Hannah More

More, Hannah. 1745–1833. Dramatist and ethical writer. Author of Percy, a drama, and of numerous popular moral tales, of which The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain is the most famous. See complete works, 1853. See Lives by Shaw, Roberts, Thompson, and Smith. Pub. Ca. Har. Lip.

Hannah More

Born 1745.—Died 1833.—George II.—George III.—George IV.—William IV.

This excellent and remarkable woman, born at Stapleton, near Bristol, who lived through four English reigns, was a well-known moral writer.  In her early life she was distinguished for her brilliant social qualities, and was well known in the circles which Johnson, Burke, Reynolds, and Garrick frequented.  Afterwards she withdrew from the world and devoted her time to active good works and writing.  Her tracts on many useful subjects have been much read.

CHARACTER OF MRS. MORE.

Genius is not often combined with a strong physical constitution. Mrs. More was no exception to this rule; for although her general health was about the average, she often composed under aches and pains which would have entirely deterred others from the use of the pen. Her figure was graceful, and her manners captivating. The eye, which her sisters called “diamond,” and which the painters complained they could not put upon canvas, coruscated, and her countenance sparkled, when engaged in conversation. She knew that in all companies, she was a principal object of attention, yet she never wore a jewel or trinket, or anything of the merely ornamental kind, during her whole life, though much of that life was spent in the society of the great and high-born.

In glancing at her intellectual character, the first thing that strikes us is its versatility—a fact proved by this, that she frequently appears in different compartments. Thus she was at once a poetess, a dramatist, a fictionist, a moralist, a religious writer, and a conversationalist. No wonder that she often received messages from His Majesty King George the Third, from the Queen, and other members of the royal family; and that her friendship was eagerly sought by coronets and mitres. Mr. Roberts, one of her biographers, says:—“All the powers of her mind were devoted to the solid improvement of society. Her aims were all practical; and it would be difficult to name another who has laid before the public so copious a variety of original thoughts and reasonings, without any admixture of speculation or hypothesis.”

The moral capacity is the imperial crown of humanity. Veneration, benevolence, conscientiousness, hope, faith, are the brightest jewels of this crown. In Mrs. More, the moral sentiments were superior even to the intellectual faculties. She exactly discerned the signs of the times, and adroitly adapted her writings to the necessities of her generation. All of them are more or less calculated to benefit society, and never did personal example more strongly enforce preceptive exhortation, than in the instance of this eminent and excellent woman.

SUCCESSFUL AUTHORSHIP.

Mrs. More as a woman of letters now demands our attention. Probably no woman ever read more books, or to better purpose; had more extensive opportunities of exercising the faculty of observation, or so sagaciously improved it. Her command of language, erudite, rhetorical, conversational, and colloquial, is commensurate with the noble literature and tongue of Britain. In the days of her infancy, when she could possess herself of a scrap of paper, her delight was to scribble upon it some essay or poem, with some well-directed moral. One couplet of an infantine satire on Bristol has been preserved:—

“This road leads to a great city,
Which is more populous than witty.”

