Monday’s Lady P episode mentioned Hannah More as having a significant influence on the changing attitudes toward women in the late Georgian/Regency era. Regency readers will recognize the name as being the author of books that many well-meaning Regency mothers assigned their daughters to read while said daughters preferred to indulge themselves with Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels.
Hannah More grew up in a very religious family. Her father taught in a free school and later opened a girls’ school managed by his daughters while he himself managed a boys’ school. Hannah started writing at a young age, beginning with pastoral plays for the young girls at the school to act out, and eventually moving on to London, where her play Percy was a great success at Covent Garden. For several years she enjoyed the social circle of a well-known group of bluestockings (a pejorative term referring to a female intellectual). Her second play, however, was not a success, and after a falling-out with a poet friend, Hannah withdrew from London’s intellectual circles and began to focus on religious and philanthropic works.
As the Regency period advanced and the older generation of politically-active ladies died or became infirm, fewer women involved themselves directly in politics. In 1815 Hannah More wrote a study on St. Paul’s description of the female character, which instructed women to dress themselves modestly and atone for their spiritual weakness by keeping silent and learning from the men. By daring to publish her writing, Hannah was herself breaking these rules, for which she apologized in all of her works.
- Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788)
- An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1790)
- Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799)
- Hints toward Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1805)
- Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809)
- Practical Piety (1811)
- Christian Morals (1813)
- Character of St. Paul (1815)
- Moral Sketches (1819)
In spite of the daunting titles, Hannah’s work outsold all of the authors of the aforementioned novels, and she became a force to be reckoned with, responsible for the sudden popularity of “religion of the heart” and countless conversions to the Evangelical faith.
Women could, of course, become involved in charity work to benefit the poor, and Hannah and her sisters threw themselves into establishing a series of schools in rural areas. The schools taught reading, the Bible, and catechism, as well as sewing and knitting, but not writing, as that was thought to give the poor too much power. Even then, they ran into opposition from the farmers, who feared that too much education would prove the end of agriculture, and from the clergy, who claimed that she was teaching Methodism, a religious movement of the lower classes that was considered dangerous by the established churches.
Along with William Wilberforce, she became a major force in the fight to abolish the slave trade, publishing a poem called Slavery in 1788.
The Pendulum Swings the Other Way
Through her writings and philanthropic work, Hannah More wielded a huge influence on English society, urging people to seek God in their hearts through Bible reading, to live their lives in an orderly and circumspect manner, and to help the poor escape their misery.
For the most part, though, her strictures did not address the moral depravity of the upper classes, where debauchery and excesses continued to rule the behavior of the Prince Regent and his brothers on down. The Evangelical movement did not address the inequalities in English society, but took the position that if God chose someone to be rich or poor, there must be a good reason for it, and the best thing to be done was to be content with one’s circumstances and look toward treasures in heaven. Wilberforce, for all of his efforts to help the poor in Africa, condemned as immoral the formation of unions against unfair employers in England. Easy to say for a man who inherited wealth and married more of it.
Another problem with the Evangelical movement that Hannah More was a part of was when the fight against “worldliness” went to extremes. Just about anything pleasurable was considered “worldly,” including dancing, card playing, and taking country walks on Sundays. By the time Thomas Bowdler had begun altering Shakespeare’s works to make them acceptable for reading in mixed company, the puritanical excesses of the Evangelicals were making them a laughingstock.
In Episode #11, Lady P decries the extremism in English morality. Hannah More’s popularity is proof that her “religion of the heart” was a timely one that many were eager to hear. Taken to extremes, as it was by Wilberforce and other Evangelicals, however, that message becomes lost in a sea of strictures and censorship that incites ridicule and rebellion.
Thanks go to:
Our Tempestuous Day by Carolly Erickson, 1986.