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the "Thoughts on the Manners of the Great," which appeared from the pen
of Hannah More in the latter part of the 18th century, in which she
appears as both moralist and teacher, getting inspiration not only from
her exalted labors, but from the friendship and conversation of the
great intellectual oracles of her age. I have not read of any one woman
in England for the last fifty years, I have not heard or known of any
one woman in the United States, who ever occupied the exalted position
of Hannah More, or who exercised so broad and deep an influence on the
public mind in the combined character of a woman of society, author, and
philanthropist. There have been, since her day, more brilliant queens of
fashion, greater literary geniuses, and more prominent philanthropists;
but she was enabled to exercise an influence superior to any of them, by
her friendship with people of rank, by her clear and powerful writings,
and by her lofty piety and morality, which blazed amid the vices of
fashionable society one hundred years ago.

It is well to dwell on the life and labors of so great and good a woman,
who has now become historical. But I select her especially as the
representative of the grandest moral movement of modern times, - that
which aims to develop the mind and soul of woman, and give to her the
dignity of which she has been robbed by paganism and "philistinism." I
might have selected some great woman nearer home and our own time, more
intimately connected with the profession of educating young ladies; but
I prefer to speak of one who is universally conceded to have rendered
great service to her age and country. It is doubly pleasant to present
Hannah More, because she had none of those defects and blemishes which
have often detracted from the dignity of great benefactors. She was
about as perfect a woman as I have read of; and her virtues were not
carried out to those extremes of fanaticism which have often marked
illustrious saints, from the want of common-sense or because of
visionary theories. Strict and consistent as a moralist, she was never
led into any extravagances or fanaticisms. Stern even as a
disciplinarian, she did not proscribe healthy and natural amusements.
Strong-minded, - if I may use a modern contemptuous phrase, - she never
rebelled against the ordinances of nature or the laws dictated by
inspiration. She was a model woman: beautiful, yet not vain; witty, yet
never irreverent; independent, yet respectful to authority; exercising
private judgment, yet admired by bishops; learned, without pedantry;
hospitable, without extravagance; fond of the society of the great, yet
spending her life among the poor; alive to the fascinations of society,
yet consecrating all her energies of mind and body to the good of those
with whom she was brought in contact; as capable of friendship as Paula,
as religious as Madame Guyon, as charming in conversation as Récamier,
as practical as Elizabeth, as broad and tolerant as Fénelon, who was
himself half woman in his nature, as the most interesting men of genius
are apt to be. Nothing cynical, or bitter, or extravagant, or
contemptuous appears in any of her writings, most of which were
published anonymously, - from humility as well as sensitiveness. Vanity
was a stranger to her, as well as arrogance and pride. Embarking in
great enterprises, she never went outside the prescribed sphere of
woman. Masculine in the force and vigor of her understanding, she was
feminine in all her instincts, - proper, amiable, and gentle; a woman
whom everybody loved and everybody respected, even to kings and queens.

