Hannah More: Biography


[Scanned, formatted, and linked by George P. Landow. In the original text the portrait of More appears between the title and the text. The decorative “I” comes from the third edition, and the images other than the portrait appear within a ine or two from in the places they appear in the print text.]

N the year1763 a lecturer on rhetoric visited the city of Bristol during a professional tour. He-was accompanied by a youth, his son: that youth was Eichard Brinsley Sheridan. Among his frequent auditors was a young girl — Hannah More. I feel as if I were writing a far-off history, for she conversed with me concerning the circumstance to which I am referring, and which occurred upwards of a century ago. Her name is, indeed, so linked with the past as to seem to belong to a remote generation; for when I knew her, in 1825, she had reached the patriarchal age of fourscore, and her talk was of the historic men and women who had been her associates: Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, David Carrickck; Bishops Porteus, Percy, Newton, and Watson; Mackenzie, Boswell, Sir William Jones, Southey, Chalmers, Wilberforce, Gibbon, De Loime, John Locke, Magee, Mrs. Montague, and many others, — famous men and women of her time, who honoured and loved her, as “a pure and humble, yet zealous philanthropist.” Her writings were admired by them all ”by the religious and the sceptic, by the philosopher and the frivolous worldling; all found in them something to admire, and nothing to condemn; for her charity was universal. They were comprehended alike by the sagacious and the simple; were read and respected equally by the greatly learned and comparatively ignorant. Prodigious, therefore, was the influence they exercised on Her age. She is emphatically foremost among those to "whom the poet refers, who,

“Departing, leave behind them
Footprints on the sands of Time.”

Yes! I seem indeed to be writing a far-off history when I recall to memory one who is of the eighteenth, and not of the nineteenth, century. She had sat for her portrait to Sir Joshua Eeynolds when the artist was in his zenith, and she placed in my hands a playbill of her tragedy of Percy, in which David Grarrick sustained the leading part. The painter and the actor were her dear friends.

I can but faintly picture now that venerable lady who more than fifty years ago received and greeted us with cordial warmth in her graceful drawing-room at Barley Wood; directed our attention to the records she had kept of glorious friendships with the truly great; spoke with humble and holy pride of her labours through a very long life; impressed upon our then fresh minds the wisdom of virtue, the inconceivable blessing of Christian training and Christian teaching, and hailed us with encouraging hope and affectionate sympathy, just as we were entering the path she had trodden to its close,—she who had been a burning and a shining light before we were born.

Her form was small and slight: her features wrinkled with age; but the burden of eighty years had not impaired her gracious smile, nor lessened the fire of her eyes, the clearest, the brightest, and the most searching I have ever seen. They were singularly dark—positively black they seemed as they looked forth among carefully-trained tresses of her own white hair; and absolutely sparkled while she spoke of those of whom she was the venerated link between the present and the long past. Her manner on entering the room, while conversing, and at our departure, was positively sprightly; she tripped about from console to console, from window to window, to show us some gift that bore a name immortal, some cherished reminder of other days — almost of another world, certainly of another age; for they were memories of those whose deaths were registered before the present century had birth.

This is Mrs. Hall's portrait of her: —

Her brow was full and well sustained, rather than what would be called fine: from the manner in "which her hair was dressed, its formation was distinctly visible ; and though her eyes were half closed, her countenance was more tranquil, more sweet, more holy — for it had a holy expression — than when those deep intense eyes were looking you through and through. Small, and shrunk, and aged as she was, she conveyed to us no idea of feebleness. She looked, even then, a woman whose character, combining sufficient thought and wisdom, as well as dignity and spirit, could analyse and exhibit, in language suited to the intellect of the people of England, the evils and dangers of revolutionary principles. Her voice had a pleasant tone, and her manner was quite devoid of affectation or dictation: she spoke as one expecting a reply, and by no means like an oracle. And those bright immortal eyes of hers — not wearied by looking at the world for more than eighty years, but clear and far-seeing then — laughing, too, when she spoke cheerfully, not as authors are believed to speak, —

“In measured pompous tones,” —

but like a dear matronly dame, who had especial care and tenderness towards young women. It is impossible to remember how it occurred, but in reference to some observation I had made, she turned briskly round and exclaimed, “Controversy hardens the heart and sours the temper: never dispute with your husband, young lady; tell him what you think, and leave it to him to fructify.” [footnote in the original: Pilgrimages to English Shrines, by Mrs. S. C. HALL. London: Virtue. 1853]

She was clad, I well remember, in a dress of rich pea-green silk. It was an odd whim, and contrasted somewhat oddly with her patriarchal age and venerable countenance, yet was "in harmony with the youth of her step, and her unceasing vivacity, as she laughed and chatted, chatted and laughed; her voice strong and clear as that of a girl, and her animation as full of life and vigour as it might have been in her spring-time.

