The conservative moralist Hannah More was a prolific writer of religious tracts and homilies that were primary teaching aids in improving literacy levels of the poor. In her time, she was considered an oracle on many social and political issues. A contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft, she offered a reactionary response to the arguments set out in favor of women’s emancipation by her, arguing that women had no rights but many duties. Their education should be purely functional, she believed—to instruct them in their spiritual and domestic obligations in order that they might sustain the integrity and stability of the family. Similarly, More’s own attempts to improve the elementary education of poor children were geared at promoting acceptance of their lot; she considered that the poor, like women, should learn the virtues of submission to their elders and betters. For all these obvious reasons she has come under considerable attack, and sometimes demonization, in the feminist writings of the second wave.
More was born at Fishponds in the parish of Stapleton, near Bristol. Her father was headmaster of a free school and intended his children to be educated in order to be self-supporting. After being taught Latin and mathematics at home, she attended the Misses More’s boarding school in Bristol, run by her elder sisters, and proved to be an able linguist, mastering French, Italian, and Spanish. She went on to teach at the school herself and became engaged to William Turner in 1767. However, after a six-year wait, during which the bridegroom twice postponed the wedding and on a third occasion left the bride literally waiting at the church, he finally withdrew and compensated More with an allowance of £200 a year, which gave her financial independence.
As a result of this experience, by now determined never to marry, More took up a literary career. She began writing poetry and plays in 1773 and moved to London around this time. She was quickly accepted into social and literary circles, frequenting the famous Bluestocking salon of Elizabeth Montagu (which she later celebrated in a famous narrative poem of 1786, The Bas Bleu, or Conversation). There she regularly conversed with eminent figures, such as the actor-manager David Garrick, writer and critic Samuel Johnson, painter Joshua Reynolds, and historian Edmund Burke. Garrick produced two of her plays, The Inflexible Captive (1774) and Percy (1777), at the Covent Garden Theatre, but after he died in 1779, the year she wrote The Fatal Falsehood, More retreated from the theater to the bucolic environment of her cottage at Cowslip Green in Somerset to concentrate on more pious and philanthropic enterprises. In later life, as a guardian of public morals, she regretted her early connections with the worldliness of literary and thespian life.
In her new life, More became a supporter of abolition through her friendship with leading abolitionist William Wilberforce, which in turn drew her into the evangelical movement and a group of wealthy evangelicals and abolitionists known as the Clapham Sect. She was particularly aware of slavery through the slave trade still in existence via the port of Bristol, witnessing slaves in chains being unloaded from ships as they docked. In support of Wilberforce’s abolition bill, she wrote exhortatory poems such as “The Slave Trade,” in which she upheld the civil liberties of slaves and urged Britain to lead the world in abolishing the practice. She continued writing on the subject in the religious and moral tracts that she turned out beginning in 1778.
After her return to Somerset, much of More’s time was taken up with relieving the widespread poverty of the mining villages of the Mendip Hills and Cheddar Gorge and setting up new schools for working-class children. Together with her sisters, she visited poor cottagers in their homes and workhouses, of which latter she asserted: “I believe I see more misery in a week than some people believe exists in the whole world” (Collingwood and Collingwood 1990, 74). She also launched what became known as the Mendip Scheme, a program to further elementary education, philanthropic work, and the establishment of industrial and domestic training schemes for the poor throughout the area. The More sisters proceeded to set up numerous institutions in these villages: Sunday schools offering lessons in reading and the scriptures; reading classes for young adults; and Women’s Friendly Societies, which through their subscription schemes offered welfare benefits to the sick and nursing mothers and financial help with funerals. There were also austere day schools for illiterate poor children, where they were taught little more than to read the Bible and to understand their duty to their social superiors. More’s schools did not teach the potentially inflammatory skill of writing, and she believed that the poor should not be educated beyond the requirements of a life in agriculture or domestic service. Once a year, large Mendip feasts were held, where the poor would be provided with as much food as they could eat. In Cheddar, More set up a school in a rented house at her own expense, offering Sunday school to 120 local children, evening classes in reading to young adults, and weekday school for thirty girls, where they were taught vocational skills such as sewing, spinning, and knitting. Similar schemes were run at the nearby villages Shipham, Nailsea, and Blagdon.
