Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Hannah More (1745–1833)

Hannah More (1745 - 1833) edit

Hannah More was a British writer, renowned for her playwriting and poetry, as well as her accomplishments in the fields of abolishment, philanthropy and religion. Remembered for her traditionally-conservative ideologies, More's work focused primarily on the impression of moral, religious and political understandings throughout her literature, and the education of the poor through the public distribution of her writing.

Biography edit

Early Life edit

The second youngest of five daughters to Jacob More, Hannah More was born into the parish of Stapleton, Gloucestershire in England on 2nd February 1745. Throughout her early life and childhood, More was exposed and heavily influenced by the world of educators and the Presbyterian Church, led by her father - who was a schoolmaster in nearby Bristol. Alongside her sisters, More was initially home-schooled by her father and older siblings in Latin, mathematics, French and rhetoric, and in turn, began writing from a young age. In 1758, her father established a girls' boarding school in Bristol, in which More was enrolled from the age of twelve and remained a pupil into her young adulthood.

Marriage and Later Life edit

In 1767, More gave up her share in the school when she became engaged to William Turner of the Belmont Estate, Wraxall in Somerset, whom she had met when he began teaching her cousins. After six years their wedding had not taken place. Turner seemed reluctant to name a date and in 1773 the engagement was broken off. It seems this led More into a nervous breakdown, from which she recuperated in Uphill, near Weston-super-Mare. She was persuaded to accept a £200 annuity from Turner as compensation, which freed her for literary pursuits.

In the winter of 1773–1774, she went to London with her sisters, Sarah and Martha – the first of many such trips at yearly intervals. Some verses she had written on David Garrick's 'King Lear' led to an acquaintanceship with him.

She later moved to Bath where she lived between 1792–1802 on Great Pulteney Street.

An overall influence of growing up in an environment of loving, intellectual and predominantly female environment plays a vital role in the topics and penmanship that More displays within her writings[2].

Death edit

Hannah More lived until the age of 88 and passed away on the 7th September 1833, in Bristol Gloucestershire. She is also notably the first female writer in recorded history to have made profit from her writings, leaving behind 30,000 pounds which she bespoke to a number of charities and religious societies. Even in her death, she was remembered for her generosity and outreach, especially to those that were considered less fortunate within her local community[3].

Her Literary Career and Other Work edit

Hannah More’s work extended far beyond her works in education and charity, writing some of the most acclaimed literature by a female writer during her time. The piece of poetry that acted as a catalyst towards her success in British literature - a predominantly male-centric field - was ‘The Bleeding Rock’. This poem was inspired by the rocks present in her Belmont estate, and encompassed a number of religious references and influences. In particular, it made note to purity, raptures and an absence of vanity - displaying the Christian views held by many of the time period - and as such, resonated quite strongly with the British public.

Early Writing and Publication edit

Still in her teens and young adulthood, More began to publish a number of her playwrights during the 1770s and early 1780s, several of which were staged by small theatre companies and schools throughout Britain. Some of her early work included a pastoral and moral dialogue for girls titled A Search After Happiness (published in 1773), and a set of verse plays on biblical allegories known as Her Sacred Dramas (1782) which remained in print until the mid-19th Century [5]. Her first known play to be performed live was the blank verse poem, The Inflexible Captive, which was stage in Bath in 1775 and detailed the life of Roman consul, Marcus Atilius Regulus, and his prominent role in the Roman wars against Carthage.

The Demise of her Career edit

During the late 1770s and early 1780s, More then moved to London to further pursue her career in writing. Throughout this period, she was able to make acquaintance with a number of notable political and societal figures. The remainder of More’s time in London consisted of continuing to produce a number of her plays. She was able to produce and stage Percy: A Tragedy (1777), but not long after decided to give up playwriting at the death of her mentors Garrick and Johnson. During this period, many also considered her final play, The Fatal Falsehood (1779) to be a failure.

