Hannah More (British edition 1888)/Chapter 7



The first of Hannah More's childish aspirations had been amply fulfilled by going to London to see bishops and booksellers. Her second desire—for a cottage too low for a clock—she and her sisters now ventured to gratify by the purchase of a low thatched house, with a verandah, by name Cowslip Green, in a parish called Wrington, to the south-east of Bristol. She seems to have longed for absolute quiet and rest in the intervals of her periodical visits to London; and Wrington, in the midst of the fair pasture-lands around Bristol, was a delightful and peaceful spot. The fine old church might not be appreciated, but the clergyman was, for he was exceptionally good and zealous for the time, and glad to avail himself of the aid of such parishioners as the Misses More in the care of his flock. The cottage was the home of Hannah, with one companion: the holiday resort of the other sisters. After the first visit there, Mrs. Kennicott writes:—

I am determined to be rammed, crammed, and jammed there next year, so I desire you will have no schemes that will interfere with my accompanying you from Oxford. I long to be twining honeysuckles, broiling chops, and talking sentiment with you, my dear friend Patty, and am an excellent gipsy cook; while Governess beholds with astonishment, and Sister Betty is preparing for us in the house, with the vain expectation that we shall, some time or other, come into it and look like gentlefolks.

Meantime, the Bas Bleu was at length published, and, coupled with a poem called Florio, dedicated to the Honourable Horace Walpole, and describing the career of a young man of fashion. It has some felicitous couplets, and embalms some manners and customs.

Florio is only idle—

'Twas doing nothing was his curse,
Is there a vice can plague us worse?
He was not vicious, though
Small habits, well pursued, betimes
May reach the dignity of crimes.
He talked fashionable slang,
And many a standard phrase was his,
Might rival bore or banish quiz.

Afterwards we hear of an excellent country squire who is capitally described:—

He dreaded nought like alteration,
Improvement still was innovation;
He said, when any change was brewing,
Reform was a fine name for ruin;
This maxim firmly he would hold,
"That must be always good that's old";

The acts which dignify the day,
He thought portended its decay;
Nay, fear'd 'twould show a falling State,
If Sternhold should give way to Tate;
The Church's ruin he predicted,
Were modern times not interdicted;
He scorn'd them all, but crown'd with palm
The man who set the Hundredth Psalm.

(Miss More does not seem to be aware how justly he might do so.)

When Florio comes down to stay with this worthy Tory,

Six bays unconscious of their weight,
Soon lodged him at Sir Gilbert's gate;
His trusty Swiss, who flew still faster,
Announced th' arrival of their master.

In reply to the hospitable greeting,

Florio uttered
Half sentences, or rather muttered
Disjointed words, as honour, pleasure!
Kind, vastly good, Ma'am! beyond measure!
Tame expletives, with which dull fashion
Fills vacancies of sense and passion.

He finds the country very dull, and tries in vain the library:—

This book was dull and that was wise,
And this was monstrous as to size.

He turns over—

Whate'er look'd small, whate'er looked new,
Half-bound, or stitched in pink or blue;

and finally—

He lays the book upon the shelf,
And leaves the day to spend itself.

However, he falls in love with Sir Gilbert's daughter, gets disgusted with his former life, and returns to Celia, when—

Such was the charm her sweetness gave,
He thought her Wedgewood had been Sève—

Sévres—we suppose. And finally he is cured:

Reviews with scorn his former life,
And for his rescue, thanks his wife.

The publication was much admired. Mrs. Boscawen, at a dinner party, heard "a chorus of panegyric." "Lady Mount Edgcumbe repeats line after line with so much rapture, it would do you good to hear her."

When the authoress went, as usual, to town in 1786, for her annual stay, Horace Walpole said "a thousand diverting things about Florio, and accused her of "having imposed on the world by a dedication full of falsehood." He was full of interest about the recent discovery of the Paston letters, but Hannah thought "they would be of no great literary merit," "and as for me, I have no great appetite for anything as merely being curious, unless it has other merits;" and when she gets the letters, she patriotically declares, "they have none of the elegance of Rowley" (i.e. Chatterton).

Here is a story picked up during this visit. Sir Joseph Yorke met the Duke of Chartres (Égalité) at the house of the Prince of Orange, during the American War. The Duke thought proper to ridicule the English Ambassador, and, being unable to extract a laugh, said, "What, Sir, do you never laugh?" "Seldom, Monseigneur," said Sir Joseph.

"But, Sir, if our fleet should attack England?"

