhood had the gratification of witnessing a yearly festival celebrated on the mills of Cheddar, where above a thousand children, with the members of female clubs of industry (also established by them), after attending church service, were regaled at the expense of their benefactors. Hannah More died on the 7th of September 1833, aged eighty-eight. She had made about £30,000 by her writings, and she left, by her will, legacies to charitable and religious institutions amounting to £10,000.

In 1834, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More, by William Roberts, Esq., were published in four volumes. In those we have a full account by Hannah herself of her London life, and many interesting anecdotes.