Hannah More, Conservative Social Reformer

Introduction

Hannah More (1745-1833) was one of the most well-known and influential women in pre-Victorian England. She championed a programme of social reform within the existing political system through education, philanthropy and moral improvement. As a member of the Bluestocking Circle, More entered the exclusively masculine public sphere by becoming a polemical writer and social reformer. Having acquired an education superior to that of most women of her time, she was acquainted with a number of eminent people, including David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Horace Walpole, Lady Montagu and William Wilberforce.

As a stout Evangelical, she supported the anti-slavery movement, education of the poor and promoted the impact of women on the public sphere. She wrote a number of social and moral tracts in which she urged her readers to establish moral laws in order to counter the detrimental influence of the French Revolution, which perverted the concept of individual freedom and man’s rights. Although recent criticism has shown ambivalence in More’s writings, it can be argued that her social and moral tracts anticipated a public debate about the state of the nation, which was called later by Thomas Carlyle the Condition-of-England Question. Almost all the basic tenets of More’s teachings, such as moral and religious improvement, paternalism, benevolence, charity and deference to authority, became the key arguments against growing radicalism. Hannah More wanted to improve the condition of England by reforming the moral conduct of people.

In 1789, appalled by the extent of moral depravity among the poor, Hannah and her sister Martha opened a Sunday school at Cheddar, Somerset, and later a number of such schools in other mining and rural areas. Hannah called for the education of the poor. She tried to persuade local farmers that the education of destitute children would prove beneficial for all the classes of society. In Sunday schools the destitute children of farm labourers, miners and glass-workers were taught how to read in order that they might learn Christian morals and acquire some practical skills which would give them subsistence in adult life. As a fervent Christian and stern moralist, Hannah strongly believed that good moral habits and virtuous characters would contribute to the reform of English society. Her social narratives with an explicitly conservative message were focused on national, local and domestic issues. She reproached members of both the upper and lower classes for their lack of morals destroying society.

Village Politics

More wrote Village Politics (1793) in response to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), whose call for revolution alerted both the Whigs and Tories. Being a devoted conservative, More opposed Paine’s ideas and believed that her narrative would contribute to the suppression of revolutionary tendencies among the lower classes. Written in dialogue form in plain English, it presents a debate between two protagonists — Jack Anvil, the village blacksmith, a firm supporter of the existing political order, and Tom Hood, the village mason, who after reading The Rights of Man shares Paine’s opinion about the permissibility of popular revolution. In More’s narrative Tom hardly understands the political developments in France and his arguments are easily overcome by Jack, who argues that Britain has an excellent Constitution and “the best laws in the world,” and people enjoy as much liberty as they need.

Tom. I'm a friend to the people. I want a reform.

Jack. Then the shortest way is to mend thyself.

Tom. But I want a general reform.

Jack. Then let every one mend one.

Tom. Pooh! I want freedom and happiness, the same as they have got it in France.

Jack. What, Tom, we imitate them? We follow the French! Why they only begun all this mischief at first, in order to be just what we are. Why, I’d sooner go to the Negers to get learning, or to the Turks, to get religion, than to the French for freedom and happiness.

Tom. What do you mean by that? arn’t the French free?

Jack. Free, Tom! Aye, free with a witness. They are all so free, that there’s nobody safe. They make free to rob whom they will, and kill whom they will. If they don’t like a man’s looks, they make free to hang him without judge or jury, and the next lamppost does for the gallows; so then they call themselves free, because you see they have no king to take them up and hang them for it. [4]

More addressed her narrative to the emerging working class (mechanics, journeymen and labourers) and called them to maintain political stability. She urged them to avoid radicalism: “study to be quiet, work with your hands, and mind your own business” (18). The success of Village Politics prompted More to continue writing in order to suppress imminent social unrest by means of didactic narrative fictions addressed to common people.

