Hannah More : Education of Woman – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women

Héloïse : Love
Joan of Arc : Heroic Women
Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm
Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society
Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature
Hannah More : Education of Woman
George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women
John Lord

Topics Covered
Progress of female education
Youth of Hannah More
Her accomplishments
Teaches school
Intimacy with great men
Shines in society
Wearied of it
Her ridicule of fashionable gatherings called society
Retirement to Cowslip Green
Her patrons and friends
Labors in behalf of the poor
Foundation of schools
Works on female education
Their good influence
Their leading ideas
Christian education
Removal to Barley Wood
Views of society
Her distinguished visitors
“Coelebs in Search of a Wife”
“Christian Morals”
Her laboring at the age of eighty
The quiet elegance of her life
Removal to Clifton
Happy old age
Exalted character
Remarks on female education
The sphere of woman
What is woman to do?

Hannah More : Education of Woman

A. D. 1745-1833.

One of the useful and grateful tasks of historians and biographers is to bring forward to the eye of every new generation of men and women those illustrious characters who made a great figure in the days of their grandfathers and grandmothers, yet who have nearly faded out of sight in the rush of new events and interests, and the rise of new stars in the intellectual firmament. Extraordinary genius or virtue or services may be forgotten for a while, but are never permanently hidden. There is always somebody to recall them to our minds, whether the interval be short or long. The Italian historian Vico wrote a book which attracted no attention for nearly two hundred years,–in fact, was forgotten,–but was made famous by the discoveries of Niebuhr in the Vatican library, and became the foundation of modern philosophical history. Some great men pass out of view for a generation or two owing to the bitterness of contemporaneous enemies and detractors, and others because of the very unanimity of admirers and critics, leading to no opposition. We weary both of praise and censure. And when either praise or censure stops, the object of it is apparently forgotten for a time, except by the few who are learned. Yet, I repeat, real greatness or goodness is never completely hidden. It reappears with new lustre when brought into comparison with those who are embarked in the same cause.

Thus the recent discussions on the education of women recall to our remembrance the greatest woman who lived in England in the latter part of the last century,–Hannah More,–who devoted her long and prosperous and honorable life to this cause both by practical teaching and by writings which arrested the attention and called forth the admiration of the best people in Europe and America. She forestalled nearly everything which has been written in our times pertaining to the life of woman, both at school and in society. And she evinced in her writings on this great subject an acuteness of observation, a good sense, a breadth and catholicity of judgment, a richness of experience, and a high moral tone which have never been surpassed. She reminds us of the wise Madame de Maintenon in her school at St. Cyr; the pious and philanthropic Mary Lyon at the Mount Holyoke Seminary; and the more superficial and worldly, but truly benevolent and practical, Emma Willard at her institution in Troy,–the last two mentioned ladies being the pioneers of the advanced education for young ladies in such colleges as Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith, and others I could mention. The wisdom, tact, and experience of Madame de Maintenon–the first great woman who gave a marked impulse to female education in our modern times–were not lost on Hannah More, who seems to have laid down the laws best adapted to develop the mind and character of woman under a high civilization. England seems to have been a century in advance of America, both in its wisdom and folly; and the same things in London life were ridiculed and condemned with unsparing boldness by Hannah More which to-day, in New York, have called out the vigorous protests of Dr. Morgan Dix. The educators of our age and country cannot do better than learn wisdom from the “Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education,” as well as the “Thoughts on the Manners of the Great,” which appeared from the pen of Hannah More in the latter part of the 18th century, in which she appears as both moralist and teacher, getting inspiration not only from her exalted labors, but from the friendship and conversation of the great intellectual oracles of her age. I have not read of any one woman in England for the last fifty years, I have not heard or known of any one woman in the United States, who ever occupied the exalted position of Hannah More, or who exercised so broad and deep an influence on the public mind in the combined character of a woman of society, author, and philanthropist. There have been, since her day, more brilliant queens of fashion, greater literary geniuses, and more prominent philanthropists; but she was enabled to exercise an influence superior to any of them, by her friendship with people of rank, by her clear and powerful writings, and by her lofty piety and morality, which blazed amid the vices of fashionable society one hundred years ago.

It is well to dwell on the life and labors of so great and good a woman, who has now become historical. But I select her especially as the representative of the grandest moral movement of modern times,–that which aims to develop the mind and soul of woman, and give to her the dignity of which she has been robbed by paganism and “philistinism.” I might have selected some great woman nearer home and our own time, more intimately connected with the profession of educating young ladies; but I prefer to speak of one who is universally conceded to have rendered great service to her age and country. It is doubly pleasant to present Hannah More, because she had none of those defects and blemishes which have often detracted from the dignity of great benefactors. She was about as perfect a woman as I have read of; and her virtues were not carried out to those extremes of fanaticism which have often marked illustrious saints, from the want of common-sense or because of visionary theories. Strict and consistent as a moralist, she was never led into any extravagances or fanaticisms. Stern even as a disciplinarian, she did not proscribe healthy and natural amusements. Strong-minded,–if I may use a modern contemptuous phrase,–she never rebelled against the ordinances of nature or the laws dictated by inspiration. She was a model woman: beautiful, yet not vain; witty, yet never irreverent; independent, yet respectful to authority; exercising private judgment, yet admired by bishops; learned, without pedantry; hospitable, without extravagance; fond of the society of the great, yet spending her life among the poor; alive to the fascinations of society, yet consecrating all her energies of mind and body to the good of those with whom she was brought in contact; as capable of friendship as Paula, as religious as Madame Guyon, as charming in conversation as Récamier, as practical as Elizabeth, as broad and tolerant as Fénelon, who was himself half woman in his nature, as the most interesting men of genius are apt to be. Nothing cynical, or bitter, or extravagant, or contemptuous appears in any of her writings, most of which were published anonymously,–from humility as well as sensitiveness. Vanity was a stranger to her, as well as arrogance and pride. Embarking in great enterprises, she never went outside the prescribed sphere of woman. Masculine in the force and vigor of her understanding, she was feminine in all her instincts,–proper, amiable, and gentle; a woman whom everybody loved and everybody respected, even to kings and queens.

