Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist - Karen Swallow Prior, Eric Metaxas

The enthralling biography of the woman writer who helped end the slave trade, changed Britain’s upper classes, and taught a nation how to read. The history-changing reforms of Hannah More affected every level of 18th-Century British society through her keen intellect, literary achievements, collaborative spirit, strong Christian principles, and colorful personality. A woman without connections or status, More took the world of British letters by storm when she arrived in London from Bristol, becoming a best-selling author and acclaimed playwright. She was also a leader in the Evangelical movement, using her cultural position and her pen to support the growth of education for the poor, the reform of morals and manners, and the abolition of Britain’s slave trade. Fierce Convictions weaves together world and personal history into a stirring story of life. A woman of exceptional intellectual gifts and literary talent, Hannah More was above all a person whose faith compelled her both to engage her culture and to transform it.








One of my favorite non-fiction reads of 2014. I think an excerpt from the Epilogue of this biography sums up its message best:


More's life spanned the reign of four kings. She witnessed the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions. She died mere weeks after England had abolished slavery for good. At the time of her death, she had amassed nearly thirty thousand pounds, an amount unknown to women writers. Most of this went to about two hundred charities, including many she founded. The beneficiaries of her wealth included numerous schools, mission societies, and outreaches to orphans, slaves, and the poor. Her pen left virtually no area of her society unmarked: literature, education, morality, religion, and abolition. She reached high and low in her nation and across the globe. Within a couple of generations of her death, however, More's reputation fell into disfavor. Her style of writing and morality were replaced by more modern modes. Hannah need not have been placed on a pedestal to be appreciated. She needed only to be known.



I admit, I was one of many who did not know the life story of Hannah More, but wow, what a fan of hers I am now! The remarkable life this woman had, and the contributions she made to so many things we take for granted today! 


The reader learns from this bio that Hannah More had quite an engaging personality, outwardly full of wit and spirit, yet she also had a quiet, lifelong battle with depression. 


An "innocent naughtiness lit up her countenance, quiet fun twinkled in her large dark eyes and a slight quirk twisted at the corners of her mouth." In Hannah, charm, wit and modesty met. How could the world help but notice. More had a rare ability to keep strong, unwavering convictions in tension with broad-minded toleration. More was strong, but she was sensitive. When she was strong, she was very strong. When she was weak, she was debilitated. 


Hannah More grew up in a respectable yet modest home, her father working multiple jobs including schoolmaster, land surveyor and town bailiff. There wasn't a ton of money coming into the More household, but with him being a schoolmaster, Hannah did have extra educational opportunities made available to her. Once she was grown herself, she quickly became one of 18th century England's major advocates for reform within women's education. Hannah believed that traditional education for women at that time -- typically limited to music, painting, needlepoint, classes on etiquette and manners -- seemed largely "frivolous education" and, as she saw it, "frivolous education creates shallow women". She strongly believed that women should be allowed to add more depth to their learning, should they so desire. This sentiment would be echoed by female author George Eliot nearly 100 years after Hannah -- proving the topic still hadn't been sufficiently addressed! 


She sought to advance female education in order to fulfill women as women, not to make them like men. "On the whole," she posed in her 1777 treatise Essays on Various Subjects, Principally Designed For Young Ladies, "is it not better to succeed as women, than to fail as men? ... to be good originals, rather than bad imitators?"


Hannah also believed that teachers should approach education as a doctor would a patient. When a patient is physically weak, a doctor often prescribes exercises to work the weakened muscles, increasing strength. Hannah advocated that the same concept should be applied to mental strength -- that students should be given challenging reading material to strengthen their intellectual muscle. It was from this passion that she was inspired to start a school of her own where she could implement these beliefs. Having gotten interest enough from investors, Hannah and her four sisters were able to start up a school that ran successfully for over 30 years and served as inspiration for the school started up by the Bronte sisters, also well know in literary circles. And not only the Bronte sisters! Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame) and her sister also started up a school thanks to the efforts of the More sisters!


"There are who can see and hear, than there are those who can judge and reflect. It is therefore no worthless part of education, even in a religious view, to study the precise meaning of words, and the appropriate signification of language."


>>Hannah More


Though her passion for education for all is evident, More could also be a woman of contradictions. She was, admittedly, a little uncomfortable with impoverished children being taught to read too well, fearful that they could possibly find work or passions that would incite violent revolutions against the government. She was also hesitant about teaching advanced writing skills, as then children could grow up to go on and write impassioned propoganda materials. It's possible that this paranoia could have just been More being, on some level, a product of her era. 


