Social fiction - Infusing writing with moral morsels in Hannah More's abolition work (2)


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If we aim to "hack" the original abolition movement, that is, use some of their tactics in order to move the needle toward the end of modern-day slavery, then understanding how the original movement thought and approached their work will be helpful. 

We get a glimpse of Hannah More's poetics, that is, her view and approach to writing, and her worldview, how she understood her times and the world around her, by looking at her writing about her own writing.

In the preface to the 1801 publication of her Complete Works, More’s first such compilation of collected writing, her direct address to the reading public gives unique insight into her view of her work and the world.

More’s reflection on her poetics underscores her motives and publishing tactics. The preface reveals More’s commanding wit when she satirically emphasizes the false humility of the literary age and pokes fun not only at her peers but at herself:

The most self-sufficient writer is at length driven, by the prevailing sense of propriety, to be contented with thinking himself the prime genius of the age; but he seldom ventures to tell you that he thinks so.… The most venal poetic parasite no longer assures his protector… that mankind can no more subsist without his poetry… than the world can subsist without the daily course of Divine Providence. (Complete Works 16)

More highlights how the contemporary author “professes his inability but he produces his book; and by the publication itself controverts his own avowal of alleged incapacity.” She defies earlier conventions of the authorial #humblebrag to admit “unfeigned diffidence” of her “too voluminous collection into the world.”  

More’s critical self-assessment, while an effective rhetorical strategy to create a rapport with her audience, also reads as an authentic admission that her view of the world, along with her view of her own times, has inherent limits. 

More creates room not only for critics, but also for herself, to assess her views and expects that both her writing and her conclusions require modification over time.  Writers discover “that what we thought we had believed to be perfect is full of defects.”

While the 1801 preface was written some thirty years before her death—thirty years in which she continued to write in multiple genres on many different subjects—the collection, which More was “sending abroad," was warranted, despite the fact that More felt she “should blush to produce so many slight productions of [her] early youth.”   

Notably, “one the most influential women of her day, More enjoyed extraordinary success in several careers [winning] international prominence as an educator, reformer, and magisterial arbiter of manners and morals” (Myers 265).

Her writing was popular among the poor, middle class and the gentry.  Her Cheap Repository was “shipped by the thousands to America, circulated in the West Indies, Sierra Leone, and Asia, and even translated into Russian” (“More’s Public Voice” 110) and her plays and poems were bestsellers due to their popular and literary appeal, leading Samuel Johnson, her close friend, to describe her as “the most powerful versificatrix” in the English language (quoted in Metaxas 65).

“No writer of the past or present age,” writes her publisher, “has equalled Hannah More in the application of great talents to the improvement of society, through all its distinctions, from the humblest to the most exalted station in life” (Complete Works 14). 

Years after her “mind has had time to cool from the hurry and heat of composition," and to, perhaps, soberly distance herself from the “emotion of vanity," More reflects honestly on her ability as an author and her place in the literary canon, an assessment that she describes with “self-distrust,” an admission she readily makes because of the intent and purpose from which her writing derives.

“The critic, even of his own works, grows honest, if not acute at the end of twenty years… that which we had conceived to be pure gold, we discover much tinsel."  The hurry and heat of composition of specific published works no longer burning in her breast, More assesses the republished contents from the first three decades of her writing life. 

What emerges is a clear statement of her poetics:

that I have laboured to inculcate into both [the unlearned and the young], the love and practice of that virtue of which they had before derived the principles from higher sources, I will not deny to have attempted. 

More’s writing is intentionally didactic, her fiction is a “social fiction” (Myers 265). As we explore her attentiveness to bonds and bondage in her abolition poems it is important to keep her authorial intent in mind: her constant focus on private and public virtue which produces spiritual freedom from bondage.

Furthermore, it is necessary to highlight that just as More focuses on physical and spiritual bonds, she similarly writes for two audiences.  She writes for those “initiated into the same intellectual commerce,” people “accustomed to drink at the same spring from which the writer draws” (Complete Works 18-19).

In her 1801 preface alone, More draws upon Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Cicero, among others; More intends to initiate lifelong readers into great works of literature even as she initiates the newly literate into her world of moral principles.

However, More is always already writing with Godly purpose in mind and her intervention is an immersion into spiritual depths: “no human verdict, of whatever authority in itself, and however favourable to its object, will avail any thing, but inasmuch as it is crowned with the acquittal of that Judge whose favour is eternal life."

In order to fairly assess More’s work, then, we must consider it in light of the target she ultimately sets her literary sights on: “Considering this world as a scene of much action, and of little comparative knowledge; not as a stage for exhibition, or a retreat for speculation, but as a field on which the business which is to determine the concerns of eternity is to be transacted."