"Alors, Monseigneur, je rirois," was the quiet reply.

The great slavery question was beginning to occupy Hannah's mind. She was already a friend of Lady Middleton, who had first inspired William Wilberforce with the idea of his great work in life; and on going to make her annual visit to Mrs. Garrick in the winter of 1787, she first heard of the Bill that was to be brought into Parliament for its abolition.

Her mind was deeply stirred, and the interest she took in the matter led her into intimacies of a more decidedly religious class than her former friends belonged to—those in fact who had been strongly affected by the Wesleyan leaven without joining the Methodist body, and thus may be considered as the earliest of the Evangelical School.

Besides Mr. Wilberforce himself, then aged twenty-eight, and in the full vigour of the mental powers so far surpassing his bodily strength, she also added to her list of intimate friends the Reverend John Newton. This remarkable man, now chiefly remembered as the correspondent of the poet Cowper, had been in early youth a sailor, and even captain of a slave-ship. After several remarkable escapes, he had become devotedly religious, and had taken Holy Orders. As curate of Olney, he had made a deep impression on Cowper's mind, probably over-exciting that morbid temperament; and his rebukes to the wickedness of the place, in especial an endeavour to prevent the orgies of the fifth of November, had led to a riot with violence, that, for his wife's sake, made him leave Olney. Mr. Thornton, Wilberforce's brother-in-law, had given him the living of St. Mary Woolnoth, and there Hannah More made acquaintance with him, and commenced a lasting friendship and correspondence.

Under this influence, Cowper was writing indignant and pathetic verses upon slavery, and Miss More did her part in a poem, which certainly was not without effect.

There is something absolutely fine in the outburst—

And thou, White Savage, whether lust of gold,
Or lust of conquest rule thee uncontroll'd,
Hero or robber! by whatever name,
Thou plead thy impious claim to wealth as fame.

In reason's eye, in wisdom's fair account,
Your sum of glory boasts a like amount,
The means may differ but the end's the same,
Conquest is pillage with a nobler name,
Who makes the sum of human blessings less,
Or sinks the stock of general happiness.

Though erring fame may grace, though false renown
His life may blazon or his memory crown,
Yet the last Audit shall reverse the cause,
And God shall vindicate His broken laws.

The influences which had freshly come into Miss More's life, and the yearnings for higher things that had always been hers, led her to devote her talent to something more serious than the playful and complimentary, or even ironical, verses which had hitherto been her forte.

Living as she did for half the year among the most select and superior, though not perhaps the most fashionable, society in London, and numbering among her acquaintance and friends many persons of high rank, she necessarily saw a great deal of the habits of the upper classes, and of their effects on others. Much that passed before her eyes was painful to her better judgment, and though sometimes she spoke out, she felt that her silence tolerated many customs that she disapproved, and that her conscience would not allow her to sanction.

She therefore devoted herself to writing a book, called Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society. George the Third had just put forth a Royal Proclamation against Vice and Immorality, and this gave her a good opportunity for publishing her thoughts anonymously.

The treatise was well thought out, and the well-balanced sentences put to shame the careless slip-slop of our own day. "The Sunday Woman," true to herself, begins with explaining that her object is to dwell "on the less obvious offences that are in general safe from the bar, the pulpit, or the throne, yet which do much harm to inferiors." She protests against ladies sending for their hair-dressers on Sunday, as no doubt they did when the elaborate fabrics worn at parties had to be built up by a master hand, and the least wealthy and distinguished dames had to be attended first of all, and to sit encamped in a circle of chairs, with a sheet over head to keep off the dust, sometimes for thirty-six or twenty-four hours before their public appearance.

Another protest is against "card money," then a perquisite of the servants, whom the guests were expected to fee for furnishing the cards. "If the advantage of the dependant is to increase in a direct ratio with the dissipation of his employer, what encouragement is left for valuable servants, or what prospect remains of securing valuable servants for sober-minded families?"

The denial at the door in the form of "Not at home," was already in vogue, and the argument is unanswerable as to the harm to the servant. "To hope that he will always lie for your convenience and not for his own, is perhaps expecting more from human nature in a low and unformed state than we have any right to expect. Nor should the master look for undeviating and perfect rectitude from his servant, in whom the principle of veracity is daily and hourly being weakened in conformity with his own command."

She may have written this the more strongly because Mr. Wilberforce himself, when dismissing a servant for deceit, had been told by the man that "Not at home!" had been his first lesson in the unimportance of truth, coming as it did from so religious a person as his master.