Hannah More was born in a little village near Bristol, 1745, and her
father was the village schoolmaster. He had been well educated, and had
large expectations; but he was disappointed, and was obliged to resort
to this useful but irksome way of getting a living. He had five
daughters, of whom Hannah was the fourth. As a girl, she was very
precocious in mind, as well as beautiful and attractive in her person.
She studied Latin when only eight years of age. Her father, it would
seem, was a very sensible man, and sought to develop the peculiar
talents which each of his daughters possessed, without the usual
partiality of parents, who are apt to mistake inclination for genius.
Three of the girls had an aptitude for teaching, and opened a
boarding-school in Bristol when the oldest was only twenty. The school
was a great success, and soon became fashionable, and ultimately famous.
To this school the early labors of Hannah More were devoted; and she
soon attracted attention by her accomplishments, especially in the
modern languages, in which she conversed with great accuracy and
facility. But her talents were more remarkable than her
accomplishments; and eminent men sought her society and friendship, who
in turn introduced her to their own circle of friends, by all of whom
she was admired. Thus she gradually came to know the celebrated Dean
Tucker of Gloucester cathedral; Ferguson the astronomer, then lecturing
at Bristol; the elder Sheridan, also giving lectures on oratory in the
same city; Garrick, on the eve of his retirement from the stage; Dr.
Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Mrs. Montagu, in whose _salon_ the most
distinguished men of the age assembled as the headquarters of
fashionable society, - Edmund Burke, then member for Bristol in the House
of Commons; Gibbon; Alderman Cadell, the great publisher; Bishop
Porteus; Rev. John Newton; and Sir James Stonehouse, an eminent
physician. With all these stars she was on intimate terms, visiting them
at their houses, received by them all as more than an equal, - for she
was not only beautiful and witty, but had earned considerable reputation
for her poetry. Garrick particularly admired her as a woman of genius,
and performed one of her plays ("Percy") twenty successive nights at
Drury Lane, writing himself both the prologue and the epilogue. It must
be borne in mind that when first admitted to the choicest society of
London, - at the houses not merely of literary men, but of great
statesmen and nobles like Lord Camden, Lord Spencer, the Duke of
Newcastle. Lord Pembroke, Lord Granville, and others, - she was teaching
in a girls' school at Bristol, and was a young lady under thirty
years of age.

It was as a literary woman - when literary women were not so numerous or
ambitious as they now are - that Hannah More had the _entrée_ into the
best society under the patronage of the greatest writers of the age. She
was a literary lion before she was twenty-five. She attracted the
attention of Sheridan by her verses when she was scarcely eighteen. Her
"Search after Happiness" went through six editions before the year 1775.
Her tragedy of "Percy" was translated into French and German before she
was thirty; and she realized from the sale of it £600. "The Fatal
Falsehood" was also much admired, but did not meet the same success,
being cruelly attacked by envious rivals. Her "Bas Bleu" was praised by
Johnson in unmeasured terms. It was for her poetry that she was best
known from 1775 to 1785, the period when she lived in the fashionable
and literary world, and which she adorned by her wit and brilliant
conversation, - not exactly a queen of society, since she did not set up
a _salon_, but was only an honored visitor at the houses of the great; a
brilliant and beautiful woman, whom everybody wished to know.

I will not attempt any criticism on those numerous poems. They are not
much read and valued in our time. They are all after the style of
Johnson and Pope; - the measured and artificial style of the eighteenth
century, in imitation of the ancient classics and of French poetry, in
which the wearisome rhyme is the chief peculiarity, - smooth, polished,
elaborate, but pretty much after the same pattern, and easily imitated
by school-girls. The taste of this age - created by Burns, Byron,
Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson, Longfellow, and others - is very
different. But the poems of Hannah More were undoubtedly admired by her
generation, and gave her great _éclat_ and considerable pecuniary
emolument. And yet her real fame does not rest on those artificial
poems, respectable as they were one hundred years ago, but on her
writings as a moralist and educator.

During this period of her life - from 1775 to 1785 - she chiefly resided
with her sisters in Bristol, but made long visits to London, and to the
houses of famous or titled personages. In a worldly point of view these
years were the most brilliant, but not most useful, period of her life.
At first she was intoxicated by the magnificent attentions she received,
and had an intense enjoyment of cultivated society. It was in these
years she formed the most ardent friendships of her life. Of all her
friends, she seems to have been most attached to Garrick, - the idol of
society, a general favorite wherever he chose to go, a man of
irreproachable morals and charming conversational powers; at whose
house and table no actor or actress was ever known to be invited, except
in one solitary instance; from which it would appear that he was more
desirous of the attentions of the great than of the sympathy and
admiration of the people of his own profession. It is not common for
actors to be gifted with great conversational powers, any more than for
artists, as a general thing, to be well-read people, especially in
history. Hannah More was exceedingly intimate with both Garrick and his
wife; and his death, in 1779, saddened and softened his great
worshipper. After his death she never was present at any theatrical
amusement. She would not go to the theatre to witness the acting of her
own dramas; not even to see Mrs. Siddons, when she appeared as so
brilliant a star. In fact, after Garrick's death Miss More partially
abandoned fashionable society, having acquired a disgust of its
heartless frivolities and seductive vices.

