Hannah More Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hannah More 1745-1833

English nonfiction writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of More's life and works. For additional information on her career, see NCLC, Volume 27.

A significant voice on behalf of many social causes, More was one of the most popular female writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While she initially gained prominence through her plays and poetry, after 1779, More abandoned those genres and began producing anti-Enlightenment polemics and religious essays dedicated to the education and improvement of her contemporaries and the poor. She is best known for her brief expository prose or tracts directed at the working class, collected in three volumes and entitled the Cheap Repository (1795-98). These tracts, like her other works, reflect a concern with the betterment of society.

Biographical Information

More was born on February 2, 1745, the fourth in a family of five girls. Her father, Jacob More, was headmaster of a charity school, and her mother Mary Grace was the daughter of a farmer. More and her sisters were educated at their father's school, where they studied mathematics, reading, and Latin. More could read before the age of four, and proved so adept in mathematics that she outperformed the boys in the school, prompting her father to suspend her instruction for fear of overeducating her in a subject he considered more suitable for males. In 1757, More's older sister Mary opened a boarding school for girls in nearby Bristol, and More was enrolled as one of the first pupils, studying history and literature. At the age of sixteen, she wrote her first play, The Search After Happiness (first published in 1773). After completing her studies at the school, More became an instructor; she served there until 1767 when she became engaged to William Turner, a wealthy landowner. When More broke off her engagement after six years of postponements and failed appearances on Turner's part, she received a settlement to compensate her. Financially secure, More was able to travel to London, where she became associated with the Bluestockings, a group of writers and intellectuals whose meetings provided a forum for men and women to discuss literature and the arts. The group encouraged More in her writing career and introduced her to such prominent writers as Samuel Johnson and Elizabeth Montagu. When her friend and patron, the actor and producer David Garrick, died in 1779, More withdrew from the theater amid charges of plagiarism by another of Garrick's protégés. She began to see theater in opposition to her religious beliefs, and turned instead to writing moral tracts and poems in keeping with her devotion to Anglican Evangelicalism. In 1785, More moved to a cottage near Bristol and rarely visited the capital again. Her writing became increasingly didactic and she devoted herself to religion and to causes such as women's education and the abolition of slavery. In 1808, More published the enormously successful novel Cœlebs in Search of a Wife, and continued to produce religious essays and tracts until she became ill in 1825. She died on September 7, 1833.

Major Works

More first achieved success in the theater with such dramas as The Search After Happiness, The Inflexible Captive (1774), and Percy (1778). However, despite her success, she stopped writing plays and turned to the production of religious tales and essays, such as Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788) and An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1791), in which she chastised the members of the middle and upper classes for frivolity and appealed to them to set an example in morals and manners that the lower class might follow. The works became phenomenally successful with the middle and upper classes, who failed to recognize themselves as the targets of her criticism.

More's career as a political writer began when she was asked by the Bishop of London to write a reply to Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. The result was a pamphlet—attributed to “Will Chip, a country carpenter”—entitled Village Politics, Addressed to All the Mechanics, Journeymen, and Day Labourers in Great Britain (1792), wherein two workingmen engage in a dialogue that rejects the principles of the Enlightenment and suggests that governmental affairs should be of no concern to the working class. The success of the pamphlet and a later ballad, The Riot; or Half a Loaf Is Better Than No Bread (1795), prompted religious leaders to propose that More take on the education of the lower class through a series of tracts. Designed to educate the poor and counter the rhetoric associated with the French Revolution, the tracts contained moral lessons in addition to their messages of political orthodoxy. The tracts were first issued individually, but later were combined and published as the Cheap Repository. In 1808, More produced her only novel, Cœlebs in Search of a Wife. Although she considered the novel form decadent, she was determined to take advantage of the genre's popularity for didactic purposes, and the resulting work prescribes proper roles for the women of her day.

Critical Reception

More's body of religious polemics, the Cheap Repository, is of great interest to literary and political historians alike. According to Sam Pickering (1975), however, the tracts are “relentlessly didactic and psychologically simplistic.” Pickering additionally acknowledges that the tracts anticipate the nineteenth-century short story genre. Similarly, Irena Dobrzycka (1980) believes that More was ahead of her time with her fictional representations of the working class in both industrial and rural settings, in this case anticipating the social problem novel later perfected by Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Dickens. The primary aim of the Cheap Repository is also the subject of debate by modern scholars. Susan Pedersen (1986) disputes the common critical notion that its primary intent was “to give religious sanction to the existing social order.” Rather, claims Pedersen, the Cheap Repository represented “a broad evangelical assault on late eighteenth-century popular culture” and was more concerned with the morals of the poor than their politics. Gary Kelly (1987) presents the other side of the controversy, insisting that the tracts in the Cheap Repository “consistently argue that the poverty and misery of the labouring poor are caused not by ‘things as they are’ but by their own idleness, folly, bad management, and mistaken attempts to emulate their betters.” Biographer Charles Howard Ford (1996) suggests that More herself was ambivalent about her primary purpose in all of her writing—even in her early work as a dramatist. According to Ford, “she was torn between the maintenance of aristocratic and patriarchal values for acceptability and the advocacy of moral reforms that rewarded the godly, regardless of sex.” Thus, significant contradictions are apparent in More's works. While they reinforce male supremacy they also forward More's progressive agenda for women's education, and they justify the social and economic position of the upper class even as they criticize the behavior of its individual members. This conflict, in connection with More's continual focus on improving the lives of her contemporaries through her writing, ensures continued readership and debate on More and her career.