Unafraid to take on literary giants, More writes against the famous Shakespearean conceit from As You Like It that “all the world's a stage” (2.7.136) to urge readers to concede that both the temporal and the literary worlds are a palimpsest of values and a collision of ideas. 

Here we should pause for a moment to note what More's observation highlights for modern day abolitionists. The work is not merely a struggle for persuasion, of policy or of ideals.  It is a spiritual struggle as well.

Her emphasis is on the non-theatricality of life—a life that is decidedly “not a stage for exhibition” but instead a transaction between the finite and the Divine.

In the 1780s More enacted the sentiment in her writing with her very own retreat from the world of the stage as she “became increasingly disenchanted with the trappings of high society and turned more fully toward the Christian faith” (Swallow Prior 107) to take up her pen as both moralist and abolitionist.

More’s writing becomes transactional between the temporal and the Divine through her efforts to reform society from within with heaven’s principles, especially among women, who, “she claimed, did not sufficiently know their own power; they must not be content to entertain and polish when they should awaken and reform” (Myers 266).

More views her work’s significance less in terms of literary merit and more as a catalyst for further thought and reflection, thoughts warranted by changing times:

In some instances I trust I have written seasonably when I have not been able to write well.  Several pieces perhaps of small value in themselves have helped to supply in some inferior degree the exigence of the moment; and have had the advantage, not of superseding the necessity, or the appearance, of abler writings, but of exciting abler writers; who, seeing how little I had been able to say on topics upon which much might be said, have more than supplied my deficiencies by filling up what I had only superficially sketched out. (Complete Works 17-18)

While applying self-criticism can be a useful tactic to defuse criticism for work untested and unfamiliar to an audience, More’s work was already read by the British public and circulated widely abroad.

In his 1838 biography, Henry Thompson reminds readers of More’s appeal and reach: “The benefactions of Hannah More were limited to no class, to no country; and, in respect of time, extended over the period of half a century; and her writings will continue to exercise a wide and deep influence on mankind to latest generations."

More’s self deprecation, then, should not be read as musings of a timid author with aims to soften the blow of expected criticism for poor workmanship and, instead, as “unfeigned diffidence” about her literary merits that paradoxically allow her to have bold confidence in her stated purpose to write for moral reform (Complete Works 17). 

Her sober view of her own writing from Bath, where she penned the preface in 1801, is consistent with her outlook throughout her career.  The infamously shallow social world of Bath, where More first met William Wilberforce in 1787 as he sought relief from his terrible stomach ailment (Jones 90), proves, however, to be an interesting backdrop for the self-reflexive comments about her work to her readers. 

More came to detest Bath as both “foolish” and “frivolous.” To her it was like the London she was trying to escape: “Wealth, ostentation, frivolity, obtruded themselves in the contracted space of the lovely little city as they could not in the metropolis” (126).

Self-deprecation and the pursuit of moral approbation of herself and others, prove essential ways for More to write and frame the entry of her writing into the public domain.

Such clarity of purpose and humility about our abilities and aims are principles we would do well to incorporate into our efforts in utilizing our gifts and passion in any social effort, including the work to end modern day slavery.

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Hacking Abolition is a blog series that derives lessons from the original abolition movement that worked tirelessly to bring an end to the transatlantic slave trade. The series begins with a close look at the life and writing of Hannah More and is an adaptation of Andrew's work for his MA Thesis in English and Transitional Justice at Western University entitled, "Bonds and Bondage: Intimacies and Enslavement in Hannah More’s Abolition Writing."

The aim of the series is to explore and discover successful tactics champions of faith and abolition employed in the past and consider ways we might learn from them for the pressing work of abolition in the present.

For a full bibliography of my research and further reading on More's life, visit this page.

Andrew Kooman

About Andrew Kooman: Andrew is a Canadian writer and producer. His work has been published and viewed around the world and translated into more than 10 languages. Andrew strives to tell powerful stories that make real-world impact.  { Learn More }

 

Works Cited (in this post)

Demers, Patricia. “Hannah More’s Public Voice in Georgian Britain.”  Women, Morality and Advice Literature Manuscripts and Rare Printed Works of Hannah More (1745-1833)  and her Circle, Clark Library, Los Angeles, www.ampltd.co.uk/collections_az/Women-More-1/editorial-introduction.aspx. Accessed 18 July 2018.

Metaxas, Eric. Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness. Nelson Books, 2015.

More, Hannah. The Complete Works of Hannah More, vol. 3, T. Cadell, Strand 1830, https://archive.org/details/workshannahmore42moregoog/ Accessed 18 July 2018.  

Myers, Mitzi.  “Hannah More’s Tracts for the Times: Social Fiction and Female Ideology.”  Fetter'd Or Free?: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary A. Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1986.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like it. Methuen, 1975.

Swallow Prior, Karen. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Nelson Books, 2014.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng., 1968.

 

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash


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