1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah More

John Dix, "A Day with Hannah More" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 53-69.



I candidly confess that I feel some hesitation in taking lady-sitters as subjects for my literary pencillings, but as so many of the fair sex have abandoned "double and cross stitch," and rushed into print, I am bound by the "common laws" of politeness to pay them due attention. Yet do I tremble lest through ignorance of proper descriptive terms — terms absolutely necessary in articles of this nature — I should convey erroneous impressions, and render myself liable to be laughed at for my pains. I am by no means learned in the mysteries of a lady's toilette; that is, so far as the particular names of the various articles of dress are concerned; and though I might manage to convey some idea of the cut of a coat, or the shape of a hat, I am by no means certain that I should exhibit much tact in trying to describe the gay or quaint apparelling of a lady. It is all well enough to make dresses for heroines in novels and romances, especially if they flourished some fifty or a hundred years ago; hooped quilted petticoats, point-lace stomachers, high-heeled shoes, and fardingales, tell well in print; but when one would describe matters and things as they are, the case is different. However, I shall, as in the case of the gentlemen whom I have noticed, describe the lady in a plain, unpretending mariner, and as nearly to the life as is desirable in these days of Daguerreotypes. If I should commit any offences against the inexorable laws of Fashion, by unintentionally calling things by any other names than those which the said laws, in their wisdom, have prescribed, I must plead ignorance in excuse, and throw myself upon the mercy of the court.

The first literary lady whom I remember ever to have seen was one whose works yet remain to improve and edify her own sex in particular, and the world in general. She was invested, with a particular degree of interest, owing to the fact that she was among the latest remnants of the blue stockings of the last century. She had, in her youthful days, mingled in the gay circles of ton; had listened to the oracular sayings of Dr. Johnson; echoed the lively sallies which burst forth in Mrs. Delaney's little circle; bandied elegant trifles with that brilliant literary butterfly, Horace Walpole; had been petted by David Garrick; and, in her middle age, and in later years, had been the centre around whom Bishops, Princesses, and Philanthropists, and many of meaner name and note, revolved. I refer to Miss, or, as she is more generally styled, MRS. HANNAH MORE.

I was but a little fellow when I first saw this celebrated woman; but I retain as vivid an impression of her person and manners as if the interview had occurred only yesterday. Many years have rolled over my head since then, and during the interval, I have watched, on the disc of life's camera, hundreds of busy and noticeable figures go by, and then disappear in darkness; but my impressions of the learned old lady are as vivid as ever; and as I sit, noting down this reminiscence, I can, by a very slight exercise of fancy, see her precise form, and hear her low-toned, musical voice, as distinctly as I did when the sober reality engrossed my attention.

Hannah More was born in the immediate vicinity of Bristol, in the same village, indeed, in which John Foster had for many years lived, and died: and, for a considerable portion of her life, resided within a short distance of her birthplace, in a cottage which she built, and named Cowslip Green. After a seventeen years' residence in this rather lack-a-daisically named locality, during which time she was visited by Mr. Wilberforce and other persons of note, she removed, in 1802, to Barley Wood, near the village of Wrington, in Somersetshire, about fourteen miles from the city of Bristol; and at this place it was that I first saw her.

I forget now how it came to pass that I happened to be taken to the house of this celebrated woman. My mother visited her, and I expect that it was as a holiday treat, or something of that kind, that I was permitted on one occasion to accompany her. HANNAH MORE'S name had been a familiar one in our household, and I had early learned to connect it with everything that was learned and good. Her "Sacred Dramas" were acted by the younger members of our family, and we thought her a female Shakespere; indeed, for aught we knew, she might have been even a greater playwright; for the writings of the Bard of Avon being on profane subjects, we were not permitted to meddle with them, and only knew them by name. Mrs. More's Scripture recitations, therefore, had made her our mental acquaintance, and so it maybe imagined how delighted I was, one morning, to set off in company with my mother to Barley Wood.

