Blush, grandeur, blush

Norma Clarke

  • Hannah More: The First Victorian by Anne Stott
    Oxford, 384 pp, £20.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 19 927488 6

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.

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