Hannah More was born in a little village near Bristol, 1745, and her father was the village schoolmaster. He had been well educated, and had large expectations; but he was disappointed, and was obliged to resort to this useful but irksome way of getting a living. He had five daughters, of whom Hannah was the fourth. As a girl, she was very precocious in mind, as well as beautiful and attractive in her person. She studied Latin when only eight years of age. Her father, it would seem, was a very sensible man, and sought to develop the peculiar talents which each of his daughters possessed, without the usual partiality of parents, who are apt to mistake inclination for genius. Three of the girls had an aptitude for teaching, and opened a boarding-school in Bristol when the oldest was only twenty. The school was a great success, and soon became fashionable, and ultimately famous. To this school the early labors of Hannah More were devoted; and she soon attracted attention by her accomplishments, especially in the modern languages, in which she conversed with great accuracy and facility. But her talents were more remarkable than her accomplishments; and eminent men sought her society and friendship, who in turn introduced her to their own circle of friends, by all of whom she was admired. Thus she gradually came to know the celebrated Dean Tucker of Gloucester cathedral; Ferguson the astronomer, then lecturing at Bristol; the elder Sheridan, also giving lectures on oratory in the same city; Garrick, on the eve of his retirement from the stage; Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Mrs. Montagu, in whose salon the most distinguished men of the age assembled as the headquarters of fashionable society,–Edmund Burke, then member for Bristol in the House of Commons; Gibbon; Alderman Cadell, the great publisher; Bishop Porteus; Rev. John Newton; and Sir James Stonehouse, an eminent physician. With all these stars she was on intimate terms, visiting them at their houses, received by them all as more than an equal,–for she was not only beautiful and witty, but had earned considerable reputation for her poetry. Garrick particularly admired her as a woman of genius, and performed one of her plays (“Percy”) twenty successive nights at Drury Lane, writing himself both the prologue and the epilogue. It must be borne in mind that when first admitted to the choicest society of London,–at the houses not merely of literary men, but of great statesmen and nobles like Lord Camden, Lord Spencer, the Duke of Newcastle. Lord Pembroke, Lord Granville, and others,–she was teaching in a girls’ school at Bristol, and was a young lady under thirty years of age.

It was as a literary woman–when literary women were not so numerous or ambitious as they now are–that Hannah More had the entrée into the best society under the patronage of the greatest writers of the age. She was a literary lion before she was twenty-five. She attracted the attention of Sheridan by her verses when she was scarcely eighteen. Her “Search after Happiness” went through six editions before the year 1775. Her tragedy of “Percy” was translated into French and German before she was thirty; and she realized from the sale of it £600. “The Fatal Falsehood” was also much admired, but did not meet the same success, being cruelly attacked by envious rivals. Her “Bas Bleu” was praised by Johnson in unmeasured terms. It was for her poetry that she was best known from 1775 to 1785, the period when she lived in the fashionable and literary world, and which she adorned by her wit and brilliant conversation,–not exactly a queen of society, since she did not set up a salon, but was only an honored visitor at the houses of the great; a brilliant and beautiful woman, whom everybody wished to know.

I will not attempt any criticism on those numerous poems. They are not much read and valued in our time. They are all after the style of Johnson and Pope;–the measured and artificial style of the eighteenth century, in imitation of the ancient classics and of French poetry, in which the wearisome rhyme is the chief peculiarity,–smooth, polished, elaborate, but pretty much after the same pattern, and easily imitated by school-girls. The taste of this age–created by Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson, Longfellow, and others–is very different. But the poems of Hannah More were undoubtedly admired by her generation, and gave her great éclat and considerable pecuniary emolument. And yet her real fame does not rest on those artificial poems, respectable as they were one hundred years ago, but on her writings as a moralist and educator.

During this period of her life–from 1775 to 1785–she chiefly resided with her sisters in Bristol, but made long visits to London, and to the houses of famous or titled personages. In a worldly point of view these years were the most brilliant, but not most useful, period of her life. At first she was intoxicated by the magnificent attentions she received, and had an intense enjoyment of cultivated society. It was in these years she formed the most ardent friendships of her life. Of all her friends, she seems to have been most attached to Garrick,–the idol of society, a general favorite wherever he chose to go, a man of irreproachable morals and charming conversational powers; at whose house and table no actor or actress was ever known to be invited, except in one solitary instance; from which it would appear that he was more desirous of the attentions of the great than of the sympathy and admiration of the people of his own profession. It is not common for actors to be gifted with great conversational powers, any more than for artists, as a general thing, to be well-read people, especially in history. Hannah More was exceedingly intimate with both Garrick and his wife; and his death, in 1779, saddened and softened his great worshipper. After his death she never was present at any theatrical amusement. She would not go to the theatre to witness the acting of her own dramas; not even to see Mrs. Siddons, when she appeared as so brilliant a star. In fact, after Garrick’s death Miss More partially abandoned fashionable society, having acquired a disgust of its heartless frivolities and seductive vices.