With the death of Garrick a new era opened in the life of Hannah More,
although for the succeeding five years she still was a frequent visitor
in the houses of those she esteemed, both literary lions and people of
rank. It would seem, during this period, that Dr. Johnson was her
warmest friend, whom she ever respected for his lofty moral nature, and
before whom she bowed down in humble worship as an intellectual
dictator. He called her his child. Sometimes he was severe on her, when
she differed from him in opinion, or when caught praising books which
he, as a moralist, abhorred, - like the novels of Fielding and Smollet;
for the only novelist he could tolerate was Richardson. Once when she
warmly expatiated in praise of the Jansenists, the overbearing autocrat
exclaimed in a voice of thunder: "Madam, let me hear no more of this!
Don't quote your popish authorities to me; I want none of your popery!"
But seeing that his friend was overwhelmed with the shock he gave her,
his countenance instantly changed; his lip quivered, and his eyes filled
with tears. He gently took her hand, and with the deepest emotion
exclaimed: "Child, never mind what I have said, - follow true piety
wherever you find it." This anecdote is a key to the whole character of
Johnson, interesting and uninteresting; for this rough, tyrannical
dogmatist was also one of the tenderest of men, and had a soul as
impressible as that of a woman.

The most intimate woman friend, it would seem, that Hannah ever had was
Mrs. Garrick, both before and after the death of her husband; and the
wife of Garrick was a Roman Catholic. Hannah More usually spent several
months with this accomplished and warm-hearted woman at her house in
Hampton, generally from March to July. This was often her home during
the London season, after which she resided in Bristol with her sisters,
who made a fortune by their boarding-school. After Hannah had entered
into the literary field she supported herself by her writings, which
until 1785 were chiefly poems and dramas, - now almost forgotten, but
which were widely circulated and admired in her day, and by which she
kept her position in fashionable and learned society. After the death of
Garrick, as we have said, she seemed to have acquired a disgust of the
gay and fashionable society which at one time was so fascinating. She
found it frivolous, vain, and even dull. She craved sympathy and
intellectual conversation and knowledge. She found neither at a
fashionable party, only outside show, gay dresses, and unspeakable
follies, - no conversation; for how could there be either the cultivation
of friendship or conversation in a crowd, perchance, of empty people for
the most part? "As to London," says she, "I shall be glad to get out of
it; everything is great and vast and late and magnificent and dull." I
very seldom go to these parties, and I always repent when I do. My
distaste of these scenes of insipid magnificence I have not words to
tell. Every faculty but the sight is starved, and that has a surfeit. I
like conversation parties of the right sort, whether of four persons or
forty; but it is impossible to talk when two or three hundred people are
continually coming in and popping out, or nailing themselves to a card
table. "Conceive," said she, "of the insipidity of two or three hundred
people, - all dressed in the extremity of fashion, painted as red as
bacchanals, poisoning the air with perfumes, treading on each other's
dresses, not one in ten able to get a chair when fainting with
weariness. I never now go to these things when I can possibly avoid it,
and stay when there as few minutes as I can." Thus she wrote as early as
1782. She went through the same experience as did Madame Récamier,
learning to prefer a small and select circle, where conversation was the
chief charm, especially when this circle was composed only of gifted men
and women. In this incipient disgust of gay and worldly society - chiefly
because it improved neither her mind nor her morals, because it was
stupid and dull, as it generally is to people of real culture and high
intelligence - she seems to have been gradually drawn to the learned
prelates of the English Church, - like Dr. Porteus, Bishop of Chester,
afterwards of London; the Bishop of St. Asaph; and Dr. Home, then Dean
of Canterbury. She became very intimate with Wilberforce and Rev. John
Newton, while she did not give up her friendship for Horace Walpole,
Pepys, and other lights of the social world.

