The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More –
Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
by Karen Swallow Prior
This week’s book review features Fierce Convictions, an excellent biography of Hannah More, a remarkable woman who deserves to be much better known than she is. In next week’s column at The Open Table, author Karen Swallow Prior has graciously agreed to answer some questions about the writing of Fierce Convictions – so stay tuned! Next week on Preach The Story: an interview with Karen Swallow Prior.
Fierce Convictions, an outstanding biography published in November 2014 by Thomas Nelson, tells the little-known story of Englishwoman, Hannah More (1745 – 1833). If you are familiar with More at all, you probably know of her partnership with William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, whose unflagging work for the abolition of slavery in England has been written about extensively. But that’s not all there is to know about Hannah More, whose list of accomplishments is astounding.
As the story begins, Prior relates that Hannah More as a child was bright, precocious, inquisitive, and had an excellent memory and a thirst for learning. Recognizing Hannah’s intelligence, her mother, Mary More, started teaching Hannah to read at about four years old, only to find out that she had already begun to read on her own. This was the first of many accomplishments that Hannah would attain in her long life.
We learn in Fierce Convictions that in Hannah’s day, a young Englishwoman’s education was primarily made up of dancing, embroidering, painting, and learning to cook so that she could find a suitable husband. Hannah was not destined for such things, either in the form of her education or in marriage, although she was engaged to a wealthy and respectable gentleman named William Turner for six years. Unfortunately, Turner backed out of their wedding – three times. More was devastated by Turner’s postponements, and became ill. Later, Turner again begged Hannah to marry him, but she refused. After this refusal by Hannah, Turner offered her an annuity. Hannah refused this also, but family members and friends eventually persuaded her to accept the annuity as compensation for the many years Hannah had devoted to Turner. Prior tells us that the amount agreed upon by Hannah’s family for the annuity was more than enough to provide a genteel living for Hannah, and was one of the reasons she had the freedom to pursue a writing vocation. Interestingly, Turner remained a great admirer of Hannah’s, and they resumed a friendship in later years.
Prior’s research into More’s life is thorough and detailed, yet eminently readable. In studying the particulars of Hannah More’s life, it is gratifying to note that from Hannah’s teen years to the end of her days, she was a celebrity, and deservedly so. Hannah wrote a play in 1763 at the age of eighteen which was published in 1773. By the 1780’s it had sold 10,000 copies. More also wrote acclaimed poetry, several plays and other literary pieces. In her youth, More established friendships with many of the great names of the day, including Dr. Samuel (Dictionary) Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Edmund Burke, Elizabeth Montagu, and other London socialites. In mid-life, More began her association with the Clapham Sect. But it wasn’t until she was more than sixty years old that she wrote her best selling, most imaginative and popular works.
More was a conservative Anglican who grew in her faith. She eventually gave up the life she had in London as God called her to use her gifts for the great cultural and spiritual challenges of that century. It was at this time that her friendship with William Wilberforce, John Newton, John Venn, and the other Christians in the Clapham Sect came to be. Prior points out that Hannah’s association with the well known figures of her day allowed her to cross societal boundaries, both to the upper class and the lower classes, with grace. She also crossed religious boundaries with an open mind and heart.
One compelling area of More’s growth as a Christian was in her new sensitivity to cruelty toward animals, particularly regarding the blood sports of bullbaiting, bearbaiting, cockfighting, and other violent gaming activities involving animals. These pastimes were deeply imbedded into English life. Here is a paragraph from Fierce Convictions about this change in More’s stance:
“When More’s interests and work later shifted in response to her growing Christian conviction, her view toward animal welfare underwent a parallel expansion. Despite the excesses of sensibility that concerned More, sensibility helped foster her growing opposition toward cruelty in all forms, whether that of slavery, prison and labor conditions, or animal mistreatment. Sensibility was part of a larger social and theological framework that encompassed all society at creation. This meant that the welfare of animals was an important issue for the reformers. “England is a paradise for women, and a hell for horses,” Robert Burton, the famous seventeenth-century Oxford scholar wrote as far back as 1621 in The Anatomy of Melancholy. More was joining others in attesting the truth of the latter point.”
In Fierce Convictions, Prior shows us that More was generous to a fault with her time, talents, and money in order to help those in need. In addition to her many written contributions in support of the effort for the abolition of slavery in England, More opened a school for women, spoke and wrote persuasively to the upper classes about much needed moral reform, and started Sunday schools, which were vehicles for teaching literacy to the poor. All of this she did as a single woman during a time in history when being a woman was a liability. Women of that era were discouraged from initiating large scale projects in the private sector, much less in the public sector. Simply to be associated with doing any public work was considered unseemly, if not scandalous, for a woman – especially a single woman; yet Hannah More remained involved in her many public activities.
Throughout the book, Prior gives us a wealth of finely researched information about Hannah More’s triumphs and capable ways, but she also includes her failures and blind spots, thus rounding out More’s character and making Fierce Convictions a true biography rather than a hagiography. I highly recommend this book to both men and women, but it would be a great book for a women’s discussion group, and perhaps especially good for a mother-daughter book club.
As a youngster, I was always on the look-out for books about women who had achieved great things in their lives. I certainly wish the story of Hannah More had been in circulation at the time, and I am deeply happy that it is available now. Our local library has purchased a copy of Fierce Convictions, and I have encouraged them to include the title on a list of suggested books for Women’s History Month. Hannah Moore’s life is truly inspirational, and I believe it is time to restore her to celebrity status and put her back in the limelight.