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Hannah More (1745-1833)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1894

Hannah MoreHannah More, religious writer, was born on 2 February 1745, at Stapleton, Gloucestershire, near Bristol. She was fourth of the five daughters of Jacob More. Jacob More (d. 1783), born at Thorpe Hall, Harleston, Norfolk, had been educated at Norwich grammar school, with a view to taking orders. His prospects of an estate at Wenteaston, Suffolk, having been ruined by a lawsuit, he took a place in the excise, and afterwards obtained from Lord Bottetourt the mastership of the free school of Fishponds, Stapleton, where he married Mary, the daughter of John Grace, a farmer. His relatives had been generally presbyterians, and two of his great-uncles Cromwellian captains. He was himself a tory and high churchman. He and his wife were intelligent and sensible, and desired that their daughters should be so brought up as to be able to make their own living.

Hannah was a delicate and precocious child. Before she was four she had learnt to read by listening to her sisters' lessons, and could say the catechism so well as to astonish the clergyman of the parish. Her nurse had attended Dryden in his last illness, and Hannah was eager for stories about the poet. When she was eight she was fond of listening to stories of classical history and anecdotes from Plutarch related by her father. He then began to teach her Latin and mathematics, and was ‘frightened at his own success,’ though the entreaties of Hannah and her mother induced him to persevere. Her eldest sister was sent to take lessons at a French school at Bristol, and communicated her knowledge to Hannah, who further improved herself by talking to some French officers living on parole in the neighbourhood. She began to scribble childish essays. About 1757 her eldest sister, who was not quite twenty-one, set up a boarding-school in Trinity Street, Bristol, in which she was joined by the other sisters.

The school flourished so well that the sisters built a new house in Park Street after a few years, and another for their father at Stony Hill, Bristol. Hannah took lessons from masters at the school, and acquired Italian, Spanish, and Latin. She made various translations, which she afterwards destroyed, except one from Metastasio's ‘Regulus,’ which she published in 1774 as ‘The Inflexible Captive.’ It was acted in 1775 at Exeter and Bath. In 1762 she published a ‘pastoral drama’ called ‘The Search after Happiness,’ intended to be learnt by heart by the schoolchildren instead of less edifying dramas. She saw such literary and scientific people as were to be found at Bristol, and during a visit to Weston-super-Mare, caused by ill-health, made friends with the poet John Langhorne, who wrote letters and addressed verses to her. At Bristol she was on friendly terms with Dean Tucker and Sir James Stonehouse, a clergyman who had previously been a physician. When she was about twenty-two she received an offer of marriage from a Mr. Turner, who had a fine house at Belmont, six miles from Bristol. He was an accomplished and honourable man, but was twenty years her senior and had a queer temper. She accepted him, and the wedding-day was more than once fixed. When it arrived, however, Turner did not feel himself equal to the occasion, and kept on putting off the marriage for six years. Stonehouse was at last asked to intervene. The engagement was broken off, and as Miss More had given up her share in the school in view of the marriage, Turner wished to make compensation. He offered £200 a year, which Miss More declined positively to accept. Stonehouse, however, agreed to become trustee for the fund without the lady's knowledge. She was afterwards induced to take the money. Turner continued to admire her, visited her at Cowslip Green, and left her £1,000. She resolved never to listen to another offer, and, it is added, had an opportunity soon afterwards of showing that she adhered to her decision.

In 1773 or 1774 Hannah More paid a visit to London with two of her sisters, Sarah and Martha (‘Patty’). She had written a letter describing the effect produced upon her mind by Garrick's Lear. Her correspondent knew Garrick and showed him the letter. He met his admirer a week after her arrival in town. She soon became intimate with Garrick and his wife, and in 1776 spent some months with them at the Adelphi and Hampton. She had been introduced in 1774 to Burke and Reynolds, and at Reynolds's house first met Dr. Johnson. She was soon afterwards thrilled by seeing the great doctor in his own house. Miss More became one of his favourites, and at a meeting at Reynolds's house the two tried, according to Sarah More, which could ‘pepper the highest’. The exchange of flattery became, indeed, too strong for Johnson's taste. It was to Hannah More that he remarked, according to Mrs. Piozzi's version, that she should ‘consider what her flattery was worth before she choked him with it.’ Boswell, on the authority of Malone, softens the phrase, which is also repeated by Mme. d'Arblay. Johnson afterwards asked Miss Reynolds to advise Miss More to flatter him less. The lady staying at Bath in April 1776 of whom Johnson said that she was ‘empty-headed’ was certainly not Hannah More, who was then in London with the Garricks. Johnson called Miss More ‘little fool,’ ‘love,’ and ‘dearest’, declared to Beattie that she was the most ‘powerful versificatrix in the English language’, and said that ‘there was no name in poetry that might not be glad to own her “Bas Bleu”’. The flattery was certainly not one-sided.

