Tag Archive | women’s rights

Spotlight On Regency Personage Hannah More

220px-HannahMoreMonday’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)

stricturesIn 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.

Episode #11: In Which Lady P Talks About Hannah More and the Rights of Women

Lady Pendleton, Damian Ashby’s eccentric aunt (see the epilogue to Treasuring Theresa on Susana’s web site), is visiting Susana from the early 19th century. She’s intrigued by life in 21st century Toledo, Ohio, and, of course, Susana is thrilled to have the opportunity to pick her brain about life in Regency England. It certainly gives her a great deal to write about in Susana’s Parlour!

Susana: [to the Reader]:

The other day, Lady P and I got to talking about the position of women in the Regency period and how it evolved from the late 18th century when women such as Georgiana Cavendish held political salons and marched in support of political candidates to a time when women were to be saintly and devout and “protected” from the seamier side of life, leaving the important decisions to their sturdier husbands.

Miss_Hannah_More-304x400Lady P: ‘Twas Hannah More and the Evangelicals that popularized it. Women were to be seen and not heard, at the same time obedient to their husbands and revered by them. [Snorting in an unladylike manner] Pendleton and I laughed about it on many an occasion. I’ve never been the obedient sort, and Lord P would not have wed me if I were. Nor did I wish to be worshiped either. The very idea!

Susana: No doubt it was a reaction against the excesses of the previous generation. The Devonshire ménage-à-trois, for example. The Prince Regent and his illicit marriage, as well as all of his mistresses and excessive spending. The scandalous behavior of Lady Caroline Lamb.

Lady P [Frowning]: There were excesses, of course, which did lead to the pendulum swinging in the other direction. But such extreme changes more often than not led to equally harmful excesses on the other side.

Susana: Indeed. I can certainly see that is true in the 21st century. But do explain what you mean, Lady P. What were the harmful excesses caused by the Evangelical movement?

Lady P: A popular interpretation of the wife-as-saintly approach was that the husband was allowed and even expected to be a sinner.

Susana: Which gave him the freedom to take mistresses and carouse as often as he liked, while his “sainted wife” stayed home and raised the children.

caroline_lambLady P: Well, yes, but it was rather more than that. As unrealistic and unfair as it was to the women, I believe it was equally unfair to the men. Lord Byron, for example. Why would such a dissolute young man choose to marry a staid bluestocking like Annabella Milbanke?

Susana: Because she was an heiress and he was close to bankruptcy?

Lady P: Then why would she agree to marry him? She had turned him down flat in the past, having recognized that he was a loose screw.

Susana: Because opposites attract? Because she thought she could reform him?

Lady P: Exactly! She was quite forthcoming about it, actually, and Lord Byron seemed to agree that she would be a good influence on him, at least at first. But as the wedding drew near, he began to have doubts, complaining to his bosom bows that he feared the medicine would be far more disagreeable than the disease itself.

Susana: It can be tiresome to be preached at all the time. In a true partnership, both partners accept each other, flaws and all.

Lady P: Precisely. In this case, Annabella overestimated her own influence and underestimated the extent of her husband’s vices. She did not know of his immoral relationship with his half-sister Augusta until after the marriage, for example, and like most women who incessantly nag their husbands, she came to be regarded by her husband as a nuisance.

Susana: But as you say, Byron was a bit of a loose screw. Would it have worked between them, do you think, if he’d been on some sort of medication?

Lady P [with a loud harrumph]: Your society seems to be of the opinion that all can be cured with a tiny pill, Susana, but I’m not so sure. We had quacks touting medicines in our day too. Why, the stories I could tell you about laudanum…!

Susana: But getting back to the issue of women’s rights, what did you think of people like Hannah More, Lady P? Was she a good influence or a bad one? She did influence people to care for the poor, did she not?

Lady P: Hannah More and those around her were neither good nor bad, Susana. The mistake, in my opinion, is to paint everything in life broadly as either white or black. Hannah More did a great deal to awaken society to the plight of the poor and stir up support on their behalf, that is true. But I believe that she did a disservice to both women and men in promoting the role of women as subservient to men.

