A Consecrated Pen
In Fierce Convictions – The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (2014, Thomas Nelson), Karen Swallow Prior presents the life of a woman described by John Newton as wielding “a consecrated pen.” One might be tempted to say that Prior wields the same pen in her account of this 18th-19th Century woman of letters, action and faith.
In fact, for More there would be no way to separate her pen from her actions, nor either of those from her faith. She pursued them all for the sake of serving the people God placed in her life – from her teen years organizing a local school with her four sisters to her later efforts to feed the poor, prevent animal cruelty, and abolish slavery throughout the British realms.
While she worked hard in serving others, all her efforts seem to have rested upon what she could do with words. From writing successful plays for the London stage to tracts produced inexpensively for the poor, from poetry to novels, there wasn’t a genre of writing that More did not attempt. And once attempted, there wasn’t a genre she did not master.
A Nondescript Origin
Prior’s description of Hannah More’s childhood reveals More’s early life to be nothing out of the ordinary. She was a bright child who benefitted greatly from her father being a school teacher, but the world is always populated by such children. Few of them rise to More’s level of influence and success.
Still, Prior’s work on More is no hagiography, as she explains the earliest biographies of More tended to be. There are triumphs and failures, with many personal shortcomings noted alongside many admirable qualities.
For example, More was generous to the poor, yet took pains to make sure she did nothing that might encourage the poor to rise above their station in life. She provided support for French Catholics fleeing the anti-religious violence of the French Revolution, but she refused to join those who would give British Catholics the right to hold political office. And she reached out to those below her rank in society as people of merit and whose company she cherished, while also chasing after connections with those above her own mid-level station in life.
A Varied Career
Fierce Convictions starts with More’s early years, and each chapter addresses various pursuits and causes. Prior keeps the story generally progressing toward the end of More’s life as we see that More took on some issues later than others. But there is much in her life that overlaps and the chapters cannot be taken as strictly moving ever forward.
This is one of the book’s main strengths, along with Prior’s ability to present her extensive research in a thoroughly readable fashion. Prior chose the subject of More’s literary influence for a scholarly treatment in her dissertation for her PhD, so a reader might fear that this biography is written in a way that no lay reader could access. Prior’s prose, however, is welcoming and well-crafted throughout. Readers who are new to Prior’s writing will be pleased while those who have read her 2012 literary memoir Booked – Literature in the Soul of Me will not be the least surprised.
We read of More starting a school that included boys and girls learning the same subjects, an untypical practice of the mid 1700s. More and her sisters wanted to counter the trend of “Frivolous education [which] created shallow women”, as Prior puts it. They were up against tough opposition, with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on education stating the prevailing view that “the whole education of women ought to relate to men” (as quoted by Prior), and thus there was no subject a woman should bother learning except those that improved her ability to serve a man. More’s words and her actions showed she disagreed with that influential philosopher entirely.
Much of the book returns to More’s education efforts. She helped establish schools for the poor and wrote educational tracts for the working class. Most of her works seemed to have been pedantic in nature, whether directed at education reforms in particular or the betterment of some other aspect of British society.
Prior describes the animal cruelty prevalent in popular entertainment at that time – bear baiting, bull running and cock fighting for instance – in order to set in sharp contrast More’s writings against the cruelty. More didn’t stop at writing, though, as she also called upon her wealthy friends and acquaintances to provide funds to support her efforts to sway public opinion and eventually change the law.
She also provided food for the poor, and not just from her own larder. When the economy suffered during the Napoleonic Wars and the laboring class was most affected, she raised funds and published pamphlets and herself brought food to nearby villages and towns in order to feed families.
Yet the cause she is most known for – if she is known for anything at all – is the abolition of slavery in the British realms.
The abolition of slavery in England is often credited to William Wilberforce. He acted when many would not, but he did not act alone. He was aided by many friends and colleagues, including his close life-long friend Hannah More.
The chapters on abolition and the group of friends who gathered in a stately home of a friend in Clapham – then a village just southwest of London – come in the second half of this biography. One might have expected to read of this earlier, or at least hoped to get to the anticipated good parts more quickly. It would have been a shame.
In Prior’s hands, the life of Hannah More is presented just as it should be. By understanding More’s other efforts to live out her faith we better understand why and how her work on abolition came about and reached fruition. It’s not that the abolitionist work came after all the other work was completed. More’s life, remember, did not progress as linearly as a biography might suggest. Rather, while much was happening concurrently it is by learning of More herself through her actions that the abolition work is revealed most clearly. The decision to save this work for later in the book turns out to be Prior’s gift to the reader.
[I received a complimentary advance copy of the book from the publisher. I did not promise anything in return, and this review is based on what I think my readers might want to know about Prior’s book.
One thing that jumped off the pages is an interesting parallel between Hannah More’s life and the novels of Jane Austen, a contemporary of More’s. I explore this parallel in Jane Austen Novels and Hannah More’s Life – intersecting planes.]