The ‘Bas Bleu’ was circulated in manuscript in 1784, when Johnson saw it. It describes the ‘blue-stocking clubs,’ then popular among the literary ladies. Hannah More had long been a popular member. She had been introduced by Garrick on their first acquaintance to Mrs. Montagu, ‘the wisest where all are wise’. She knew the venerable Mrs. Delany, and the respectable Mrs. Carter, and the admirable Mrs. Chapone, and the excellent Mrs. Boscawen, and all the good ladies who read the ‘Spectator,’ the ‘Rambler,’ and admired Mrs. Montagu's triumph over Voltaire. She resolved to put her merits to a better test by publishing an original poem. ‘Sir Eldred of the Bower’ was accordingly published in 1776. Cadell offered her a good price, and said that he would make it up to whatever Goldsmith had received for ‘The Deserted Village.’ The sum paid seems to have been forty guineas. Mrs. Montagu declared that her muse had done equal justice to Roman magnanimity and Gothic spirit. Garrick called her ‘Nine,’ as an embodiment of all the muses, and encouraged her to write for the stage, besides advising her in the course of her work. Her tragedy of ‘Percy,’ for which he wrote prologue and epilogue, was accordingly produced at Covent Garden, 10 Dec. 1777, and had a run of twenty-one nights. Four thousand copies of the first edition were sold in a fortnight. A charge of plagiarism made against her by Hannah Cowley appears to have been quite groundless. Miss More declared that she had never seen the manuscript from which she was supposed to have stolen. She began another tragedy, ‘The Fatal Falsehood,’ under Garrick's superintendence, which was produced on 6 May 1779 with less success at the same theatre soon after his death.
Garrick's death (20 January 1779) formed, it is said, an era in Hannah More's life. She gradually retired from the gaieties to which he had introduced her. She came to think playgoing wrong, and first showed her resolution by refusing to attend the performance of ‘Percy’ in 1787, when it was revived, with Mrs. Siddons as the heroine. Upon Garrick's death she was summoned by Mrs. Garrick, with whom she stayed for some time. The intimacy continued for a long time, and upon Mrs. Garrick's death in 1822 Hannah More speaks of having spent ‘twenty winters’ in her friend's house. Although circumstances separated them in later years, there was no avowed coolness. Hannah More kept up her relations with London society for a time, and in 1781 made acquaintance with Horace Walpole. He printed a little poem of hers, ‘Bonner's Ghost,’ at the Strawberry Hill press in 1781, and wrote many letters to her in later years, which, in spite of his affectations, seem to indicate a genuine liking and admiration. He avoids offending her by too worldly a tone. Her biographer apologises for her friendly intercourse with the old courtier, but apology is hardly required.

In 1782 she published her ‘Sacred Dramas,’ intended chiefly for ‘young persons.’ Tate Wilkinson (Wandering Patentee, iv. 75, 80) proposed to bring these upon the stage at Hull in November 1793, as prepared by Mr. ‘A. M.,’ ‘a gentleman of strong abilities,’ but was deterred by a general outcry of profanity. One of them, ‘Moses in the Bullrushes,’ with other works of hers, was afterwards translated into Cingalese.