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She flourished at a period when religion was little more than a sound in England when the clergy of the English Church were virtuous only in exceptional cases, and the flocks committed by the State to their charge were left in as utter ignorance of social and religious duties as if they had been really but sheep gone astray; when France was rendering impiety sacred, and raising altars for the worship of Reason; and when in England there were vile copyists — professional propagators of sedition and blasphemy under the names of Liberty and Fraternity.

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At that terrible time Hannah More came out in her strength. Her tracts, pamphlets, poems, and books aided largely to stem the torrent which for awhile threatened to overwhelm all of good and just in these kingdoms. They inculcated as an imperative duty the education of the people, stimulated gospel teaching hy persuasions and threats addressed to those who had been appointed, at least by man, to the office of the ministry, and stirred up to he her helpers men and women of every class, from the humblest to the highest, from the cottage to the throne. She did her work so wisely as seldom to excite either prejudice or hostility. Those who might have been the bitter opponents of men so occupied were tolerant of zeal in a woman, and it cannot be questioned that her sex sheltered her from assailants, while it empowered her to make her way where men would have failed of entrance.

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She was not bigoted. There was in her nothing of coarse sectarianism, opposing scepticism in phraseology harsh and uncompromising. Her mind had ever a leaning, and her language always a tendency, to the Charity that suffereth long and is kind. What was meant for mankind she never gave up to party ; though a thorough member of the Church of England, she saw no evil motive in those who counselled withdrawal from it; though, with her, Faith was the paramount blessing of life, and the first and great commandment Duty to God, she inculcated all the duties of that which is next to it, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” — that which has been well termed “the eleventh commandment;” nor had she any value for the religion that consisted mainly of idle or listless observance — cold adherence to outward formalities — nor any trust in that dependence on Providence which is but a mere admission of belief. There was no taint of asceticism in her piety — no abnegation of enjoyment, under the idea that to be cheerful and happy is to displease God. Her religion was; practical; she relished many of the pleasures which the worldly consider chief, and the “rigidly righteous” ignore as sinful. She might, indeed — and it is probable often did — apply to herself that line in the epigram of Dr. Young: —

“I live in pleasure while I live to thee.”

In all her thoughts, words, and works, she was in the service of One who

“Must delight in virtue,
And that -which he delights in must be happy.”

She especially laboured to give religion to the young as a source of enjoyment that in no degree diminished happiness, and was constant in imploring youth not to postpone the blessing until age had rendered pleasure distasteful. “t is,” she wrote, “a wretched sacrifice to the God of heaven to present Him with the remnants of decayed appetites, and the leavings of extinguished passions.”

While she never sought to lead woman out of her sphere, and is at once an example and a warning to the “strong-minded,” she sought by all right means to elevate, and succeeded in elevating, her sex. In a word, her mission was to augment the sum of human happiness by wholesome stimulants to virtue, order, industry, as their own rewards, but of infinitely higher value as the preliminaries to a state for which life is but a preparation.

Her lessons were more especially impressive to those who learn that, in widening the sphere of their duties, they do not abridge those that essentially appertain to home. In her case there was compar ve release from household cares but she perpetually taught that there can be r,: excuse for their neglect,'by any labour of mind or pen, by any occupation that is suggested by philanthropy or religion.

It was from this cause chiefly that she excited no suspicion! If men. often grudgingly and ungraciously admit female talent, it is seldom from any principle of jealousy; it is rather a dread that it will abstract from the power of the domestic virtues, rendering woman less the deity of home, and dwarfing her as a mother, a daughter, a sister, or a wife. In the far-off time when Hannah More flourished; and to which our memory takes us back, that dread was very generally felt. There are now so many examples of genius in woman, with its ample exercise and full employment, — which in no way imply exemption from her leading business in life, — that alarm on this head has much, if not entirely, subsided. To teach that lesson was one of the many good works of Hannah More.* [*footnote in original: [There have been, and are, many literary women who have illustrated this position — that genius is in no degree incompatible with the ordinary duties of life: foremost among them was Maria Edgeworth, of whom we shall have to write. Indeed, we believe the female authors who neglect the home occupations, out of which only can arise the happiness of home, are but exceptions to a general rule.] She was, therefore, one of those to whom England owes much of its greatness; and though she has been more than forty years in her grave, to utter a prayer of gratitude over it is a duty that any writer may covet.

