Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

MORE, HANNAH (1745-1833)

MORE, HANNAH (1745-1833), English religious writer, was born at Stapleton, near Bristol, on the 2nd of February 1745. She may be said to have made three reputations in the course of her long life: first, as a clever verse-writer and witty talker in the circle of Johnson, Reynolds and Garrick; next, as a writer on moral and religious subjects on the Puritanic side; and lastly, as a practical philanthropist. She was the youngest but one of the five daughters of Jacob More, who, though a member of a Presbyterian family in Norfolk, had become a member of the English Church and a strong Tory. He taught a school at Stapleton in Gloucestershire. The elder sisters established a boarding-school at Bristol, and Hannah became one of their pupils when she was twelve years old. Her first literary efforts were pastoral plays, suitable for young ladies to act, the first being written in 1762 under the title of A Search after Happiness (2nd ed. 1773). Metastasio was one of her literary models; on his opera of Attilio regulo she based a drama, The Inflexible Captive, published in 1774. She gave up her share in the school in view of an engagement of marriage she had contracted with a Mr. Turner. The wedding never took place, and, after much reluctance, Hannah More was induced to accept from Mr. Turner an annuity which had been settled on her without her knowledge. This set her free for literary pursuits, and in 1772 or 1775 she went to London. Some verses on Garrickʼs Lear led to an acquaintance with the actor-playwright; Miss More was takenup by Elizabeth Montague; and her unaiiected enthusiasm, simplicity, vivacity, and wit won the hearts of the whole Johnson set, the lexicographer himself included, although he is said to have told her that she should consider what her flattery was worth before she choked him with it., Garrick wrote the prologue and epilogue for her tragedy Percy, which was acted with great success at Covent Garden in December 1777. Another drama, The Fatal Falsehood, produced in 1779 after Garrickʼs death, was less successful. The Garricks had induced her to live with them; and after Garrickʼs death she remained with his wife, first at Hampton Court, and then in the Adelphi. In 1781 she made the acquaintance of Horace Walpole, and corresponded with him from that time. At Bristol she discovered a poetessein Mrs Anne Yearsley (1756-1806), a milk woman, and raiseda considerable sum of money for her benefit. Lactilla, as Mrs Yearsley was called, wished to receive the capital, and made insinuations against Miss More, who desired to hold it in trust. The trust was handed over to a Bristol merchant and eventually to the poetess.

Hannah More published Sacred Dramas in 1782, and it rapidly ran through nineteen editions. These and the poems Bas-Bleu and Florio (1786) mark her gradual transition to more serious views of life, which were fully expressed in prosein her Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788), and An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1790). She was intimate with Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay, with whose evangelical views she was in entire sympathy. She published a poem on Slavery in 1788. In 1785 she bought a house, at Cowslip, Green, near Wrington, near Bristol, where she settled down to country life, with her sister Martha, and wrote many ethical books and tracts: Strictures on Female Education (1799), Hints towards forming the Character of a Young Princess (1805), Coelebs in Search of a Wife (only nominally a story, 1809), Practical Piety (1811), Christian Morals (1813), Character of St Paul (1815), Moral Sketches (1819). The tone is uniformly animated; the writing fresh and vivacious; her favourite subjects the minor-self-indulgences and infirmities. She was a rapid writer, and her work is consequently discursive and formless; but there was an originality and force in her way of putting commonplace sober sense and piety that fully accounts for her extraordinary popularity. The most famous of her books was Coelebs in Search of a Wife, which had an enormous circulation among pious people. Sydney Smith attacked it with violence in the Edinburgh Review for its general priggishness. It is interesting to note that the model Stanley children have been Said to be drawn from T. B. Macaulay and his sister. She also wrote many spirited rhymes and prose tales, the earliest of which was Village Politics (1792), by Will Chip, to, counteract the doctrines of Tom Paine and the influence of the French Revolution. The success of Village Politics induced her to begin the series of Cheap Repository Tracts, which were for three years produced by Hannah and her sisters at the rate of three a month. Perhaps the most famous of these is The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, describing a family of phenomenal frugality and contentment. This was translated into several languages. Two million copies of these rapid and telling sketches were circulated in one year, teaching the poor in rhetoric of most ingenious a homéliness to rely upon the virtues of content, sobriety, hurnility, industry, reverence for the British Constitution, hatred of the French, trust in God and in the kindness of the gentry.

Perhaps the best proof of Hannah Moreʼs sterling worth was her indefatigable philanthropic work—her long-continued exertions to improve the condition of the children, in the mining districts of the Mendip Hills near her home at, Cowslip Green and Barley Wood. The More sisters met with a good deal of opposition in their good works. The farmers thought that education, even to the limited extent of learning to read, would be fatal to agriculture, and the clergy, whose neglect she was making good, accused her of Methodist tendencies. In her old age, philanthropists from all parts made pilgrimages to see the bright and amiable old lady, and she retained all her faculties till within two years of her death, dying at Clifton, where the last five years of her life were spent, on the 7th of September 1833.

See The Life of Hannah More, with Notices of Her Sisters (1838), by the Rev. Henry Thompson. The article in the Dict. Nat. Biog. is by Sir Leslie Stephen. Some letters of Hannah More, with a very slight connecting narrative, were published in 1872 by William Roberts as The Life of Hannah More. See also Hannah More (1888), by Charlotte M. Yonge, in the Eminent Women series, and Hannah More (New York and London, 1900), by Marion Harland. Letters of Hannah More to Zachary Macaulay were edited (1860) by Arthur Roberts. The contemporary opposition to her may be seen in an abusive Life of Hannah More, with a Critical Review of Her Writings (1802), by the Rev. Archibald Macsarcasm William Shaw, rector of Chelvey, Somerset).