In 1784 she found that a poor milkwoman at Bristol, a Mrs. Anne Yearsley, had been writing poetry. Hannah More took her for a genius, edited a collection of her poems, and raised £500 or £600 for her benefit. She was greatly occupied in this benevolent task for more than a year. Mrs. Montagu, who thought that a study of the Bible had enabled Mrs. Yearsley to soar above Pindar and Æschylus, became trustee with Hannah More for the money. Unluckily the milkwoman wished to have the capital sum, which her trustees apparently feared would be spent upon drink. She became angry, accused them of theft, and declared that Hannah More was envious of her talents. The money was handed over by the trustees to a merchant at Bristol, and ultimately, it seems, to Mrs. Yearsley. She published a novel called ‘The Man in the Iron Mask,’ by which she made £200, produced a tragedy, ‘Earl Goodwin,’ and set up a circulating library. Cottle says that he helped her out of some difficulties. She lost her husband and two sons, and retired to Melksham in Wiltshire, where she died in 1806, in a state of almost ‘total seclusion’.

Meanwhile Hannah More had been making more serious friendships, especially with Dr. Kennicott, Dr. (afterwards Bishop) Horne, Bishop Porteus, and other dignitaries. Her religious impressions became deeper. In 1780 she was much impressed by the ‘Cardiphonia’ of John Newton (1725-1807). In 1787 she heard a sermon from him, sat with him for an hour, and came home ‘with two pockets full of sermons’. He soon became a regular correspondent and adviser on religious topics. In 1787 she also saw much of Wilberforce, who was beginning the agitation against the slave-trade, and who was ever afterwards her close friend. She spent the summer at Cowslip Green, in the parish of Blagdon, ten miles from Bristol on the Exeter road, where she had built a cottage two years before. It is close to Wrington, where Locke was born. Mrs. Montagu presented her with an urn in memory of the philosopher, which was placed in her garden, and afterwards moved to Barley Wood, opposite Locke's birthplace. She amused herself with gardening, of which she was very fond, and seldom moved except to pay her annual visits to Mrs. Garrick and visit her friends about London. In 1788 appeared the first result of her more serious reflections: ‘Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society.’ It was anonymous, and at first attributed to Wilberforce. Several editions were sold with great rapidity, and it was afterwards followed by writings in the same vein of religious and moral reflections, which were among the most widely read books of the day. A poem upon ‘Slavery,’ published in the same year, was also well received. At the end of 1789 her sisters retired from their school in ‘affluent circumstances’. They built a house in Great Pulteney Street, Bath, and proposed to divide their time between Bath and Cowslip Green. In the summer of 1789 Martha (or Patty) More spent a long time with her sister at Cowslip Green, and made various excursions. They visited Cheddar with Wilberforce in August, when he was shocked by the general ignorance and distress, and suggested that they should do something for the place. Thirteen adjoining parishes in the neighbourhood had not a single resident curate. The incumbent of one was generally drunk six times a week, and often prevented from preaching by a couple of black eyes ‘honestly earned’ by fighting. The squire in one place was a shrewd atheist, the chief farmer preferred workmen to saints, and the farmer's wife held that the labourers were predestined to be ‘poor, ignorant, and wicked.’ In one parish there was only one bible, which served to prop a flower-pot.

Hannah More and her sisters therefore met with considerable opposition when they resolved to set up Sunday schools in the districts. They made some impression by arguing that schools would teach children not to rob orchards. The plan is generally said to have been started by Robert Raikes of Gloucester in 1781. Mrs. Trimmer had started Sunday schools at Brentford in 1786. There was already one in their own parish (Blagdon) and in a neighbouring village. The Mores, in spite of many jealousies, went to work energetically, took a small house at Cheddar for six and a half guineas a year, hired a schoolmistress for £30 a year, and by the end of the year had five hundred children in training in Cheddar and the neighbouring parish. They held evening readings of sermons, prayers, and hymns for the parents. They also promoted friendly societies among the women, had weekly schools in which the girls learnt reading and sewing, distributed prizes for good behaviour, and held annual school-feasts, which were largely attended. On Sundays the sisters drove round to the various villages to superintend the schools and other institutions.