About this time (1785) she retired to Cowslip Green, a pretty cottage
ten miles from Bristol, and spent her time in reading, writing, and
gardening. The country, with its green pastures and still waters, called
her back to those studies and duties which are most ennobling, and which
produce the most lasting pleasure. In this humble retreat she had many
visitors from among her illustrious friends. She became more and more
religious, without entirely giving up society; corresponding with the
eminent men and women she visited, especially Mrs. Montagu, Dr. Porteus,
Mrs. Boscawen, Mr. Pepys, and Rev. John Newton. In the charming
seclusion of Cowslip Green she wrote her treatise on the "Manners of the
Great;" the first of that series in which she rebuked the fashions and
follies of the day. It had an immense circulation, and was published
anonymously. This very popular work was followed, in 1790, by a volume
on an "Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World," which
produced a still deeper sensation among the great, and was much admired.
The Bishop of London (Porteus) was full of its praises; so was John
Newton, although he did not think that any book could wean the worldly
from their pleasures.

Thus far most of the associations of Hannah More had been with the
fashionable world, by which she was petted and flattered. Seeing clearly
its faults, she had sought to reform it by her writings and by her
conversation. But now she turned her attention to another class, - the
poor and ignorant, - and labored for them. She instituted a number of
schools for the poor in her immediate neighborhood, superintended them,
raised money for them, and directed them, as Madame de Maintenon did the
school of St. Cyr; only with this difference, - that while the
Frenchwoman sought to develop the mind and character of a set of
aristocratic girls to offset the practical infidelity that permeated the
upper walks of life, Hannah More desired to make the children of the
poor religious amid the savage profligacy which then marked the peasant
class. The first school she established was at Cheddar, a wild and
sunless hollow, amid yawning caverns, about ten miles from Cowslip
Green, - the resort of pleasure parties for its picturesque cliffs and
fissures. Around this weird spot was perhaps the most degraded peasantry
to be found in England, without even spiritual instruction, - for the
vicar was a non-resident, and his living was worth but £50 a year. In
her efforts to establish a school in such a barbarous and pagan locality
Hannah met with serious obstacles. The farmers and petty landholders
were hostile to her scheme, maintaining that any education would spoil
the poor, and make them discontented. Even the farmers themselves were
an ignorant and brutal class, very depraved, and with intense
prejudices. For a whole year she labored with them to disarm their
hostilities and prejudices, and succeeded at last in collecting two
hundred and fifty children in the schoolhouse which she had built. Their
instruction was of course only elemental, but it was religious.

From Cheddar, Hannah More was led to examine into the condition of
neighboring places. Thirteen contiguous parishes were without a resident
curate, and nine of these were furnished with schools, with over five
hundred scholars. Her theory was, - a suitable education for each, and a
Christian education for all. While she was much encouraged by her
ecclesiastical aristocratic friends, she still encountered great
opposition from the farmers. She also excited the jealousy of the
Dissenters for thus invading the territory of ignorance. All her
movements were subjected to prelates and clergymen of the Church of
England for their approval; for she put herself under their patronage.
And yet the brutal ignorance of the peasantry was owing in part to the
neglect of these very clergymen, who never visited these poor people
under their charge. As an excuse for them, it may be said that at that
time there were 4,809 parishes in England and Wales in which a clergyman
could not reside, if he would, for lack of a parsonage. At that time,
even in Puritan New England, every minister was supposed to live in a
parsonage. To-day, not one parish in ten is provided with that desirable

Not only were the labors of Hannah More extended to the ignorant and
degraded by the establishment of schools in her neighborhood, at an
expense of about £1,000 a year, part of which she contributed herself,
but she employed her pen in their behalf, writing, at the solicitation
of the Bishop of London, a series of papers or tracts for the times,
with special reference to the enlightenment of the lower classes on
those subjects that were then agitating the country. The whole land was
at this time inundated with pamphlets full of infidelity and discontent,
fanned by the French Revolution, then passing through its worst stages
of cruelty, atheism, and spoliation. Burke about the same time wrote his
"Reflections," which are immortal for their wisdom and profundity; but
he wrote for the upper classes, not merely in England, but in America
and on the continent of Europe. Hannah More wrote for the lower classes,
and in a style of great clearness and simplicity. Her admirable
dialogue, called "Village Politics," by Will Chip, a country carpenter,
exposed the folly and atrocity of the revolutionary doctrines then in
vogue. Its circulation was immense. The Government purchased several
thousand copies for distribution. It was translated into French and
Italian. Similar in spirit was the tract in reply to the infidel speech
of M. Dupont in the French Convention, in which he would divorce all
religion from education. The circulation of this tract was also very
great. These were followed, in 1795, by the "Cheap Repository," a
periodical designed for the poor, with religious tales, most of which
have since been published by Tract Societies, among them the famous
story of "The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain." The "Cheap Repository" was
continued for three years, and circulated in every village and hamlet of
England and America. It almost equalled the popularity of the "Pilgrim's
Progress." Two millions of these tracts were sold in the first year.