My readers will permit me to dwell somewhat on the privilege we have enjoyed in having personally known this good woman. It is indeed a happy memory — that which recalls the day we passed with her at Barley Wood.

Hannah More was born in the hamlet of Fishponds, in the parish of Stapleton, about four miles from Bristol, on the 2nd of February, 1745, more than one hundred and thirty years ago! Her father — a man, as she tells us, of “piety and learning” — inherited “great expectations;” but, reduced to a comparatively humble position, he became master of the Free School at Fishponds, married, and had five dughters, all good and gifted women, of whom Hannah was the fourth. In 1757 they opened a boarding-school at Trinity Square, Bristol, where Hannah, though but twelve years old, assisted. Their school flourished. Hannah, at seventeen, produced a poem, — “The Search after Happiness,” and continued to write — fugitive verges principally — until her fame was established by the production of that which is considered the loftiest effort of genius — a tragedy.

In 1777 her tragedy of Percy was performed at Covent Garden Theatre, Garrick writing both the prologue and the epilogue, and sustaining the principal part in the play. Afterwards she wrote other plays, but their success was, by comparison, limited. A friendship with the great actor then commenced, which endured till his death, and was continued to his widow, until in 1822 she also died at the patriarchal age of ninety-one.

In this age, when female talent is so rife, — when, indeed, it is not too much to say of women that the are, in many ways, maintaining their right to equality with men in reference to productions of mind, — it is difficult to comprehend the popularity, almost amounting to adoration, with which a woman-writer was regarded little more than half a century ago. Mediocrity was magnified into genius, and to have printed a book, or to have written even a tolerable poem, was a passport into the very highest society. Nearly all the contemporaries of Hannah More are forgotten; their reputation was for a day; hers has stood the test of time.* [footnote in original: Her works have been translated into every Em'o'pean language, and into some of the languages of Asia.] She receives honour and homage from the existing generation, and will “live for aye in Fame's eternal volume.”

But her renown has by no means arisen from her poems, lyrical or dramatic; from her tales, social or moral; from her tracts, abundant as they are in sound practical teachings; from her collected writings in eight thick volumes: it is founded on a more solid basis. Many of her books were produced “for occasions,” and are in oblivion with the causes that gave them birth. Gœlebs in Search of a "Wife, her only novel, yet survives. It appeared in 1808, and enjoyed a popularity that would seem prodigious even now, for within one year it passed through twelve editions, and her share of the profit exceeded two thousand pounds. It was written during a period of intense bodily suffering. “Never,” she says, “was more pain bound up in two volumes.” Although she lived to be so very aged, she had ever “a peculiarly delicate constitution,” “rarely experienced immunity from actual disease,” having, as she states in one of her letters, “suffered under more than twenty mortal disorders.” She might have been pardoned if her life had been passed in listless ease and profitless inaction; but her active industry was absolutely wonderful; her literary labour was done in retirement, apart from the trouble and, turmoil of the busy world—retirement that was but the “bracing of herself” for work — such work as was true pleasure.

The district in which Providence had placed her in her youth was as “benighted” as could have been a jungle in Caflre-land; the people not only knew not God — they were utterly ignorant of moral and social duties, and ignored all responsibility in thought, word, and deed. In that moral desert Hannah More and her sisters set to work. The inevitable opposition was encountered. Neighbouring farmers had no idea of encouraging education, or of tolerating religion among the outcasts who did their daily work. The one, they argued, made them discontented, the other idle; while the clergy considered such teachers as mere poachers on the barren tract they called theirs. Not only thus did opposition come; even the parents, in many cases, refused to send their children to school, unless they were paid for doing so dd, [footnote in original: In Ireland, very recently, much the same feeling' existed. We were present once when a lady refused some favour her tenant asked of her. The woman made this comment: “I'm surprised at ye, my lady, that ye wouldn't give me a small thing like that—after me letting the children wear shoes, and sending them to school to plase ye.”] — and hard indeed seemed the toil to which these good sisters were devoted; but they persevered, God helping them. Very soon schools were established, and not schools only — the sick and needy fomid ministering angels in these women, and for all their physical wants they had comforters. It is only when religion goes hand in hand with charity that its teaching can be effectual and its efforts successful. The philanthropists who give only tracts to feed the hungry, and printed books to clothe the naked, work as idly as those who would reap the whirlwind. They have not the example of Hannah More. Under her system prejudices broke down; her experiments led to undertakings; large institutions followed her small establishments for the ailing, the ignorant, or the wicked. The rich. were taught to care for the poor and in that little corner of England that lies under the shadow of the Cheddar hills a beacon was lit that at once warned and stimulated the prosperous. The piety of Hannah More was " practical piety," and to her must be assigned much of the distinction this kingdom derives from that all-glorious sentence now so often read in so many parts of it — a sentence that, beyond all others in our language, makes, as itought to make, an Englishman proud —

