Nothing less than the eternal - Hacking Abolition (7)


The previous post in my Hacking Abolition series focused on the insatiable reading appetite of the growing middle class and how Hannah More tapped not only into their sentiment, but their willingness to use expendable income to acquire thought-provoking works. 

With marketing savvy in mind, this post returns to More's supreme concern, writing with eternity in mind.  She does so in a controversial, even shocking way, to highlight another form of rampant slavery in her time: the fashionable world of luxury in her day.

Nothing less than the eternal

The market demand for new content combined with an appetite for abolitionist writing and concern about the nature of the slave trade certainly influenced More’s decision to publish her abolitionist poetry.  However, More’s pious stance, to always write with God in mind that so shaped her poetics, was supreme. 

In the same way that More’s critique of the Church in her day for its moral blindness and culpability in regards to the slave trade was motivated by her belief that God would judge her writing for its orthodoxy,  her focus to please God ironically enlivens her prose and injects it with irreverence.  More tackles the fashionable world in “The White Slave Trade, to give the female body and privileged luxury a treatment of Swiftian satire. Jones argues that no critic can deny the courageous nature of More’s prose that challenged the establishment: 

Few persons of her time, lay or clerical, would have had the temerity to write it.  Rank had its privileges.  It enjoyed a general immunity from criticism and used its weapon of social exclusiveness to punish those who transgressed.  Miss More was aware of this.  She knew too that her public criticism of the Great who had opened their doors to her was not consonant with accepted standards of good taste. (106-07)

In a sense, More modelled what Virginia Woolf, the great-granddaughter of abolition lawyer James Stephen (Hochschild 353) who worked alongside More and Wilberforce in their decades-long efforts to end the slave trade as a member of the so-called Clapham Sect, described as killing the angel in the house. However, More’s angel was not the internal “utterly unselfish…pure” (Woolf par. 3 ) censor, but instead it was the voice that demanded fashionability.

The verbal whipping of the fashionable world More enacts in “White Slavery” did not receive noteworthy backlash—either for its condemnation of elitist attitudes or for its problematic comparison of the burdens of white privilege with the black bodies they enslaved—but was instead well received. 

The Christian Observer, under fire for its views on all sides, thought it worthy of publication, and More writes with excessive cheek, pulling no punches, not even from the “wives, daughters, nieces, aunts, cousins, mothers, and grandmothers even of [the] very zealous abolitionists themselves” (385). Here the tyrant is “FASHION” (386) and the “original subjection is voluntary” (386). The women enslaved to its demands wear their gilded chains with “astonishing fortitude… as their glory and distinction” (386).

When read alongside The Sorrows of Yamba, “The White Slave Trade” reinvigorates More’s view of the abhorrent nature of the enslavement of black bodies.  The liberated female body is a subtext of Yamba and the reader is invited to imagine the social world of the free African before her domestic life is torn apart and her body is forced in submission to a white master.

In “The White Slave Trade” More also imagines the female body as enslaved, but defamiliarizes the free, white female body by imposing upon it an unfamiliar trope: slavery. The so-called bondage of the white upper class contrasts with Yamba’s slavery although both are defined in a vocabulary of exposure and vulnerability.  Yamba’s nakedness is forced, her body thrown on the wooden planks of the slave ship as she is made to dance for food in a “deed of shame” (Yamba 36). 

For More’s white slaves “nakedness is of all seasons, and many of the most delicate females are allowed so little clothing as to give pain to the humane beholder” (388).  Yamba’s child dies “cold and dead” (48) on the deck of the slave ship her other children ripped from her side (27), enslavement breaks family bonds and Yamba’s one hope is for her living family to inherit freedom.  The subjects of More’s critique in “The White Slave Trade” groom their children for self-same bondage:

A multitude of fine fresh slaves are annually imported at the age of seventeen or eighteen, or, according to the phrase of the despot, they COME OUT.  This despot so completely takes them in, as to make these lovely young creatures believe, that the assigned period at which they give up for ever the gaiety and independence of their former free life, is, in fact, the day of their emancipation. (392)

A reader could be forgiven for mistaking More’s assault on the frivolity and triviality of young girls’ waking hours as an interior monologue from Jane Austen’s beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet when More describes how their:

fragile forms are compelled to bend five, or six, or seven hours every day over curiously-contrived pieces of mechanism, which emit on the touch certain sweet sounds…this lamentable length of drudgery destroys their vigour, without adding to the mind any of the strength which it takes from the body. (390)

Notably, More takes on the shallowness and culpability of her own sex, condemning women for participating in their own enslavement through a provocative discussion of the tyranny of fashionable practice and human decency. 