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

MORE, Hannah (1745-1833) by Patricia Demers

Poet, playwright, essayist, tract-writer, novelist, and religious thinker, Hannah More was among the most commercially successful authors of the long eighteenth century. With her work translated in several European and non-European languages, she was also a prolific correspondent, major reformer, and generous philanthropist. Over a century ago the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica attributed her success to being a witty talker whose writing was discursive and formless with some originality in expressing commonplace sober sense and piety. Although titles with scant or no mention of content are recorded, More’s complexity and the astounding reach of her powerful discourse and the universalism of her reformist agenda—in interventions to relieve poverty in the Mendip hills, the establishment of eleven Sunday schools, battles with negligent clergy and bullying publishers—are absent.

Hannah More
Pickersgill, William. Hannah More. 1822, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Despite the reclamation of many of her contemporary women authors in the 1980s, More continued to languish for a variety of reasons: her counter-revolutionary politics, fervent Evangelicalism, devotion to conversion over revolution, and unfair accusations of paternalism and provincialism. A small selection of over 1800 letters remained in a censoriously edited collection. However, things have changed: we now have the illuminating biography of More by Anne Stott (2003), a catalogue of her letters and manuscripts edited by Nicholas D. Smith (2008), numerical evidence of her published editions by William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004), a probing account of her subscription campaign for poet Ann Yearsley by Kerri Andrews (2013), as well as many revisionist articles and new editions that investigate the materiality of her work—and, most recently, in 2022, an examination that firmly places More in various contexts (edited by Kerri Andrews and Sue Edney). Thus More has been reset as one of the age’s most influential cultural figures.

Born at Stapleton, the fourth of five daughters of long-serving schoolmaster at Fishponds charity school Jacob and Mary (Lynch) More, she was precocious, with lessons in Latin and mathematics discontinued for fear of pedantry. In early adolescence she joined her older sisters’ boarding school in Bristol as a junior teacher; here she wrote her school play, The Search after Happiness (1773), a continuing favourite published ten years after its composition. Following the cancellation of her six-year engagement to local landowner and indecisive bachelor William Turner, who in recompense settled an annuity on her, More left Bristol for London. Associations with actor-impresario David Garrick, polymath Dr. Johnson, and Shakespearean critic Elizabeth Montagu initiated her into Bluestocking society and furthered her career as a playwright. Three melodramatic tragedies, The Inflexible Captive, Percy, and The Fatal Falsehood, derived from Italian and French sources and mounted at Covent Garden and various provincial stages, showcased loyal but tragic daughters. After unfounded charges of plagiarism involving her last play, More renounced drama; the exception was Sacred Dramas (1782), biblical vignettes for private performance, which closed with the poem Sensibility extolling generous sympathy’s ecstatic hour. Her subscription campaign to publish the poems of the impoverished Bristol milkwoman Ann Yearsley illustrates her miscalculation in attempting to control the trust funCœlebs in Search of a Wifeds, which led to the unreconciled rupture between Lactilla (Mrs. Yearsley) and Stella (More).

Her meeting with abolitionist William Wilberforce and other members of the Clapham Evangelical community prompted many critical publications: the poem Slavery commissioned by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and extended essays on the hypocrisies of the elite, Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great and An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World. Her embrace of Evangelicalism not only buttressed her counter-revolutionary stand but also encouraged exercise in creative appropriation of popular pro-revolutionary material to drive home her topics to a broader audience than elite readers. The dialogue of Village Politics (1792) debating Tom Paine and the thrice monthly Cheap Repository Tracts (1595-98) demonstrated her keen observation of Mendips working culture, viewed from her Cowslip Green cottage. The Repository’s gallery including a poacher, fortune-teller, liar, drunkard, and cheat along with a humble shepherd, patient collier, devout child, and thrifty Sunday School mistress reflected More’s skill as a righteous reformer in tailoring her text to her audience. The moment of alarm and peril also accounts for her warning voice to an elite readership in Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) reinforcing the bedrock claim about religion as the only sure ground of morals.

Whether expressing her hopes for Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales, in Hints Towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1805), or ventriloquizing the voice of a young bachelor in her only novel Cœlebs in Search of a Wife (1808), More fully embraced the public role of teacher. Formulating standards for the didactic novel, the interlaced stories of mothers with daughters on the marriage market, often lessons by negative example, recall the nimble characterizations of her poetry, while the chosen wife as the quintessential Morean woman embodies the tenets of Strictures. From Barley Wood, the still-standing home she had built in Wrington with her earnings and shared with her sisters, More and her younger sister Martha (Patty) continued to visit the Sunday Schools regularly, often facing opposition from farmers who discounted the promotion of literacy among the poor and clergy who accused More of Methodism. Her letters, now being precisely collected (The Letters of Hannah More: A Digital Edition), reveal how strenuously she intervened especially during the spiraling crisis of the collapse of the brass industry to supply practical and continuous support.

The mainly spiritual publications of the last two decades of her life, Practical Piety, Christian Morals, An Essay on the Character and Writings of Saint Paul, and The Spirit of Prayer, all published under her own name and selling well, affirm her Evangelical convictions. As the only surviving sister, More was forced to leave and sell Barley Wood in her last five years due to the improvidence of the servants. Her will, a substantial sum of almost £30,000, bequeathed funds to local and foreign bible societies, missionaries, and female clubs.

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