1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah More

Sydney Smith, Review of More, Coelebs in Search of a Wife; Edinburgh Review 14 (April 1809) 145-51.



This book is written, or supposed to be written, (for we would speak timidly of the mysteries of superior beings,) by the celebrated Mrs. Hannah Mote! We shall probably give great offence by such indiscretion; but still we must he excused for treating it as a book merely human, — an uninspired production, — the result of mortality left to itself, and depending on its own limited resources. In taking up the subject in this point of view, we solemnly disclaim the slightest intention of indulging in any indecorous levity, or of wounding the religious feelings of a large class of very respectable persons. It is the only method in which we can possibly make this work a proper object of criticism. We have the strongest possible doubts of the attributes usually described to this authoress and we think it more simple and manly to say so at once, than to admit nominally superlunary claims, which, in the progress of our remarks, we should virtually deny.

Coelebs wants a wife; and, after the death of his father, quits his estate in Northumberland to see the world, and to seek for one of its best productions, a woman, who may add materially to the happiness of his future life. His first Journey is to London, where, in the midst of the gay society of the metropolis, of course, he does not find a wife; and his next journey is to the family of Mr. Stanley, the head of the Methodists, a serious people, where, of course, he does find a wife. The exaltation, therefore, of what the authoress deems to be the religious, and the depreciation of what she considers to be the worldly character, and the influence of both upon matrimonial happiness, form the subject of this novel, — rather of this dramatic sermon.

The machinery upon which the discourse is suspended, is of the slightest and most inartificial texture, bearing every mark of haste, and possessing not the slightest claim to merit. Events there are none; and scarcely a character of any interest. The book is intended to convey religious advice; and no more labour appears to have been bestowed upon the story, than was merely sufficient to throw it out of the dry, didactic form. Lucilla is totally uninteresting; so is Mr. Stanley; Dr. Barlow still worse; and Coelebs a mere clod or dolt. Sir John and Lady Belfield are rather more interesting — and for a very obvious reason, they have some faults; — they put us in mind of men and women; — they seem to belong to one common nature with ourselves. As we read, we seem to think we might act as such people act, and therefore we attend; whereas imitation is hopeless in the more perfect characters which Mrs. Moore has set before us; and therefore, they inspire us with very little interest.

There are books however of all kinds; and those may not be unwisely planned which set before us very pure models. They are less probable; and therefore less amusing than ordinary stories; but they are more amusing than plain, unfabled precept. Sir Charles Grandison is less agreeable than Tom Jones; but it is more agreeable than Sherlock and Tillotson; and teaches religion and morality to many who would not seek it in the productions of these professional writers.

But, making every allowance for the difficulty of the task which Mrs. More has prescribed to herself, the book abounds with marks of negligence and want of skill; with representations of life and manners which are either false or trite.

Temples to friendship and virtue must be totally laid aside, for many years to come, in novels. Mr. Lane, of the Minerva Press, has given them up long since; and we were quite surprised to find such a writer as Mrs. More busied in moral brick and mortar. Such an idea, at first, was merely juvenile; the second time, a little nauseous; but the ten thousandth time, it is quite intolerable. Coelebs, upon his first arrival in London, dines out, — meets with a bad dinner, — supposes the cause of that bad dinner to be the erudition of the ladies of the house, — talks to them upon learned subjects, and finds them as dull and ignorant as if they had piqued themselves upon all the mysteries of housewifery. We humbly submit to Mrs. More, that this is not humorous, but strained and unnatural. Philippics against frugivorous children after dinner, are too common. Lady Melbury has been introduced into every novel for these four years last past. Peace to her ashes!

The characters in this novel which evince the greatest skill, are unquestionably those of Mrs. Ranby and her daughters. There are some scenes in this part of the book extremely well painted, and which evince that Mrs. More could amuse, in no common degree, if amusement was her object.

