Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
One of the primary concerns in our modern culture is the quest for equality between men and women, and among all ethnic groups. Efforts to restore equality and make amends for past evils committed against mankind were also made by Evangelical Christians in Victorian England. A social reformer of the nineteenth century was Hannah More (1745–1833), a gifted writer and adamant abolitionist. Of humble farm-girl origins, More had four other sisters, a fact that inevitably prompted lifelong interaction with and concern for the education of women. In adulthood, More befriended prominent men and women in the abolitionist movement, including William Wilberforce. Through both social interaction and the published written word, More's voice played a key role in the abolition of the slave trade and promoted the equal rights of women to education as well as the reform of social etiquette and public morality.
Karen Swallow Prior provides a brilliant glimpse into More's life and influence with her biography, Fierce Convictions. Prior is an English professor with an expertise in eighteenth century British literature. Her biography of More beautifully captures the dynamic way in which More's values permeated her relationships and promoted social reforms. The main goal of Prior's book is to show that an individual can influence the world, which is captured in the following words: "She [More] was a woman with virtues and flaws, faith and fears, vision and blind spots. But she was also one whose unique gifts and fierce convictions transformed first her life and subsequently her world and ours" (253). Prior explores More's life through the lens of her influence on culture, offering a fresh historical perspective through which to engage the contemporary ills of sexism and racism. Prior particularly highlights More's impact on education, imagination, friendship, and the abolition of slavery.
Hannah More believed that if women received an education equal to men, they would become intelligent, well-rounded, companionable women able to contribute to society. In More's day, female education focused on tasks such as painting, music, sewing, and dancing, while philosophy and literature were left to men. This narrow scope of education forced women to embody an equally narrow view of personhood, hindering them from engagement in the intellectual world. The cultural belief that intellectual education was solely a masculine pursuit caused women to avoid it in exchange for a prescribed kind of femininity. Hannah More countered these ideas, arguing that instead of making women more masculine, education would enhance female virtue and prowess: "She sought to advance female education in order to fulfill women as women, not to make them like men" (24). More's influence enabled the culture to embrace a fuller education for women, seeing that stimulating the female mind through well-rounded instruction paved the way for a richer and healthier society.
More used imagination as a tool to teach and inspire change. Imaginative works of literature or drama were often viewed as lacking intellectual insight, directed toward children and women rather than society at large. More discredited this narrow view of literature, claiming that imagination increases rather than diminishes the power of serious topics such as theology or philosophy. Prior quotes More: "'Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull.' Rather, the effective teacher should 'enliven these less engaging parts of your discourse with some incidental imagery which will captivate the fancy'" (27). Imagination enables people to experience things for themselves and empathize with others rather than to simply hear flat, meaningless words. More showed that stories have the potential to more effectively teach and broaden the mind than do academic lectures. While encouraging the use of imagination in sermons, More also discovered the novel's power to teach and inspire: "More could no longer deny the power a novel could hold over the imagination, a power that might just as well be harnessed for good rather than ill" (231). As a result of this passion for imagination, More wrote several novels alongside her poetry and religious works. More's emphasis on imagination developed appreciation for experiential literature as an educational authority equal to that of "ancient books" (41).
More's life also demonstrates the value of friendship. Prior writes, "Even natural talent needs support to find success" (43). More had multiple close friendships that lasted throughout her life, including one with abolitionist William Wilberforce. These friendships were built on mutual passions and principles, and their support inspired More to pursue her ambitions. Prior also describes More's interaction with the Bluestocking Society, an educational and literary club for women, which provided support for her writing career. The impact these friendships had in More's life reveals the meaningful role that relationships play in enabling people to pursue their dreams and influence their world.