I had very vague ideas then about people who wrote books; they were mysterious personages to me; and in proportion to my delight in any particular work, was my estimate of the outward and visible appearances of its author. I could hardly, when I did think about the matter, realize the writer to be an actual flesh-and-blood reality. I used to think of him or her more as of a spirit communing with my spirit, than anything else; but I have lived to know better, and to experience the sad reality that many whose written productions are of an almost imperishable nature, have themselves been, emphatically, of the earth, earthy.

There were no iron roads in those days, so intersecting the country in all directions, that, viewed from a height, it might appear as if a monstrous gridiron had been laid on the earth; and over the road to Barley Wood, not even a stage-coach ran; so that my mother and myself journeyed towards the place of our destination in what was called a tilted wagon. I had scarcely ever been in the country before; and oh! how keenly I enjoyed that homely ride in the early morning; for we were on our way soon after sunrise, as we intended to make a long day of it. In anticipation of the visit, I had, with a childish vanity, crammed myself with scraps of Mrs. More's poetry — and I well remember that I had learned by heart, in the hope that I should be asked to recite it to the authoress, "THE FOOLISH TRAVELLER, OR, A GOOD INN IS A BAD HOME." As we ascended the high Somersetshire Hills, I would alight from the cart, and, running on before it, gaze far into the hazy distance, expecting to view some such imposing-looking house as I anticipated seeing at the end of our journey; and I would ask a thousand questions about Mrs. More of my mother, until her patience was almost exhausted, and then I would recite, to make sure I had not forgotten it, the fable — and so things went on until, at length, my mother held me whilst I stood tiptoe on the front seat of the vehicle, and pointed out the long-wished-for spot, when we were yet two miles from it.

We were on the turnpike road, and Barley Wood lay about the distance I have mentioned from us, to the left. It was a picturesque cottage residence, on a hill side, embosomed amongst trees. Behind it rose a gently sloping hill, richly wooded; in front was a lawn of emerald verdure, enclosed by a shrubbery, from which the ground gently declined, until it blended with the valley of Wrington. On our left were the Mendip Hills, and the Quantock Range (famous because of the wanderings of Coleridge, Lloyd, Southey, and Wordsworth among them — it was on the Quantock Hills that the "Ancient Mariner" was composed,) rose in the blue distance. The houses of the little village of Wrington lay beneath us, and its pretty tower formed a conspicuous object in the landscape. As we descended the hill, my mother told me of Locke, and when we reached the village, and quitted the tilted cart, she led me towards the church, still speaking of the great man. The sharp air of the morning had made me hungry, so we went into a cottage near the church-yard — indeed, it was in the pathway leading to it — and I got a draught of milk, and piece of brown bread and butter, and after I had despatched these creature comforts, I was informed that I had taken my morning meal in the very room in which John Locke was born.

Two little girls, playmates of mine, had been spending a few days at Barley Wood, to which place, being but a short distance from Wrington, we determined to walk. When we had nearly reached Mrs. More's gate, the little lasses just referred to came dashing down the lane to meet us, their curls streaming in the wind, and their cheeks glowing with exercise. They were in raptures with Mrs. More, and in five minutes told me all that had occurred during the week. As we neared the gate, they would have dragged me triumphantly into the "Presence" — but my half-awe for learned people came over me, and grasping my mother's hand I entered the shrubbery door and walked up the lawn.

We had scarcely reached the front door, when an elderly lady who had been tying up some flowers to wooden frames, left her occupation, approached, and welcomed us. She was very primly and plainly dressed; but she wore a pleasant smile, which made me quite "take to her," as the phrase goes. This was Miss Martha More, (for the authoress of "Coelebs" had four sisters,) who invited us to follow her to the garden, where, she said, we should find "Mrs. Hannah."

Attached to the cottage was a flower garden and grounds, arranged with exquisite taste, and surrounded with a privet hedge — which hedge, by the way, exhibited one of the absurd fashions of the time — a fashion not even yet altogether exploded in some of the retired rural districts of England — I mean, that of clipping the foliage into fantastic shapes of birds, vases, &c. With this exception, Mrs. More's flower garden was faultless in arrangement. Near one of these deformed vegetative barriers, we encountered the object of our search.

