Hannah More should have been named Woman of the Year in 1793. Or so I get Karen Swallow Prior to declare. Prior, who has just written a biography of More, is professor of English at Liberty University. She has written a good read of an introduction to the life of Hannah More, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Prior talks with National Review Online about More — a role model for your daughter, a lost heroine of history, a great talent. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What was so fierce about Hannah More’s convictions?
Karen Swallow Prior: More lived in a revolutionary age, one that saw the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the lead-up to the Industrial Revolution. Yet she was avowedly not a revolutionary. She adhered to conservative politics, strict piety, and traditional morals, yet worked strenuously her whole life to bring about numerous changes in her society. It’s easy for rebels to stir things up, but a woman of More’s natural modesty and moderation must call up more ferocity to pursue the magnitude of social reforms she achieved. The best example of this, I think, is how she and her sister tramped over hill and dale, cajoling local landowners and rallying support among villagers, in their efforts to open numerous schools where the poor were taught to read, do arithmetic, and learn Bible lessons and employable skills. That took a lot of pluck.
Lopez: Why isn’t she as well known as you would have her be?
Prior: More was quite the celebrity during her lifetime and celebrated long after her death. While her accomplishments were significant and notable in her lifetime, they weren’t the political feats (such as those of her friend William Wilberforce) that historians tend to remember. Furthermore, as the “first Victorian,” More represented values that came to be rejected within a century of her death. More and her conservative social and political views were derided by later literary figures, and then she was all but forgotten.
Lopez: What got you to the point of writing about her?
Prior: I discovered More while doing doctoral research on the rise of the English novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. It turns out, or so I came to argue in my Ph.D. dissertation, that More’s single novel helped to improve the reputation of the novel as a literary genre and thereby helped pave the way for the flourishing of the novel in the Victorian age. While my dissertation focused on More’s literary accomplishments, I was fascinated with her life and legacy on a broader scale and dreamed of someday writing about her life for a general audience.
Lopez: What year should she have been named Woman of the Year, had Time magazine existed, and in England?
Prior: At the end of 1792, More took on Thomas Paine, whose Rights of Man was viewed by many at the time as an atheistic and seditious defense of the French Revolution. In response to Paine, More published Village Politics, a witty dialogue written at the level of the common reader that skewered revolutionary politics and upheld old-fashioned Toryism in a winsome manner designed to appeal to the masses. And it did. About the same time that Village Politics was published, an atheistic address was made at the national convention in France and was widely publicized on both sides of the channel. After waiting futilely for leading men among the clergy to respond to the revolutionary speech, More took matters into her own hands and published in 1793 her Remarks on the Speech of M. Dupont, in which she warned that the godlessness undergirding the French Revolution would bewitch its followers into ruin. “Let France choose this day whom she will serve,” More wrote to her countrymen, “but as for us and our houses, we will serve the Lord.” The work was widely read and applauded, and More donated all the profits to French emigrant clergy, driven out of their homeland by the revolution. More’s bold challenge to Thomas Paine and her efforts to stem revolutionary moods in England would make her worthy of Time’s Woman of the Year for England in 1793.
Lopez: What was her relationship and collaboration with William Wilberforce like? Why is it important? Is it in any way a model for social movements?
Prior: More and Wilberforce formed a strong friendship immediately upon first meeting in 1787. They shared wit, Christian faith, and a zeal for abolition and moral reform. Wilberforce was the public and political force for their various efforts. More was, as I say in the book, the heart and hands. While Wilberforce wrote legislation aimed at abolishing the slave trade, More wrote poetry, tracts, and letters. More worked to change people’s hearts and minds while Wilberforce tried to change the laws. They worked together on other reform efforts, too. Wilberforce empowered More through moral and financial support in opening her schools and publishing her didactic works. They died within weeks of one another in 1833, Wilberforce just before slaves were freed in England, More just afterward. I think their model of partnership provides several key insights. First, they capitalized on their individual strengths and gifts and used them to complement one another. Second, they were not afraid, as man and woman, to work together, as well as with other people of different faiths and political leanings, toward common goals. Third, they worked over the long haul, for decades, to see the fruit of their labors.
Lopez: How did More “expand the moral imagination through her words”?
Prior: More used stories, poetry, drama, and verse to reach the high and low in her society as well as the growing middle class in between. Her poem Slavery, for example, appealed to readers on multiple levels, humanizing the African slave as well as invoking emotion, reason, and nationalism in order to help English citizens understand the moral gravity of the slave trade. Her Cheap Tracts, written for and marketed to the newly literate poor, used lively stories, detailed illustrations, and common vernacular to teach lessons in morality, piety, and thrift — all aimed at the dual purpose of alleviating the suffering of the poor and maintaining social order (in an age when many desired the latter but few even imagined the former to be either possible or desirable). More’s only novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, helped advance the idea of the “companionate marriage” that is the model widely accepted today, which sees marriage as something to be rooted in friendship rather than political or economic allegiance. Although few of More’s literary works really passed the test of time, they were in fact tremendously popular and influential in her time and undoubtedly helped to shape readers’ views and values. It’s interesting to compare this effect with that of Jane Austen, a contemporary of More’s. Almost no one read Austen’s works in her own lifetime. While Austen’s works are clearly of superior literary quality, and highly esteemed today (rightly so), they aren’t read for moral instruction, as More’s works were, for the morality of Austen’s books is largely viewed as merely a quaint artifact that adds to her works’ charm. More’s works, on the other hand, reached her own generation in its own time and changed the times.
