Anne Stott. Hannah More: The First Victorian.
From her early years as a fame-hungry playwright to her later career as an Evangelical social reformer and philanthropist, Hannah More has always been a figure of controversy. Both her phenomenally successful Percy (1778) and her ill-fated Fatal Falsehood (1779) provoked accusations of plagiarism their author vehemently denied. At the turn of the nineteenth century, More was to find herself the subject of a ferocious pamphlet war sparked by fears that her Sunday schools were promoting Evangelical thought in order to undermine the established Church. In the two centuries since the Blagdon Controversy Hannah More has continued to polarise critics. Recent feminist scholarship has underscored these divisions, despite the efforts of some to reappraise More’s philanthropic and literary labours. Hannah More’s capacity to divide her readers remains unsurpassed.
The impulse to label late-eighteenth-century women’s writing according to a rather unforgiving radical/conservative binary has had a particularly detrimental effect on Hannah More’s contemporary reputation. Feminist scholarship has struggled to accommodate the paradoxes of More’s life and work where it has been able to forgive and even embrace the contradictions of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing. Critics have struggled to reconcile More’s political conservatism with her often spirited claims that women should realise their intellectual potential. Others have viewed her efforts to provide an education for workers through a network of Sunday schools as an invidious exercise in working-class oppression fuelled by concerns that the French Revolution might lead to a plebeian uprising in England.
In recent years, however, an alternative critical trajectory has emerged, which reveals the striking and often uncomfortable contiguities between the works of so-called radical and conservative feminists and argues for a more flexible understanding of the wide spectrum of feminist writings in the long eighteenth century. Within this context, Anne Mellor has recently argued that Hannah More was a revolutionary writer who worked for social and political change and advanced the cause of women’s social empowerment (Mothers of the Nation [Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2000]). Many critics remain unconvinced, however, as do publishers. More’s most important works including Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) and Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808) are still to be published in readily-available, affordable editions and thus remain a conspicuous absence from many university syllabi.
Anne Stott’s sympathetic biography is part of this wider project to recuperate Hannah More and to make this successful and influential writer accessible to a new generation of readers. One of the book’s greatest achievements is its convincing account of the way in which More was successfully written out of the popular imagination by the prejudiced responses of her contemporary interlocutors whose attacks against the author were motivated by political, gender or religious bias and perpetuated by inaccurate research. Even More’s most well-meaning defenders added fuel to the critical fire which has threatened to consume her. William Roberts’ 1834 biography, published only a year after More’s death, firmly sought to locate his subject within the moral code of nascent Victorianism and in the process created the “unpleasant, authoritarian bigot” (viii) she is often perceived as today. But as Stott is acutely aware, it is More’s notoriety, rather than her obscurity, which is really at stake here. By choosing to understand this paradoxical woman on her own terms, Stott’s biography offers a far more compelling argument for a critical re-evaluation of More’s cultural and historical importance than that offered in much recent critical scholarship.
More emerges in this study as a
complex, hard-working, if not always likeable, woman, who tirelessly worked to
improve education for women and the labouring classes and campaigned against
slavery. In many ways, hers was a life of two halves. In her twenties she
Rather than seeking to explain away the contradictory impulses which drove More’s life and work (her conviction about female potential, on the one hand, and her pious religious and social conservatism, on the other) Stott suggests that we need to understand both sides of her personality in order to fully appreciate her literary and philanthropic activities. In her perceptive analysis of More’s polemical Strictures, for example, Stott demonstrates how this “loose, baggy monster” contains a “range of seemingly contradictory statements that, pulled out of context, can be used to depict her as a protofeminist or an antifeminist” (217). However, by placing the work within the context of contemporary debates on female education, which, as Stott suggests, produced a “surprising consensus” among women of different political persuasions, another text emerges. In its plea for a rational education for women, Stott argues, the Strictures articulates a call for a “feminine patriotism” (that “politics in its broadest sense could not be the preserve of men alone” ) that transcends the binary radical/conservative political paradigm within which the text is commonly read.
Stott cannot fully exonerate More from the accusations feminists and Marxist critics have levelled against her, however. In a sensitive discussion of More’s relationship with the milk-maid poet Ann Yearsley, More emerges as hopelessly naive and not a little patronising, and even Stott’s subtle readings of the Cheap Repository Tracts¾she suggests they might preach labouring-class aspiration as much as they preach submission¾cannot reclaim these overtly propagandist texts. Largely, however, Stott does not attempt to exonerate More and it is for this reason, above all, that the work is such an important contribution to studies of this much-maligned figure and the religious and political movements she has come to exemplify. This is a remarkable biography of as remarkable a woman.
Batchelor, Jennie. “Contradictory Impulses.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <http://www.thenewcompass.ca/jun2004/batchelor.html>