Strange sisters in arms

Hannah More - Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination
September 26, 2003

Diametrically opposite to Miss Wollstonecraft; excepting indeed her genius and her literary attainments." That was Richard Polwhele's verdict on Hannah More in the Unsex'd Females (1798). One of the most instructive ways to consider the two studies under review is to look at their willingness to engage with the other subject as a prominent female writer of the period. More was hostile to Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and refused on principle to read it. As Anne Stott points out in her excellent work - the first modern biography of More and the first to make full use of her extensive correspondence - More went out of her way to distance herself from the language of women's rights. It suited More to allow herself to be seen as the opposite of Wollstonecraft, and, for this reason, Stott argues, she was praised by the anti-feminists of her day and has been denounced ever since. More indeed set herself up, not only against Wollstonecraft, but also against "milder feminists" such as Frances Boscawen and Charlotte Walsingham.

However, Stott shows that this was misleading. She argues that the lives and writings of More and other "safe and respectable" literary women, such as Anna Barbauld, Sarah Trimmer and Anna Seward, did much to bolster women's self-esteem. Furthermore, not only was More, with her Sunday schools, a committed activist; she also, as Stott shows, had much in common with Wollstonecraft: "For all their political differences these two writers, so often seen as at opposite poles, agreed that women had been short-changed, stunted in their development by a faulty system of education. Sharing what some commentators have seen as a common misogyny, both believed that the cult of sensibility had trivialised and corrupted them, making them slaves to the demands of their bodies and to their over-heated emotions." Mary Berry argued that Wollstonecraft's Vindication and More's Strictures agreed on all the major points of female education.

Barbara Taylor points out that whatever More's views on female polemicists, they did not prevent her from publishing tens of thousands of pious works exhorting women to use their superior moral influence against Satan, the slave trade and French "democratical" politics. Thus, these two well-written, scholarly accounts capture, through their different protagonists, a common engagement with the public role of women.

Stott points out that, by placing women on the front line against what was presented as Jacobinism, More challenged the limited prospects of her metaphor of the "little garden". Instead, the implication of More's call for female patriotism was that politics in its broadest sense could not be the preserve of men alone. Home and nation were not separate; instead, as guardians of the hearth, women protected the moral values of the country, even if the challengers included women writers such as Wollstonecraft.

Stott's approach is biographical. The organisation is chronological and her subject is taken from West Country beginnings to metropolitan celebrity with a deft handling of the available material. The cast, which includes David Garrick, a crucial patron, Samuel Johnson and William Wilberforce, is fascinating and the handling both of her religiosity and of her later years, when she became a vehement ultra, is as fine as that of "the Garrick years". Born far from the purple of privilege, More died worth £,500. She had led a varied life that included writing books that greatly outsold those of Austen, as well as Percy (1777), one of the most successful plays of the period. She also established Sunday schools and women's benefit clubs. Leaving London to find peace and further the glory of God, Hannah and her sister Patty established 11 schools in the Mendip area that, at their height, were attended by about 1,000 children. Stott carefully relates this episode to general tendencies in More's career. For example, the initiative for the schools is attributed to Wilberforce, but it was More's practice to rationalise her grand projects and fend off accusations of presumption by claiming that she had been pressed into action by a prominent male. In this case, Stott suggests that Wilberforce's offer to fund any project she chose matched More's interest in a purpose that focused on the fashionable philanthropy of Sunday schools.

The schools also led More into new controversy, with criticism from some of the local clergy. In the Blagdon controversy, More was castigated as the representative of an evangelical faction within the church that was out to undermine the establishment. As Stott points out, it was a paradox of a period consumed with anxiety about revolution that More, who saw herself as a conservative, was linked by critics to the radical challenge. More herself moved to the right. In 1821, "sick of that liberty I used to prize", she joined the Constitutional Association, a conservative body established in 1820 to undertake private prosecutions of the writers and disseminators of radical literature. Views that would have made her a mainstream Whig a century earlier now left her an ultra. Stott, however, is at pains to argue that More in her old age - writing anti-slavery poems, knitting for bazaars, entertaining pious aristocratic ladies and organising Bible Society auxiliaries - was no anachronism. Instead, as she points out, More's efforts in the causes of anti-slavery and missionary work were part of a mass mobilisation later imitated by the Anti Corn Law League. Women played an important role in the assertiveness of pressure-group politics.

Taylor's study is not biographical - that task has been ably tackled by Janet Todd - but, instead, a thoughtful, wide-ranging and important examination of Wollstonecraft's thought and, in the epilogue, an able, although all-too-brief account of how it was subsequently presented.

Wollstonecraft is skilfully considered in terms of radical Enlightenment thought, and the links between this and feminism are probed in a treatment that is alive to the diversity of this radicalism. Taylor shows how Wollstonecraft's views developed under the pressure of 1790s politics. For example, her vision of love as an agent of psycho-ethical reformation coalesced with radical dreams of a world free from selfishness and malevolence, so that "eros became the emotional energy of a revolutionary-utopian programme".

Taylor points out that, despite her sometime reputation for it, Wollstonecraft was not a systematic natural-rights thinker. Instead, although her writings were strewn with references to rights, most were cursory. The model female citizen of Vindication was well instructed, independent minded and drawn from the middle ranks. Wollstonecraft assumed that the women of the labouring poor segment of society, the majority of women in Britain, were incapable of acting on their own initiative, because she saw oppression as debilitating, not radicalising. She was concerned about the obstacles that prevented women from realising their potential and thus contributing to civilised progress. To Wollstonecraft, these were not solely a matter of social pressures and constraints. Instead, she was also concerned with her perception of what Taylor characterises as recidivist elements in women's behaviour and social status, including artificial manners, corrupt morals and luxurious tastes. The debilitating theme of luxury was scarcely a new one. Taylor appears to find her subject frustrating on this topic: "In Wollstonecraft's writings, as in most 18th-century works on feminine manners, modern woman is a figure of sensational unreality."

Two first-rate books, different in tone and likely market, but each well attuned to the nuances of their fascinating subject.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Hannah More: The First Victorian

Author - Anne Stott
ISBN - 0 19 924532 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 384

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