Hannah More did not perceive us as we approached, for her back was towards my mother and myself, as we walked up the garden pathway, and she was busily employed, too, in trimming one of the before-mentioned vegetable specimens of ornithology. She was dressed in a black silk gown, with a remarkably high waist, according to the fashion of the day — so high, indeed, that it seemed to be just beneath her armpits; this gave an appearance of unusual length to her figure, and afforded a striking contrast to the hour-glass contractions of the present time. Mrs. More's shoulders were covered with a thick shawl, deeply edged with black lace, for she was an invalid, and her feet were protected by substantial shoes, worsted stockings, and pattens. On her head she wore what was called a high mob cap, with ample bordering of lace, nicely plaited, and tied in a monstrous bow under the chin. On her hands she had black cotton gloves, with long sleeves, the tips of the fingers having been cut off. As soon as she heard our voices, she turned round and held out her left hand (in her right was a pair of garden scissors) to welcome us.

This celebrated woman was then past seventy years of age, and very feeble in health, but her face had a surprisingly vivacious expression. I have seen many portraits of her, but never one which conveyed an accurate idea of the original. Pickersgill's, prefixed to the collected edition of her works, is the best, but that is too flashy in detail for its somewhat staid and sober subject. Her features were small, and furrowed with the lines of age, but her complexion was remarkably clear — almost pure red and white, owing, no doubt, to her long residence in the country. Her forehead was nearly concealed at the sides by an abundance of false hair, which was disposed in the shape of two huge bundles and bunches of long spiral curls — but in the centre, where these appendages met, or rather from whence they diverged, there was visible an ample cerebric development. The nose had evidently, at one time, been short and thick, but it was now thin and slightly hooked. The mouth was but slightly retracted, and the lips wonderfully plump for so old a woman — her chin was doubled and dimpled. But the most striking part of her countenance was the expression of her eyes, which were coal black, deep set, and very brilliant; none of their fire seemed quenched; and in earlier days they must have been very expressive; indeed, they were so when I saw her, despite the drawback of a faded set of features to match them. Altogether, she was in appearance very plain, very prim, and very precise. After the usual civilities and courtesies had been exchanged, we adjourned to the house, and were ushered into a neat little parlor, the windows of which commanded a fine view of the delightful vale of Wrington. Here a breakfast, consisting of tea, coffee, rashers of bacon and eggs, and rich clotted Somersetshire cream, was laid, and Hannah More, her sister Martha, my mother, sisters, and myself, together with a Miss F., sat down to it. Mrs. More, in introducing my mother to Miss F., said she was her "right hand." Elsewhere she describes her as "her domestic chaplain, secretary, house apothecary, knitter, and lamplighter; missionary to her numerous and learned seminaries, and without controversy, the Queen of Clubs" — alluding to the charitable institutions, where she took the place which her aged friend could no longer occupy.

For breakfast, Hannah More merely took a little milk and water, in which she placed some plain bread, and of this simple fare she partook very sparingly. "I live almost entirely on physic," said she, to my mother, "and am the best patient Dr. — has. This, however, is no trial to me; for many years ago I had a violent illness, whilst visiting Mr. Thornton, in London, and on recovering from it, lost entirely both my smell and taste. Indeed," she continued, "I never knew a year to pass over my head, a considerable portion of which was not spent in bed, to which I have been confined by illness."

The room in which we sat was decorated with a number of portraits, most of them dignitaries of the Church. I noticed that one of the frames contained no picture, and with very childish curiosity, asked the reason of it.

"Oh!" said the old lady, "that frame contained the portrait of a player, my dear, an old friend of mine; but as I thought him hardly fit to hang in such good company as bishops, I have removed poor Davy Garrick to my study."

Now I had often heard the saying, "As deep as Garrick," and I inquired whether her friend, Davy Garrick, was the personage alluded to. Mrs. More turned to my mother, and smilingly said, "Of all the persons I ever knew, poor Davy was the last whose name I should have thought would have been associated with the idea of design. Excepting in his art, he was simple, almost to silliness."