“SUPPORTED BY VOLUNTARY CONTBIBUTIONS. ”

I have been tempted to wander somewhat from the theme more immediately in hand. The sisters kept their school in Bristol for thirty-two years; but Hannah, though nominally one of them, had other vocations, not the least of which was the society she loved, and in which she was received with honour, homage, and affection. After residing some years at Cowslip Green, she built (in 1800) her cottage at Barley Wood, near the village of "Wrington, eight miles from Bristol. The site was happily chosen, commanding extensive views, in a healthy locality overlooking a luxuriant vale; many cottages and haialets within ken. During the thirty years of her occupancy the place attained high rank in rural beauty; walks, terraces, lawns, and flower-beds soon were graces of the domain. She lived to see the saplings she had planted become trees in which the thrush and blackbird built, and where nightingales sung. In the grounds was an urn, on a pedestal, inscribed, “In grateful memory of long and faithful friendship," to Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London. There was another to John Locke, and there were others that I have forgotten. These mementoes were skilfully placed under the shadows of umbrageous trees, and beside them were openings through which were obtained charming views of adjacent scenery. Of these two monuments I give engravings.

Time, however, at length did its work with her, as with all. Though Barley Wood was her own, it was also the home of her sisters. In 1802 they went to reside with her, and remained there till death divided them, one having previously “gone hence.” Mary was the first to go, dying in 1813 ; in 1817 Sarah followed, and in 1819 Martha left earth. Hannah writes, " I must finish my journey alone.” As Bowles wrote of her, there she

Waits meekly at the gate of Paradise,
Smiling at Time.”

Her last work was on a congenial theme, — “The Spirit of Prayer.” With that book her literary labours closed. She was then fourscore years old; thenceforward she put aside the pen; but her doors were opened to friends, and sometimes to strangers, who desired to accord her homage and honour, or to offer tributes of affection.

When she was left “alone” — the last of all her family — at Barley Wood, she had eight servants, some of whom had lived long with her and her sisters, and, naturally, had her confidence. That confidence they betrayed, not only wasting her substance, but degrading her peaceful and hallowed home by orgies that brought shame to the rural neighbourhood. The venerable lady was necessarily informed of these “goings on” in her household, and, very reluctantly, removed to Clifton to be near loving and watchful friends. It was a mournful day, that on which she quitted the cottage endeared to her by time and association. “I am driven like Eve out of Paradise but not by angels,” she murmured, as she left the threshold.

She removed to 4, Windsor Terrace, Clifton, and there, on the 7th September 1833, she died, — if we are to call that death which was simply a removal to a far better and more beautiful home than any she had had on earth — “where angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.”

She left a large fortune behind her. There were few friends who needed, and she had no relatives; her wealth, therefore, went to augment the funds of public charities — principally those of Bristol, and there are thousands who to-day enjoy the blessings thus bequeathed to them.

In Wrington Churchyard repose the mortal remains of the five sisters. A large stone slab, enclosed by an iron railing, covers the grave, and contains their names, the dates of their births, and of their deaths.

I copy one of a series of very beautiful sonnets commemorating many phases and incidents connected with the career of Hannah More, written by her esteemed friend and biographer, the Kev. Henry Thowoson: —

“When every vernal hope and joy decays,
When Love is bold, and life is little worth,
Age yeilds to Heaven the thankless lees of Earth,
Offered their Lord the refuse of his days:
O wiser she, who from the voice of praise,
Frinedship, Intelligence, and guiltless Mirth,
Fled timely hither and this sylvan hearth
Rearèd for an altar! not with sterile blaze
Of Vestal fire one mystic's cell to light —
Selfish devotion; but its warmth to pour
Creative through the cold chaotic night
Of rustic ignorance; thence, bold, to soar
Through hall and regal tower with radiant flight,
Till peer and peasant bless the toils of More.”

