Hannah More and Her Circle
By Cheryl Bolen
Hannah More and
Mary Alden Hopkins
Longmans, Green and Co., 1947
One of the most
prolific writers — and well known personages — of the late eighteenth
century and early nineteenth century, Hannah More is almost forgotten
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in