Hannah More: The First Victorian

Anne Stott’s biography of Hannah More provides a very detailed and rather lively account of a prolific eighteenth-century author. Stott claims that More’s current reputation for publishing counter-revolutionary works, as well as for moral high-handedness, have obscured the import of her writing and philanthropy as foundations for the generations that succeeded her in the Victorian age. She argues that More “was never a mere mouthpiece for patriarchal ideologies” (x).

Interesting chapter titles–including “The Princess and the Bachelor” and “The Greeks and the Barbarians” — animate Stott’s discussion of More, pique the curiosity of the general reader, and engage specialists who are familiar with More’s oeuvre. The “Princess” is eight-year-old Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince of Wales and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. The effects of her parents’ failed marriage as well as the chaos within their household raised the question of the Princess’ suitability to rule one day. In 1805, Hannah More, ever didactic, published a two-volume work, Hints towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess, as her way of contributing toward a suitable education for the young girl. The “Bachelor” is the protagonist of More’s didactic novel, Coelebs In Search of a Wife. While general readers might be curious about the identity of these “people” named in the chapter title, specialists will most certainly recognize them and will appreciate Stott’s pairing More’s fictional character, who is the beneficiary of More’s values, with a member of the royal family, who was apparently in need of a good dose of More’s didacticism.

With her chapter title “The Greeks and the Barbarians,” Stott tips her hat to More, who is known for her ability to mix with and write for the well educated, higher ranks of society as well as the disenfranchised, lower orders. Stott cites this expression from one of More’s letters to William Wilberforce and then uses the chapter to discuss More’s attempts to influence both the aristocracy, the “Greeks,” and also the “Barbarians,” who include the miners whose children attended More’s many schools in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. Stott’s chapter title here also echoes the methods of More, whose Cheap Repository Tracts titles, for example, were designed to capture the attention of both “greek” and “barbarian” readers. She evokes as well the strategy of modern scholars such as Susan Pedersen, who titles her well-known article “Hannah More Meets Simple Simon.”

In addition to her chapter titles, Stott sprinkles into her narrative a number of emotional words which enliven her discussion by hinting at More’s character. For instance, when More writes to William Wilberforce about the folly of a royally connected acquaintance having converted to Unitarianism, Stott says that More “wrote sniffily” (158). At this point, Stott’s readers might conjure the image of a haughty woman, whose nose is in the air because she is certain that her beliefs are far superior to those of the new Unitarian about whom she writes. Here, Stott startles yet delights readers who might be expecting a more sober portrayal of her subject.

Stott contextualizes More’s times with regard to historical data by supplying just the right amount of detail. The population statistics and the price of coach rides for both London and Bristol, for example, are useful when reading about Hannah More’s many trips between the two cities. The depth of Stott’s research is made evident by this attention to detail. The organization of the material, though, is somewhat unusual and occasionally confusing. Stott labels each chapter with a specific time period, indicating which years are covered, in chronological order. However, she overlaps some time periods so that a completely satisfying discussion in one chapter is reintroduced and discussed again in a later chapter. This organization might result in some readers needing to double back to check the dates at the beginning of the chapters concerned. A specific example of this style occurs when Chapter Eight (1795-98) discusses in exquisite detail More’s Cheap Repository Tracts project and then Chapter Nine (1795-99) reintroduces and discusses it again. This aspect of organization is a minor drawback; it does not hamper the overall effectiveness of Stott’s presentation of an immense amount of material.

Stott’s work reflects a significant departure from the methods of previous biographers and editors. While she relies heavily on the batch of More’s letters used by William Roberts in his 1834 Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Hannah More, she does not apply Roberts’ extensive editing practices. Roberts, for example, does not allow More’s entire personality to emerge in his edition of her letters. He tends to focus on the maudlin, such as on More’s accounts of her sisters’ deaths. He latches onto any serious commentary while he omits passages or letters of a less serious nature. Nor does Stott repeat the clearly partisan views of Charlotte Yonge’s 1888 Hannah More, in which the author praises More unabashedly, using terms such as “bright-eyed” and “brilliant.” Rather, Stott interprets her research findings in a more balanced way, encouraging readers to judge More’s works and character for themselves, with just a bit of coaching.

The jacket cover and Stott’s Preface both suggest that this text is inclusive of much available material on Hannah More. The cover states that the work is “the first to make extensive use of her [More’s] unpublished correspondence.” As well, Stott says in her Preface that she has taken account of “a wealth of previously uncited manuscripts in Britain and the United States” (x). These statements are well substantiated by many new sources and comments. It is interesting to note, though, that Stott chooses not to pursue a reference in Henry Thompson’s 1838 The Life of Hannah More: With Notices of her Sisters (1838), which might have illuminated further her discussion of the last few decades of More’s life. She makes use of Thompson’s work, citing from it once and referring to Thompson at three other points in her book. However, she omits any reference to his Preface, which clearly signals the existence of “nearly one hundred letters” (x) borrowed by Thompson from the Addingtons, who were very close friends and neighbours of More. In fact, one hundred and twenty-two letters make up a cache of letters written between More and the Addingtons. And while the extant letters are still owned by descendents of the Addington family, my 1999 doctoral thesis The Old Ballad Monger: Hannah More’s Unpublished Letters 1798-1827 contains an edition of them. Had Stott reviewed the letters, she would perhaps have chosen to amplify her discussion and amend a few conclusions regarding the relationship between More and the members of the Addington family. For John Hiley Addington, MP–brother of Lord Sidmouth, Prime Minister (1801-04)–was a close friend of Hannah More until his death in 1818. More continued her close relationship with his widow and daughter until the end of her life. Stott mentions “Hiley” Addington on a few occasions, but she is not able to present the importance of More’s relationship with this family as it influenced her personal and financial affairs.

Stott’s beautifully illustrated text contains some well-known portraits of More and some additional images on glossy paper accompanied by maps. The work is an interesting read and reflects Stott’s enthusiasm for her subject. She achieves the admiration of readers who can only imagine the exhaustive task of synthesizing the wealth of material written by and about this author, who published for over fifty years. Scholars who study the Romantic or Victorian periods will find Stott’s work both valuable and enjoyable.