I am sure I have as much liberty as I can make a good use of.
—Letter from Hannah More to Horatio Walpole, Earl of Orford, 1793
Before there was “women’s lib,” before there was gender feminism or equity feminism, first wave, second wave, or third wave feminism, even before the word “feminism” was in common use (which was not until the late nineteenth century), before there was the anti-feminist backlash of “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood” or the squabble between the egalitarians and the complementarians, there were simply women who sought improvements for themselves and their society in whatever ways they could. Hannah More was such a woman.
Dubbed England’s “first Victorian,” More was a prolific writer, a social reformer, an abolitionist, and an evangelical Christian. Positioned by birth at the intersection of changing social, political, cultural, and economic currents, More used the limited liberty granted her as a woman of some means in Georgian England to wield significant influence in her lifetime and beyond. The fact that she is nearly forgotten now does not diminish her legacy, but confirms that her achievements have outlasted the cult of her personality.
To understand More’s place in her own time and ours, we must understand her world. In 1745, the year of More’s birth, England was basking in an extended period of peace and prosperity, the English Civil War of the previous century being long behind and the turmoil in the Age of Revolution yet to come. After years of warring between Puritan and Catholic factions, the via media (or middle way) carved out by the Established Church had been broadly paved across the country, rendering dissenting views unthreatening enough to be tolerated. It was the Age of Reason, and moderation was the order of the day.
It was also a time of transition, still rife with injustices for women, slaves, and the poor—yet ripe with opportunities brought by modernity’s new way of seeing the world. The growth of trade and industry made social mobility more possible than ever before. This economic reality, combined with the Evangelical Revival’s emphasis on personal salvation and the equality of souls, cultivated a new conception of the self and with it the rise of the individual. The elevation of the individual expanded opportunities for women, for improvement as well as for engagement in public discourse in all arenas—literary, social, and political.
Born into the midst of such a time and into a middle station of neither the highest nor the lowest social status, Hannah More was endowed also with gifts, passions, and a calling suited to this place on the hinge of history. A keen steward of all the opportunities afforded her—a good education, literary skill, social connections, and political aptitude—she helped forge a new path, one paved with the solid stones of tradition but set straight with a clear vision for the future unclouded by either the false alliances and prejudices of the past or the siren song of a utopian future.
Being born to a schoolmaster who had no sons was perhaps the fortunate accident that allowed More to be taught subjects considered unsuitable for girls at the time, such as classical languages. Or perhaps it was simply that More’s natural aptitude and curiosity could not be squelched, for by the time she was four, she had all the marks of a child prodigy and by the time she was a teen, she was assisting her older sisters in running and teaching a girls’ school of their own, as well as writing original verses and dramas, one of which was produced on the nearby Bristol stage with remarkable success. The philosophy of their school and More’s general view of female education is reflected in her 1799 treatise, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education:
It does not seem to be the true end of education to make women of fashion dancers, singers, players, painters, actresses, sculptors, gilders, varnishers, engravers, and embroiderers . . . The profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families. They should be therefore trained with a view to these several conditions, and be furnished with a stock of ideas and principles, and qualifications ready to be applied and appropriated, as occasion may demand, to each of these respective situations; for though the arts which merely embellish life must claim admiration; yet when a man of sense comes to marry, it is a companion whom he wants, and not an artist. It is not merely a creature who can paint, and play, and dress, and dance; it is a being who can comfort and counsel him; one who can reason and reflect, and feel, and judge, and discourse, and discriminate; one who can assist him in his affairs, lighten his cares, sooth his sorrows, strengthen his principles, and educate his children.
Of course, by twenty-first century standards, the assumption that women’s roles are limited to those of “daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families” is insupportable. But in the context of her time, More’s advocacy of a female education that would furnish women’s minds with “ideas and principles” and make them suitable “companions” for their husbands is markedly progressive. Indeed, the companionate marriage—rather than the politically or economically expedient one which had been the norm for all of human history— was an idea advanced by evangelicals such as More who understood marriage to be an institution established to advance the kingdom of God, not property. This shift in view of one institution— a shift More helped to effect—carried with it innumerable implications for other established institutions as well.
But More was a reformer, not a revolutionary. In making her starting point, at first, her conservative morality and then, increasingly, the doctrines of her growing faith, the improvements More pursued led naturally, not forcibly, to expanded liberty. In contrast, some others’ efforts, in making liberty the starting point, effected bloody revolution instead. That approach is the context for More’s statement above in which she claims her sufficient liberty. Her remark is part of her explanation for why she continued in her refusal to read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by her contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft. More says in this letter of the Vindication that there is “something fantastic and absurd in the very title.” Yet, we can speculate that if More had read Wollstonecraft’s treatise, she might have found a considerable amount with which she would agree. Indeed, More’s Strictures is echoed in the opening of Vindication:
I have turned over various books written on the subject of education, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management of schools; but what has been the result?—a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore, and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion. The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity.
Wollstonecraft goes on to argue that the overindulgence of women is a form of slavery from which they need liberation, an idea More surely would have supported. But while More’s and Wollstonecraft’s conclusions may have been surprisingly similar, their opposing foundations constituted, for More, an insurmountable difference.
The legacies of both women are shaped, inevitably, not only by their achievements, but also by the course of their lives, and the differences on this point are both poignant and telling. More broke off a years-long engagement when her suitor refused several times to set a marriage date. Her family procured on her behalf a settlement from him that provided More the means to pursue a living through writing. She succeeded astonishingly well, especially as a “female pen,” and although her voluminous works have not passed the test of time, More was one of England’s first bestselling authors.
