Jane Austen and Hannah More were contemporaries in the late 1700s and early 1800s (even though More was born long before Austen and lived well after Austen’s death). Austen is known for her novels, and while she did not invent this literary art form she deserves credit in my opinion for bringing it to maturity. Her stories continue to resonate with modern readers who can read her prose with ease.
More, on the other hand, wrote only one novel. Her writing talents were found in great abundance in plays, essays, tracts, and poetry and non-fiction works designed to better society. The style of writing she employed is at times inaccessible to modern readers who are unused to blatant pedantry from popular authors, which likely accounts for her being relatively unknown as a writer today.
More was quite popular in her time, though, selling multiple editions of her writings and influencing her nation for the improvement of education for the poor, providing food for starving villagers, putting an end to the infliction of animal cruelty in the name of entertainment and industry, and – the cause she is best known for – the abolition of slavery.
Austen, on the other hand, never wrote a pedantic piece to advance any cause whatever. Instead, she famously noted in a letter to her nephew, she considered herself ill-suited for grand feats:
How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?
Jane Austen’s self-deprecation does not stand up to the fact that every one of her six novels is now a considered a masterpiece. She knew her novels were not held equal to the serious works of writers like Hannah More, yet in reading Karen Swallow Prior’s new biography of More, Fierce Convictions, I saw repeated parallels in the fictional lives of characters created by Jane Austen and the real life of Hannah More.
Prior herself draws a parallel between the somewhat dubious reputation of plays and performances in that era and the way Austen treated the subject in Mansfield Park. Many other parallels came to mind as I read More’s biography, and they are worth considering further. This is not an exhaustive list of the connections I saw but here are some that Jane Austen fans will appreciate.
The Slave Trade
Hannah More grew up near Bristol, a port city heavily reliant on the slave trade for its wealth. Her personal acquaintance with the economic realities of slavery and her later study of its barbarity led her to work diligently and tirelessly for decades to abolish slavery throughout Great Britain and its realms.
Jane Austen touched on slavery twice. In Mansfield Park the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram returns from his plantations in the West Indies and his young ward Fanny Price asks him of the slave trade, a subject no one else in the room was apparently willing to bring up but which her cousin Edmund, Sir Thomas’ son, assures her was completely appropriate to discuss.
A closer connection to Hannah More’s background is found in Jane Austen’s Emma. The young Mrs. Elton, a character who appears a few chapters into the book, is from Bristol. Soon after arrival she takes an interest – the interest of a busybody – in Jane Fairfax. Miss Fairfax, though from a good family, is an orphan who must find employment and is forced to consider taking a position as a governess. She is reluctant, while Mrs. Elton enthusiastically insists on securing a position for her. Miss Fairfax has no illusions regarding what awaits her as a governess in the early 19th Century, and when she is forced into conversation about it with Mrs. Elton she compares it to slavery. Mrs. Elton protests, and it appears her protest is based in part on the subject hitting too close to home, both figuratively and her literal home of Bristol.
The Definition of an Accomplished Woman
Education for girls and young women in that era was designed for one purpose: “ornamental accomplishments”, as Prior quotes More in her biography. More, contrary to many people in her day, thought that women and society as a whole would benefit from education in subjects thought unsuitable for them such as “Latin, mathematics and natural history” Prior notes. Prior goes on to quote More’s 1777 Essays on Various Subjects:
One would be led to imagine, by the common mode of female education, that life consisted of one universal holiday, and that the only contest was, who should be best enabled to excel in the sports and games that were to be celebrated on it.
There was nothing a woman from a good family could hope for that would be of more value in securing a good marriage than to achieve the status of an accomplished woman. More clearly held such status in contempt.
So did Austen. In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley wants both to be considered an accomplished woman and to secure a good marriage – her eye is set on the wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy, whose own eye in turn seems to be finding Elizabeth Bennet to be attracting its attention. A conversation ensues among the three of them where Miss Bingley says:
“[N]o one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
Mr. Darcy is unsatisfied with this list and adds:
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
Through this dialog Austen appears to agree with More: accomplishments are of little worth without a mind improved by study.
The Company One Keeps
Hannah More’s friends and acquaintances included royalty, literary giants, influential politicians, and prominent clergy. She and her closest friends – united by their common faith in Christ – worked together on social reforms in education, poverty, and the abolition of slavery. The group came to be known as the Clapham Sect, named for the village where they met in the home of one of the wealthiest members of their small circle.
[T]his fellowship of like-minded believers, “bound together by shared moral and spiritual values, by religious mission and social activism, by love for each other, and by marriage” changed history as they sought to serve God in every area of their lives, personal and public, at home and abroad. … They operated as an intimate group that “planned and labored like a committee that never dissolved” as they decided on projects and issues and mapped out their strategies for accomplishing the group’s goals.
One can’t help thinking that such a group of friends is a group well worth having if only one could.
Jane Austen showed that having a worthwhile and satisfying group of friends actually is within our grasps. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot and her cousin William Elliot discuss what it means to be in good company.
“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
“You are mistaken,” said he gently; “that is not good company; that is the best.”
This description of good company is one we can all strive to possess among our friends. We do not have to settle for shallow relationships, and even though our own circle of friends might not change history as More’s did we can still enjoy deep friendships (the best of company as Austen encourages) with the people God puts in our lives and with them we can honor him in what we do.
And when we honor God, we are always part of the best historical change there is: God building his kingdom by his Spirit through his people.
This is the best company to keep.