David Garrick and His Wife Eva-Maria Veigel After the painting by William Hogarth

David Garrick and His Wife Eva-Maria Veigel After the painting by William Hogarth

With the death of Garrick a new era opened in the life of Hannah More, although for the succeeding five years she still was a frequent visitor in the houses of those she esteemed, both literary lions and people of rank. It would seem, during this period, that Dr. Johnson was her warmest friend, whom she ever respected for his lofty moral nature, and before whom she bowed down in humble worship as an intellectual dictator. He called her his child. Sometimes he was severe on her, when she differed from him in opinion, or when caught praising books which he, as a moralist, abhorred,–like the novels of Fielding and Smollet; for the only novelist he could tolerate was Richardson. Once when she warmly expatiated in praise of the Jansenists, the overbearing autocrat exclaimed in a voice of thunder: “Madam, let me hear no more of this! Don’t quote your popish authorities to me; I want none of your popery!” But seeing that his friend was overwhelmed with the shock he gave her, his countenance instantly changed; his lip quivered, and his eyes filled with tears. He gently took her hand, and with the deepest emotion exclaimed: “Child, never mind what I have said,–follow true piety wherever you find it.” This anecdote is a key to the whole character of Johnson, interesting and uninteresting; for this rough, tyrannical dogmatist was also one of the tenderest of men, and had a soul as impressible as that of a woman.

The most intimate woman friend, it would seem, that Hannah ever had was Mrs. Garrick, both before and after the death of her husband; and the wife of Garrick was a Roman Catholic. Hannah More usually spent several months with this accomplished and warm-hearted woman at her house in Hampton, generally from March to July. This was often her home during the London season, after which she resided in Bristol with her sisters, who made a fortune by their boarding-school. After Hannah had entered into the literary field she supported herself by her writings, which until 1785 were chiefly poems and dramas,–now almost forgotten, but which were widely circulated and admired in her day, and by which she kept her position in fashionable and learned society. After the death of Garrick, as we have said, she seemed to have acquired a disgust of the gay and fashionable society which at one time was so fascinating. She found it frivolous, vain, and even dull. She craved sympathy and intellectual conversation and knowledge. She found neither at a fashionable party, only outside show, gay dresses, and unspeakable follies,–no conversation; for how could there be either the cultivation of friendship or conversation in a crowd, perchance, of empty people for the most part? “As to London,” says she, “I shall be glad to get out of it; everything is great and vast and late and magnificent and dull.” I very seldom go to these parties, and I always repent when I do. My distaste of these scenes of insipid magnificence I have not words to tell. Every faculty but the sight is starved, and that has a surfeit. I like conversation parties of the right sort, whether of four persons or forty; but it is impossible to talk when two or three hundred people are continually coming in and popping out, or nailing themselves to a card table. “Conceive,” said she, “of the insipidity of two or three hundred people,–all dressed in the extremity of fashion, painted as red as bacchanals, poisoning the air with perfumes, treading on each other’s dresses, not one in ten able to get a chair when fainting with weariness. I never now go to these things when I can possibly avoid it, and stay when there as few minutes as I can.” Thus she wrote as early as 1782. She went through the same experience as did Madame Récamier, learning to prefer a small and select circle, where conversation was the chief charm, especially when this circle was composed only of gifted men and women. In this incipient disgust of gay and worldly society–chiefly because it improved neither her mind nor her morals, because it was stupid and dull, as it generally is to people of real culture and high intelligence–she seems to have been gradually drawn to the learned prelates of the English Church,–like Dr. Porteus, Bishop of Chester, afterwards of London; the Bishop of St. Asaph; and Dr. Home, then Dean of Canterbury. She became very intimate with Wilberforce and Rev. John Newton, while she did not give up her friendship for Horace Walpole, Pepys, and other lights of the social world.

About this time (1785) she retired to Cowslip Green, a pretty cottage ten miles from Bristol, and spent her time in reading, writing, and gardening. The country, with its green pastures and still waters, called her back to those studies and duties which are most ennobling, and which produce the most lasting pleasure. In this humble retreat she had many visitors from among her illustrious friends. She became more and more religious, without entirely giving up society; corresponding with the eminent men and women she visited, especially Mrs. Montagu, Dr. Porteus, Mrs. Boscawen, Mr. Pepys, and Rev. John Newton. In the charming seclusion of Cowslip Green she wrote her treatise on the “Manners of the Great;” the first of that series in which she rebuked the fashions and follies of the day. It had an immense circulation, and was published anonymously. This very popular work was followed, in 1790, by a volume on an “Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World,” which produced a still deeper sensation among the great, and was much admired. The Bishop of London (Porteus) was full of its praises; so was John Newton, although he did not think that any book could wean the worldly from their pleasures.

Thus far most of the associations of Hannah More had been with the fashionable world, by which she was petted and flattered. Seeing clearly its faults, she had sought to reform it by her writings and by her conversation. But now she turned her attention to another class,–the poor and ignorant,–and labored for them. She instituted a number of schools for the poor in her immediate neighborhood, superintended them, raised money for them, and directed them, as Madame de Maintenon did the school of St. Cyr; only with this difference,–that while the Frenchwoman sought to develop the mind and character of a set of aristocratic girls to offset the practical infidelity that permeated the upper walks of life, Hannah More desired to make the children of the poor religious amid the savage profligacy which then marked the peasant class. The first school she established was at Cheddar, a wild and sunless hollow, amid yawning caverns, about ten miles from Cowslip Green,–the resort of pleasure parties for its picturesque cliffs and fissures. Around this weird spot was perhaps the most degraded peasantry to be found in England, without even spiritual instruction,–for the vicar was a non-resident, and his living was worth but £50 a year. In her efforts to establish a school in such a barbarous and pagan locality Hannah met with serious obstacles. The farmers and petty landholders were hostile to her scheme, maintaining that any education would spoil the poor, and make them discontented. Even the farmers themselves were an ignorant and brutal class, very depraved, and with intense prejudices. For a whole year she labored with them to disarm their hostilities and prejudices, and succeeded at last in collecting two hundred and fifty children in the schoolhouse which she had built. Their instruction was of course only elemental, but it was religious.