Talking of Garrick reminds me of an anecdote which I heard Mrs. More relate on a subsequent occasion. Lest it should escape my memory, I will just mention it here, as I am not aware that it has ever been made public.

It is well known that Mrs. Garrick was most devotedly attached to her "dear Davy," as she called him. When the great tragedian died, his wife would not allow a single article in his room to be removed from its place; and as soon as the coffin was borne from the house, the room in which he died was locked up, and for thirty years no one was permitted to enter it. At the end of that period, Mrs. More informed me, she happened to be visiting her old friend Mrs. Garrick, whom she described as a little, bowed-down old woman, who went about leaning on a long gold-headed cane, dressed in deep widow's mourning, and always talking of her "dear Davy." Some circumstances occurred which rendered it necessary that she should quit her residence, and Mrs. More was present with her when the long-closed room was opened. She said that when the door was thrown back on its hinges, and the window-shutters unbarred, the room was actually darkened by millions of moths, which arose from the mouldered bed and the hangings of the room — every square inch of the bed-furniture was eaten through and through, and, on the air being admitted, dropped to pieces. The solid articles of furniture alone remained uninjured — but the mouldy smell of everything around was so unendurable, that the place had to be fumigated before it was habitable, even, for a short time.

Breakfast having been dispatched, the domestics were summoned to family devotions, a custom rigidly observed by Mrs. More every morning and evening. There were eight servants — a large number, it may seem, for two or three maiden ladies to keep; but it must be remembered that almost from morning until night there was a continual influx of company at Barley Wood. Mrs. More conducted the service, which consisted of a portion of the Liturgy; and after this had been read, we all knelt down, and the venerable lady offered up a short extemporaneous prayer, in the course of which she mentioned every individual present by their given names, aptly introducing, where it was practicable, texts of Scripture applicable to their condition or circumstances. Her enunciation was slow, solemn, and very distinct — and it was a fine impressive sight to see that pious woman, whose fame had literally gone out into the ends of the earth, bowing before the mercy-seat and humbly soliciting for the meanest one in her household, those blessings which make rich and add no sorrow.

Attached to the residence was a large room, in which it was her custom, every morning, to receive the recipients of her bounty, and where she occupied many hours in the manufacture of articles for the use of the poor, and for charitable purposes; to this place we accompanied her, and there remained some time, witnessing her labours of love. And a pleasant thing it was to witness the quiet way in which she did good-there was no ostentatious parade; the poor came to her, as to a friend, for assistance or advice, and never went away unrelieved. The number of garments she gave away that morning was really surprising. To most of the articles was pinned a scrap of paper, on which a text of Scripture was written in her own hand-writing — sometimes a tract was added, and in no case, where it was really needed, did any one leave the room without an order on the housekeeper for a supply of food.

During the time my mother was closeted with Hannah More, I rambled, with my young playmates, about the house and garden; and I well remember our being attracted to the front gate by the arrival of a carriage, from which two gentlemen and a lady alighted, and inquired for the lady of the mansion. One of the strangers was a personage far advanced in years, and of a very venerable appearance. He was evidently in ill-health, and coughed dreadfully. As he walked up the broad gravel path, he dropped his stick, and I ran to pick it up for him. When I had done so, he took me by the hand, patted me on my head, and asked me my name. The lady who was with him called my little friends to her, and they soon got friendly, as they rested on a rustic seat. She was, also, in years, and dressed quite in the old style. I have a distinct remembrance of her light flaxen hair, which she wore in large curls — and of her faint, but pleasant smile, as she took liquorice from her pockets, and gave us children some, which quite won our hearts. The third stranger was a middle-aged gentleman, of harsh and rugged features. His hair was dark, and his eyes of a light grey colour. When he spoke, it was with a broad Scotch accent, and a harsh, disagreeable sounding voice, quite different to the winning tones of the old gentleman and lady I have just described. I did not know who either of them were, and soon left them, to proceed with my play.

