The first edition of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs Hannah More sold out within three weeks; a second and third followed rapidly. ‘Holy Hannah’, as Horace Walpole called her (William Cobbett called her ‘the Old Bishop in petticoats’), was already a celebrity. William Roberts, the family friend entrusted with the task of producing the book, made her into a saint. He presented her as a vessel chosen by God, who had carried her ‘through great temptations and trials’ to her ‘exemplary eminence’.
Among Hannah More’s temptations had been the glitter of worldly success. She was ambitious for literary fame, and adored the theatre. Bouncy and excitable – Anne Stott describes her at the age of 18 as ‘a practised and persistent attention-seeker’ – she wrote pastoral verse drama for performance by schoolgirls and helped produce plays at Bristol’s Theatre Royal, but her sights were set on London. Quite how worldly she had been in her early years, when Percy was the most successful tragedy of the time, and her closest friends were the actor David Garrick and his wife, Eva, was the cause of some dismay to sober-minded Evangelicals. But Roberts had an answer to that. He was not offering ‘a perfect specimen of Christianity’, but an account of a heroic triumph: More had mixed with the society world, sympathised with it and overcome its temptations.
For Stott, Hannah More is ‘the first Victorian’, although she was born in 1745 and died a few years before Victoria came to the throne. Anne Mellor begins Mothers of the Nation (2000), her study of women’s political writing in England between 1780 and 1830, with a passionate defence of this ‘revolutionary reformer’. More, she says, was ‘the most influential woman living in England’, not just the first Victorian but the one who ‘made everything we now mean by Victorianism inevitable’. And if we ask what that means, three things stand out. First, the myth that More’s writings of the 1790s, especially her Cheap Repository Tracts, prevented a revolution in England. Second, that her social activism, driven by Evangelical conviction, laid the foundations of institutional philanthropy. But no less important was her extraordinary gift for self-dramatisation and storytelling, the capacity to imagine and live her own life as an epic.
Like other eminent Victorians, More inspired a loathing in later generations more or less proportional to the veneration she received from her own. Stott acknowledges that ‘negative views abound.’ It may have been ‘a matter of no light moment’, as Roberts reverently put it, ‘to bring the memory of Hannah More fairly before the world’ in 1834, but the More of 20th-century historiography was a hate-figure in the Thatcher mould: conservative, repressive, anti-feminist, finger-wagging, bullying the poor into acquiescing in their own oppression. Stott likes More, but she addresses the reasons for this hostility. If More remains a puzzle, it is partly because important records of her life were destroyed (by friends who feared they might get into the ‘wrong’ hands), and partly because the scale of her achievement requires us to reassess how we think about exceptional women in late 18th-century public life.
The second youngest of five daughters of an unsuccessful schoolmaster near Bristol, More came to London in 1774 with a bag full of plays and poems, charmed the powerful, and launched a career that was to see her become the highest earning woman writer of her day. Ferociously ambitious, energetic and intelligent, she knew how to please the paymaster. Poems such as ‘The Bas Bleu’ eulogised the bluestockings Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Carter who had made her welcome (the wealthy Montagu was one of her patrons); and when she started lecturing ‘the great’ on their propensity for drinking, gambling and having their hair done on Sundays (thus preventing their hairdressers from going to church) they loved it too. More’s Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society and Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune, along with Hints towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess, which was written for Princess Charlotte, were addressed to and dutifully read by the highest in the land. Her message was directed at a ruling class that had felt the ground shaking under it.
Democracy was anathema to More, who wanted to reinforce hierarchy by raising standards of behaviour among the poor. ‘Charity is the calling of a lady; the care of the poor is her profession,’ she wrote in her novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife. It was by becoming a professional carer for the poor that she came to enjoy the perks of being a lady. ‘How varied is my life,’ one diary entry reads. ‘On Thursday dining with the Prince-Bishop of Durham – on Sunday with two religious colliers.’ She was a born self-publicist, bewitching people by her apparent ability to transcend class boundaries, to speak for the different groups as if she belonged to them, explaining the miseries of the poor to the rich and the good intentions of the rich to the poor. She ‘came to be the favourite companion of the learned and the noble, the monitor both of peasants and princes’, one admirer wrote. Escaping such categories herself, she didn’t encourage others to do the same – a comforting combination. The noble were reassured that she could go among the people and emerge unscathed; the people were flattered that she came down from courts and palaces to mix with them.
