A New Heroine from the Eighteenth Century
A Feature Review of
Reviewed by Dorothy Greco
According to author Karen Swallow Prior, “Hannah More might just be the most influential reformer you’ve never heard of.” But thanks to Prior’s 2014 biography titled Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, that’s about to change. (Look for a movie version in the next three years!)
Hannah More was a writer, bridge builder, reformer, teacher, abolitionist, feminist (long before the term existed), animal welfare activist, and devoted follower of Christ. It would be impressive to list all of those accomplishments on a resume today; it’s simply remarkable for a woman who was born in 1745.
Hannah’s parents recognized her unusual gifting early on and encouraged it by providing her and her four sisters with ample opportunities to learn across many disciplines. Prior writes of Hannah, “Her love of learning and words was insatiable.” The More sisters’ education included spiritual formation, due in part to Methodist reformer John Wesley’s sermons that stoked revival throughout England during the 1700s. From a young age, Hannah demonstrated what Wesley would refer to as “a religion of the heart.” Her early beliefs gradually matured and deepened, influencing every aspect of her life.
Prior prevents More’s biography from becoming a soporific history book by providing readers with just enough detail to contextualize More’s exceptional life. For example, before this time period—with few exceptions—it was commonly believed that women should be taught how to serve and be companions to men, not develop their own minds. “The voices against women’s education were as varied as they were damning.” Almost as a rebuke to these misconceptions, Hannah and her sisters opened a school for girls in Bristol, offering their students true knowledge, not “ornamentation and superficiality.” She wrote, “To be ignorant is not to be original.” And, “Is it not better to succeed as women, than to fail as men… to be good originals, rather than bad imitators?” Apparently, others agreed; the sisters’ school thrived for thirty years.
At the same time the Mores’ school freed young women from constrictive social norms, Great Britain enslaved thousands of Africans. By 1737, Bristol had become England’s busiest slave port. It was providential that “Hannah More’s blossoming took root in the soil of slavery” for years later, abolitionist work would become her passion.
The five More sisters never married. Jilted three times by her fiancé, Hannah ultimately accepted that “spinsterhood offered more freedom than domesticity.” She took advantage of that freedom to pursue her writing career. Prior notes:
The work of an artist often arises from suffering. More’s love of writing stemmed, perhaps, from two sources of suffering: her own battles with numerous illnesses… and the suffering around her that she sought to alleviate.