Here More calls out the culpability of women in high society for perpetuating a system that means to serve patriarchal expectations of femininity, and even fails to deliver in that regard.  In this sense, like the transatlantic slave trade, the system is rotten to the core. More harps on the harpsichordists who destroy the vigour of their daughters “with a view to enhance the value of the little slaves” and observes that “when bought, the purchaser grows perfectly indifferent to that which has cost him so dear, and seldom demands the practice from the house slave…for the amusement of her master” (390-91). 

Just as Yamba underscores a sense of the fallenness of humankind, “The White Slave Trade” looks to the historical account of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon as a spiritual inheritance that the higher classes fail to embrace.  Their slave songs are tone deaf: the mournful ballads they play in their parlours rarely take up the lament of men and women like Yamba or her Jewish counterparts enslaved not out of choice but by conquest: “they seldom say, “Sing us one of the songs of Sion [sic]” (390).

The passage highlights that “More does not fit a conventional class or ideological stereotype” (“Public Voice” par. 1) and that her writing infers and promotes an inherent individualism. 

The self-induced enslavement More decries here implies women have a measure of self-empowerment and command and can engineer their social freedom with their sisters. Perhaps, if More was not already on the record with her outrage over slavery in the 1788 poem or the treatment of female bodies at the hands of slave masters in 1797’s Yamba, her satirical treatment of women’s enslavement to society and fashion would read, especially today, only with disgust. 

The imbalanced comparison between supposed white enslavement and black slavery over the Atlantic ultimately reads with irreverence—an irreverence toward the practices and norms of the social class from which slavery’s indulgences thrive so that the essay is a blistering critique of the familial bonds between British women.  When read alongside each other, the free British women of “White Slavery” have much to learn from the strong domestic bonds between Yamba and her family, whose stolen freedom and forced bondage only highlights the liberties and domestic intimacies the fashionable world has squandered.

Where Yamba and “The White Slave Trade” align is at the intersection of their mutual insistence that no matter the type, slavery is “a most improvident waste of the human species” (“Slave Trade” 393).  Read together, More’s prose and poetry whisper unspoken questions: What would wealthy and well-connected women, spoiled by triviality and ease along with their black counterparts, women like Yamba, spoiled by the degradation and violence of slavery, accomplish or produce for society if they were actually free?  The answer, for More, is clear and appears at the end of the essay: 

This white slavery, like the black, is evidently an injury to fair and lawful commerce; for the time spent training and overworking these fair slaves might be better employed in promoting the more profitable articles of health, beauty, simplicity, modesty, and industry…which traffic both the slave and the slave-owner would be mutually benefited. (392-93)

More calls for a type of wholeness here, that is a reversion to the basic quality of “excellence” or “virtue” (OED) in all aspects of life for which the term holy interpolates, which More uses to conclude the Sorrows of Yamba:

Holy may I be, for Holy,
is the place to which I go. (151-52)

While an exploration of the impact More made on her target audiences by writing for the poor and middle class through the Cheap Repository and developing school curricula for poor communities falls outside the scope of this essay, it is worth noting that the moral impact that the rich upper class made upon the poor in her time, left much to be desired. A decade after More’s death, Friedrich Engels observed the state of religion among the English poor:

So short-sighted, so stupidly narrow-minded is the English bourgeoisie in its egotism, that it does not even take the trouble to impress upon the workers the morality of the day, which the bourgeoisie has patched together in its own interest for its own protection…. But it has no right to complain that the workers know nothing of its system of morals, and do not act in accordance with it. (114)

While the criticism of a German socialist might mean little to a free market, geo-political rival in England, Engels’ observation highlights the glut of the fashionable establishment’s view of the lower classes and can helpfully contextualize the theme of heritage, the familial and spiritual bonds that More’s poetry and prose explores.  What both Engels and More recognize and attend to are the ethical and political inheritance that the men and women of influence who wield social and political power pass along and pass down.  And here, despite her conservative credentials, More’s body of work contains a progressive vein. 

The epigraph to Slavery gives one metric to measure this progressivism by. The quote from Thompson’s Liberty to “Wrench from Oppression’s hand the iron rod” is a nod to the political slavery of Britons who's “implacable wardens are snuffing out British patriots—and punishing prisoners with the telltale instruments of African slavery” (Wilson 99). 

The poem that More cites to lead into her first abolitionist poem “confronts blithe Britons with the inhumanity occurring in their names and challenges them to sympathize” (99). And it is an effective, if subtle, literary move.  Wilson suggests that through an invocation of Thompson, More “borrows feelings…of the corrupt British penal system: an atmosphere of peremptory cruelty and bodily constraint that squashes ‘social Passions’” (99).

