I really didn’t know anything about Hannah More when I first saw Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior making the rounds a couple of years ago, but so many bloggers spoke positively of it that I requested it for the next gift-giving occasion. It turns out I am in good company: in his preface to this book, Eric Metaxas said he hadn’t know much about her, either, until doing research for his book on William Wilberforce, and then he got so excited, he tried to include as much about her as he could. When he met Prior and found out her doctoral dissertation was on More, he urged her to write a book.
Hannah was born to a family of five daughters in 1745. Her father being a teacher and her own thirst for learning led to her receiving an education beyond the norm for girls in that era. She and her sisters established a school together as they got older. Hannah wrote some plays for the students that were well-received. She was engaged for a long period of time, but the marriage never went forward. In a transaction common for the day, her former fiance offered her an annuity “sufficient to allow More to pursue a literary vocation as compensation for the time she devoted to him” (p. 37).
An influential friend sent a copy of one of her plays to David Garrick, a famous actor of the day; thus “the door to the literary capital of England was opened” (p. 49). Hannah became friends with a number of Londoners, including Garrick and his wife, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, William Wilberforce, and a host of others. She was so close to Wilberforce that one of her anonymous publications was thought to be his. She was included in the Bluestocking Circle begun by “one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the day” (p. 76), Elizabeth Montagu. More’s influence and literary career grew.
But for various reasons, More became disenchanted with life in London and moved to Cowslip Green in between two villages.
More had always been bemused–and sometimes amused–by the excesses and superficialities she witnessed [in London]. So while the glistening of the fashionable life grew ever duller over several years, hints of More’s doubts about this fool’s gold can be found even from her earliest seasons there. It is clear that she was undergoing a greater sense of calling to more serious work, to more devotion in her faith, and with it to ministry in serving others (p. 95).
She was given a book of John Newton’s letters which she described as “full of vital, experimental religion” – vital meaning, according to Prior, “‘full of life,’ so opposite the stale, dead religion found in many Church of England members” (p. 105).
The word experimental alluded to the growing emphasis during the eighteenth century on the importance of individual experience in religious practice, the need of each person to have an authentic and personal faith rather than simply to adhere to rote tradition (p. 105).
Wilberforce had originally “thought that being a sincere Christian required withdrawing from the corrupt corners of human business” and was inclined to “retreat from public life in favor of a course devoted to piety.” John Newton encouraged him to “stay at his post, and neither give up work, nor throw away wealth; wait and watch occasions, sure that He, who put him at his post, would find him work to do” (p. 113). Later Wilberforce’s “influence dissuaded [Hannah] from her growing inclination to shrink from the world” (p. 117). Thank God that both of these people “stayed at their post.” “Even John Wesley sent Hannah a message through her sister: ‘Tell her to live in the world; there is the sphere of her usefulness; they will not let us come nigh them” (p. 203). The bishop of London asked her, “Where can we find any but yourself that can make the ‘fashionable world’ read books of morality and religion, and find improvement when they are only looking for amusement?” (p. 202).
More joined with Newton, Wilberforce, and others involved in fighting the slave trade.
As a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn’t know what water is, so a person living in eighteenth-century Great Britain–immersed in an economic and social structure built on the slave trade–could not easily, if at all, see slavery for what it was. To do so required, it seemed, a certain kind of perceptiveness of mind and spirit. Hannah More was one of the few who possessed it (p. 108).
Even Wilberforce acknowledged that the fight against slavery could not by won in Parliament alone, that “more is to be done out of the House than in it,” that “changing the minds in Parliament would require changing the heart of the nation first” (p. 128).
The battle against slavery was, in many ways, led by the poets–and other writers and artists–who expanded their country’s moral imagination so it might at last see horrors too grave for the rational mind to grasp (p. 128).