Susana: But women were still legally the chattel of men, were they not? And they were not given the right to vote for another hundred years.

Lady P [somewhat impatiently]: Legally, yes, that is true. But my dear Susana, you must not assume that every marriage was built on such an unequal basis. Discerning women always knew how to manage their husbands, so long as they took care to marry a husband who could be managed, that is. I daresay even the redoubtable Hannah herself could not have managed such a bedlamite as Lord Byron.

Susana: But you said yourself that you never told Lord Pendleton about your Whig activities with the Duchess of Devonshire.

Lady P: Indeed not. It was for his own protection. His family would have been scandalized.

Susana [shaking her head]: Sometimes your logic escapes me, Lady P.

Lady P: I’m not saying that my own marriage was ideal, or that most marriages were not unequal in my day, Susana. There was just as much hypocrisy in society then as there is in your century. Why Hannah herself apologized in her books for having the temerity to write them at all, being a mere woman as she was. My point is that one must consider one’s options and make the wisest choices possible in whatever circumstances one finds oneself. I may have decided to become a Whig, but I wasn’t foolish enough to believe they should have unilateral power. No indeed. Some of their official policies were ridiculous in the extreme, and I was glad there were rational voices on the other side to temper their excesses.

Susana: In that respect, I certainly agree with you, Lady P. I find I cannot blindly accept any philosophy or ideology without considering each facet of it on its own merits. But I find it extremely frustrating that there are so many who do, as though they haven’t a brain to think for themselves.

Lady P [dryly]: So I’ve noticed that about you. But Susana, it does appear that you are missing the point. People are who they are, and there’s not a lot you can do to change them. My counsel in such cases has always been to do what you can and let the rest be, else you work yourself into a state fit for Bedlam.

Susana: [shaking her head]. You remind me so much of Dr. Ellis, author of How To Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything.

Lady P: What a singular title for a book! The logic seems sound, however. Why, many was the time when Lord P left me alone to go to his club that I could have spent the night fuming, but I decided instead to use that time to follow my own interests.

Susana: Such as attend the Whig salons at Devonshire house?

Lady P: Yes, and attend balls and musicals that Lord P did not enjoy. It wasn’t fashionable to live in one another’s pockets, in any case. We muddled along well enough, I do believe. How I do miss the dear man! [Sigh]

As always, please do comment if you have any questions you’d like to ask Lady P about the late Georgian/Regency era. She does love to chat!

The Lady P Series

Episode #1: Susana’s Adventures With Lady P: The Introduction

Episode #2: Lady P Talks About… Pride and Prejudice?

Episode #3: Lady P and the Duchess Who Lost a Billion Dollars

Episode #4: Lady P and the Face On the $100 Bill

Episode #5: In Which Lady P Discovers Sparkly Fabrics and Ponders Violating the Prime Directive

Episode #6: Lady P Dishes the Dirt on the Duchess of Devonshire

Episode #7: The Political Exploits of Lady P and the Duchess of Devonshire

Episode #8: Lady P and the Prince Regent’s Illicit Marriage

Episode #9: In Which Lady P Depletes the Cooking Sherry During Her Discussion of Caroline of Brunswick

Episode #10: Lord Byron: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

Episode #11: In Which Lady P Talks About Hannah More and the Rights of Women

Episode #12: Lady P’s Revelations Regarding George III and His Peculiar Progeny

Episode #13: Lady P Discusses the Luddite Uprising, the Assassination of Spencer Perceval, and the General Unfairness of Life

Episode #14: In Which Leticia, Lady Beauchamp, Pops In For an Interview On Her Personal Acquaintance With Princess Charlotte of Wales

Episode #15: Lady P On Assignment in 1814 Kent

Lady P Quizzes Jane Livingston, the Hero’s Sister From “A Twelfth Night Tale”