At this period, she was wont to make a carriage of a chair, and then to call her sisters to ride with her to London, to see bishops and booksellers. In 1762, before she had completed her seventeenth year, she wrote a pastoral drama, “The Search after Happiness,” which was published in 1773, and in a short time ran through three editions. In 1774, she brought out a tragedy, “The Inflexible Captive.” The following year it was acted at Exeter and Bath, with the greatest applause, in the presence of a host of distinguished persons. In 1776, she offered Cadell, the publisher, her legendary tale of “Sir Eldred of the Bower,” and the little poem of the “Bleeding Rock,” which she had written some years previously. She received forty guineas for them. In 1777, her tragedy of “Percy” was produced at Covent Garden theatre. The success of the play was complete. An edition of nearly four thousand copies was sold in a fortnight. The theatrical profits amounted to £600, and for the copyright of the play she got £150 more. In 1779, “The Fatal Falsehood” was published, and notwithstanding several disadvantages, was well received. In 1782, she presented to the world a volume of “Sacred Dramas,” with a poem annexed, entitled “Sensibility.” They were extremely popular with the arbiters of taste, and sold with extraordinary rapidity. In 1786, she published another volume of poetry, “Florio: a Tale for Fine Gentlemen and Fine Ladies,” and “The Bas Bleu; or, Conversation.” These received a welcome as enthusiastic as if England had been one vast drawing-room, and she the petted heiress, sure of social applause for all her sayings and doings. In 1788, appeared “Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society.” It was published anonymously, but the writer was soon recognised, and the book obtained an enormous sale. In 1791, she issued a sequel to this work, under the title of “An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World.” It was bought up and read with the same avidity as its predecessor. In 1792, she produced a dialogue, called “Village Politics.” Thousands of copies were purchased by the Government for gratuitous distribution, and it was translated into several languages. In 1793, she published her “Remarks on the Speech of M. Duport,” which brought her in more than £240. In 1795, she commenced “The Cheap Repository,” consisting of tales, both in prose and verse. The undertaking was continued for about three years, and each number attained to a very large sale. In 1799, appeared her “Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education.” Seven large editions were sold in twelve months. In 1805, was produced, “Hints towards forming the Character of a young Princess,” for which she received the thanks of the queen and royal family. In 1809, she published “Cœlebs in search of a Wife,” two volumes. The first edition was sold in a fortnight, and eleven editions more were demanded in less than twelve months. In 1811, “Practical Piety” made its appearance, in two volumes. It was worthy of its large sale and great celebrity. In 1812, her “Christian Morals” was brought out, in two volumes, and met with good reception, although not equal to that of her two last works. In 1815, she published her “Essay on the Character and Writings of St. Paul,” two volumes; a work which, in the estimation of competent judges, more than sustained her previous reputation. In 1818, at the request of Sir Alexander Johnston, she wrote a dramatic piece, “The Feast of Freedom,” for translation into the Cingalese language, to be performed by a native choir, at anniversary celebrations of the 12th of August, 1816. In 1819, she published her “Moral Sketches of Prevailing Opinions and Manners, Foreign and Domestic, with Reflections on Prayer.” The first edition was sold in one day, and realized £3000. The collection of her writings is comprised in eleven volumes octavo.

Her books bear testimony to her many talents, good sense, and real piety. There occur, every now and then, in her works, very original and very profound observations, conveyed in the most brilliant and inviting style. Her characters are often well drawn, her scenes well painted, and she could be amusing in no ordinary degree when she liked. Although we have no hesitation in admitting her into the long list of canonized bards, yet it must be confessed that her literary renown is chiefly derived from her prose works. She has been censured for the frequent repetition of the same thought in different words. Superficial readers, as well as hearers, require such a mode of composition. Iteration is not tautology.

The great success of the different works of our authoress enabled her to live at ease, and to dispense charities around her. She realized by her pen alone, more than £30,000. Upwards of 50,000 copies of her larger works were sold, while her tracts and ballads were circulated over the country by millions. We venture to affirm that her books were more numerous, that they passed through more editions, that they were printed in more languages, and that they were read by more people, than those of any other authoress upon record.

BIOGRAPHY.

Hannah More has been long conspicuous among the lights of the world. She was the youngest but one of five sisters, and was born on the 2nd of February, 1745, at Stapleton, near Bristol. Jacob More and Mary Grace educated all their daughters with a view to their future occupation as schoolmistresses. They had all strong minds, sagacious intellects, and superior capabilities for the acquisition of knowledge; but Hannah seems to have combined in herself the chief excellencies of all their characters. Her mental precocity was extraordinary. When about three years old, her mother found that in listening to the lessons taught her elder sisters, she had learned them for herself. She wrote rhymes at the age of four, and before that period repeated her catechism in the church in a manner which excited the admiration of the clergyman, who had so recently received her at the font. Her nurse had formerly lived in the family of Dryden, and little Hannah took great delight in hearing stories about the great poet. Before she had completed her eighth year, her thirst for knowledge became so conspicuous, that her father, despite his horror at female pedantry, had begun to instruct her in Grecian and Roman history, classics and mathematics. Under the tuition of her elder sister Mary, she commenced the study of French. We are not aware that she ever visited Paris, but some French officers were frequently guests at her father's table, and these gentlemen always fixed upon Hannah as their interpreter. Hence that free and elegant use of the language for which she was afterwards distinguished.

