Monday, 18 July 2011

A Look at the Life of Hannah More

If you have been fortunate enough to see the most excellent film 'Amazing Grace' (2006) concerning the abolitionist movement headed by William wilberforce you may recall that a woman sat at the helm of the movement alongside such luminaries as  Equiano, Sharp and Clarkson. That woman's name was Hannah More and she constitutes the subject of today's article.

Born in the outskirts of Bristol in 1745, Hannah More was known in her lifetime for a vast number and variety of things - she was best described at various times of her life as a teacher, a playwright, a novelist, an Evangelical reformer, a philanthropist and latterly, a political writer.

More began life as a teacher, administering an upmarket ladies academy in trinity street, Bristol alongside her sisters. Amongst her young pupils was Mary 'Perdita' Robinson, who famously became the Prince Regent's first mistress. The blue-stocking Mrs Thrale later remarked: 

of all Biographical Anecdotes none ever struck me more forcibly than the one saying how Hannah More la devote was the woman who educated fair Perdita la percheress

In her memoirs Robinson noted:

[at the school] there was a concentration on French,reading, writing, arithmetic and needle-work...a dancing master properly attended...[Hannah] divided her hours between the arduous task of teaching the young ideas how to shoot and exemplifying by works of taste and fancy the powers of a mind already so cultivated.

More was prone throughout her life to bouts of depression, described as often '[giving] herself up to headaches, colds, bilious attacks and other functional illnesses". She ceased working at the school upon becoming engaged to a man named Edward Turner, the owner of a large estate within the district. Turner however, was reluctant to set a date for their wedding, and after six years he broke off their long engagement, agreeing to pay More a annuity of £200 as means of compensation. It appears that More subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and she retired to Uphill, near Weston-super-Mare to recuperate. It was said at the time that she was "recovering from an ague." She would never marry.

Instead, More would go on to pursue her interest in theatre, collaborating with the great David Garrick. Her first play was entitled The Inflexible Captive and opened in 1775 at the Theatre Royal in Bath to much acclaim. Whilst she enjoyed a moderately successful theatrical career, according to her biographer Mary Alden Hopkins:

the deaths of Garrick, her father, and Dr Samuel Johnson saddened her and made her more susceptible to the influence of deepening friendships with the evangelical men and women of the Clapham Sect and other progressive religious groups.

 It was with such groups that More would contribute to the abolitionist movement. In later life, she would become known both for her philanthropy and for possessing a strong (though not entirely progressive) view on the education and role of women. As Hopkins has argued: 

She made many excellent observations on the subject, pointing out that it was unjust to keep women ignorant and scorn them for it, holding that education should be a preparation for life rather than an adornment; she advocated only for exceptional girls the classical education which she and her sisters had received. She would have the average girl trained in whatever 'inculcates principles, polishes taste, regulates temper, subdues passion, directs the feelings, habituates to reflection, trains to self-denial, and more especially, that which refers to all actions, feelings and tastes, and passions to the love and fear of God'. She would have history taught to show the wickedness of mankind and the guiding hand of God, and geography to indicate how Providence has graciously consulted man's comfort in suiting vegetation and climate to his needs.

More died in 1833, at the age of 88. It appears she retained possession of all her mental faculties up until this time as according to Mark K. Smith, "as she recognised death was getting close she began to arrange for the disposal of much of her fortune among various charities and religious societies." 

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