Hannah used her influence and her pen to fight against slavery, a fight which took over forty years. She also used it to encourage education, especially for girls and for the poor, and to provide edifying reading material. Prior explained that tracts or pamphlets at that time were like blog posts today, and Hannah used them for educational, religious, and sometimes political causes, eventually leading to the establishment of Cheap Repository Tracts.
But she did more than write. She and her sisters started a number of schools for the poor, financed by Wilberforce, fighting against the opinion of the time that the poor should not be educated or taught to read (some thought the poor would have no use for it: others thought it might disturb the order of things). She became one of the few female members of what was called the Clapham Sect – not a sect as we think of it today, but a group of influential “like-minded believers, ‘bound together by shared moral and spiritual values, by religious mission and social activism, by love for each other, and by marriage,’ [who] changed history as they sought to serve God in every area of their lives, personal and public, at home and abroad” (p. 167). “The efforts of the Clapham community were three-pronged: they aimed at alleviating the suffering and oppression of the lower classes, reforming the excessive and negligent behaviors of the upper classes, and advancing Christianity at home and throughout the world” (pp. 173-174).
She was not flawless. Some of her views would have modern readers scratching their heads, and Prior does an excellent job explaining them in the context of Hannah’s times. But she yielded herself, her influence, her energy, her finances, and her pen to God and was used mightily by Him. One quoted source said, “What Wilberforce was among men, Hannah More was among women” (p. 240).
Somewhere between Birrell’s hatred and Roberts’s hagiography is a woman who was at once ordinary and remarkable. She was a woman with virtues and flaws, faith and fears, vision and blind spots. But she was also one whose unique gifts and fierce convictions transformed first her life and subsequently her world and ours (p. 253).
To Walpole, More was testimony, in the words of one of her early biographers, that “the most implicit faith and the most devoted zeal in Christianity could consist with the highest mental attainments; and that the most devoted piety was no obstacle to cheerfulness and humor” (p. 170).
In the epilogue Prior also shares some reasons why More is not more well-known today, among them the modernist movement, which “rejected the values that most defined the Victorian age: duty, family, piety” (p. 252). In addition, her one novel “is practically unreadable for most readers today. tastes have changed, and the art of the novel has progressed toward more nuance and complexity than the plain didacticism of More’s novel” (p. 235). But I am glad that Prior brought her to our attention and shared her life with us.
It took me just a little while to truly get into the book. I am not sure if it took that long to get into the rhythm of Prior’s style or if it just got more interesting to me around the time that Hannah went to London, and more so when she decided to leave. I especially appreciated Prior’s couching everything into its historical setting so that we weren’t getting just the facts, but truly understanding how historical events and beliefs affected Hannah and how she in turn affected them.
And on a completely separate note, one of Prior’s explanations helped me better understand Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility:
During the so-called long eighteenth century (1660-1830), a “cult of sensibility” arose that exalted the outward manifestations of emotional sensitivity–weeping, fainting, and the like–as the marks of morality and refined character, to the point that sensibility became more important than benevolent or moral actions (p. 185).
In context, Prior said this about More’s writing concerning animal cruelty. She sought to raise awareness of some of the brutal practices of the day in order to stop them yet did not devolve into “emotional indulgence” and “inordinate affection” the “cult of sensibility” employed towards animals (p. 197).
I’ll close with a few favorite quotes from More herself:
It should be held as an eternal truth, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right (p. 136).
I am at this moment as quiet as my heart can wish. Quietness is my definition of happiness (p. 69).
Atrocious deeds should never be called by gentle names (p. 205).
God can carry on his own work, though all such poor tools as I were broken (p. 247).
The more I see of the ‘hounoured, famed, and great,’ the more I see of the littleness, the unsatisfactoriness of all created good; and that no earthly pleasure can fill up the wants of the immortal principle within.
Bible Christianity is what I love…a Christianity practical and pure, which teaches holiness, humility, repentance and faith in Christ; and which after summing up all the Evangelical graces, declares that the greatest of these is charity (p. 155).
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)