As Hannah got older, the fascination she had with London in her 20s began to wear off. She began to decline nights at the theatre or at lavish balls, instead preferring quiet nights reading or afternoons gardening on her country estate. When she wasn't at home, she preferred doing charity work. It's believed that this desire for solitude was spurred by the loss of two of her best friends, two friends that she always loved to party with in her youth. After losing them, she was noted as saying that she "detested and avoided public places more than ever. What brought most people to town now keeps me out of it!" {I hear ya, girl!}.


It was, in part, her interest in keeping herself informed and educated on politics and news of the day that ended up leading More into becoming an abolitionist. More discovered that in her town of Bristol, England, one in six of the richest citizens had some connection to the slave trade. ONE IN SIX! More then made it a personal mission to make the facts known and the practice eradicated. She penned the anti-slavery poem, simply called "Slavery", which is credited as inspiring David Livingstone to embark on his famous trip to Africa. She also insisted on only serving East Indian sugar in her home once learning that slaves were typically used in the harvesting of West Indian sugar. What's really heartbreaking is the fact that this woman, in her era, was not even allowed to vote, and was refused official membership in Abolitionist societies, yet the male members of these societies loved name dropping about her, bragging about her efforts and support, even going so far as to take credit for some of her accomplishments! But Hannah was a strong woman, and while I'm sure such behavior had to sting her pride, she still continued with her work because the abolishing of selling of human beings was the end goal, whoever took credit for it. 


Much of her later advocacy work seemed to be with her membership in the Clapham Sect, a kind of erudite Kiwanis Club. Originally this group started as her and her friends (one member being Virginia Woolf's great-grandfather, James Stephen) getting together to read their latest works to each other, share religious fellowship and discussion, or to brainstorm over areas of social reform they could offer a contribution to, charitable works they could assist with...over the years, this desire to assist and be useful actually managed to be pretty damn productive! The Clapham Sect petitioned for the observance of the Sabbath (mandatory day of rest) to be a right for every worker. They also rallied for prison reform, particularly at ancient Newgate Prison, and the abolishment of the death penalty. The Sect also pushed for reform in the workplace as well as becoming activists for animal rights / welfare of animals, helping bring about Britain's first animal welfare laws and England's first ASPCA chapter. They joined the platforms of anti-cruelty groups across the board. 


This particular book also hints that the Clapham Sect may have had a part in the development of Sierra Leone as its own country. 


In the years before her death, Hannah More settled into semi-quiet retirement at her country estate. The solitude she craved in her private time was somewhat squashed by her then-celebrity status. There seemed to be a constant influx of people wanting to pop in for a visit with the respected intellectual and activist, these guests including no less than Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, as well as stage actress Sarah Siddons


I absolutely loved this book! It's now one of my favorite bios I've ever read. Prior to getting this book, I had never even heard of Hannah More, but I found Hannah's life utterly fascinating and after reading her story, I feel as though I've come across a historical kindred spirit. Her intense curiosity about the world, her love of words, her devotion to her family and her passion for equal educational opportunities for everyone of any social class -- these are all things I myself live for! It's truly a shame her name, well known in her time, has fallen into obscurity.

I admired her courage and determination to stick to her beliefs and moral code, using them to fuel her in her fight for advocating expanded educational and career opportunities for women as well as the abolishment of slavery. More was quite the individual in her time -- eschewing marriage and children, hobnobbing with well known male writers of her day such as Horace Walpole (who unabashedly looked upon her as a literary equal), giving up society life for a quiet life out in the country. My kind of people! Hers is a story many a woman can probably relate to, reaching a point in your life when parties, pretty clothes the amassing of frivolous stuff cluttering up one's life... just aren't enough, wanting to REALLY do something with your life, something that will resonate with future generations. And keep in mind that Hannah's cause for equality for women is STILL something we fight today!

If you have interest in women's studies or are looking for a powerful story of faith, fearlessnes, and yes, even a little feminism, I highly recommend checking out this immensely readable bio of a woman whose name needs to be known again.


FTC disclaimer: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book from and Harper Collins Christian Publishing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 




Extra little bit of booknerd trivia: Hannah More and the writer E.M. Forster actually had a family connection -- Marianne Thornton, Forster's great-aunt, was Hannah More's goddaughter. :-)