1857 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah More

Samuel Griswold Goodrich, in Recollections of a Lifetime (1857) 2:163-68.



I soon after departed for Bristol — taking the renowned cathedral at Salisbury and the Druidical ruin of Stonehenge in my way. Having reached that city and seen its sights, I hired a post-coach, and went to Barley-wood — some ten miles distant. Hannah More was still there! The house consisted of a small thatched edifice — half cottage and half villa — tidily kept, and garnished with vines and trellices, giving it a cheerful and even tasteful appearance. Its site was on a gentle hill, sloping to the southeast, and commanding a charming view over the undulating country around, including the adjacent village of Wrington, with a wide valley sloping to the Bay of Bristol — the latter sparkling in the distance, and bounded by the Welch mountains, in the far horizon. Behind the house, and on the crown of the hill, was a small copse, threaded with neat gravel walks, and at particular points embellished with objects of interest. In one place there was a little rustic temple, with this motto — "Audi Hospes, contemnere opes;" in another, there was a stone monument, erected to the memory of Bishop Porteus, who had been a particular friend of the proprietor of the place. A little further on, I found another monument, with this inscription: "To John Locke, born in this village, this monument is erected by Mrs. Montague, and presented to Hannah More." From this sequestered spot, an artificial opening was cut through the foliage of the trees, giving a view of the very house — about a mile distant — in which Locke was born! In another place was a small temple built of roots, which might have served for the shrine of some untamed race of Dryads.

Mrs. More was now seventy-nine years of age, and was very infirm, having kept her room for two years. She was small, and wasted away. Her attire was of dark-red bombazine, made loose like a dressing-gown. Her eyes were black and penetrating, her face glowing with cheerfulness, through a lace-work of wrinkles. Her head-dress was a modification of the coiffure of her earlier days — the hair being slightly frizzed, and lightly powdered, yet the whole group of moderate dimensions.

She received me with great cordiality, and learning that I was from Hartford, immediately inquired about Mrs. Sigourney, Mr. Gallaudet, and Alice Coggswell: of the latter she spoke with great interest. She mentioned several Americans who had visited her, and others with whom she had held correspondence. Her mind and feelings were alive to every subject that was suggested. She spoke very freely of her writings and her career. I told her of the interest I had taken, when a child, in the story of the Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, upon which she recounted its history, remarking that the character of the hero was modeled from life, though the incidents were fictitious. Her tract, called "Village Politics, by Will Chip," was written at the request of the British Ministry, and two million copies were sold the first year. She showed me copies of Coelebs in Search of a Wife — the most successful of her works — in French and German, and a copy of one of her sacred dramas — "Moses in the Bullrushes" — on palm-leaves, in the Cingalese tongue — it having been translated into that language by the missionary school at Ceylon. She showed me also the knife with which the leaf had been prepared, and the scratches made in it to receive the ink. She expressed a warm interest in America, and stated that Wilberforce had always exerted himself to establish and maintain good relations between Great Britain and our country. I suggested to her that in the United States, the general impression — that of the great mass of the people — was that the English were unfriendly to us. She said it was not so. I replied that the Americans all read the English newspapers, and generally, the products of the British press; that feelings of dislike, disgust, animosity, certainly pervaded most of these publications, and it was natural to suppose that these were the reflections of public opinion in Great Britain. At all events, our people regarded them as such, and hence inferred that England was our enemy. She expressed great regret at this state of things, and said all good people should strive to keep peace between the two countries: to all which I warmly assented.

My interview with this excellent lady was, on the whole, most gratifying. Regarding her as one of the greatest benefactors of the age — as, indeed, one of the most remarkable women that had ever lived — I looked upon her not only with veneration but affection. She was one of the chief instruments by which the torrent of vice and licentiousness, emanating from the French Revolution and inundating the British Islands, was checked and driven back: she was even, to a great extent, the permanent reformer of British morals and manners, as well among the high as the humble. And besides, I felt that I owed her a special debt, and my visit to her was almost like a pilgrimage to the shrine of a divinity. When I left America, I had it in mind to render my travels subservient to a desire I had long entertained of making a reform — or at least an improvement — in books for youth. I had made researches in London, France, and Germany, for works that might aid my design. It is true I had little success, for while scientific and classical education was sedulously encouraged on the continent as well as in England, it seemed to be thought, either that popular education was not a subject worthy of attention, or that Dilworth and Mother Goose had done all that could be done. In this interview with the most successful and most efficient teacher of the age, I had the subject still in mind; and discerning by what she had accomplished, the vast field that was open, and actually inviting cultivation, I began from this time to think of attempting to realize the project I had formed. It is true that, in some respects the example I had just contemplated was different from my own scheme. Hannah More had written chiefly for the grown-up masses; I had it in contemplation to begin further back — with the children. Her means, however, seemed adapted to my purpose: her success, to encourage my attempt. She had discovered that truth could be made attractive to simple minds. Fiction was, indeed, often her vehicle, but it was not her end. The great charm of these works which had captivated the million, was their verisimilitude. Was there not, then, a natural relish for truth in all minds, or at least was there not a way of presenting it, which made it even more interesting than romance? Did not children love truth? If so, was it necessary to feed them on fiction? Could not history, natural history, geography, biography, become the elements of juvenile works, in place of fairies and giants, and mere monsters of the imagination? These were the inquiries that from this time filled my mind.