From 1795 to 1798, Hannah More, her sister and friends, wrote and disseminated a series of 114 short narratives, collectively known as the Cheap Repository Tracts, which were aimed at improving “the conduct, and raise the morals of common people, at a time when their dangers and temptations, moral and political, were multiplied beyond the example of any former period.” These volumes, consisting of cautionary tales and social parables, were sold in large quantities (two million in the first year only) at the cost of a halfpenny and a penny each. The tracts had clear political objectives; they aimed at defusing the imminent popular protest, propagated a form of benevolent paternalism, which was to become an important social doctrine of Victorian Britain. As Charles Howard Ford writes:

Hannah More, however, was particularly well-suited to construct a detailed godly paternalism. As an Evangelical Anglican, she reflected the godly crusade for moral reform. As a fixture of London society, she cherished the social hierarchy. In an age of unprecedented political and economic change, More wanted to place paternalist hierarchy on a firmer foundation than rehearsed gestures and theatrical poses; therefore, she made self-disciplined and serious Christianity, not sociability, the centerpiece of paternalism. To More, only if the poor adopted the inner spirituality and strength of Evangelical Anglicanism could they merit the charity and patronage of their social superiors. Significantly, she urged face-to-face contacts between laborers and employers on a regular basis, not at occasional gatherings. She hoped intrusive surveillance in the form of true Christian fellowship would increase real deference and productivity. In addition, she condemned the conspicuous consumption which gentlemen and master craftsmen used to impress their dependents. She advised them to spend their discretionary income on the deserving poor and endeavored to make discriminate charity as appealing as possible to both sexes. [135]

The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain

In one of her most popular tracts, The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain (1795), More presents an ideal instance of benevolent paternalism. Mr. Johnson, “a very worthy gentleman walking across Wiltshire”, meets a modest shepherd and begins a conversation with him. He notices that his interlocutor looks very tidy although he is evidently poor.

I have a wife and eight children, whom I bred up in that little cottage which you see under the hill about a half a mile off. What, that with the smoke coming out of the chimney? said the gentleman. O no, sir, replied the shepherd smiling, we have seldom smoke in the evening, for we have little to cook, and firing is very dear in these parts. ‘Tis that cottage which you see on the left hand of the Church, near that little tuft of hawthorns. What that hovel with only one room above, and one below, with scarcely any chimney, how is it possible you can live there with such a family? O! it is very possible and very certain too, cried the Shepherd. How many better men have been worse lodged! how many good Christians have perished in prisons and dungeons, in comparison of which my cottage is a palace! The house is very well, Sir, and if the rain did not sometimes beat down upon us through the thatch when we are a-bed, I should not desire a better; for I have health, peace, and liberty, and no man makes me afraid. [13]

Impressed by the shepherd’s honesty and devotion to Christian religion, Mr. Johnson decides to help the shepherd and his family. They are moved to a better lodging. The shepherd earns more and even his wife, who suffers from rheumatism and cannot work outdoors, is given employment as the mistress of a Sunday school for girls who learn to knit and sew in order to be able to earn their living. For More, the shepherd and his family are the deserving poor, who need benevolent assistance of the wealthy. One of the aims of More’s social narratives was to arouse public conscience. Many of her tracts revealed the utter poverty of the poor in the country. At the same time the tracts make clear that More believed in the power of upper-class benevolence. More reminded the wealthy of their responsibilities for the poor and she encouraged the lower classes to improve their condition by amending their habits and manners through industry, sobriety, diligence, frugality and religious piety. A number of social historians believe that More’s tracts contributed to the prevention of a French-style revolution and the preservation of the monarchy in England (Mellor, 15).

Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education

In 1799, Hannah More published a treatise on women’s education, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education with a View to the Principles and Conduct of Women of Rank and Fortune. As a devoted Evangelical, she believed that social reform must be preceded by moral reform of the nation. She addressed the upper classes urging them to improve their moral conduct and ethical standards. More believed that upper-class women should initiate the moral reform of the nation. Women can be “instrumental to the good of others” by an active part in charity and philanthropic work. More recommended that a young lady’s education should include reading the Bible, devotional tracts and serious literature, which will enable her to carry rational conversation and exercise compassion and generosity. It is debatable whether More believed in women’s natural intellectual inferiority when she wrote about “the different powers of the sexes” (16), but she made a distinction between the vocations of men and women.