Her friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted her portrait (it would be interesting to know where it now is). “It represents her small and slender figure gracefully attired; the hands and arms delicately fine, the eyes large, dark, and lustrous; the eyebrows well marked and softly arched; the countenance beaming with benevolence and intelligence.”* [Footnote in original: *I quote this passage from a book — The Literary Women of England, by Jane Williams (published in 1861), a book far too little known, for it is full of wisdom and knowledge, keenly, yet generously critical, abounding in sound sense, thorough appreciatio;t of excellence, and manifesting earnest advocacy of goodness and virtue.] The portrait represented her in her prime: that of which I give an engraving at the head of this chapter was painted by Pickersgill somewhere about the year 1822, when she had reached her eightieth year. She sat, however, to other artists — among them Opie, whose portrait is that of a plain woman of middle age, the features illumined by the deep and sparkling black eyes that had lost none of their brilliancy when I knew her. The autograph is copied from a passage she wrote in Mrs. Hall's Album.

The whole career of Mrs. Hannah More is a striking example of what can be effected by one woman — a woman neither high-born, nor wealthy, nor beautiful, nor; in what is understood to constitute genius, as highly gifted as many others whose names are histories. Her dramas have had no sustaining power to keep the stage, and her poems, as poems, are little more than pleasing trifles; but her Cheap Repository, her book on Female Education, her Thoughts on the Manners of the Great, her Christian Morals, her Spirit of Prayer, Hints on the Education of a Princess, Character of St. Paul, and her Practical Piety, despite some occasional “conventionalities,” are the temples in which her memory is enshrined; and when we recall the formation of those Poor Schools,—when we remember that neither the time bestowed upon them nor upon her literary pursuits prevented her fulfilling her duty to the

“Great Father of all,”

in whom "she lived, and moved, and had her being,“ — when we learn how faithfully her domestic duties were discharged, while she was the benefactor of the poor, the instructor of the ignorant, — when we remember what she was to society, and recall the kind, playful, unostentatious womanliness of her nature, we do greatly rejoice in the triumph of usefulness. We gaze with reverence upon the clear beacon-fire she kindled, so different from the phantom lights that dazzle to betray; and we recommend most earnestly to our countrywomen the study of such a life and its results — happiness obtained and conferred — as opposed to the malaria of those unhealthy influences which, born of a degraded woman of genius, have, of late years, crawled from France into the literature of England.

It is, indeed, to be deplored that many of the most pernicious books of recent times are the productions of women, who have been the advocates and propagators of vice, by making it not alone excusable, but attractive; teaching not only to “endure,” but to “pity” and to “embrace.” How many of the novels of modern writers are utterly shameless and shameful! They may, and do, charm by exciting incident and story; but in striving to render fascinating had examples of the sex, they corrupt the very fountain-head of society, and taint the natures of those who are to be the wives and mothers of the future.

Unhappily, such books are greedily read, and do not fail to find their way into the hands of the young. It is impossible to overrate the mischief they do: “just as the twig is bent;” the subtle poison taints the constitution; and though it may be suspended in the system, it is sure in time to show its effect in diseased morals and distempered brain.

Every printed word is a planted seed that must spring up a weed or flower; and the author who either ignores responsibility or is indifferent to it is like the child who

“Flings about flre,
Aad tells you. 'tis all but in sport.”

We have, it is true, the antidote as well as the bane; and, thank God, there are women, not a few, who work with the pen, in fervent, earnest, and hopeful advocacy of the cause of God and man. Those who seek the good and pure in literature find an ample supply by which the best affections and the holiest aspirations are nurtured, strengthened, and augmented; but it is none the less a duty to protest against the many evil publications—novels more especially—that have general and wide popularity, such as are calculated, if they be not intended, to spread moral and social pestilence, and destroy the foundations on which health, happiness, and faith can only be safely built.

Reference

Hall, S. C. A Book of Memories of Great Men and Women of the Age from Personal Acquaintance. Third edition. London: J. S. Virtue, n.d. pp. 66-80.


Victorian Web Hannah More Biography

Last modified 7 March 2010