It was really astonishing what a number of visits Mrs. More had that day; and I afterwards was informed that every day, in this respect, was alike. How she managed, with all this visiting, to get through her extensive correspondence and her charitable engagements I cannot imagine. She herself says, in 1825, "I think I never was more hurried, more engaged, or more loaded with cares, than at present. I do not mean afflictions, but a total want of that article for which I built my house, and planted my grove — I mean retirement; — it is a thing I know only by name. I think Miss Frowd says I saw eighty persons last week; and it is commonly the same every week. I know not how to help it. If my guests are old, I see them out of respect; if young, I hope I may do them a little good; if they come from a distance, I feel as if I ought to see them on that account; if near home, my neighbours would be jealous of my seeing strangers and excluding them. My levee is, however, from twelve to three o'clock — so that I get my mornings and evenings to myself — except, now and then, an old friend steals in quietly for a night or two." At this time, too, Hannah More had been confined seven years and two months to her apartments, which consisted of two rooms — to which it was no want of strength, however, which confined her, but the fear of an exposure to cold, which often threatened to be fatal to her.

The dinner hour at Barley Wood was four o'clock; and as a special favour, we children were allowed to dine in the same room with the great people — a little table being set for us in one corner. I must mention, however, that, prior to dinner, whilst taking a turn with my mother and playmates in the garden, the former asked me if I knew who the old gentleman was who had patted me on the head in the garden? I replied in the negative, of course.

"Don't you remember the 'Evenings at Home?'"

"Yes, that we do," exclaimed all three of us. "Well, my dears, that old gentleman, and the lady who was with him, wrote them."

"What! was that old gentleman Dr. Aiken, and the kind lady who gave us the barley-sugar, Mrs. Barbauld, mamma?"

"The same," was the reply; and oh! how proud I felt to have been noticed by such learned folk.

"And pray, who was the other gentleman who was with them?"

"That," said my mother, "is a Scotch minister, and his name is Chalmers." It was even so — but the since celebrated divine did not interest us half as much as the children's book-makers. I believe, when we returned home, that we did little else, for a week, but read "Evenings at Home" and Barbauld's Hymns, and tell every one that we had seen the writers.

I was, of course, too young to appreciate the conversation at and after dinner; but I greedily drank it in, and I well remember that anecdotes of Dr. Johnson, Mrs. Thrale, Miss Burney, Garrick, and many others were related. I wish now that I had been old enough to have remembered them. But, as it is, a very slight recollection of them remains.

All through the day, Hannah More was exceedingly kind to us, and after dinner, we were allowed to sit at the dessert — when, for the edification of the company, we each of us recited a portion of one of Mrs. More's sacred dramas, with which performance, I believe, both ourselves and the audience were very well satisfied — at least, I know I was.

Such was my first interview with the author of "Coelebs in Search of a Wife." In the year 1828, she removed from Barley Wood to Clifton, where at her residence on Windsor Terrace I frequently saw her. Many is the anecdote she has told me of her early days, and graphically would she describe the brilliant society in which she moved, whilst a young woman, in London. Of Dr. Johnson she was in the habit of speaking in very enthusiastic terms; and frequently said that there never was, and never would be, his equal for solid acquirements. Sir Joshua Reynolds, she said, was a pompous and somewhat disagreeable companion, in consequence of his excessive hauteur — but I might fill columns with her colloquial personal criticisms, which were exceedingly delightful to listen to, but might prove tedious on paper.

In talking with Hannah More, one seemed to be living in the brilliant times of Chapone, Montague, Walpole, Prior's "noble, lovely little Peggy," (the Duchess of Portland,) and others of the blue-stocking coteries of the last century. She was very anecdotal, and told a story or an anecdote with much point; and her having been a member and a star of the celebrated circles of which Madame D'Arblay's Diary gives us such delightful and sprightly glimpses, added greatly, of course, to the interest of her narrations. She was nearly, if not quite, the only survivor of those reunions; and when the authoress of "Evelina" and Hannah More passed away, the last links which connected those times with our own were broken.