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Hannah More and Her Circle

By Cheryl Bolen


Hannah More and Her Circle
Mary Alden Hopkins
Longmans, Green and Co., 1947
274 pgs.

One of the most prolific writers and well known personages of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Hannah More is almost forgotten today.

Born in 1745, Hannah was the fourth of five spinster sisters born to Jacob More, a headmaster of a free school near Bristol. Having no sons, he took great pains to educate the girls much as he would have had they been male. He even splurged for the oldest daughter to walk eight miles into Bristol for French lessons three ties a week, after which she would impart her instruction to the other sisters. A complete education at time had to include proficiency in French, the one deficiency in Mr. More's own education. Hannah was able to practice speaking to natives when Mr. More opened his home to captured French officers on parole after the Seven Years' War, and this practice in conversational French held her in good stead when she entered London society.

The sisters followed their father's footsteps and opened a school for girls in Bristol when the eldest was just eighteen. The school not only established a reputation as one of the best in England, but it also gained for the sisters a comfortable income.

The precocious Hannah penned morality-type plays for the school girls and from there leaped to fame as a playwright while in her twenties, her work even performed on Drury Lane in London. She became fast friends with England's leading actor, David Garrick, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the most celebrated writers of the day, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Horace Walpole.

An annuity of 200 enabled her to leave her sisters' school and pursue a writing career. The annuity was settled upon her after her wealthy suitor got cold feet prior to their wedding. It was the closest she ever came to marrying.

Despite her association with evangelicals and reformers, Hannah was high Church of England and a staunch Tory.

She and her sisters undertook many charitable endeavors throughout their lives. One of their most significant accomplishment was the establishment of several Sunday schools at considerable expense. The first one was opened in 1789.

Offered to illiterate, heathen children of yeoman farmers, the Sunday schools taught youngsters to read so that they could extend their knowledge of religion. At first there was great resistence to the idea, not only from the children's parents but also from the prosperous farmers who thought religion would be the ruin of agriculture. Hannah told the farmers a Sunday school would keep the poor from robbing and poaching.

Rewards were given to the students to induce them to come to the Sunday school. Pennies, gingerbread treats, and clothing were given at prescribed intervals, and Bibles, prayer books and tracts were distributed. The More sisters took on many of these expenses, as well as that of paying teachers and providing a school house.

The children were taught cleanliness, decency and honesty, and similar instruction was given to their parents on Sunday nights.

Hannah wrote many of the lessons herself and later became known almost exclusively as a tract writer. The more religious she became, the more she shunned life in London. She even came to loathe the theatre, which had given her so much joy as a young woman.

The Clapham group of evangelicals, to whom Hannah was associated, began publishing Cheap Repository Tracts in 1795. These consisted of readable moral tales, edifying ballads, sermons, prayers and Bible stories. Hannah and her sisters who had long ago sold their school and enjoyed a prosperous life contributed many of the tracts. In one year, over 2 million were sold.

In her later years she lived to be 89 Hannah took great pleasure writing didactic books, including her one novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, which was published in 1809. It went through 12 editions in a year, clearing a whopping 2,000. In America, 30,000 copies were sold.

Her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, published in 1799, went through 13 editions and sold 19,000 copies.

One of the great influences in Hannah's life was the anti-slave advocate William Wilberforce. "It would be difficult to exaggerate Wilberforce's influence on Hannah's life," Hopkins writes. Where Garrick, his schoolmate Dr. Johnson, and Walpole had been indulgent to the younger Hannah in her youth, she was indulgent to the reforming Parliamentarian in her middle and old age.

Though known for her humanitarianism, social reform was never something she embraced. Many of her tracts instruct against the lower classes trying to aspire to a more materially rewarding life, telling them that it is God's will that they be suppressed.

In her later years, she devoted more of her efforts to abolishing slavery worldwide and to protecting the red "savages" of America rather than concerning herself with improving the plight of England's extremely poor working classes.

She outlived all her sisters by several years and in her old age became the object of pilgrimages paid to her by American liberals even though she had staunchly been appalled at their rebellion against her king, whom she considered almost a deity.

She lived through the reigns of George II, George III, George IV (the regent), William IV, and almost lasted until Victoria's ascension to the throne, dying in 1833, the same year as Wilberforce.

Hopkins has written an exceedingly informative book on the times and crams the work with interesting tidbits about the famous men and women of the era who comprised Hannah's circle as well as lesser known facts, such as the itemized cost to send one middle-class girl to school for half a year: nearly 42.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in March 2010.


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