Lopez: Are there similarities between the slave trade then and human trafficking today?
Prior: Of course, there are similarities, and people often point to these. But I think the difference is what is most striking and must be noted: The fact is that when, as a result of the work of Wilberforce, More, and others, the British Empire made the slave trade illegal (as Eric Metaxas points out in his biography of Wilberforce, Amazing Grace), it altered the view of slavery for the first time and forever after in human history. Slavery had always before then been accepted by civilized societies. Human trafficking goes on today, of course, but it has been driven underground because it is no longer seen as the norm as it was for most of human history.
Lopez: What was her most important or penetrating work?
Prior: More wrote across such an astonishing range of genres — classical verse and drama, tracts, treatises, political pamphlets, and devotional works — that it’s difficult to answer this question. I think her importance as a writer is in this very fact: She was not limited to one genre or one target audience. Over her lifetime she was read by virtually the entire nation, from the barely literate laborer to the queen. Her body of works penetrated her whole society. That is a singular accomplishment.
Lopez: What is your favorite?
Prior: It’s so hard to choose a favorite. I do agree with most critics that More’s best artistry is found among the Cheap Tracts. The form and content of these works, designed to both delight and instruct poor readers, work together brilliantly well to achieve their purpose. And I love the fact that they represent a successful attempt to co-opt a cultural form for a moral and religious purpose, an attempt that actually elevated the art of street literature. (Too often today, the art form is degraded by those who wish to use it to effect change.) Of course, her poem Slavery is an excellent specimen from both a literary and cultural point of view. It’s a work worthy of teaching in the college classroom and one well worth reading by the general reader. And I have yet to plumb the depths of wisdom and truth in her many devotional works. These are rich indeed.
Lopez: She had her run-ins with “scurrilous” attacks. Can she help the writer who deals with comment sections and hate mail and worse today?
Prior: I don’t think that what we deal with today in the comments section comes even close to the criticism More dealt with. I held in my own hands a leather-bound collection of pamphlets, as thick as a Bible, published against her in just one of the controversies her work generated, this one centered on one of her Sunday schools and a teacher she hired who was accused of “Methodism” — a form of religious expression that fell outside the established church. In the midst of this controversy, people even posted fliers along the main road calling More and her sisters a “menagerie of five female savages of the most desperate kind.” Others opposed to More’s piety called her a “bishop in petticoats,” which, of course, was an affront to anyone who believed, as More and most then did, that the transgression of such a fixed gender role would be a great wrong. More was not unaffected by these attacks. She often took ill to bed because of them. Yet she persevered. That would be the lesson for us today.
Lopez: What lessons does she teach us about religion and the public square?
Prior: Oh, for More there was no separation between religion and the public square. That’s not a stance necessarily transferable to or even desirable for today. It’s instructive to consider More’s lifelong opposition to Catholic emancipation (even despite her sympathy with and love for Catholic individuals). She may have been consistent in her beliefs here, but she was also wrong.
Lopez: She was described as having a “thirst for knowledge” at a young age. How did that happen? It was a rare thing for a girl of her time? Or at least unpopular?
Prior: Despite being born to obscure, working-class parents, More was offered, through the gifts of both nature and nurture, the conditions necessary to thrive intellectually. All five of the More sisters seem to have been remarkable, but Hannah stood out most of all. Her father was a schoolmaster and taught her beyond what was typical for most girls at the time. She lived in a seaport city that allowed her to mix with learned and foreigner alike, honing her language skills. More’s education was unusual for the time, but the times were also changing, and More was born at just the right time in history to both take advantage of ongoing shifts and to help propel those changes for women forward.
Lopez: How did she move from “mere piety to authentic faith”?
Prior: This movement isn’t recorded in the terms of a sudden change that tend to be used today. But based on her letters, I point to her reading in 1780 of a collection of letters published pseudonymously by John Newton, the famous slave-ship captain who turned away from the trade and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” More was becoming disillusioned with high-society life, and this book pointed to a kind of personal and authentic religious experience that went far beyond obligatory membership in the state church. Over the course of her life, in her letters and her published works, one can trace More’s deepening concern with spiritual life and the teachings of the Bible. By her last years, her home had become the Protestant equivalent of a holy shrine, a destination for pilgrims across the transatlantic region.