From Cheddar, Hannah More was led to examine into the condition of neighboring places. Thirteen contiguous parishes were without a resident curate, and nine of these were furnished with schools, with over five hundred scholars. Her theory was,–a suitable education for each, and a Christian education for all. While she was much encouraged by her ecclesiastical aristocratic friends, she still encountered great opposition from the farmers. She also excited the jealousy of the Dissenters for thus invading the territory of ignorance. All her movements were subjected to prelates and clergymen of the Church of England for their approval; for she put herself under their patronage. And yet the brutal ignorance of the peasantry was owing in part to the neglect of these very clergymen, who never visited these poor people under their charge. As an excuse for them, it may be said that at that time there were 4,809 parishes in England and Wales in which a clergyman could not reside, if he would, for lack of a parsonage. At that time, even in Puritan New England, every minister was supposed to live in a parsonage. To-day, not one parish in ten is provided with that desirable auxiliary.

Not only were the labors of Hannah More extended to the ignorant and degraded by the establishment of schools in her neighborhood, at an expense of about £1,000 a year, part of which she contributed herself, but she employed her pen in their behalf, writing, at the solicitation of the Bishop of London, a series of papers or tracts for the times, with special reference to the enlightenment of the lower classes on those subjects that were then agitating the country. The whole land was at this time inundated with pamphlets full of infidelity and discontent, fanned by the French Revolution, then passing through its worst stages of cruelty, atheism, and spoliation. Burke about the same time wrote his “Reflections,” which are immortal for their wisdom and profundity; but he wrote for the upper classes, not merely in England, but in America and on the continent of Europe. Hannah More wrote for the lower classes, and in a style of great clearness and simplicity. Her admirable dialogue, called “Village Politics,” by Will Chip, a country carpenter, exposed the folly and atrocity of the revolutionary doctrines then in vogue. Its circulation was immense. The Government purchased several thousand copies for distribution. It was translated into French and Italian. Similar in spirit was the tract in reply to the infidel speech of M. Dupont in the French Convention, in which he would divorce all religion from education. The circulation of this tract was also very great. These were followed, in 1795, by the “Cheap Repository,” a periodical designed for the poor, with religious tales, most of which have since been published by Tract Societies, among them the famous story of “The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain.” The “Cheap Repository” was continued for three years, and circulated in every village and hamlet of England and America. It almost equalled the popularity of the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Two millions of these tracts were sold in the first year.

In 1799 Hannah More’s great work entitled “Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education” appeared, which passed through twenty editions in a few years. It was her third ethical publication in prose, and the most powerful of all her writings. Testimonies as to its value poured in upon her from every quarter. Nothing was more talked about at that time except, perhaps, Robert Hall’s “Sermons.” It was regarded as one of the most perfect works of its kind that any country or age had produced. It made as deep an impression on the English mind as the “Émile” of Rousseau did on the French half a century earlier, but was vastly higher in its moral tone. I know of no treatise on education so full and so sensible as this. It ought to be reprinted, for the benefit of this generation, for its author has forestalled all subsequent writers on this all-important subject. There is scarcely anything said by Rev. Morgan Dix, in his excellent Lenten Lectures, which was not said by Hannah More in the last century. Herbert Spencer may be more original, possibly more profound, but he is not so practical or clear or instructive as the great woman who preceded him more than half a century.

The fundamental principle which underlies all Hannah More’s theories of education is the necessity of Christian instruction, which Herbert Spencer says very little about, and apparently ignores. She would not divorce education from religion. Women, especially, owe their elevation entirely to Christianity. Hence its influence should be paramount, to exalt the soul as well as enlarge the mind. All sound education should prepare one for the duties of life, rather than for the enjoyment of its pleasures. What good can I do? should be the first inquiry. It is Christianity alone that teaches the ultimate laws of morals. Hannah More would subject every impulse and every pursuit and every study to these ultimate laws as a foundation for true and desirable knowledge. She would repress everything which looks like vanity. She would educate girls for their homes, and not for a crowd; for usefulness, and not for admiration; for that; period of life when external beauty is faded or lost. She thinks more highly of solid attainments than of accomplishments, and would incite to useful rather than unnecessary works. She would have a girl learn the languages, though she deems them of little value unless one can think in them. She would cultivate that “sensibility which has its seat in the heart, rather than the nerves.” Anything which detracts from modesty and delicacy, and makes a girl bold, forward, and pushing, she severely rebukes. She would check all extravagance in dancing, and would not waste much time on music unless one has a talent for it. She thinks that the excessive cultivation of the arts has contributed to the decline of States. She is severe on that style of dress which permits an indelicate exposure of the person, and on all forms of senseless extravagance. She despises children’s balls, and ridicules children’s rights and “Liliputian coquetry” with ribbons and feathers. She would educate women to fulfil the duties of daughters, wives, and mothers rather than to make them dancers, singers, players, painters, and actresses. She maintains that when a man of sense comes to marry, he wants a companion rather than a creature who can only dress and dance and play upon an instrument. Yet she does not discourage ornamental talent; she admits it is a good thing, but not the best thing that a woman has. She would not cut up time into an endless multiplicity of employments, She urges mothers to impress on their daughters’ minds a discriminating estimate of personal beauty, so that they may not have their heads turned by the adulation that men are so prone to lavish on those who are beautiful. While she deprecates harshness, she insists on a rigorous discipline. She would stimulate industry and the cultivation of moderate abilities, as more likely to win in the long race of life,–even as a barren soil and ungenial climate have generally produced the most thrifty people. She would banish frivolous books which give only superficial knowledge, and even those abridgments and compendiums which form too considerable a part of ordinary libraries, and recommends instead those works which exercise the reasoning faculties and stir up the powers of the mind. She expresses great contempt for English sentimentality, French philosophy, Italian poetry, and German mysticism, and is scarcely less severe on the novels of her day, which stimulate the imagination without adding to knowledge. She recommends history as the most improving of all studies, both as a revelation of the ways of Providence and as tending to the enlargement of the mind. She insists on accuracy in language and on avoiding exaggerations. She inculcates co-operation with man, and not rivalry or struggle for power. What she says about women’s rights–which, it seems, was a question that agitated even her age–is worth quoting, since it is a woman, and not a man, who speaks:–