In contrast, the life of Wollstonecraft, considered the “mother of feminism,” was marred and ultimately foreshortened by, ironically, her traditional—and natural—desires. Enslaved by unrequited passion for the lover who fathered her first child, she made two suicide attempts in despair. She survived these only to die, tragically, following the birth of her second child, fathered by her husband and fellow anarchist, William Godwin. With Wollstonecraft as her foil, More’s place today is in the margins of history, for the vision of hindsight measures the reformer not against the standards of her day, but against those of ours. Yet, More’s accommodation of contemporary sensibilities allowed her to achieve, arguably, greater advances in her lifetime and beyond than did her more revolutionary counterpart.
Those achievements began and ended with the power of More’s pen. Upon her first visit to London as a young woman, More was embraced by the most prominent members of England’s cultural elite, including the famous Shakespearean dramatist David Garrick, conservative statesman Edmund Burke, acclaimed painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the inimitable Samuel Johnson. She soon found membership in the legendary Bluestocking Circle, an enclave of learned literary women whose support and friendship increased More’s reach immeasurably. Her legacy among the literati was immortalized along with fellow Bluestockings in a painting by Richard Samuel, Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779e
In 1785, disheartened by the vanity she encountered in the fashionable world, More retired to the countryside of Northern Somerset. From here, during the two decades of her most prolific writing, she reached every stratum of society through her Cheap Repository Tracts containing social and moral lessons for the barely literate, a novel for the middle-class readership of the circulating libraries, treatises on manners and morals for the fashionable society, and even a conduct book for the infant Princess Charlotte. Few if any other writers of the time were read by such a wide crosssection of society. This extensive readership would serve well the most important and historical cause she would soon undertake: the abolition of the slave trade. The liberty she would win for others arose from the liberty she took to break traditional social boundaries in order to write for all classes of people.
As a writer, More recognized the connection between literacy and freedom. And as a Christian, she viewed the ability to read the Bible as key to individual liberty, whether one was male or female, rich or poor. To provide basic education including literacy to the children of the labouring classes, she founded numerous Sunday Schools throughout her region. However, this project was far more politically fraught than More anticipated. Teaching the poor to read roused fears of rebellion and revolution within those committed to the status quo. More also faced religious bigotry when opponents of the schools circulated charges of “Methodism” against her, creating a wave of resistance that required tremendous resources and strength of character to overcome.
But the Sunday Schools accomplished more than just an education for the poor; the project also cemented More’s friendships with key evangelical supporters, including slaveship- captain-turned-abolitionist John Newton and the young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. Newton and Wilberforce were allied with the Clapham Sect, a group of powerful, reform-minded evangelicals who had joined with the Quakers to lead the abolitionist cause. More’s first contribution was “Slavery, a Poem,” one of her few works still in publication today.
While, understandably, history has focused mostly upon their efforts to abolish the slave trade, the Clapham Sect’s approach to reform was as wide as it was deep. They fought not only slavery, but also duelling, animal cruelty, hangings, and gambling; they worked to alleviate the suffering of the poor by teaching literacy and thrift and by implementing a shortened work week. The common thread woven through all of their causes was benevolence. They believed that an increase of inner good will toward fellow creatures would naturally reduce external expressions of barbarism in all its forms.
The Clapham Sect is credited with helping to create the conditions leading to the progressive social reforms that characterized the later Victorian period. Many of their projects lasted well into the twentieth and even the twentyfirst centuries, including some of More’s Sunday Schools and the women’s cooperatives she founded along with them, the descendant organization of the Cheap Repository Tracts, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty. Of course, the Clapham Sect’s greatest and longest-lasting accomplishment was the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and, eventually, the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, the year of More’s death.
Clearly, Hannah More made great use of the liberty allotted her. In light of her extraordinary legacy, More’s insistence that she needed no more liberty seems reasonable, although now, of course, we can disagree with her assertion that Wollstonecraft’s idea of the rights of women was “absurd.” But rights are merely a subset of liberty, which has three sources: other, self, and God.
Rights are that liberty granted by others. Rights are what Wollstonecraft and her feminist and political descendants have advocated and continue to advocate. Rights were also the concern of More and her fellow Claphamites on behalf of African slaves. It is this form of liberty that More considered herself as possessing in sufficient measure.
But even more essential than the liberty granted by others is self-liberty. Of this More had an abundance. This is the inner freedom she granted herself to transcend the limitations of her external circumstances, such as her sex and her class. Remaining unmarried, she turned the power she maintained over her property and finances, as well as her talents and time, into prudent investments in personal growth and social change. She expanded this self-liberty further by choosing wisely which voices in her life to heed—and which to ignore. While one detractor styled More the “Old Bishop in petticoats” (interestingly, Wollstonecraft was contrastingly called a “hyena in petticoats”), others—from her father and sisters, to David Garrick and Samuel Johnson, to John Newton and William Wilberforce—supported, encouraged, and urged her to employ her talents to their utmost. More chose to hear these voices.
But it was neither political liberty nor self-liberty that More attended to most. “Dependence on God is [the Christian’s] only true liberty,” she wrote in The Spirit of Prayer, one of her last works. More understood that the ultimate source of human freedom is God. As she wrote in “Slavery,” her abolitionist poem, ” . . . heaven has into being deign’d to call / Thy light, O LIBERTY! to shine on all . . .”
This liberty knows no gender, ethnic, racial, economic, or class bonds. It is this liberty More beckoned forth so as to expand all forms of freedom for others—freedom many can thank her for today.