Essay / Culture

Today is Hannah More's Birthday (1745)

Hannah More elderHannah More (1745 – 1833) was, according to the title of a recent biography, The First Victorian. That is, though she died before the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), she was ahead of her time in so many ways that her lifework makes more sense as part of the story of the nineteenth century than of the eighteenth. A prolific best-selling author in her own time, she seems to have dropped off everybody’s reading lists in our day. Surely by now this woman is so uncool she can begin to be cool again! Just read her and see if her voice does not reach you in unpredictable ways.

More was an active participant in the Clapham circle that launched the work of William Wilberforce. She is now remembered mostly for her books on female manners, and especially for her argument that women ought to receive a serious education to prepare them for lives of intelligent engagement with the best in culture, rather than a silly and inferior education aimed at equipping them to be dull domestic beasts of burden. Sound feminist? Well, yes, but she also made it clear that women should be well educated precisely so they could excel in traditional womanly roles, and she produced many hundreds of pages spelling out what those womanly roles were. She insisted that there was such a thing as femininity, and she was very concerned to fore-warn and fore-arm her reading public against the revolutionary egalitarianism that she associated with the French Revolution. Much of what most people learn from Edmund Burke they could have learned from his friend Hannah More, who usually wrote just as sagaciously as Burke, and never wrote as perplexingly. Her wisdom, caution, and sense of fairness led her to write carefully balanced sentences that train the mind in keeping perspective and deliberating rationally. More’s work was a kind of counter-revolutionary feminism with an eye on social and domestic manners. Here are a few sample sentences to savor:

On Mother-in-Laws:

“Notwithstanding I have strongly recommended a kind treatment to a husband’s relations, I would by no means have a newly married woman consent to come into his house, until the person who previously had the management was removed.”
–from The Young Bride at Home, p. 45.

On Queen Elizabeth:

If we were to estimate Elizabeth as a private female, she would doubtless appear entitled to but little veneration. If as an instrument raised up by divine Providence to carry through the most arduous enterprises in the most difficult emergencies, we can hardly rate her too highly… If we look to the woman, we shall see much to blame; if at the sovereign, we shall see almost everything to admire.”
–from Hints Towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess, p. 185

On the influence of the French Revolutionary attitude on English morals:

That compound of irony, irreligion, selfishness and sneer, which make up what the French (from whom we borrow the thing as well as the word) so well express by the term persiflage, has of late years made an incredible progress in blasting the opening buds of piety in young persons of fashion.
–from Strictures on Female Education

On evangelical Christianity:

All the doctrines of the Gospel are practical principles. The word of God was not written, the Son of God was not incarnate, the Spirit of God was not given, only that Christians might obtain right views, and possess just notions. Religion is something more than mere correctness of intellect, justness of conception, and exactness of judgment. It is a life-giving principle. It must be infused into the habit as well as govern in the understanding; it must regulate the will as well as direct the creed. It must not only cast the opinions into a right frame, but the heart into a new mould. It is a transforming as well as a penetrating principle. It changes the tastes, gives activity to the inclinations, and, together with a new heart, produces a new life.”
–from Practical Piety, p. 14-15.

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