Hannah More's views of education were not quite of the modern type. She taught the Bible and the catechism, and the pupils learnt on week-days ‘such coarse works as may fit them for servants. I allow of no writing for the poor’. In 1823 she was rather scandalised by the advance of the scheme which she had done much to encourage, and protested against the doctrine that the poor were to be made ‘scholars and philosophers’. In 1800 she became involved in the ‘Blagdon controversy.’ The curate of Blagdon, Thomas Bere, had asked her to set up a school there in 1795. He afterwards complained that Young, the master, was holding a kind of conventicle, when Miss More at once stopped Young's irregularities. In March 1800 Bere again complained, and after an investigation, in which the chancellor of the diocese and the rector of Blagdon took part, Miss More dissolved the school in November 1800. Soon afterwards, however, the rector, thinking that Bere had behaved badly, gave him notice to resign the curacy, and the school was again started in January 1801. Bere refused to resign, and finally maintained his position, when Miss More again dissolved the school in September 1801. Upon the appointment of Richard Beadon to the bishopric of Bath and Wells in 1802, Miss More appealed to him for directions. He assured her of his support and approval, and this appears to have been regarded by her friends as a final triumph. The dispute involved all manner of minor issues and a general raking up of village scandals. Pamphlets were written; the ‘Anti-Jacobin Review,’ the ‘British Critic,’ and the ‘Christian Observer’ wrote articles; and the characters of Miss More, Bere, and other clergymen more or less attacked. The real cause apparently was the suspicion that the schools had a methodist tendency, although Hannah More says that the methodists were opposed to her. She said in 1808 that ‘two Jacobin and infidel curates’ had tried to make themselves known by a virulent attack upon her. She was accused of being a ‘hireling of Pitt,’ and also of being a Jacobin. In 1802 she complains that she has been ‘battered, hacked, scalped, tomahawked for three years’. In fact her bad health and the contrast between the rough handling of pamphlets and the unctuous eulogies to which she was accustomed sufficiently explain her irritation. The whole disturbance was absurd to outsiders. After 1802 she met no further trouble of the kind. Only four of her schools, those at Cheddar, Nailsea, Shipham, and Wedmore, continued, and the first three were still flourishing in 1825.

During the excitement caused by the French revolution Hannah More had been entrusted to provide an antidote for the poison. She wrote in 1792 a tract called ‘Village Politics, by Will Chip,’ which was published anonymously. It gained notice at once; many thousand copies were sent by government to Scotland and Ireland, and patriotic people printed large editions at their own expense. At the beginning of 1793 she published some ‘Remarks on the Speech of M. Dupont,’ who had avowed atheism in the convention, and sent the profits, amounting to £240, to the fund for the relief of the French emigrant clergy. Encouraged by the success of ‘Village Politics,’ she resolved to publish a series of cheap tracts. With some help from her sisters and friends she produced three tracts a month (a tale, a ballad, and a tract for Sunday reading) for three years, which were sold for a penny, and afterwards collected in three volumes. They were called the ‘Cheap Repository Tracts.’ Some of them were illustrated by John Bewick. Those signed ‘Z.’ were by Hannah, and those signed ‘S.’ by Sarah More. In almost every tract there was ‘an exemplary parish priest’, as she boasted. The typical character was the ‘Shepherd of Salisbury Plain’ (said to have been meant for one Saunders of Cherrill Down), who lived on a shilling a day, rejoiced that only three of his children were under five years of age, and never complained of hunger, because he ‘lived upon the promises.’ Cobbett, then an anti-Jacobin, expressed his delight in them, and helped to circulate them in America. The circulation is said to have amounted to two millions in the first year. The venture was, however, supported by committees formed in every part of the kingdom, and the circulation therefore represents the approval of the classes whose cause she supported as much as the taste of the persons to be converted. Her health suffered from the labour, and her income was not improved. They appear to have been partly suggested by Mrs. Trimmer's ‘Family Magazine.’ The organisation for circulating them seems to have led to the foundation of the Religious Tract Society in 1799.