More and her sister Patty began by setting up Sunday schools in a number of villages near their cottage at Cowslip Green in Somerset, following the well-known examples of Robert Raikes in Gloucestershire and Sarah Trimmer in Brentford. Patty kept a journal of the years 1789-99, published as Mendip Annals in 1859 and clearly intended for general edification. According to Patty, God (‘Providence’) started it all by sending the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce to stay with the sisters. They persuaded him to do some sightseeing and visit Cheddar Gorge. Wilberforce returned grim-faced: the cliffs were fine, but ‘the poverty and distress of the people was dreadful.’ Not only was there no minister to save their souls but there was ‘no manufactory’ to keep them at work. All manner of depravity was going on. ‘If you will be at the trouble,’ Wilberforce told them, ‘I will be at the expense.’
Patty’s glee animates the Mendip Annals. She loves to point out how strong men quailed at the tasks that two spinster ladies ‘of feeble constitution and rather nervous temperament’ took on. Indefatigable and undaunted, they ventured to places as ‘dark as Africa’. The glass-house workers of Nailsea lived in a row of 19 ‘hovels’, with about ten inhabitants in every house.
Both sexes and all ages herding together; voluptuous beyond belief . . . The wages high, the eating and drinking luxurious – the body scarcely covered . . . the great furnaces roaring – the swearing, eating and drinking of these half-dressed, black-looking beings gave it a most infernal and horrid appearance. One, if not two, joints of the finest meat were roasting in each of these little hot kitchens, pots of ale standing about, and plenty of early, delicate-looking vegetables. We had a gentleman with us who, being rather personally fearful, left us to pursue our own devices, which we did by entering and haranguing every separate family.
What is interesting about this description is the absence of poverty and distress: the work was hellish – the glass-house workers called Nailsea ‘Little Hell’ – but the people were well fed and even cheerful. They listened politely to what the More sisters had to say about the benefits of education.
Hannah More liked the word ‘savage’ and used it over and over again. At Shipham and Rowberrow, two remote mining villages, the people were ‘savage, and depraved almost even beyond Cheddar . . . They began by suspecting we should make our fortunes by selling their children as slaves.’ Any constable trying to arrest a Shipham man was likely to be thrown into one of the pits. Still, these ‘lawless’ people had ‘a worthy curate’ whom they respected, though they didn’t agree with him, and in one of the villages a poor farmer’s daughter had opened a Sunday school, buying books and gingerbread rewards for her thirty pupils out of her own pocket. ‘Blush, grandeur, blush!’ More said.
Rich farmers were not keen on philanthropy until they were told it would bring down the poor rates and protect their rabbits, nuts and fruit. Writing to Wilberforce from the George Hotel in Cheddar, More was in high spirits: ‘Miss Wilberforce wou’d have been shocked had she seen the petty Tyrants whose insolence I stroked and tamed, the ugly children I praised, the Pointers and spaniels I caressed, the cider I commended, and the wine I drank.’ A Mr C. in Cheddar was the ‘chief Despot . . . very rich and brutal’ and going to see him was like venturing into the monster’s den, ‘in a country as savage as himself, near Bridgwater’.
Schools were established in 11 villages and served, at their height, up to 1000 children. There were also evening meetings for adults. Despite initial suspicion, benefit schemes were instituted for working women (and all women in such communities worked): they subscribed a penny halfpenny a week in return for sickness pay and care after childbirth. The women were more concerned about having a proper funeral than sick pay – ‘a pitch of absurdity’, More exclaimed, ‘almost beyond bearing’.
There were confrontations, quarrels and ‘Charges’ – part sermon, part bill of complaint. At the Shipham Charge of 1795 the women were reproached for ingratitude, gossiping, dancing, drinking and wanting to have a say in how things were run. There were also annual ‘feasts’ which began in 1791. At the first Cheddar feast, which must have taken weeks to prepare, 500 children were fed:
Decorated wagons left Cowslip Green early in the morning, carrying servants, pieces of beef, plum puddings, cakes, loaves and a great cask of cider. The children lay hidden in a valley until the meal was ready, then at the sound of a horn the procession began, led by a boy carrying a flag, followed by Mrs Baber [the teacher] and the More sisters, and watched by 4000 people. The children sang psalms as they processed, the girls carrying nosegays and the boys white rods; then they sat down to their food, which was served by visiting ladies.