"At tea I found the young ladies took no more interest in the conversation, than they had done at dinner, but sat whispering and laughing, and netting white silk gloves, till they were summoned to the harpsichord. Despairing of getting on with them in company, I proposed a walk in the garden. I now found them as willing to talk, as destitute of any thing to say. Their conversation was vapid and frivolous. They laid great stress on small things. They seemed to have no shades in their understanding; but used the strongest terms for the commonest occasions; and admiration was excited by things hardly worthy to command attention. They were extremely glad and extremely sorry, on subjects not calculated to excite affections of any kind. They were animated about trifles, and indifferent on things of importance. They were, I must confess, frank and good-natured; but it was evident, that as they were too open to have any thing to conceal, so they were too uninformed to have any thing to produce; and I was resolved not to risk my happiness with a woman who could not contribute her full share towards spending a wet winter cheerfully in the country." I. 54, 55.

This trait of character appears to us to be very good. The following passage is still better.

"In the evening, Mrs. Ranby was lamenting in general, in rather customary terms, her own exceeding sinfulness. Mr. Ranby said, 'You accuse yourself rather too heavily, my dear; you have sins, to be sure.' 'And pray what sins have I, Mr. Ranby?' said she, turning upon him with so touch quickness that the poor man started. 'Nay,' said he meekly, 'I did not mean to offend you; so far from it, that hearing you condemn yourself so grievously, I intended to comfort you, and to say that, except a few faults — ' 'And pray what faults?' interrupted she, continuing to speak, however, lest he should catch an interval to tell them. 'I defy you, Mr. Ranby, to produce one.' 'My dear,' replied he, 'as you charged yourself with all, I thought it would be letting you off cheaply by naming only two or three, such as—' Here, fearing matters would go too far, I interposed; and, softening things as much as I could for the lady, said, 'I conceived that Mr. Ranby meant, that though she partook of the general corruption—' Here Ranby, interrupting me with more spirit than I thought be possessed, said, 'General corruption, Sir, must h the source of particular corruption. I did not mean that my wife was worse than other women.' — 'Worse, Mr. Ranby, worse?' cried she. Ranby, for the first time in his life, not minding her, went on, 'As she is always insisting that the whole species is corrupt, she cannot help allowing that she herself has not quite escaped the infection. Now, to be a sinner in the gross, and a saint in the detail — that is, to have all sins, and no faults, is a thing I do not quite comprehend.'

"After he had left the room, which he did as the shortest way of allaying the storm, she, apologizing for him, said, 'he was a well-meaning man, and acted up to the little light he had;' but added, 'that he was unacquainted with religious feelings, and knew little of the nature of conversion.'

"Mrs. Ranby, I found, seems to consider Christianity as a kind of free-masonry; and therefore thinks it superfluous to speak on serious subjects to any but the initiated. It they do not return the sign, she gives them up as blind and dead. She thinks she can only make herself intelligible to those to whom certain peculiar phrases are familiar; and though her friends may be correct, devout, and both doctrinally and practically pious; yet if they cannot catch a certain mystic meaning, — if there is not a sympathy of intelligence between her and them, — if they do not fully conceive of impressions, and cannot respond to mysterious communications, she holds them unworthy of intercourse with her. She does not so much insist on high moral excellence as the criterion of their worth, as on their own account of their internal feelings." I. 60-63.

The great object kept in view throughout the whole of this introduction, is the enforcement of religious principle, and the condemnation of a life lavished in dissipation and fashionable amusement. In the pursuit of this object, it appears to us, that Mrs. More is much too severe upon the ordinary amusements of mankind, many of which she does not object to in this, or that degree; but altogether. Coelebs and Lucilla, her optimus, and optima, never dance, and never go to the play. They not only stay away from the comedies of Congreve and Farquhar, for which they may easily enough be forgiven; but they never go to see Mrs. Siddons in the Gamester, or in Jane Shore. The finest exhibition of talent, and the most beautiful moral lessons, are interdicted, at the theatre. There is something in the word Playhouse, which seems so closely connected, in the minds of these people, with sin, and Satan, — that it stands in their vocabulary for every species of abomination. And yet why? Where is every feeling more roused in favour of virtue, than at a good play? Where is goodness so feelingly, so enthusiastically learnt? What so solemn as to see the excellent passions of the human heart called forth by a great actor, animated by a great poet? To hear Siddons repeat what Shakspeare wrote! To behold the child, and his mother — the noble, and the poor artisan, — the monarch, and his subjects — all ages and all ranks convulsed with one common passion — wrung with one common anguish, and, with loud sobs and cries, doing involuntary homage to the God that made their hearts! What wretched infatuation to interdict such amusements as these! What a blessing that mankind can be allured from sensual gratification, and find relaxation and pleasure in such pursuits! But the excellent Mr. Stanley is uniformly paltry and narrow, — always trembling at the idea of being entertained, and thinking no Christian safe who is not dull. As to the spectacles of impropriety which are sometimes witnessed in parts of the theatre; such reasons apply, in a much stronger degree, to not driving along the Strand, or any of the great public streets of London, after dark; and if the virtue of well educated young persons is made of such very frail materials, their best resource is a nunnery at once. It is a very bad rule, however, never to quit the house for fear of catching cold.

