Reviewed by Tess Holgate
“Great adventures must begin somewhere, and here is as likely a starting place as any: this room, this schoolhouse, this lively imagination that even in its earliest years loved wisdom and words.”
In this book, Karen Swallow Prior traces the life and work of Hannah More, one of five daughters born to Jacob and Mary More in 18th Century England. Though they were not a well-to-do family, his profession – a schoolmaster – enabled him to provide all his daughters with an education well beyond the standards of the time for girls.
Hannah would never marry, though not for lack of offers. Around 1767 Hannah became engaged to a gentleman by the name of William Turner, who over the course of their six-year engagement would back out of marrying her three times. Having conceded to continue the engagement the first and second times, after this third postponement Hannah refused to reinstate their engagement.
Turner continued to pursue Hannah’s hand, but was refused time and time again. Eventually he “offered an annuity as well as a promise to marry Hannah if she would agree to set a date one more time” (p. 36). One of Hannah’s friends, a Dr. Stonhouse, negotiated with Turner to accept the annuity rather than the promise. “At Turner’s insistence, the annuity was to be sufficient to allow More to pursue a literary vocation as compensation for the time she devoted to him” (p. 37). The sum was 200 pounds per annum, more than enough for a living and her own room.
From a young age Hannah delighted in words. The Protestant emphasis on the need for individuals to read the Bible for themselves had opened up a new profession for women outside the church and home. They were now able to write. Not everyone was happy with this development, and the derogatory term female pen implied that “for a woman to write in such a serious, independent way was unnatural, perverse even, an act that went against her sex, and thus, her very nature… Professional women writers were often judged as though they were participating in that only other profession available to them: prostitution” (p. 42). Hannah was not turned off by comments like these, her passion for writing was already taking shape.
Hannah soon made the first of many journeys to London, where she became acquainted with actor David Garrick and his wife Eva. The Garricks would prove to be some of her closest friends, and she would grieve David’s death deeply. Garrick introduced her to many of the great talents within his circle including the parliamentarian and literary giant Samuel Johnson, with whom she formed a close friendship.
Hannah spent regular time in London over the following ten years, but her affinity for the city diminished over a five-year period starting with David Garrick’s death, and ending with the death of her beloved friend Samuel Johnson in 1784.
In her younger years, Hannah loved to write for the theatre, producing the tragedy Percy, which was very well received in London. With the death of David Garrick in 1779 she gave up on both attending, and writing for the theatre. She loved the theatre, and she did not make the decision to give it up easily. “Her struggle suggests that of one for whom theatre had been a religious love, that of one who, in not knowing how to love it in proper proportion, felt it best not to love it at all. Having given up theatre More still recognised the power of dramatic literature and was drawn to employing that influence toward didactic ends” (p. 97).
The deaths of Garrick and Johnson were the beginning of the strengthening of her Christian convictions, of which she wrote: “The world, though I live in the gay part of it, I do not actually much love; yet friendship and kindness have contributed to fix me there, and I dearly love many individuals in it. When I am in the great world, I consider myself as in an enemy’s country, and as beset with snares, and this puts me upon my guard. I know that many people whom I hear say a thousand brilliant and agreeable things disbelieve, or at least disregard, those truths on which I found my everlasting hopes. This sets me upon a more diligent inquiry into those truths; and upon the arch of Christianity, the more I press, the stronger I find it” (p. 104).
Hannah was strongly influenced by John Newton, the famous author of Amazing Grace. A meeting with him in 1787 marked a significant step on her journey towards a more evangelical and personal faith. Newton had a similar effect on a young politician, William Wilberforce.
In the autumn of 1787 Hannah met Wilberforce, a man who wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” (p. 119). In Wilberforce, Hannah found a counterpart. Joining the abolitionists as a campaigner, Hannah wrote and distributed pamphlets and poems on the evil of slavery. Her literary skills were foundational in the battle for it “was, in many ways, led by the poets – and other writers and artists – who expanded their country’s moral imagination so it might at last see horrors too grave for the rational mind to grasp” (p. 128).
Hannah became a member of the Clapham sect – a group of true Christian believers located in Clapham, four miles out of London. Women were not easily offered membership in societies like these, and it was a great honour that Hannah was afforded almost-equal status as the men in the group. The Claphamites were known for believing “not only in the Christian faith but also in the idea that serious Christian faith could actually make a difference in the world” (p. 164). They crossed class, party and creedal barriers in pursuit of their goal, with none of their number a more gifted conversationalist than Hannah. “She mixed comfortably and enthusiastically with rich and poor, churched and unchurched, and all in between” (p. 167).
Another of Hannah’s great passions was the reformation of manners in English society, a project she began to consider important for both the lower and upper classes. In 1787 Hannah wrote a work entitled Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society. “Manners were understood to be more than mere surface matters; outward manners expressed and helped shape the inward spirit” (p. 204). The book was devoured by the masses.
She followed up Thoughts with An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World. By one of the Laity. This second was a more direct attack on lax religious convictions of the wealthy, and an appeal to them to reconsider proper moral convictions. She was the right person to make this appeal, as Newton noted, “your sex and your character afford you a peculiar protection. They who would try to trample one of us into the dust will be ashamed openly to oppose you” (p. 208, original emphasis).
If that were all she did, her life would be utterly remarkable. But Prior traces her involvement in the animal protection movement, and her initiative in the establishment of Sunday Schools, the very foundation of public primary schools that educate children across England today. Prior traces Hannah’s work in thorough detail, and her life is one that many in our world today should know.
With all that she did, I am a little shocked that I had never heard the name of Hannah More until I picked up this book. Now, I would kind of like to be her. Eric Metaxas is right when he says that this is “a book everyone should read, a life everyone should know, and one that many should emulate.”