In 1802 Hannah More moved to Barley Wood, in Wrington parish, a mile from Cowslip Green, where she had built a comfortable house and laid out a garden. The sisters soon afterwards made it their sole residence, giving up the house at Bath. Hannah More lived there quietly for many years, writing industriously when her health permitted, and receiving visits from Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, and many well-known leaders of the ‘Clapham sect.’ Macaulay's wife had been a pupil at the Bristol school, and the correspondence with him begins in 1796, before his marriage. Hannah More made a pet of his son, Thomas Babington, who was often at Barley Wood in his childhood; she gave him his first books, and after her death he showed his affection by refusing to write about her in the Edinburgh Review. She had destined her library to him, but dissatisfaction with his religious views led her to bestow it elsewhere. In December 1809 she published the most popular of her works, ‘Celebs in Search of a Wife.’ Although anonymous it succeeded so rapidly that nine months later, when she had gone for rest to Dawlish, she was followed by the eleventh edition. Thirty editions were sold in America. She says in 1810 that she had spent £5,000 in publishing it, besides the bookseller's profits; but had cleared £2,000 and still had the copyright. Scott's ‘Rokeby,’ published in 1810, had gained for him the same sum; but ‘Celebs’ was sold for twelve shillings and ‘Rokeby’ for £2 2s. Sydney Smith's gibes in the Edinburgh had not injured her circulation, though perhaps his judgment anticipates that of most modern readers. Her success shows the advantage from a worldly point of view of writing orthodox didactic works.

On 18 April 1813 Mary, the eldest of the sisters, died at Barley Wood, aged 75; Elizabeth More died 14 June 1816, aged 76; Sarah, 17 May 1817, aged 74; and Martha, 14 September 1819, aged 60 (?).

During the critical period which followed the peace Hannah More again wrote a series of tracts in prose and verse, which, as before, were circulated with the help of a committee formed in London, and are said by her biographer to have produced a ‘very visible effect.’ Upon the abolition of slavery in Ceylon she wrote a poetical dialogue called ‘The Feast of Freedom,’ which was translated into Cingalese by two Buddhist priests, and performed at a public ceremonial on the anniversary of the measure. It was set to music by Charles Wesley. Sir Alexander Johnstone, the governor of Ceylon, saw her in 1819, introduced the priests to her, and ordered her ‘sacred dramas’ to be translated, and begged her to write more. She continued her series of moral and religious treatises, the last of which, her ‘Moral Sketches,’ appeared in 1819. Her health had been weak through life, and she was especially subject to inflammatory attacks of the lungs. She had dangerous illnesses in 1820, 1822, and 1824, during the last of which she compiled her ‘Spirit of Prayer.’ In later years she became infirm, though with fewer illnesses. After the death of her last sister she found the management of her household difficult, and her servants were spoilt by injudicious indulgence. Cottle gives a ludicrous account of the detection of their vagaries by an old friend. They all left the house at midnight to attend a village ball. Twelve gentlemen went to Barley Wood to protect Hannah More, when she called the servants up, solemnly gave them all warning, and explained that they had forced her to seek a refuge among strangers. She sold her carriage and horses, and exchanged ‘eight pampered minions’ for four sober servants. She also sold Barley Wood to Mr. Harford, and parted with the copyright of her last books. She moved to 4 Windsor Terrace, Clifton, in 1828. She was surrounded by many affectionate and admiring friends, and so much overpowered by visits that she found it necessary to have two public days a week and pass the others in retirement. Her memory was beginning to fail, and she died peacefully 7 September 1833. She left about £30,000, chiefly in legacies to charitable institutions and religious societies. The residue of the estate was to go to the new church of St. Philip and St. Jacob in Bristol. Patty More had also left £10,000 or £12,000 in legacies. All the sisters were buried at Wrington.

Hannah More was one of the last of the group of learned ladies who had known Johnson, though Madame d'Arblay survived her for some years. Her writings have the old-fashioned flavour of the eighteenth century; while they now represent the teaching of the evangelical school, which looked up to Newton and Cecil, and of which William Wilberforce and his friends were the recognised political and social leaders. Though now out of fashion, they show not only high moral and religious purpose, but strong sense, as well as considerable intellectual vivacity. If their author showed a little self-complacency, the wonder is that her strong sense kept her from being spoilt by the uniform flattery poured upon her by her contemporaries. Her services to education at a time of general indifference deserve the highest praise, though her decided desire to keep the poor in their place is now out of fashion. In private life she seems to have been thoroughly amiable, kind to children, and as playful as her conscience would allow.

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