“Is it not more wise to move contentedly in the plain path which Providence has obviously marked out for the sex, and in which custom has for the most part rationally confirmed them, rather than to stray awkwardly, unbecomingly, unsuccessfully, in a forbidden road; to be the lawful possessors of a lesser domestic territory, rather than the turbulent usurpers of a wider foreign empire; to be good originals, rather than bad imitators; to be the best thing of one’s kind, rather than an inferior thing even if it were of a higher kind; to be excellent women, rather than indifferent men? Let not woman view with envy the keen satirist hunting vice through all the doublings and windings of the heart; the sagacious politician leading senates and directing the fate of empires; the acute lawyer detecting the obliquities of fraud, or the skilful dramatist exposing the pretensions of folly; but let her remember that those who thus excel, to all that Nature bestows and books can teach must add besides that consummate knowledge of the world to which a delicate woman has no fair avenues, and which, even if she could attain, she would never be supposed to have come honestly by…. Women possess in a high degree that delicacy and quickness of perception, and that nice discernment between the beautiful and defective which comes under the denomination of taste. Both in composition and action they excel in details; but they do not so much generalize their ideas as men, nor do their minds seize a great subject with so large a grasp. They are acute observers, and accurate judges of life and manners, so far as their own sphere of observation extends; but they describe a smaller circle. And they have a certain tact which enables them to feel what is just more instantaneously than they can define it. They have an intuitive penetration into character bestowed upon them by Providence, like the sensitive and tender organs of some timid animals, as a kind of natural guard to warn of the approach of danger,–beings who are often called to act defensively.

“But whatever characteristic distinctions may exist between man and woman, there is one great and leading circumstance which raises woman and establishes her equality with man. Christianity has exalted woman to true and undisputed dignity. ‘In Christ Jesus there is neither rich nor poor, bond nor free, male nor female,’ So that if we deny to women the talents which lead them to excel as lawyers, they are preserved from the peril of having their principles warped by that too indiscriminate defence of right and wrong to which the professors of the law are exposed. If we question their title to eminence as mathematicians, they are exempted from the danger of looking for demonstration on subjects which, by their very nature, are incapable of affording it. If they are less conversant with the powers of Nature, the structure of the human frame, and the knowledge of the heavenly bodies than philosophers, physicians, and astronomers, they are delivered from the error into which many of each of these have sometimes fallen, from the fatal habit of resting on second causes, instead of referring all to the first. And let women take comfort that in their very exemption from privileges which they are sometimes disposed to envy, consist their security and their happiness.”

Thus spoke Hannah More at the age of fifty-four, with a wider experience of society and a profounder knowledge of her sex than any Englishwoman of the eighteenth century, and as distinguished for her intellectual gifts and cultivation as she was for her social graces and charms,–the pet and admiration of all who were great and good in her day, both among men and women. Bear these facts in mind, ye obscure, inexperienced, discontented, envious, ambitious seekers after notoriety or novelty!–ye rebellious and defiant opponents of the ordinances of God and the laws of Nature, if such women there are!–remember that the sentiments I have just quoted came from the pen of a woman, and not of a man; of a woman who was the best friend of her sex, and the most enlightened advocate of their education that lived in the last century; and a woman who, if she were living now, would undoubtedly be classed with those whom we call strong-minded, and perhaps masculine and ambitious. She recognizes the eternal distinction between the sphere of a man and the sphere of a woman, without admitting any inferiority of woman to man, except in physical strength and a sort of masculine power of generalization and grasp. And she would educate woman for her own sphere, not for the sphere of man, whatever Christianity, or experience, or reason may define that sphere to be. She would make woman useful, interesting, lofty; she would give dignity to her soul; she would make her the friend and helpmate of man, not his rival; she would make her a Christian woman, since, with Christian virtues and graces and principles, she will not be led astray.

But I would not dwell on ground which may be controverted, and which to some may appear discourteous or discouraging to those noble women who are doomed by dire and hard misfortunes, by terrible necessities, to labor in some fields which have been assigned to man, and in which departments they have earned the admiration and respect of men themselves. This subject is only one in a hundred which Hannah More discussed with clearness, power, and wisdom. She is equally valuable and impressive in what she says of conversation,–a realm in which she had no superior. Hear what she says about this gift or art:

“Do we wish to see women take a lead in metaphysical disquisitions,–to plunge in the depths of theological polemics? Do we wish to enthrone them in the chairs of our universities, to deliver oracles, harangues, and dissertations? Do we desire to behold them, inflated with their original powers, laboring to strike out sparks of wit, with a restless anxiety to shine, and with a labored affectation to please, which never pleases? All this be far from them! But we do wish to see the conversation of well-bred women rescued from vapid commonplaces, from uninteresting tattle, from trite communications, from frivolous earnestness, from false sensibility, from a warm interest about things of no moment, and an indifference to topics the most important; from a cold vanity, from the overflows of self-love, exhibiting itself under the smiling mask of an engaging flattery; and from all the factitious manners of artificial intercourse. We do wish to see the time passed in polished and intelligent society considered as the pleasant portion of our existence, and not consigned to premeditated trifling and systematic unprofitableness. Women too little live or converse up to their understandings; and however we deprecate affectation and pedantry, let it be remembered that both in reading and conversing, the understanding gains more by stretching than stooping. The mind by applying itself to objects below its level, contracts and shrinks itself to the size of the object about which it is conversant. In the faculty of speaking well, ladies have such a happy promptitude of turning their slender advantages to account, that though never taught a rule of syntax, they hardly ever violate one, and often possess an elegant arrangement of style without having studied any of the laws of composition, And yet they are too ready to produce not only pedantic expressions, but crude notions and hackneyed remarks with all the vanity of conscious discovery, and all from reading mere abridgments and scanty sketches rather than exhausting subjects.”

