Hannah More: Biography

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he Evangelical philanthropist Hannah More (1745-1833) provides an indispensable link between the Georgian and Victorian periods. Born just before the last Jacobite rebellion, she lived to see the beginnings of the railway age. In her youth she was the friend of David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, and Horace Walpole. In middle age she was closely connected with William Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelicals in the Clapham sect. In her retirement she welcomed two promising children to her home in Somerset, William Ewart Gladstone and Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Hannah More was born in the village of Fishponds in Gloucestershire (now a suburb of Bristol) the fourth of five daughters of a schoolmaster, Jacob More, and his wife, Mary Grace More, the daughter of a farmer in the neighbouring village of Stoke Gifford. Jacob had been born in East Anglia and believed he had a claim to an estate in Suffolk. However, he lost the lawsuit and with it a considerable amount of money. This led him to seek his fortune in the Bristol area, where he was employed first as an excise officer and then from 1743 as a teacher at the Fishponds Free school at a starting salary of £15 per annum. Hannah More was brought up in a very cramped cottage on a very restricted income.

In 1758 her eldest sister Mary (born 1738) opened a girls school in Bristol. Hannah More was initially a pupil at the school and then became a teacher. At the age of seventeen she wrote a play, The Search after Happiness, for the girls at the school to perform. She herself was closely involved with the Theatre Royal Bristol and became a particular friend of the actor William Powell. At about the age of twenty-two she became engaged to a local landowner, William Turner, owner of a house called Belmont, now part of the Tyntesfield estate recently acquired by the National Trust. The engagement lasted for about six years but Turner refused to name a date for the wedding, and More broke it off at the end of 1773; in compensation, Turner paid her an annuity of £200. This sum gave her the confidence to abandon teaching and try to earn money solely through her writing.

In the spring of 1774 More and two of her sisters journeyed to London, where they met the actor-manager, David Garrick and his wife Eva. She rapidly became included in London society, and met Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and the bluestockings, Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Carter. In 1777, after much help and encouragement from Garrick, her tragedy, Percy , was staged at the Covent Garden Theatre. However, after Garrick's death in January 1779 she lost her enthusiasm for the theatre, and after the failure of her play, The Fatal Falsehood , she ceased writing for the stage; her Sacred Dramas (1782) was intended to be read rather than performed. Instead, she became Eva Garrick's companion, part of the bluestocking circle, and one of Horace Walpole's correspondents. Her poem, The Bas Bleu; or Conversation , was a witty celebration of her friends and the culture of polite learning and elegant conversation they represented.

In the period 1785-87 Hannah More turned her life round again. Following the acrimonious ending of her relationship with her former protégé, Ann Yearsley, the Bristol milkwoman, and her purchase of a small house at Cowslip Green in Somerset, she partly retreated from London society. Her religious conversion was not a sudden event that can be precisely dated, but it nevertheless changed her life. Her new friends were the Evangelical clergyman and hymn-writer, John Newton and the abolitionist Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. Her poem, Slavery , was published in 1788 to coincide with the first parliamentary debate on the slave trade. In 1789, at Wilberforce's instigation, she and her younger sister Martha (Patty) founded a Sunday school at Cheddar, the first of nine schools in the Mendip area of Somerset. Three of the schools survived (though obviously much altered) into the twentieth century. The two women's benefit clubs she set up were only wound down in 1949 and 1950.

Hannah More played an important role in the conservative reaction to the "French Revolution. In 1793 she published Village Politics, a short popular tract designed to counter the arguments of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. Later in the year she wrote Thoughts on the Speech of M. Dupont, an attack on the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution, designed to raise funds for the French emigre clergy, then taking shelter in Britain. She brought together her two roles, loyalist politics and concern for the labouring poor, in The Cheap Repository Tracts, a series of tracts, moralistic yet vividly written, published between 1795 and 1797. Of these the most successful was The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, satirized by Thackeray in Vanity Fair as The Washerwoman of Finchley Common. When the Cheap Repository was closed, it was recognized that she had left a gap in the market, and the Religious Tract Society was founded to continue her work.

As well as working among the poor, Hannah More continued her connections with polite society, and produced a series of conduct books, of which the most famous was Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799). Its many protofeminist overtones led at least one commentator to compare it with Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The message of Strictures was that women had been short-changed, fobbed off with a trivial education that left them unfitted to be companionable wives, rational mothers, or moral examples to the wider society. It was a message reinforced by her most ambitious conduct-book, Hints Towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1805) written anonymously for the young Princess Charlotte and in her only novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife(1808).

Hannah More's later years were spent in retirement, but this did not mean that she played no part in national debates. She wrote best-selling works of Evangelical piety, she was a keen patron of the British and Foreign Bible Society and continued active in the anti-slavery movement. She kept open house for a variety of visitors, including the young Macaulay and Gladstone, Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Fry, and Sarah Siddons. Above all, she was a role-model for the generation of Evangelical women who came after her, novelists like Mary Martha Sherwood (1775-1851) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846) as well as the many unknown women who worked for the Bible Society, ran bazaars, and distributed religious literature.

On her death it was found that she had earned nearly £30,000 from her books. In view of the large sums of money she gave to charity during her lifetime, this figure is probably an under-estimate. She was one of the most successful writers, and perhaps the most influential woman, of her day.

Last modified 26 October 2002