(There was still a vogue for processing in the 1950s when I went to Sunday school in South London. We marched down the Old Kent Road, some of us in the uniforms of the Girls’ or Boys’ Life Brigade.)
God’s choice of Hannah More was seen by some as a clever way of manifesting His power: the weaker the vessel chosen, the more obvious that God was at work. As John Newton, a Calvinist ex-slaver turned Abolitionist curate (and the author of ‘Amazing Grace’), explained, ‘the whole praise may be given to Him alone.’ Outwardly, More was a timid maiden lady, but inside she was steely: she embodied opposites – from damnation to salvation, from ignorance to light – and projected them onto the world about her.
Not everybody was charmed to have More speak for them. Her attempts at individual philanthropy, the most famous of which was her patronage of the milkwoman poet, Ann Yearsley, were less successful than the Mendip schools, and display more of the ‘complexity’ and ‘ambiguity’ which Stott finds in her motivation. The opportunism of an early episode involving a mentally disturbed woman who had taken up residence in a haystack near Bristol seems blatant. The Lady of the Haystack, wild and incoherent of speech but with a sweet manner, had become a local celebrity. For four years people came and looked at her, provided her with food and drink, implored her to come indoors (she said that ‘trouble and misery dwelt in houses’) and wove romantic stories about her. One fine day More went with Eva Garrick to see her – ‘handsome, young, interesting’ – and then plastered the story all over the St James’s Chronicle in a high-flown piece entitled ‘A Tale of Real Woe’, whose heart-rending subject was given the name Louisa. Turned into a national heroine, Louisa soon found herself in a madhouse, where she remained for the rest of her life. It took only a short while for her sweetness to turn into something else. John Wesley found her ‘quite furious’ when he visited.
Ann Yearsley, the poetry-writing wife of a failed small-time farmer, and the mother of six children, had been scraping an existence by various means, including collecting scraps of food from the gentry houses where she sold milk. One of those houses was the Bristol school run by Hannah More’s older sisters, a remarkably successful venture by means of which five girls born with ‘more desires than guineas’ had gained social status and wealth. When she collected the slops and delivered the milk, Yearsley left copies of her poems with instructions to the servants to deliver them to ‘the ladies’. To a generation taught, as More put it in her poem ‘Sensibility’, to make ‘the woes of others thine’, the contrast between Yearsley’s impoverished material life and her rich mental world was irresistible. The presence of genius made woe more ‘affecting’. More helped Yearsley put together a volume of poems, raised subscriptions from all her fashionable and wealthy friends, used her own name and influence to help promote the book, advised on and controlled the money that was collected (wanting to keep it out of the husband’s hands), and enjoyed the opportunity of linking the two social extremes in which she moved. She saw herself following in the footsteps of Queen Caroline, who in the 1730s had begun the fashion for giving patronage to ‘unlettered poets’. Stephen Duck, Queen Caroline’s thresher poet, eventually threw himself into the river; Ann Yearsley was made of tougher stuff. More, of course, considered her a savage when the affair turned nasty, though Yearsley got there first: ‘For mine’s a stubborn and a savage will,’ she wrote. They were both celebrity-hunting, both fiercely self-promoting, and the press had a field day. Yearsley, who did not want to remain the object of charity but to rise, as More herself had risen, on the wings of genius, refused to wear ‘sycophancy’s mask’. She was ‘poor yet proud’, and by publishing her side of the affair in the preface to the fourth edition of her poems enlisted radicals to her cause. More’s upper-class friends, meanwhile, told her she had tried to feed ‘a famished tiger’.
Stott acknowledges the many paradoxes in More’s life: for example, that her writings instructed young ladies to live quiet, obedient lives and not to want the sorts of thing she herself had wanted. ‘A moment’s reflection,’ Stott comments, ‘might have shown her the incongruity of laying down for other women a seclusion and retirement she did not intend to practise for herself.’ But as an author and an activist, More didn’t identify with ‘other women’. She drew on romance traditions of knights and damsels, rather than the Victorian doctrines of separate spheres she supposedly made ‘inevitable’. Reflecting on her part in the affair of the Lady of the Haystack, she wondered if she had been ‘seduced’ by beauty or distress: was it Louisa’s ‘calamity or her attractions which engaged my heart to serve her’? By resorting to the language of chivalry in which, as with fairy tales, things happen but acts don’t really have consequences, she gave herself permission to act on the public stage. More saw herself as the knight, not the damsel.