Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior: A Book Review
In order for Hannah More to be truly Hannah More, she had to challenge nearly every aspect of her cultural context. Fierce Convictions is richly historical and rooted deeply in the period straddling the 18th and 19th centuries, because it is impossible to appreciate the impact of Hannah More’s life without knowing the circumstances of her world at the time:
- Female education was not only rare, but it was also frowned upon.
- Female authors were nearly unheard of and also frowned upon.
- Women were trained for marriage and housekeeping only and were expected to marry young.
- Novels and religious books barely existed as literary genres.
- Outreach to the poor and the concept of foreign missions had gotten lost somewhere in the clutter of English class consciousness.
- Slavery was deeply ingrained in England’s social and economic identity.
Hannah’s “bright imagination” and commitment to follow God led her to challenge each of these realities, and Karen Swallow Prior has masterfully captured More’s role in her subtitle: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.
I’m convinced that if Hannah More had lived in our time, she would have had a blog. It was in her nature to communicate through whatever medium was available, in spite of the general disdain for “the female pen.” Positively prolific, Hannah applied her gift for verse to current events and social situations, making a name and a place for herself among elite circles (in spite of very humble beginnings). The Inflexible Captive launched her career as a dramatic author, and she went on to make a comfortable living and an impact on contemporary culture writing Cheap Repository Tracts (a most unflattering name for short pamphlets on relevant topics at the reading level of the newly literate). If she believed that it would help her message to be received more readily, she wrote anonymously. Her one and only novel broke ground for 19th century novelists such as Dickens, Thackeray and the Bronte sisters. Because her writing so closely reflected her thinking throughout her life, I would suggest an appendix in a future edition of the book with a detailed time line of all her publications and major life events.
Although best known for her efforts to abolish slavery in England, Hannah’s tongue and pen touched on everything from prison reform, crime prevention, and animal cruelty to dueling, Sabbath observance, and philanthropy. With her four unmarried sisters, she established a girls’ school, eschewing the “superficial nature” of women’s education at that time. Income from this and her writing, along with an annuity provided by a suitor (who had jilted her three times), allowed her to be financially independent, thus giving her the freedom to put feet to her convictions. For example, when the hideous living conditions in the impoverished Cheddar Gorge came to her attention, she and her younger sister established themselves in the area, started a Sunday School, and went door-to-door to assess the peoples’ needs.
Every gift, every experience, every social contact, and every ounce of confidence that Hannah More had gained as a writer and a reformer were marshaled in her pursuit of emancipation for slaves in the British Empire. At a time when Britain owned more than half the world’s slave ships, Hannah More joined William Wilberforce in the decades-long marathon effort of awakening the social and political conscience of the people through any means available to them. On the home front, Hannah refused to serve West Indian sugar (it “had blood on it” because of it’s dependence on the slave trade). She spoke against slavery at every opportunity, becoming the single most influential woman in the British abolitionist movement. She died less than two months after the Emancipation Bill passed in the House of Commons. Her poem “Slavery” was so widely known and so effective in communicating empathy for the slaves that it later inspired David Livingstone to take Christianity to Africa.
Hannah sparkled. She loved and worked with people of different religions and political convictions because, for Hannah, “life was a feast, and the space at her table was abundant.” Even when writing on sober topics, Hannah More, “the first Victorian,” managed to write with humor and an engaging style. I found myself collecting favorite aphorisms as I progressed through the book:
“On the whole, is it not better to succeed as women than to fail as men? . . . to be good originals, rather than bad imitations?”
We “must never proportion our exertion to our success, but to our duty.”
“It should be held as an eternal truth, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right.”
To “learn how to grow old gracefully is perhaps one of the rarest and most valuable arts which can be taught to women.”
Given her huge impact and her prodigious talent, it would have been easy for a biographer to lionize Hannah More as a plastic and one-dimensional saint. Karen Swallow Prior has avoided this by examining her flesh-and-blood weaknesses and blind spots. For instance, Hannah offset her wild productivity with periods of “illness” in which she would take to her bed, often in conjunction with the inevitable criticism she received for her bold stands and actions. She was very sensitive to the opinions and regard of the “upper class,” and never reached the point where she saw the need for the poor to learn to write. Too, her lack of practical experience did not stop her from weighing in on how wives should conduct themselves and how mothers should raise their children.
Having said that, Hannah More is on my list of “Women to Have Coffee (fair trade, naturally) with in Heaven,” and this is mainly because her life demonstrated that there is no station or set of circumstances in life that precludes usefulness to God. Professionally, she was a poet, reformer, and abolitionist. Personally, she was single, serving, and satisfied.
Disclosure: This book was provided by BookLookBloggers in exchange for my unbiased review.