More's Philanthropy edit

Despite her withdrawal from writing, More remained in London where she involved herself with a number of religious figures, as well as a group of evangelical Christians who were against the slave trade. These experiences, as well as the influences of the individuals around her, prompted More's conversion to evangelical Christianity and the beginning her work towards abolishment of the Slave Trade. Her benvolent work following this religious transition still resonates today and is recognised as having enduring significance to the history of slavery in Britain.

After a period of time spent in London, More then decided to return home to Bristol. Despite leaving London, she still had a relationship to notable figures in abolishment such as William Wilberforce and John Newton. In Bristol, More resumed her composition of a number of poems underpinned by her political impression of the foundational need to abolish slavery. In particular, her poem, Slavery, A Poem (1788) was written to coincide with William Wilberforce’s appeal to Parliament regarding the dismantlement of the slave trade. In the years to follow, More wrote a similar poem in regard to slavery titled The Sorrow of Yamba (1795), which detailed the story of an enslaved woman.

The final additions to Hannah More’s work continued to address topics of religion, most notable of which being her book ‘Village Politics’ (1792)[4]. This piece especially addressed the public of Britain at the time with a particular focus on encouraging the poor to have faith, repent and turn to God. While still holding on to her beliefs of the importance of education, More also opened schools for children and literary clubs for women where she worked alongside others to teach literacy and religious doctrine.

Reputation and Legacy edit

Much of Hannah More’s legacy impacted the people of her time, but her influence in the school of education is still prevalent in the modern world today. In terms of her works in being an evangelical Christian, More’s writings and works for Christians of the time is seen as a beacon of expression and allowed for the people of the time to resonate with her works.

Within the field of education More provided education for the low-socioeconomic people of Britain and she has several schools in the modern world such as ‘Hannah More Public School’, in her hometown of Bristol. Furthermore More’s works in the abolishment of the slave trade in the context of Britain also remains a focal point of her works and legacy that extend beyond just her works and writings.

The use of her platform as well as her talents in writing contributing towards the act of abolishing the slave trade symbolises the character, generosity and values that Hannah More withheld and why she is seen as the most successful women’s writer of the time. Although her health prohibited her from having a direct role in the slave abolishment bill that was passed in the year 1806, it is without question that the literature created by More had an influence over the passing of this law[5].

Further Readings edit

Nardin, Jane. “Hannah More and the Problem of Poverty.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 43, no. 3, 2001, pp. 267–84. JSTOR.

This academic article addresses the philanthropic and evangelical actions of Hannah More, elaborating upon the financial aid she received, and the extents in which she exerted herself. This article is largely biographical, foremostly detailing her deeds in the town of Cheddar over a fourteen year period (e.g., establishing schools, and financial benefit schemes for those that had attended). It makes particular mention of her belief in popular education, and opposition to those who feared "a literary working class would have access to propaganda" (p.268). This article is exceptional in highlighting the atypical beliefs and actions of Hannah More during her period of generosity and philanthropy, though also makes note of the criticisms that proceed her work, including the note that her education system made no attempt to improve the material position of those within it.

Nardin, Jane. "Hannah More and the Rhetoric of Educational Reform." Womens History Review, 2001, 10:2, 211-228

This article makes particular note of the Evangelical, educational reforms that Hannah More attempted to make, utilising the following works as examples for such;

  • In Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799)
  • Hints Toward Forming the Character of a Princess (1805)
  • Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808),

It is particularly critical of the inculcation of Christian principals within her pedagogical doctrine, and highlights the features of her female centric reforms. Most interesting to this article is that it notes her agreeance with eighteenth-century pedagogical theories, which were incoherent with the theoretical ideals of her writings. It suggests that this was done in order to promote her program both effectively and practically.

"This rhetorical strategy was a success in practical terms, but prevented her from achieving coherence as an educational theorist" (211).

References edit

[1] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2022), ‘Hannah More’.

[2] John Simkin (2022), ‘Hannah More’.

[3] Brycchan Carey (2004), ‘Hannah More (1745-833)’.

[4] Lexi Friesnan (2015), ‘Women’s History Month: Hannah More’.

[5] Daniel Hahn (2015). The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (2 ed.). https://www-oxfordreference-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780199695140.001.0001/acref-9780199695140-e-2242