[T]hough a well bred young lady may lawfully learn most of the fashionable arts, yet it does not seem to be the true end of education to make women of fashion dancers, singers, players, painters, actresses, sculptors, gilders, varnishers, engravers, and embroiderers. Most men are commonly destined to some profession, and their minds are consequently turned each to its respective object. Would it not be strange if they were called out to exercise their profession, or to set up their trade, with only a little general knowledge of the trades of all other men, and without any previous definite application to their own peculiar calling? The profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families. They should be therefore trained with a view to these several conditions, and be furnished with a stock of ideas and principles, and qualifications ready to be applied and appropriated, as occasion may demand, to each of these respective situations; for though the arts which merely embellish life must claim admiration; yet when a man of sense comes to marry, it is a companion whom he wants, and not an artist. It is not merely a creature who can paint, and play, and dress, and dance; it is a being who can comfort and counsel him; one who can reason and reflect, and feel, and judge, and discourse, and discriminate; one who can assist him in his affairs, lighten his cares, sooth his sorrows, strengthen his principles, and educate his children. [60-61]

Besides, More advised young leisured women to participate in institutionalised philanthropy, such as benevolent societies, orphanages, hospitals for the poor. They should be taught to devote some of their time to the poor in order to bring them relief and instruction. More exerted a considerable influence on the women of future generations. She did not contest male supremacy, but advocated a reform of education for women. For More, education meant the development of the whole personality. She argued that women’s virtues could be much better accomplished if young women were given an education more appropriate to their future roles.

Coelebs in Search of a Wife

As an fervent Evangelical, More was reluctant to resort in her social work to novel writing because she disapproved of the growing habit of novel reading. Evangelicals had strong doubts about the moral value of the novel genre. According to views dominant in the late eighteenth century, prose fiction was the result of intellectually primitive attempts to explain the world in terms of fancy. It would appeal to immature people and its consequences could be dangerous. Reading prose fiction might distract individuals from serious study, affect their sensibility and moral view. However, the popularity of the new genre was so tempting that More decided to use the novel as a vehicle for her moral message.

More published her only novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) as an antidote “to the poison of novels and other dangerous reading material” (Brantlinger, 6). More was also critical about the newly-established circulating libraries, which she called contemptuously a “mart of mischief” (Roberts, 168). She believed that the circulating libraries offered mostly entertainment literature. More’s novel, although of little literary value, envisaged a new kind of wise, educated, active and responsible female.

The education of the present race of females is not very favorable to domestic happiness. I call education, not that which smothers a woman with accomplishments, but that which tends to consolidate a firm and regular system of character; that which tends to form a friend, a companion, and a wife. I call education, not that which is made up of the shreds and patches of useless arts, but that which inculcates principles, polishes taste, regulates temper, cultivates reason, subdues the passions, directs the feelings, habituates to reflection, trains to selfdenial, and, more especially, that which refers all actions, feelings, sentiments, tastes and passions to the love and fear of God. [18]

More insisted that women’s education should focus upon the inculcation of Christian principles of benevolence and charity. “Charity is the calling of a lady; the care of the poor is her profession” (Coelebs, 226). The popularity of the novel was astounding. There were twelve impressions in the first year and thirty in More’s lifetime. It should be noted that many subsequent female Bildungsromans, including Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, rewrite in some way More’s conservative feminism.

Conclusion

Besides, being a socially committed writer, More can be described as a conservative feminist who upheld the traditional, family-centered social roles of women, but at the same time she called for a better education and participation of women in the public sphere, particularly in charitable work. Her call found a positive response and a great number of leisured women became engaged in philanthropy and charity. Charitable work was a springboard for other public activities of women. Interestingly, conservative feminists were far more successful in liberating women from the domestic sphere than radical feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797).

More proved to be a very effective promoter of female activism in the nineteenth century. She contributed significantly to the development of charity work among the poor and the reform of the education of young women. The emergence of a great number of publicly active women in Victorian Britain was due in great degree to her personal success as a conservative social reformer and writer.


Victorian Web Hannah More Biography

Last modified 4 March 2010