Taming of a Firebrand

FIERCE CONVICTIONS: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF HANNAH  MORE, POET, REFORMER, ABOLITIONIST
KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR
THOMAS NELSON, 2014
$14.99
306 PAGES

How is it that a prolific writer, a beloved teacher and an influential reformer could be lost in the annals of history? And how are we to reclaim her? Enter Hannah More, an 18th-century playwright, novelist and pamphleteer, and Karen Swallow Prior, her latest biographer. In Fierce Convictions, Prior draws on a rich archive of literature, life writing and local history to introduce a new generation to a woman who rose above her gendered and economic station to influence the moral and political consciousness of England.

Hannah More was born to humble beginnings: she and her sisters grew up in their father’s schoolhouse, where they were both students and teachers in turn. More pursued one of the few professional opportunities available to an unmarried woman, devoting her life to the education of women and the poor. She worked to reform more than education: She also was an important voice in the abolition movement, committing her writing to the cause. She was an early evangelical, and her reform efforts, particularly regarding abolition, were motivated by her commitment to Christ. Through all of her reform efforts, More wrote. She composed novels, plays and pamphlets to educate all of England, not only the students in her schools. Now, thanks to Prior, More can better educate us on how to care for the poor, the marginalized and the broken and on how to speak truth to power.

More’s writing might have been fierce, but Prior’s More is tame.

As I read Fierce Convictions, I was astounded by More’s moxie. Prior’s careful historical work details what precisely was at stake for More throughout her political and literary career and the obstacles that she had to surmount in order to be heard. If only I could be so brave. I was also astounded by Prior’s relentless attention to detail, her careful and compassionate storytelling. The author’s personal photographs are included in the novel, and I imagine Karen Swallow Prior relentlessly pursuing More’s historical trail throughout England, spurred on by her own sense of conviction. Specialist readers will benefit from Prior’s determination and will certainly be pleased to encounter lesser-known aspects of More’s biography that Prior has carefully exhumed. A sense of justice motivates Prior’s work: to reclaim that which was forgotten, revising the record to situate More alongside William Wilberforce and Samuel Johnson rather than relegating her to the footnotes. This work is admirable and mirrors More’s own commitment to the powerless.

TAME POLITICS

Yet perhaps this great strength of Prior’s book is also its greatest weakness. While we are rightly asked to remember More for her daring disruption of the status quo, we are not dared to disrupt the status quo like Hannah More did. Another writer to take up the (entirely fictional) mantle of literary-historical reclamation was Virginia Woolf, a figure who looms large behind much of Prior’s prose. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf imagines the fate of William Shakespeare’s brilliant sister Judith, whose genius is thwarted after she escapes an arranged marriage and seeks her fortunes as a playwright (Collected Essays [Hogarth Press, 1966]). She takes her own life and is forgotten by history. Prior invokes the concept of “a room of one’s own” to characterize the gender inequalities women such as More encountered in the 18th century. But Woolf’s famous lecture-turned-essay does far more than argue for women’s opportunities. Woolf argued that in order to bring about a new world order, women must reject the patriarchal systems that have left them hamstrung, challenging the “tyranny at home” as much as the tyrannies of fascism that Woolf protested through her pacifism; this argument was deeply political, deeply radical.

I must wonder if More hasn’t received the same softening treatment as Virginia Woolf, held up as an example of apolitical feminism. The politics of Fierce Convictions are rather tame. Fierce Convictions demands that women be appreciated and valued for their unique contributions – worthy ambitions, to be sure, but incomplete, at least for this reader. In presenting More as an unsung evangelical hero, Prior seemed to be careful that readers’ feathers remain unruffled. This is not to suggest that More was apolitical; quite to the contrary. Prior highlights More’s daring divergence from gender expectations, contextualizing just how radical her actions would have been perceived by her contemporaries. But Prior does not allow More to be radical for us, for now. More’s writing might have been fierce, but Prior’s More is tame.

More’s tenacity must mean something to us now – especially now. Her bravery to speak against the dehumanizing treatment of black people must matter to us in a post-Ferguson America, must inspire us to Christlike action. Her paternalism toward the poor should make us wary of privilege in its many guises. Hannah More should inspire us to challenge oppression when and where we find it. Simply recognizing the value of More’s work is not enough; we must rise to her challenge and follow her example.

Laura McGrath teaches writing at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo: Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.