More moves the goal post, as it were, on the possibilities for social progress.  Reform in public opinion, accomplished by Thompson in his day, suggests reform is possible in her day with the injustices she addresses. This sense that reform is possible, throughout society, and at the interpersonal level as well, also invigorates More’s satirical prose in “The White Slave Trade.”

How much progress, though, is More able to imagine?  In The Sorrows of Yamba, although More intermingles black and white bodies, the space in which they cohabit as equals is primarily in “Realms above” (180).  Is More able to imagine black bodies in white Britain post slavery, or does she merely divide Britain and Africa, black and white, into two separate worlds in her post-abolition imagination?

Whatever More could or could not imagine, the fact that Yamba was written as a lament gives un/conscious validation to black bodies not merely as British subjects, but as something more, a kind of “reconfigured” identity about which Menely writes.  The literature of lament validates the experience of victims of atrocity. More’s emphasis on the bodily harms and psychic scars forced upon Yamba essentially commemorates slaves as “national losses:

These non-people, these ghosts, are now mourned, and the act of mourning gives them, and their persecutors, back their humanity.  They are no longer considered parasites, but vulnerable human beings who did not deserve what the nation did to them, and whose pain, for the sake of the nation’s future, must be recollected. (260)

More’s insistence that the injustices against slaves be named and identified, honestly recognized and publicized, fits the literary mould of the contemporary project of transitional justice to provide public forum for the story of victims of atrocity.  More’s poetic exploration of Yamba’s pain is first a lament of the atrocity done against a black body, one she renders not only worthy of attention, but presumes white readers will identify with and lament.

Her writing, therefore, is an act of “acknowledging, bearing witness to, and mourning [so as to restore] dignity to those whose very being had been so deeply violated” (Minnow 247).  One way to read More’s treatment of those black bodies displaced by slavery is not in the vocabulary of exclusion, but of embrace. 

Geographic territories like St. Lucie and Afric’s Gold coast though separated by “many a thousand mile” (Yamba 3), collapse into a single location where, as subjects under God, the slave is no longer “Naked on the Platform lying (33) or alone on on the verge of “self-murder” (90) on foreign shores.  They are in new space, shared by the missionary who also “left his native ground” (86) where physical hospitality and spiritual comfort is mutually assured in a “Cot” not located in the British isles or on Afric’s shores, but somewhere in-between. 

It is a space not unlike the space More herself occupies, and so the female body she imagines might not be unlike the body More herself writes from, one that moves and thinks, writes and publishes, acts and speaks freely—a body whose spirit is free to pursue useful and worthy aims.

 

Works Cited (in this post)

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. Translated by Florence K. Wischnewetzky, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

More, Hannah. Slavery, A Poem (London: T. Cadell, 1788) Accessed 28 May 2019 http://www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/morepoems.htm

—. The Complete Works of Hannah More, vol. 3, T. Cadell, Strand 1830, https://archive.org/details/workshannahmore42moregoog/ Accessed 18 July 2018. This e-text is located at www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/morepoems.htm

—. The Sorrows of Yamba; or, the Negro Woman's Lamentation (London: 1797), www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/yamba.htm. Accessed 27 July, 2018.

—.  “The White Slave Trade.” The Complete Works of Hannah More, vol. 3, T. Cadell, Strand 1830, www.archive.org/details/workshannahmore42moregoog/ Accessed 18 July 2018. 

Menely, Tobias.  “Acts of Sympathy: Abolitions Poetry and Transatlantic Identification.” Affect and Abolition in the Anglo-Atlantic, 1770-1830, edited by Stephen Ahern, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp 45-67.

Minow, Martha. “The Hope for Healing: What can truth commissions do?” In Truth v.  Justice, edited by Robert I. Rotberg and Dennis Thompson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Stott, Anne. Hannah More: The First Victorian. Oxford University Press, Oxford [England], 2003.

The New Revised Standard Harper Study Version. Edited by Verlyn D. Verbrugge, Zondervan Publishing House, 1990.

Thompson, Henry. The Life of Hannah More with Notices of Her Sisters. T. Cadell, Strand; And W. Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1838, https://archive.org/details/ lifehannahmorew00thomgoog. Accessed 26 June, 2018

"virtue, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/223835. Accessed 29 May 2019.

Wilson, Brett D. "Hannah More's Slavery and James Thomson's Liberty: Fond Links, Mad Liberty, and Unfeeling Bondage." Ashgate, 2013.

Wood, Marcus. Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography. Oxford UP, 2002.


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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.

 

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 }

Photo by timJ on Unsplash 


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