The book made a great sensation. The second edition went off in six days, and the third was sold out in four hours. By many it was attributed to Wilberforce, by others to the Bishop of London (Porteous). The Bishop of Salisbury (Horsley), when Miss More and Mrs. Trimmer were calling at his house, observed that he was between two very singular women, one of whom had undertaken to reform all the poor, and the other all the great; but he congratulated Mrs. Trimmer upon having the most hopeful subjects. An anonymous epigram was sent to Hannah—

Of sense and religion in this little book,
All agree there's a wonderful store,
But while everywhere for an author they look,
I only am wishing for More.

The scene with Horace Walpole is worth describing:—

"He said not a word of the little sly book, but took me to task in general terms for having exhibited such monstrously severe doctrines. I knew he alluded to the 'Manners of the Great,' but we pretended not to understand each other, and it was a most ridiculous conversation. He defended (and that was the joke) religion against me, and said he would do so against the whole Bench of Bishops, that the Fourth Commandment was the most amiable and merciful law that ever was promulgated, as it entirely considers the ease and comfort of the hard-labouring poor, and beasts of burthen; but that it was never intended for persons of fashion, who have no occasion to rest, as they never do anything on the other days; and, indeed, at the time the law was made there were no people of fashion. He really pretended to be in earnest, and we parted mutually unconverted, he lamenting that I had fallen into the heresy of puritanical strictness, and I lamenting that he is a person of fashion for whom the Ten Commandments were not made."

Another of Hannah's jeux d'esprit must be given, a letter supposed to be written in the next century, when French idioms should have invaded the English language. What is amusing is that it is so prophetic that we believe many young readers will accept several of the constructions as natural, while, on the other hand, French itself has become much less idiomatic:—

"Alamode Castle.
"June 20th, 1840.

"Dear Madam,

"I no sooner found myself here than I visited my new apartment, which is composed of five pieces, the small room which gives upon the garden is practised through the great one; and there is no other issue. As I was quite exceeded with fatigue I had no sooner made my toilette than I let myself fall on a bed of repose, when sleep came to surprise me.

"My Lord and I are in the intention to make good cheer and a great expense, and the country is in possession to furnish wherewithal to amuse oneself. All that England has of illustrious, all that youth has of amiable, as beauty of ravishing sees itself in this quarter. Render yourself here then, my friend, and you shall find assembled all that there is of best, whether for letters, whether for birth.

"Yesterday I did my possible to give to eat; the dinner was of the last perfection, the wines left nothing to desire. The repast was seasoned with a thousand rejoicing sallies; full of salt and agreement, and one more brilliant than another. Lady Frances charmed me as for the first time; she is made to paint, has a great air, and has infinity of expression in her physiognomy; her manners have as much of natural as her figure has of interesting.

"I had prayed Lady B—— to be of this dinner, as I had heard nothing but good of her; but I am now disabused on her subject. She is past her first youth, has very little instruction, is inconsequent, and subject to caution; but having evaded with one of her pretenders, her reputation has been committed by the bad faith of a friend, on whose fidelity she reposed herself; she is therefore fallen into devotion, goes no more to spectacles, and play is defended at her house. Though she affects a mortal serious, I observed that her eyes were of intelligence with those of Sir James, near whom I had taken care to plant myself, though this is a sacrifice which costs. Sir James is a great sayer of nothings; it is a spoilt mind, full of fatuity and pretension. His conversation is a tissue of impertinences, and the bad tone which reigns at present has put the last hand to his defects. He makes but little case of his words, but, as he lends himself to whatever is proposed of amusing, the women throw themselves at his head.— Adieu."

Anyone who is familiar with the writings of Madame de Genlis will see that this reads like an almost literal translation from one of her letters.

Hannah was in London in 1789, when George III. went to St. Paul's to return thanks for his recovery; but she could only see the procession, for, in spite of the proclamation, it was impossible to reach a church. "I could have got to the planet Jupiter as easily as to a church. . . . I was on Saturday at a very great dinner at Lord Somers's, and could find out the party principles of each one of the company only by his saying how the King looked, and what degree of attention he gave the sermon. I was very sorry I could not go, as invited, to Lady Cremorne's, to see her way of celebrating the festivity. She had two hundred Sunday-school children, thirty-six of whom she clothed for the occasion. They walked in procession to the church; after Service they walked back to the house, where, after singing a Psalm of Praise, and 'God Save the King,' they had a fine dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. Then the whole two hundred marched off with baskets under their arms full of good things for their parents."