Mrs. More practically extends the same doctrine to cards and assemblies. No cards — because cards are employed in gaming; no assemblies — because many dissipated persons pass their lives in assemblies. Carry this but a little further, and we must say, — no wine, because of drunkenness; no meat, because of gluttony; no use, that there may be no abuse! The fact is, that Mr. Stanley wants not only to be religious, but to be at the head of the religious. These little abstinences are the cockades by which the party are known, — the rallying points for the evangelical faction. So natural is the love of power, that it sometimes becomes the influencing motive which the sincere advocates of that blessed religion, whose very characteristic excellence is the humility which it inculcates.

We observe that Mrs. More, in one part of her work, falls into the common error about dress. She first blames ladies for exposing their persons in the present style of dress; and then says, if they knew their own interest, — if they were aware how much more alluring they were to men when their charms are less displayed, they would make the desired alteration from motives merely selfish.

"Oh! if women in general knew what was their real interest! if they could guess with what a charm even the appearance of modesty invests its possessor, they would dress decorously from mere self-love, if not from principle. The designing would assume modesty as an artifice; the coquet would adopt it as an allurement; the pure as her appropriate attraction; and the voluptuous as the most infallible art of seduction." I. 189.

If there is any truth in this passage, nudity becomes a virtue; and no decent woman, for the future, can be seen in garments.

We have few more of Mrs. More's opinions to notice. — It is not fair to attack the religion of the times, because, in large and indiscriminate parties, religion does not become the subject of conversation. Conversation must and ought to grow out of materials on which men can agree, not upon subjects which try the passions. But this good lady wants to see men chatting together upon the Pelagian heresy — to hear, in the afternoon, the theological rumours of the day — and to gleam polemical tittle-tattle at a tea-table rout. All the disciples of this school uniformly fall into the same mistake. They are perpetually calling upon their votaries for religious thoughts and religious conversation in every thing; inviting them to ride, walk, row, wrestle, and dine out religiously; — forgetting that the being to whom this impossible purity is recommended, is a being compelled to scramble for his existence and support for ten hours out of the sixteen he is awake; — forgetting that he must dig, beg, read, think, move, pay, receive, praise, scold, command, and obey; — forgetting, also, that if men conversed as often upon religious subjects as they do upon the ordinary occurrences of the world, that they would converse upon them with the same familiarity, and want of respect, — that religion would then produce feelings not more solemn or exalted than any other topics which constitute at present the common furniture of human understandings.

We are glad to find in this work, some strong compliments to the efficacy of works, — some distinct admissions that it is necessary to be honest and just, before we can be considered as religious. Such sort of concessions are very gratifying to us; but how will they be received by the children of the Tabernacle? It is quite clear, indeed, throughout the whole of the work, that an apologetical explanation of certain religious opinions is intended; and there is a considerable abatement of that tone of insolence with which the improved Christians are apt to treat the bungling specimens of piety to be met with in the more ancient churches.

So much for the extravagances of this lady. — With equal sincerity, and with greater pleasure, we bear testimony to her talents, her good sense, and her real piety. There occurs every now and then in her productions, very original, and very profound observations. Her advice is very often characterized by the most amiable good sense, and conveyed in the most brilliant and inviting style. If, instead of belonging to a trumpery gospel faction, she had only watched over those great points of religion in which the hearts of every sect of Christians are interested, she would have been one of the most useful and valuable writers of her day. As it is, every man would wish his wife and his children to read Coelebs; — watching himself its effects; — separating the piety from the puerility; — and showing that it is very possible to be a good Christian, without degrading the human understanding to the trash and folly of Methodism.