1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah More

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 442-44.



HANNAH MORE, distinguished for her talents, and the noble manner in which she exerted them, was the fourth daughter of Mr. Jacob More; she was born February 2d, 1745, at Stapleton, Gloucestershire. Mr. More was a schoolmaster, and gave his daughters the rudiments of a classical education; but he was a narrow-minded man, and so fearful they would become learned women, that he tried by precepts to counteract the effect of his lessons. The elder daughters opened, at Bristol, a boarding-school for girls, which was for a long time very flourishing, and at this school Hannah obtained the best advantages of education she ever enjoyed. How small these were compared with the opportunities of young men! And yet what man of her nation and time was so influential for good, or has left such a rich legacy of moral lessons for the improvement of the world as Hannah More has done? Her influence has been wonderful in this our new world, as well as in her own country; our mothers were aided by her in teaching us in our infancy. "We have felt the effect of her writings ever since we began to reason; in the nursery, in the school-room, and even in college halls," says an enthusiastic American writer [author's note: Samuel L. Knapp, in his "Female Biography"]. "Her looks, her cottage, her air and manner, were all enquired after by every youth who read her works; and for ourselves, we can recollect, that a favourite, pious, kind, and affectionate maiden friend of our childhood, was in the exuberance of our admiration and gratitude, compared in some infant attempts at verse, to Hannah More; we could go no higher."

In 1761 Hannah More wrote a pastoral drama, "The Search after Happiness." She was then sixteen; and though this production was not published till many years afterwards, yet she may be said to have then commenced her literary career, which till 1824, when her last work, "Spirit of Prayer," was issued, was steadily pursued for sixty-three years. The next important event of her life is thus related by Mrs. Elwood:

"When about twenty-two years of age, she received and accepted an offer of marriage from s Mr. Turner, a gentleman of large fortune, but considerably her senior. Their acquaintance had commenced in consequence of some young relations of Mr. Turner's being at the Misses More's school, who generally spent their holidays at their cousin's beautiful residence at Belmont, near Bristol, whither they were permitted to invite some of their young friends; and Hannah and Patty More, being near their own age, were generally among those invited. The affair was so far advanced that the wedding-day was actually fixed, and Hannah, having given up her share in her sister's establishment, had gone to considerable expense in making her preparations, — when Mr. Turner, who appears to have been of eccentric temper, was induced to postpone the completion of his engagement; and as this was done more than once, her friends at length interfered, and prevailed on her to relinquish the marriage altogether, though this was against the wishes of the capricious gentleman.

"To make some amends for his thus trifling with her affections, Mr. Turner insisted upon being allowed to settle an annuity upon her, which she at first rejected, but subsequently, through the medium of her friend, Dr. Stonehouse, who consented to be the agent and trustee, she was at length prevailed on to allow a sum to be settled upon her, which should enable her hereafter to devote herself to the pursuits of literature.

"She had soon after another opportunity of marrying, which was declined, and from this time she seems to have formed the resolution, to which the ever afterwards adhered, of remaining single."

In 1774 she became acquainted with the great tragedian, David Garrick; he and his wife soon formed a warm attachment for the young authoress, invited her to their house in London, and introduced her to the literary and fashionable world. She was there presented to Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and Dr. Johnson; how highly she prized the privilege of such acquaintances may be gathered from her letters. She constantly wrote to her sisters at Bristol, describing in a style of easy elegance whatever interested her in London.

Speaking of letter-writing, she used to say, "When I want wisdom, sentiment, or information, I can find them much better in books. What I want in a letter is the picture of my friend's mind, and the common-sense of his life. I want to know what he is saying and doing." She added, "that letters among near relations were family newspapers, meant to convey paragraphs of intelligence, and advertisements of projects, and not sentimental essays."