Equally forcible are her remarks on society:–

“Perhaps,” said she, “the interests of friendship, elegant conversation, and true social pleasure, never received such a blow as when fashion issued the decree that everybody must be acquainted with everybody. The decline of instructive conversation has been effected in a great measure by the barbarous habit of assembly en masse, where one hears the same succession of unmeaning platitudes, mutual insincerities, and aimless inquiries. It would be trite, however, to dwell on the vapid talk which must almost of necessity mark those who assemble in crowds, and which we are taught to call society, which really cannot exist without the free interchange of thought and sentiment. Hence society only truly shines in small and select circles of people of high intelligence, who are drawn together by friendship as well as admiration.”

About two years after this work on education appeared,–education in the broadest sense, pertaining to woman at home and in society as well as at school,–Hannah More moved from her little thatched cottage, and built Barley Wood,–a large villa, where she could entertain the increasing circle of her friends, who were at this period only the learned, the pious, and the distinguished, especially bishops like Porteus and Horne, and philanthropists like Wilberforce. The beauty of this new residence amid woods and lawns attracted her sisters from Bath, who continued to live with her the rest of their lives, and to co-operate with her in deeds of benevolence. In this charming retreat she wrote perhaps the most famous of her books, “Coelebs in Search of a Wife,”–not much read, I fancy, in these times, but admired in its day before the great revolution in novel-writing was made by Sir Walter Scott. Yet this work is no more a novel than the “Dialogues of Plato.” Like “Rasselas,” it is a treatise,–a narrative essay on the choice of a wife, the expansion and continuation of her strictures on education and fashionable life. This work appeared in 1808, when the writer was sixty-three years of age. As on former occasions, she now not only assumed an anonymous name, but endeavored to hide herself under deeper incognita,–all, however, to no purpose, as everybody soon knew, from the style, who the author was. The first edition of this popular work–popular, I mean, in its day, for no work is popular long, though it may remain forever a classic on the shelves of libraries–was sold in two weeks. Twelve thousand were published the first year, the profits of which were £2,000. In this country the sale was larger, thirty thousand copies being sold during the life of the author. It was also translated into most of the modern languages of Europe. In 1811 appeared her work on “Christian Morals,” which had a sale of ten thousand; and in 1815 her essay on the “Character and Practical Writings of Saint Paul,” of which seven thousand copies were sold. These works were followed by her “Moral Sketches of Prevailing Opinions and Manners,” of which ten thousand were sold, and which realized a royalty of £3,000.

At the age of eighty, Hannah More wrote her “Spirit of Prayer,” of which nearly twenty thousand copies were printed; and with this work her literary career virtually closed. Her later works were written amid the pains of disease and many distractions, especially visits from distinguished and curious people, which took up her time and sadly interrupted her labors. At the age of eighty, though still receiving many visitors, she found herself nearly alone in the world. All her most intimate friends had died,–Mrs. Garrick at the age of ninety-eight; Sir William Pepys (the Laelius of the “Bas Bleu”); Dr. Porteus, Bishop of London; Dr. Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury; Bishop Horne, Bishop Barrington; Dr. Andrew, Dean of Canterbury; and Lady Cremon, besides her three sisters. The friends of her earlier days had long since passed away,–Garrick, Johnson, Reynolds, Horace Walpole. Of those who started in the race with her few were left. Still, visitors continued to throng her house to the last, impelled by admiration or curiosity; and she was obliged at length to limit her levee to the hours between one and three.

Hannah More lived at Barley Wood nearly thirty years in dignified leisure, with an ample revenue and in considerable style, keeping her carriage and horses, with a large number of servants, dispensing a generous hospitality, and giving away in charities a considerable part of her income. She realized from her pen £30,000, and her sisters also had accumulated a fortune by their school in Bristol. Her property must have been considerable, since on her death she bequeathed in charities nearly £10,000, beside endowing a church. She spent about £900 a year in charities.

The last few years of her residence at Barley Wood were disturbed by the ingratitude and dishonesty of her servants. They deceived and robbed her, especially those to whom she had been most kind and generous. She was, at her advanced age, entirely dependent on these servants, so that she could not reform her establishment. There was the most shameless peculation in the kitchen, and money given in charity was appropriated by the servants, who all combined to cheat her. Out of her sight, they were disorderly: they gave nocturnal suppers to their friends, and drank up her wines. So she resolved to discharge the whole of them, and sell her beautiful place; and when she finally left her home, these servants openly insulted her. She removed to a house in Clifton, where she had equal comfort and fewer cares. In this house she spent the remaining four years of her useful life, dispensing charities, and entertaining the numerous friends who visited her, and the crowd who came to do her honor. She died in September, 1833, at the age of eighty-eight, retaining her intellectual faculties, like Madame de Maintenon, nearly to the last. She was buried with great honors. A beautiful monument was erected to her memory in the parish church where her mortal remains were laid,–the subscription to this monument being five times greater than the sum needed.

Hannah More was strongly attached to the Church of England, and upheld the authority of the established religious institutions of the country. She excited some hostility from the liberality of her views, for she would occasionally frequent the chapels of the Dissenters and partake of their communion. She was supposed by many to lean towards Methodism,–as everybody was accused of doing in the last century, in England, who led a strictly religious life. She was evangelical in her views, but was not Calvinistic; nor was she a believer in instantaneous conversions, any more than she was in baptismal regeneration. She contributed liberally to religious and philanthropic societies. The best book, she thought, that was ever published was Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living and Dying;” but her opinion was that John Howe was a greater man. She was a great admirer of Shakspeare, whom she placed on the highest pedestal of human genius. She also admired Sir Walter Scott’s poetry, especially “Marmion.” She admitted the genius of Byron, but had such detestation of his character that she would not read his poetry.