In 1799 Hannah More's great work entitled "Strictures on the Modern
System of Female Education" appeared, which passed through twenty
editions in a few years. It was her third ethical publication in prose,
and the most powerful of all her writings. Testimonies as to its value
poured in upon her from every quarter. Nothing was more talked about at
that time except, perhaps, Robert Hall's "Sermons." It was regarded as
one of the most perfect works of its kind that any country or age had
produced. It made as deep an impression on the English mind as the
"Émile" of Rousseau did on the French half a century earlier, but was
vastly higher in its moral tone. I know of no treatise on education so
full and so sensible as this. It ought to be reprinted, for the benefit
of this generation, for its author has forestalled all subsequent
writers on this all-important subject. There is scarcely anything said
by Rev. Morgan Dix, in his excellent Lenten Lectures, which was not said
by Hannah More in the last century. Herbert Spencer may be more
original, possibly more profound, but he is not so practical or clear or
instructive as the great woman who preceded him more than half
a century.

The fundamental principle which underlies all Hannah More's theories of
education is the necessity of Christian instruction, which Herbert
Spencer says very little about, and apparently ignores. She would not
divorce education from religion. Women, especially, owe their elevation
entirely to Christianity. Hence its influence should be paramount, to
exalt the soul as well as enlarge the mind. All sound education should
prepare one for the duties of life, rather than for the enjoyment of its
pleasures. What good can I do? should be the first inquiry. It is
Christianity alone that teaches the ultimate laws of morals. Hannah More
would subject every impulse and every pursuit and every study to these
ultimate laws as a foundation for true and desirable knowledge. She
would repress everything which looks like vanity. She would educate
girls for their homes, and not for a crowd; for usefulness, and not for
admiration; for that; period of life when external beauty is faded or
lost. She thinks more highly of solid attainments than of
accomplishments, and would incite to useful rather than unnecessary
works. She would have a girl learn the languages, though she deems them
of little value unless one can think in them. She would cultivate that
"sensibility which has its seat in the heart, rather than the nerves."
Anything which detracts from modesty and delicacy, and makes a girl
bold, forward, and pushing, she severely rebukes. She would check all
extravagance in dancing, and would not waste much time on music unless
one has a talent for it. She thinks that the excessive cultivation of
the arts has contributed to the decline of States. She is severe on that
style of dress which permits an indelicate exposure of the person, and
on all forms of senseless extravagance. She despises children's balls,
and ridicules children's rights and "Liliputian coquetry" with ribbons
and feathers. She would educate women to fulfil the duties of daughters,
wives, and mothers rather than to make them dancers, singers, players,
painters, and actresses. She maintains that when a man of sense comes to
marry, he wants a companion rather than a creature who can only dress
and dance and play upon an instrument. Yet she does not discourage
ornamental talent; she admits it is a good thing, but not the best thing
that a woman has. She would not cut up time into an endless
multiplicity of employments, She urges mothers to impress on their
daughters' minds a discriminating estimate of personal beauty, so that
they may not have their heads turned by the adulation that men are so
prone to lavish on those who are beautiful. While she deprecates
harshness, she insists on a rigorous discipline. She would stimulate
industry and the cultivation of moderate abilities, as more likely to
win in the long race of life, - even as a barren soil and ungenial

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Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 07 Great Women → online text (page 16 of 20)