Her first acquaintance with that much-abused class, the publishers, is thus narrated by Mrs. Elwood:

"Hannah More again visited London, in 1775, and in the course of this year the eulogiums and attentions she had received induced her, as she observed to her sisters, to try her real value, by writing a small poem and offering it to Cadell. The legendary tale of 'Sir Eldred of the Bower' was, accordingly, composed in a fortnight's time, to which she added 'The Bleeding Rock,' which had been written some years previously. Cadell offered her a handsome sum for these poems, telling her if he could discover what Goldsmith received for the 'Deserted Village,' he would make up the deficiency, whatever it might be.

"Thus commenced Hannah More's acquaintance with Mr. Cadell, who was, by a singular coincidence, a native of the same village with herself; and her connexion with his establishment was carried on for forty years."

In 1782 Hannah More's "Sacred Dramas" were published, with a poem, entitled "Sensibility." As we prefer to present the opinions of acknowledged critics in literature, respecting the works of the celebrated female writers, rather than our own, whenever we think the former give a correct and impartial estimate of character and talents, we will here insert an extract from the notice of Hannah More in a late and excellent publication

"All her works were successful, and Johnson said he thought her the best of 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 Gentleman 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 as terse and pointed:

In men this blunder still you fled,
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, its 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 ether 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 this 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 is 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 ether 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 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 poor 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 the 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 miles 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 bills 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 these we have a full account by Hannah herself of her London life, and many interesting anecdotes.

From this memoir we select the estimate of Hannah More's moral character:

"Her love of her country, and her love of her species, were without any alloy of party feelings or prejudices. To her sound and correct understanding, liberty presented itself as including among its essential constituents loyalty, allegiance, security, and duty. Patriotism, in this view of it should be placed in the front of her character, since it really took the lead of every other temporal object. All the powers of her mind were devoted to the solid improvement of society. Her aims were all practical; and it would he difficult, perhaps impossible, to name a writer who has laid before the public so copious a variety of original thoughts and reasonings, without any admixture of speculation or hypothesis. To keep within this tangible barrier, without contracting the range of her imagination, or denying to truth any advantage to which it is fairly entitled, of illustration or entertainment, is a secret in the art of composition with which few, if any, have been so well acquainted. Her indefatigable pen was over at work; kept in motion by a principle of incessant activity, never to stop but with her pulse; never to need the refreshment of change; and never to be weary in well-doing. Thus to do good and to distribute was no less the work of her head than of her hand, and the rich and the great were among the objects of her charity. The specific relief of which they stood in need she was ever forward to supply; and as she had passed so many of her earliest years among them, she knew well their wants, and how to administer to them. She was a woman of business in all the concerns of humanity, refined or common, special or general, and had a sort of righteous cunning in dealing with different cases; exposing without irritating, reproving without discouraging, probing without wounding; always placing duty upon its right motives, and showing the perversity of error by bringing it into close comparison with the loveliest forms of truth and godliness."

As the writings of this excellent woman are widely known, and probably more read in America than England, we shall give few extracts from her prose works; but there was one event of her life which should never be forgotten; we allude to the persecution she met with when she attempted to instruct the poor. The brutal ignorance and degradation which then, fifty years ago, (is it much changed now?) characterized the peasantry of England were shocking; but even these do not appear so utterly inhuman as the conduct of the rich farmers, and particularly that of the clergymen, in opposing all reforms. Miss More says, in a letter, writing of one of her schools, "It is a pariah, the largest in our county or diocess, in a state of great depravity and ignorance. The opposition I have met with in endeavouring to establish an institution for the religions instruction of those people would excite your astonishment. The principal adversary is a farmer of 1000 a-year, who says, the lower class are fated to be wicked and ignorant, and that as wise as I am I cannot alter what is decreed."

She surmounted this opposition; but then began the persecutions instituted against her by the clergy. Those were so vindictive that Miss More appealed to the bishop of Bath and Wells, in whose diocese she was labouring in this mission of charity. We insert a portion of her letter, which, for its masterly exposition of the subject, and firm, yet gentle tone of remonstrance against injustice to the poor, as well as to herself, deserves to be studied. We are compelled to omit the greater part.