Along with women's rights, More fought passionately for the abolition of slavery. England's familiarity with the slave trade blinded them to its horrors. Prior notes: "As a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn't know what water is, so a person living in eighteenth-century Great Britain—immersed in an economic and social structure built on the slave trade—could not easily, if at all, see slavery for what it was" (108). Clear-sightedness about the issue required a particular kind of perception, which More possessed and utilized to open society's eyes. One of More's contemporaries, Percy Shelley, describes imagination as "the great instrument of moral good" (121). More used imagination in her writing for this very purpose: to awaken societal sympathy toward slaves and instill a stronger moral conscience. More's efforts coincided with that of others' in such a way that eventually the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire.
Prior addresses numerous cultural issues that More encountered, such as her mother's low social status and the disrespect cast on her father for marrying a servant (8). Prior highlights the social stain their marriage carried due to the inference that they married to legitimize their eldest child. Some biographers rosily paint More's family history as neat and respectable; Prior chooses to acknowledge the moral ambiguities of More's parents' past. This honesty offers a more accurate picture of More's heritage without hiding the cultural imperfections of her family dynamics.
This reviewer wishes Prior had provided more discussion of More's actual writing. Although Prior often quotes More, she only mentions some of More's works and offers little description of their content. This fault is particularly evident in Prior's lack of information on More's abolitionist work. While she acknowledges More's interaction with Wilberforce, there is little description of what their work together actually entailed aside from conversations over dinner, writing pamphlets, and building a group of comrades with similar convictions and motivation. Prior's biographical prowess returns, however, in her comparison of More's views with those of Mary Wollstonecraft. Prior mentions More's Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education and offers helpful descriptions of the book's arguments, despite failing to explain in particular how More's book differs from Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).
Mary Wollstonecraft's views on female education were similar to the Evangelical Hannah More's, despite a stark moral contrast in their respective personal lives. Concerning female education, More "expressed concern about the kind of education that would prepare a woman to be a good wife rather than merely to land a good husband" (85). This idea relates closely with Wollstonecraft, who argued that a woman should gain intelligence in order to cultivate friendship with her husband when romance fades. In More's Strictures . . . on Female Education, she writes, "When a man of sense comes to marry, it is a companion whom he wants, and not an artist" (86). More and Wollstonecraft both advocate for marriage based on friendship.
Prior also recounts More's interaction with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose view of female education starkly differed from both Wollstonecraft's and More's, claiming that the purpose of female education is primarily to better satisfy men's needs. Prior quotes Rousseau: "The whole education of women ought to relate to men. To please men, to be useful to them . . . to make their lives agreeable and sweet—these are the duties of women at all times" (18). More counters Rousseau's claim, arguing that the purpose of female education is to "fulfill women as women," not to make them better props for men (24). By becoming strong and intelligent through education, women become better companions as a result, thus discrediting Rousseau's idea of the ignorant woman as the ideal mate.
More claimed that Rousseau's perspective cultivated ignorant and immoral women. Prior quotes More: "[Women's] moral and intellectual degradation increases in direct proportion to the adoration which is paid to mere external charms" (214). Prior comments, "When beauty is all that is expected or desired in a woman, she is left with nothing in its absence" (214). Therefore, the ideal marriage based on friendship cannot be attained unless women are given an education equal to men. Beyond marriage, well-educated women also benefit society as a whole by providing a fresh perspective distinct from the masculine lens, imbuing their conversations with relational and emotional intelligence. More's personal life demonstrates the valuable contribution that women bring to society.
Overall, Fierce Convictions is a well-rounded biography and valuable historical source for learning about the development of female agency in the nineteenth century. Few books have been written on More's life, although many have been written about her contemporaries, such as William Wilberforce and John Newton. Prior's biography offers a fresh perspective on the female experience during the Abolitionist era. By placing More's life and work in the context of her generation, Prior sheds light on other relevant activities of More's time. By highlighting modern issues of race and feminism, Prior's account of Hannah More offers a fresh lens through which to view women, gender, and ethnicity. The book awakens greater concern for the contemporary rights of women worldwide and efforts toward ethnic harmony while also cultivating a deeper understanding of these issues in the past. Prior's writing style is easily accessible and relevant for readers from adolescence to adulthood.