The superior talents, sound principles, and excellent conduct of the Misses More attracted notice and found patrons; and whilst still in their youth, they found themselves established at the head of a school, which long continued to be more flourishing than any other in the west of England. Miss Hannah sedulously availed herself of the instructions of masters in the Italian and Spanish languages. For her knowledge of the physical sciences, she was largely indebted to the self-taught philosopher, James Ferguson; and it is probable that her admirable elocutionary powers were the result of lessons receivedfrom Mr. Sheridan. In 1764, Sir James Stonehouse, who had been many years a physician in large practice at Northampton, took holy orders, and came to reside at Bristol, in the same street with the Miss Mores. Sir James discerned Miss Hannah's gifts, fostered her genius, directed her theological studies, and remained through life her firm friend.

In 1767, she accepted the addresses of Edward Turner, Esq., of Belmont, a man of large fortune, good character, and liberal education, but of a gloomy and capricious temper, and almost double her own age. She resigned her partnership in the school, and spared no expense in fitting herself out to be his wife. Three times in the course of six years the wedding-day was fixed, and as often postponed by her affianced husband. Miss Hannah More's health and spirits failed; she could see no rational prospect of happiness with a man who could so trifle with her feelings, and at last found resolution to terminate the anxious and painful treaty. His mind, however, was ill at ease till he was allowed to settle upon her an annuity of £200, having offered three times that sum. At his death he also bequeathed her £1000. Her hand was again solicited, but refused. Possibly her experience prompted her sisters to spend their days in single blessedness.

One of the most important events in the life of Miss Hannah More, was her first visit to London, in 1773. At that time, neither the habits of people deemed religious, nor the scruples of her own mind, interdicted her from visiting the theatre, and listening to Shakespeare speaking in the person of that consummate actor, David Garrick. The character in which she first saw him was Lear, and having written her opinion of that wonderful impersonation to a mutual friend, who showed it to him, the scenic hero called upon her at her lodgings in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. He was delighted with his new acquaintance, and took a pride and pleasure in introducing her to the splendid circle in which he moved. In six weeks she became intimate with the rank and talent of the time. One of the two sprightly sisters who accompanied her to London, graphically describes her first interview with the great moralist of the eighteenth century. Miss Reynolds telling the doctor of the rapturous exclamations of the sisters on the road, and Johnson shaking his scientific head at Miss Hannah, and calling her “a silly thing!” she seating herself in the lexicographer's great chair, hoping to catch a little ray of his genius, and he laughing heartily, and assuring her that it was a chair in which he never sat. Miss Hannah More's quickness of repartee, aptness of quotation, and kindliness of heart, won the favour of the leaders of society. But in the glittering saloons of fashion, when senators and peers paid her homage, she stood quiet and self-possessed. In 1775, while the first rich bloom still rested on the fruits of her London experience, she remarks: “The more I see of the honoured, famed, and great, the more I see of the bitterness, the unsatisfactoriness, of all created good, and that no earthly pleasure can fill up the wants of the immortal principle within.” None could more thoroughly weigh popular acclaim, and more firmly pronounce it the hosannas of a drivelling generation than this young school-mistress.