The best and greatest part of the life of Hannah More was devoted to the education and elevation of her sex. Her most valuable writings were educational and moral. Her popularity did not wane with advancing years. No literary woman ever had warmer friends; and these she retained. She never lost a friend except by death. She had to lament over no broken friendships, since her friendships were based on respect and affection. Her nature must have been very genial. For so strict a woman in her religious duties, she was very tolerant of human infirmities. She was faithful in reproof, but having once given her friendship she held on to it with great tenacity; she clung to the worldly Horace Walpole as she did to Dr. Johnson. The most intimate woman friend of her long life was a Catholic. Hannah was never married, which was not her fault, for she was jilted by the man she loved,–for whom, however, she is said to have retained a friendly feeling to the last. Though unmarried, she was addressed as Mrs., not Miss, More; and she seems to have insisted on this, which I think was a weakness, since the dignity of her character, her fame and high social position, needed no conventional crutch to make her appear more matronly. As a mere fashionable woman of society, her name would never have descended to our times; as a moralist she is immortal, so far as any writer can be. As an author, I do not regard her as a great original genius; but her successful and honorable career shows how much may be done by industry and perseverance. Her memory is kept especially fresh from the interest she took in the education of her sex, and from her wise and sage counsels, based on religion and a wide experience. No woman ever had better opportunities for the study of her sex, or more nobly improved them. She was the most enlightened advocate of a high education for women that her age and even her century produced.

Now, what is meant by a high education for women? for in our times the opinions of people in regard to this matter are far from being harmonious. Indeed, on no subject is there more disagreement; there is no subject which provokes more bitter and hostile comments; there is no subject on which both men and women wrangle with more acerbity, even when they are virtually agreed,–for the instincts of good women are really in accord with the profoundest experience and reason of men.

In the few remarks to which I am now limited I shall not discuss the irritating and disputed question of co-education of the sexes, which can only be settled by experience. On this subject we have not yet sufficient facts for a broad induction. On the one hand, it would seem that so long as young men and women mingle freely together in amusements, at parties and balls, at the theatre and opera, in the lecture-room, in churches, and most public meetings, it is not probable that any practical evils can result from educational competition of the two sexes in the same class-rooms, especially when we consider that many eminent educators have given their testimony in its favor, so far as it has fallen under their observation and experience. But, on the other hand, the co-education of the sexes may imply that both girls and boys, by similarity of studies, are to be educated for the same sphere. Boys study the higher mathematics not merely for mental discipline, but in order to be engineers, astronomers, surveyors, and the like; so, too, they study chemistry, in its higher branches, to be chemists and physicians and miners. If girls wish to do this rough work, let them know that they seek to do men’s work. If they are to do women’s work, it would seem that they should give more attention to music, the modern languages, and ornamental branches than boys do, since few men pursue these things as a business.

The question is, Is it wise for boys and girls to pursue the same studies in the more difficult branches of knowledge? I would withhold no study from a woman on the ground of assumed intellectual inferiority. I believe that a woman can grasp any subject as well as a man can, so far and so long as her physical strength will permit her to make exhaustive researches. There are some studies which task the physical strength of men to its utmost tension. If any woman has equal physical power with men to master certain subjects, let her pursue them; for success, even with men, depends upon physical endurance as well as brain-power. And thus the question is one of physical strength and endurance; and women must settle for themselves whether they can run races with men in studies in which only the physically strong can hope to succeed.

Hannah More painting by Henry William Pickersgill

Hannah More painting by Henry William Pickersgill

Then, again, I would educate women with reference to the sphere in which they must forever move,–a sphere settled by the eternal laws of Nature and duty, against which it is folly to rebel. Does any one doubt or deny that the sphere of women is different from the sphere of men? Can it be questioned that a class of studies pursued by women who are confined for a considerable period of life to domestic duties,–like the care of children, and the details of household economy, and attendance on the sick, and ornamental art labors,–should not be different from those pursued by men who undertake the learned professions, and the government of the people, and the accumulation of wealth in the hard drudgeries of banks and counting-houses and stores and commercial travelling? There is no way to get round this question except by maintaining that men should not be exempted from the cares and duties which for all recorded ages have been assigned to women; and that women should enter upon the equally settled sphere of man, and become lawyers, politicians, clergymen, members of Congress and of State legislatures, sailors, merchants, commercial travellers, bankers, railway conductors, and steamship captains. I once knew the discontented wife of an eminent painter, with a brilliant intellect, who insisted that her husband should leave his studio and spend five hours a day in the drudgeries of the nursery and kitchen to relieve her, and that she should spend the five hours in her studio as an amateur,–that they thus might be on an equality! The husband died in a mad-house, after dying for a year with a broken heart and a crushed ambition. He was obliged to submit to his wife’s demand, or fight from morning to night and from night to morning; and as he was a man of peace, he quietly yielded up his prerogative. Do you admire the one who prevailed over him? She belonged to that class who are called strong-minded; but she was perverted, as some noble minds are, by atheistic and spiritualistic views, and thought to raise women by lifting them out of the sphere which God has appointed.

If, then, there be distinct spheres, divinely appointed, for women and for men, and an education should be given to fit them for rising in their respective spheres, the question arises, What studies shall woman pursue in order to develop her mind and resources, and fit her for happiness and usefulness? This question is only to be answered by those who have devoted their lives to the education of young ladies. I would go into no details; I would only lay down the general proposition that a woman should be educated to be interesting both to her own sex and to men; to be useful in her home; to exercise the best influence on her female and male companions; to have her affections as well as intellect developed; to have her soul elevated so as to be kindled by lofty sentiments, and to feel that there is something higher than the adornment of the person, or the attracting of attention in those noisy crowds which are called society. She should be taught to become the friend and helpmate of man,–never his rival She is to be invested with those graces which call out the worship of man, which cause her to shine with the radiance of the soul, and with those virtues which men rarely reach,–a superior loftiness of character, a greater purity of mind, a heavenlike patience and magnanimity. She is not an angel, but a woman; yet she should shine with angelic qualities and aspire to angelic virtues, and prove herself, morally and spiritually, to be so superior to man, that he will render to her an instinctive deference; not a mock and ironical deference, because she is supposed to be inferior and weak, but a real deference, a genuine respect on which all permanent friendship rests,–and even love itself, which every woman, as well as every man, craves from the bottom of the soul, and without which life has no object, no charm, and no interest.

