Women's History Month: Hannah More

by Lexi Friesen | March 04, 2015

An author, playwright, and philanthropist, Hannah More was a single woman living in England during the 1700s into the early nineteenth century. Moore was the fourth of five daughters in her family. All of the More sisters were educated by their father, John, first learning the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics. More’s father was slightly fearful of the way she soaked up education, as mathematics was especially seen was masculine. Despite John’s worrying, the older sisters went on to educate themselves and their younger sister; More wrote her first play when she was seventeen, developing her writing skills at a young age, while she was teaching at a girls’ boarding school that her older sisters ran. Her play was called The Search for Happiness, and was meant to inspire and be put on by girls in the boarding school she was teaching. The play was about young girls complaining about their dreadful lives, until a shepherdess comes to their aid, calling them out for their yelling of woes, and encouraging them to get further education.

More gave up her job at the boarding school after meeting and getting engaged to William Turner. Their engagement lasted for about seven years and after time with a reluctant Turner, the engagement was called off. More was never able to marry after the fact, because she was now too old for suitors. Deeply saddened, More suffered a nervous breakdown. Shortly after she started to receive a yearly compensation from Turner and she was able to become a full-time writer. It didn’t take long for More to become established and be recognized among the great writers of London.

Through her popularity of play allowed her to meet many famous actors and well-known people in London, More met David Garrick, who became a lifetime friend and mentor to her play writing. Garrick helped edit many of her plays and even performed in several of them. In 1778, More received word that Garrick was ill and he passed away shortly after her arrival. As More no longer had a partner to advocate for her cause and help edit her work, More’s play The Fatal Falsehood only ran on stage three times. This was the last play she ever wrote for the stage. Mrs. Garrick was fond of More and invited More to live with her. Upon her request, More agreed to live with Mrs. Garrick for six months out of the year.

She established herself in the world of theatre, literature, and evangelicalism, and was one of the earliest members of the Blue Stockings Society, a literary discussion group that encouraged education and intellectual conversation for both genders in a culture that told women they must remain in traditional household roles. Through poetry and prose, she helped give a voice to slavery. Her writing also connected her with the abolitionist movement and she became close friends with William Wilberforce, who influenced her greatly.

Wilberforce, who was known for his abolitionist views of slavery, used one of More’s poems, “Slavery,” in a debate against parliament. More continued to write and even published an anonymous piece called Thoughts on the Importance of Manners of the Great to General Society where she criticized the wealthy for their Sunday games and willingness to let drunkenness, crimes, and prostitution reign. The article caused an uproar because no one knew who wrote it.

More’s passion for education and social justice led her and her sister, Martha, who were encouraged by Wilberforce, to help those in poor conditions in the Mendip Hills near Somerset, England. Their good work was met with challenges, as many farmers thought education made the sisters neglect other responsibilities and accused her of Methodist practices. The two women helped set up twelve schools for children in poverty to learn about the Bible, catechism, and how to read. As these children were looked down upon in their community, the More sister’s also taught about cleanliness, decency, and honesty. The poor women in the community needed help as well, so the sister’s helped set up venues and clubs for the women to exchange recipes and to socialize. While wealthier citizens in the area were encouraged to contribute money to cause of helping the poor, More often found herself using her money from writings to pay for relief for the poor.

In her sixties, More moved from her house on Cowslip Green to Barley Wood so that she could have more room to host friends who needed a place to stay. All of her sisters eventually ended up moving in with her as none of the girls ever married. It was during this time period that she wrote her only novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Today, More’s legacy lives on and the Hannah More School is Baltimore, Maryland is still named after her.