Her religious views, which had always been decided, acquired, as years rolled on, greater force and consistency. She never went to the theatre after the death of her friend Garrick, in January, 1779—not even to see her own tragedies performed. Step by step she was led to doubt whether the life she was then living, although blameless, was in full harmony with her own ideas of Christian truth. Whilst these questions were agitating her mind, she produced, as a kind of index to her spiritual state, a series of “sacred dramas,” which were even more favourably received than any of her former publications. In 1786, she withdrew from what she called “the world,” into the pleasant villages of Gloucester and Somerset. In the parish of Wrington, she built a cottage, which was called Cowslip Green. Here she laboured diligently, and lived a life of active benevolence. When in her forty-third year, she assumed the matronly style of Mrs. More, a fashion more prevalent then than now. Among her most meritorious services, was the establishment of Sunday and day schools, clothing associations, and female benefit societies, throughout the mining district of the Mendip Hills, where the people were almost in a state of semi-barbarism. It is sad to have to record that these efforts, instead of receiving clerical countenance and aid, were vigorously opposed by them. It is not necessary to enter into the particulars of the commotion raised about 1799, by malevolent persons, against her schools, nor to do more than allude to the unprovoked slanders and ridicule of literary rivals, resolved at all hazards to rob her of her fame. For more than three years, to use her own heart-felt words, she was “battered, hacked, scalped, tomahawked.”

Many things determined Mrs. More to quit Cowslip Green. Perhaps the most powerful was the purchase of a piece of ground in the vicinity. Having selected a spot which commanded a view of the fine scenery of the vale of Wrington, she built a comfortable mansion. With this residence, her sisters were so pleased, that they disposed of their property at Bath, and made Barley Wood their home, in 1802. The clouds of obloquy had now broken up, and in the clear brightness which succeeded, Mrs. More had thrown herself into fresh local charities, and was engaged with new literary undertakings, when she received a severe blow, in consequence of the death of Bishop Porteus, in 1809. A few months before, he had paid a visit to Barley Wood. The bishop bequeathed to Mrs. More a legacy of £100, and she consecrated to his memory, in the plantation near her house, an urn, with an inscription as unpretending as her sorrow was sincere.

The family circle which had remained unbroken for fifty-six years, now approached inevitable dissolution. Mary, the eldest sister, died in 1813. Elizabeth, the second, sank to rest in 1816. Sarah, the third, fell asleep in 1817. Martha, the fifth, departed this life in 1819. The sisters had lived most happily together, and these bereavements were felt by Mrs. More with all the keenness of her sensitive nature. The poor people had been accustomed to look to Barley Wood as their chief resource, and scarcely a day passed without the arrival of some petitioner from the neighbourhood. For some weeks their visits had ceased, and when Mrs. More asked the schoolmaster of Shipham the reason, he answered, “Why, madam, they be so cut up, that they have not the heart to come!”

Years rolled on, and Barley Wood once more became a place of general resort. But its mistress was not destined to end her days in the home where she had lived so long. The duties of housekeeping, when devolved upon her in weakness and old age, proved too great a burden. When the waste and misconduct of her servants became manifest, she tried to correct the evil by mild remonstrance; but when at length discoveries were made, calculated to represent her as the patroness of vice, or at least as indifferent to its progress, she discharged her eight pampered minions, and broke up her establishment at sweet Barley Wood. As she was assisted into the carriage, she cast one pensive parting glance upon the spot she loved best on earth, and gently exclaimed, “I am driven like Eve out of paradise; but not like Eve, by angels.” On the 18th of April, 1828, she established herself at No. 4, Windsor Terrace, Clifton.

In September, 1832, she had a serious illness, and from that period, a decay of mental vigour was perceptible. At length, nature seemed to shrink from further conflict, and the time of her deliverance drew nigh. On the 7th of September, 1833, within five months of the completion of her eighty-ninth year, she passed the barrier of time, and joined that “multitude whom no man can number, who sing the praises of God and of the Lamb for ever and ever.”

The shops in the city of Bristol were shut, and the church bells rang muffled peals as the funeral procession of that child of a charity schoolmaster moved along the streets to the grave in Wrington churchyard. The mortal remains of the five sisters rest together under a large slab stone, inclosed by an iron railing and overshadowed by a yew-tree. A mural tablet in the parish church records their memory. Mrs. Hannah More's record is on high, and her virtues are inscribed on an enduring monument: of her most truly it might be said—

“Marble need not mark thine ashes,
Sculpture need not tell of thee;
For thine image in thy writings
And on many a soul shall be.”