Is woman necessarily made a drudge by assuming those domestic duties which add so much to the unity and happiness of a family, and which a man cannot so well discharge as he can the more arduous labors of supporting a family? Are her labors in directing servants or educating her children more irksome than the labors of a man, in heat and cold, often among selfish and disagreeable companions? Is woman, in restricting herself to her sphere, thereby debarred from the pleasures of literature and art? As a rule, is she not already better educated than her husband? However domestic she may be, cannot she still paint and sing, and read and talk on the grandest subjects? Is she not really more privileged than her husband or brother, with more time and less harassing cares and anxieties? Would she really exchange her graceful labors for the rough and turbulent work of men?

But here I am stopped with the inquiry, What will you do with those women who are unfortunate, who have no bright homes to adorn, no means of support, no children to instruct, no husbands to rule: women cast out of the sphere where they would like to live, and driven to hard and uncongenial labors, forced to run races with men, or starve? To such my remarks do not apply; they are exceptions, and not the rule. To them I would say, Do cheerfully what Providence seems to point out for you; do the best you can, even in the sphere into which you are forced. If you are at any time thrown upon your own resources, and compelled to adopt callings which task your physical strength, accept such lot with resignation, but without any surrender of your essentially feminine and womanly qualities; do not try to be like men, for men are lower than you in their ordinary tastes and occupations. And I would urge all women, rich and poor, to pursue some one art,–like music, or painting, or decoration,–not only for amusement, but with the purpose to carry it so far that in case of misfortune they can fall back upon it and get a living; for proficiency in these arts belongs as much to the sphere of women as of men, since it refines and cultivates them.

But again some may say,–not those who are unfortunate, and seemingly driven from the glories and beatitudes of woman’s sphere, but those who are peculiarly intellectual and aspiring, and in some respects very interesting,–Why should not we embark in some of those callings which heretofore have been assigned to or usurped by man, and become physicians, and professors in colleges, and lawyers, and merchants, not because we are driven to get a living, but because we prefer them; and hence, in order to fit ourselves for these departments, why should we not pursue the highest studies which task the intellect of man? To such I would reply, Do so, if you please; there is no valid reason why you should not try. Nor will you fail unless your frailer bodies fail, as fail they will, in a long race,–for do what you will to strengthen and develop your physical forces for a million of years, you will still be women, and physically weaker than men; that is, your nervous system cannot stand the strain of that long-continued and intense application which all professional men are compelled to exert in order to gain success. But if you have in any individual case the physical strength of a man, do what you please, so long as you preserve the delicacy and purity of womanhood,–practise medicine or law, keep school, translate books, keep boarders, go behind a counter; yea, keep a shop, set types, keep accounts, give music and French lessons, sing in concerts and churches,–do whatever you can do as well as men. You have that right; nobody will molest you or slander you. If you must, or if you choose to, labor so, God help you!

So, then, the whole question of woman’s education is decided by physical limitations, concerning which there is no dispute, and against which it is vain to rebel; and we return to the more agreeable task of pointing out the supreme necessity of developing in woman those qualities which will make her a guide and a radiance and a benediction in that sphere to which Nature and Providence and immemorial custom would appear to have assigned her. Let her become great as a woman, not as a man. Let her maintain her rights; but in doing so, let her not forget her duties. The Bible says nothing at all about the former, and very much about the latter. Let her remember that she is the complement of a man, and hence that what is most feminine about her is most interesting to man and useful to the world. God made man and woman of one flesh, yet unlike. And who can point out any fundamental inferiority or superiority between them? The only superiority lies in the superior way in which each discharges peculiar trusts and responsibilities. It is in this light alone that we see some husbands superior to their wives, and some wives superior to their husbands. No sensible person would say that a girl is superior to her brother because she has a greater aptness for mathematics than he, but because she excels in the queen-like attributes and virtues and duties peculiar to her own sex and belonging to her own sphere,–that sphere so beautiful, that when she abdicates it, it is like being expelled from Paradise; for, once lost, it can never be regained. That education is best even for a great woman,–great in intellect as in soul,–which best develops the lofty ideal of womanhood; which best makes her a real woman, and not a poor imitation of man, and gives to her the dignity and grace of a queen over her household, and brings out that moral beauty by which she reigns over her husband’s heart, and inspires the reverence which children ought to feel. Do we derogate from the greatness of women when we seek to kindle the brightness of that moral beauty which outshines all the triumphs of mere intellectual forces? Should women murmur because they cannot be superior in everything, when it is conceded that they are superior in the best thing? Nor let her clutch what she can neither retain nor enjoy. In the primeval Paradise there was one tree the fruit of which our mother Eve was forbidden to touch or to eat. There is a tree which grows in our times, whose fruit, when eaten by some, produces unrest, discontent, rebellion against God, unsatisfied desires, a revelation of unrealized miseries, the mere contemplation of which is enough to drive to madness and moral death. Yet of all the other trees of life’s garden may woman eat,–those trees that grow in the boundless field which modern knowledge and enterprise have revealed to woman, and which, if she confine herself thereto, will make her a blessing and a glory forever to fallen and afflicted humanity.


Life of Hannah More, by H.C. Knight; Memoirs, by W. Roberts; Literary Ladies of England, by H.K. Elwood; Literary Women, by J. Williams; Writings of Hannah More; Letters to Zachary Macaulay; Edinburgh Review, vol. xiv.; Christian Observer, vol. xxxv.; Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. xxv.; American Quarterly, vol. lii.; Fraser’s Magazine, vol. x.

George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women