She may be the most famous person I never heard of.
Hannah More (1745-1833) wrote plays for the great 18th century actor David Garrick. She was a friend of Dr. Johnson (yes, Boswell’s Dr. Johnson). She knew the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. And Horace Walpole. And Edmund Burke. She worked closely for decades with William Wilberforce to outlaw slavery, and died a few months after seeing that cause successful. She was a poet, and an educator, an intellectual when women intellectuals were frowned upon.
Karen Swallow Prior brings More to life in Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More, Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. It’s a biography, yes. But it’s more than that as well, a work of love reflecting a determination to bring to life a human being who should not have been forgotten.
More was born near Bristol, England in 1745, the third of four sisters. When Hannah was three or four, her mother discovered she had already learned to read. Her father, a schoolmaster, was alarmed that his daughter could grasp such masculine subjects as Latin, Greco-Roman history and mathematics. As she and her sisters grew older, they opened a school – teaching, Prior says, was the only profession acceptable for a woman above the laboring class and beneath the aristocracy.
She had wit, a keen skill of observing and a love of language. And she wrote poems, plays, and essays. She came to the attention of the greatest actor at the time, David Garrick, and wrote plays for his theater. She spent a number of years traveling back and forth between Bristol and London, accepted and welcomed in acting, cultural, literary and even aristocratic circles. She knew the leading intellectuals of her day, and she was one of them.
Perhaps no friendship had a greater impact than that of More with William Wilberforce. Likely inspired by her strong Anglican faith, she worked with him for decades to see the end of slavery in the British Empire. Both would die in the same year, shortly after Parliament finally voted to end it.
While this poem of More’s was not written for Wilberforce, it might have been:
Inscription on a Cenotaph in a Garden, Erected to a Deceased Friend
Ye lib’ral souls who rev’rence Friendship’s name,
Who boast her blessings, and who feel her flame;
Oh! if from early youth one friend you’ve lov’d,
Whom warm affection chose, and taste approv’d;
If you have known what anguish rends the heart,
When such, so known, so lov’d, for ever part;
Approach! – For you the mourner rears this stone,
To soothe your sorrows, and record his own.
Prior, the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press, 2012), has written a warm, engaging biography of More and includes a discussion of why and how More slipped into obscurity. Fierce Convictions is the fruit of solid and extensive research, and an admiration for what this notable woman accomplished often in the face of criticism and disdain.
Fierce Convictions may come to be one of my all-time favorite biographies. It’s that good.
The web site for Fierce Convictions
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