Yet even though More’s day schools offered the most limited of daily curricula, she was often criticized and held under suspicion for seeking to educate the working classes above their station. Local farmers were often hostile to her work in the belief that the poor were incorrigibly wicked and ignorant and that by educating them, More was encouraging them to seek better jobs outside agriculture. This resentment finally boiled over at Blagdon in 1798, where the local curate, who also opposed her work, brought a trumped-up charge against a teacher at the school, accusing him of using his evening classes at the school as an unregistered base for fostering local dissenters (Calvinists and Methodists). After three years of quarrels and increasing acrimony, during which More was accused of fomenting both religious and political dissent in her schools, she was finally forced to close down the Blagdon school and threatened to close the others as well.
During the 1790s, More also produced a huge body of writing, turning out important tracts critical of public morality in “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), both aimed primarily at the upper classes. But it was in her series of homilies for the poor, which preached clean living and piety, that she found her audience. In their rebuttal of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–1792) and its inflammatory remarks on individual liberty, which she saw as a worrying incitement to revolution, More emphasized that the poor were best kept firmly in their place, drilled into acceptance of their lot, and controlled by firm but benevolent landowners. The success of tracts such as “Village Politics,” published under the pseudonym of Will Chip (1792), which was circulated in great numbers in Scotland and Ireland, sparked a series of 114 proselytizing Cheap Repository Tracts. During 1795–1798, More wrote fifty of them, and her sisters and supporters composed the rest, which were edited by More and marketed as reading texts for the poor.
In their day, the best known of these, such as “The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain” (1795), were welcomed as a novel means of accessing the social and religious consciences of the working classes. They were sold in the thousands at a halfpenny or penny each, often by itinerant hawkers, and proved to be the only “literature” found in the homes of many poor cottagers. More also used them as reading texts in her Sunday schools. Although More initially rued what she perceived as the artistic vulgarity of these tracts, which she felt were a poor substitute for her previous literary endeavors, as a pragmatist she believed that if she were to get her moral message across, she should write to suit the needs of her readers. The tracts, stories, and ballads, with their homiletic titles such as “The Story of Sinful Sally,” “The Contented Cobbler and His Wife,” and “The Riot, or Half a Loaf Is Better Than No Bread,” tackled serious issues such as prostitution, popular superstition, and urban crime and promoted the virtues of religious observance and honest labor. The series achieved huge sales of reportedly 2 million, as a result of which the Religious Tract Society was founded.
Of particular interest to modern feminists have been More’s evangelical arguments on the education of girls, outlined in her major 1799 work, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, a publication that quickly went through nine editions in two years and sold 19,000 copies. In it More, while stressing the importance of a good education for women, was dismissive of their being taught what she viewed as useless or frivolous accomplishments (such as singing and playing the piano) that could not be put to practical use in the home; as wives and mothers, their primary role was to provide a good moral example to their children. She emphasized the importance of history, logic, and religious instruction, subjects that would set examples and be formative of good habits and virtues such as humility and, above all, diligence. Young women from privileged backgrounds should, in her view, also allot a proportion of every day to charitable and philanthropic work. She also recommended firm parental controls being kept on young women’s behavior, in order to eradicate the propensity to impetuosity and emotional outburst that More felt characterized the weak and foolish sides of the female nature. Because of such weaknesses, she argued that women should accept their role as subordinate to the loftier-minded male and confine themselves to the strictly domestic sphere. More’s moralistic 1809 novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, would set the standard of the dutiful, domestic wife in her heroine Lucilla Stanley, a further denial of women’s right to equality with men.
In 1801 More and her sisters settled in a house at Barley Wood near Wrington, where More set up a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society and spent her remaining years engaged in religious and political writings, such as her Moral Sketches of 1819. By this time, her home had become a place of pilgrimage for evangelicals, the aristocracy, and fellow writers such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. More continued to visit the poor and her schools at Cheddar, Shipham, and Nailsea, and gave large amounts of money to local charities. After all her younger sisters died, she moved to Bristol, where she died at the age of eighty-eight, leaving £30,000 in her will—a testament to her considerable earnings as a writer. An interesting reassessment of More’s tracts by Julia Saunders, which views them as a valuable teaching aid drawn from accessible popular culture to which their readers could relate, can be found at http://www.users.ox.ac.uk˜scat0385/more.html.
See also Wollstonecraft, Mary.
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