Lopez: What was the “religion of the heart” and what was the influence John Wesley had on her life?
Prior: The “religion of the heart” was a descriptive term for the Evangelical movement that grew throughout England as a result of a spiritual revival in the later 18th century. In 1742, a few years before Hannah’s birth, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached a sermon proclaiming that anyone could be orthodox in doctrine, yet be “a stranger” to “the religion of the heart.” The religious revival begun by John Wesley and his hymnist brother Charles, along with George Whitefield, brought about the Evangelical movement that Hannah would eventually join. Although the two would never meet, later in her life, John Wesley sent Hannah a message through her sister, saying, “Tell her to live in the world; there is the sphere of her usefulness; they will not let us come nigh them.”
Lopez: What do you mean when you write that “More’s life shows that the facts and our wishes can produce great stories when serving things much grander than ourselves, and that the stories we tell ourselves and others matter”?
Prior: Here I’m talking about the moral imagination. Morality is rooted in unalterable truths — yet living out these truths within the complexities and fallenness of human relationships sometimes requires the imagination and creativity of a Solomon. More was facing some seemingly immovable forces in her lifetime, including hard economic and political realities — but she moved them using imaginative literature. If postmodernity has taught us anything — and I think it has — it is that man cannot live on facts alone. It is the stories we tell ourselves that determine what we do with the “facts.” The woman with an eating disorder sees facts in light of the story she tells herself about herself. The white cop who sees a black man hears a story in his head that shapes his interpretation of the facts. The woman with an unplanned pregnancy interprets that fact based on the narrative she projects into her future. We don’t have the power to change the facts, but our moral imagination shapes the stories we tell about those facts.
Lopez: What excites you and inspires you most about her? What challenges you?
Prior: There was no reason for anyone to expect that the fourth daughter born in February of 1745 to an obscure schoolmaster at a charity school in Fishponds, England, would be anything more than an ordinary laboring-class girl. Yet she came to live an extraordinary life because circumstances providentially aligned to make such possible — and because the ordinary girl took advantage of those circumstances. That is what both inspires and challenges me. For such could be so for any one of us. No one could have predicted that this girl child would help abolish slavery, teach the poor to read, and change her society from high to low.
Lopez: Despite a tsunami of secularism, do you see a Great Awakening on the horizon?
Prior: I don’t know if I see a Great Awakening, at least not one that will produce a great quantity of believers as in the past. But perhaps we are facing a different kind of awakening — a sifting — that may produce a greater quality of believers in the midst of this encroaching secularism. Perhaps we believers are having to truly face whom we will serve.
Lopez: Was your book Booked a labor of love? What did you enjoy most about it? Did you have a favorite essay/chapter?
Prior: Oh, you are an astute reader. Writing Booked was indeed a labor of love. How could writing about the books I most love and that most loved me back be anything but? It was perhaps an experience of writing that will never be bested. Of course, some of the writing was painful and refining, but that, too, is a form of love. Since Booked is a memoir, both literary and spiritual, the chapter that is my favorite is probably the one that captures my sense of my self best, and that would be the chapter on Jane Eyre: “Beholding is Becoming.”
Lopez: Was Fierce Convictions a labor of love? What did you learn that you found most valuable?
Prior: The process of writing Fierce Convictions really was a love-hate experience. I loved the subject matter, but I am not a trained historian, and writing a biography was much more painstaking and difficult than I had imagined it would be. Getting the facts and the nuances of the wording exactly right — particularly when many facts and details from that far back are scarce — was strenuous and tedious for someone whose background is in analysis and interpretation, not historical facts. The turning point was traveling to England and visiting the places where Hannah had lived, worked, and died. That made her come alive even more and put those facts into a coherent and three-dimensional picture. The trip was a transcendent experience and fueled the rest of my work. In the end, the difficulty of the labor only produced more love.
Lopez: Is there anyone you wish you could read all day long?
Prior: Jonathan Swift. Charles Dickens. Flannery O’Connor. Joseph Epstein.
Lopez: What’s been your greatest surprise about teaching at Liberty?
Prior: I’m not surprised that I love teaching at Liberty. But I am surprised at how very much I love teaching there. My friends often tell me that surprises them, too. But I think Liberty and I have been good for each other the way a good marriage is good for each partner. Every day when I walk into my office, I pass a large sign in the grand lobby that proclaims the Bible verse from which the school’s name is derived: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). At Liberty, I feel the freedom expressed by Augustine to “love God, and do what you will.”
Lopez: What/who do you tackle next?
Prior: I have two or three book proposals in mind and hope to get to them soon. But teaching and speaking engagements will keep me busy for the next few months.
Lopez: How might Fierce Convictions be a good book to end or begin the year with?
Prior: Since the New Year is the time when many think about resolutions and transitions, I think Fierce Convictions would be an excellent source of inspiration, one tempered by realism and buoyed by faith.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.