Who was Hannah More? William Cobbett called her an old bishop in petticoats, and she was the subject of a hefty, pious Victorian biography, since when she has been pretty much forgotten. The Edwardian wit Augustine Birrell buried 19 volumes of her collected works in his garden for compost. She owes her disinterment to the fashion for writing the lives of women, the more obscure the better. Is she interesting enough to merit a book of nearly 400 pages? Almost certainly, the answer is yes.
She was born near Bristol, the daughter of an impoverished charity school master, in 1745. Her older sisters ran a successful school for young ladies. Hannah, who was reassuringly plump, wrote poetry. Aged 28, she published a best-selling poem, and went to London. Here she became friendly with Garrick, who helped her write plays, she got to know Johnson and made friends with Horace Walpole. Literary London ladies bitched about her gauche tactlessness and her provincial manners, but Hannah More discovered that you could get a long way by just being nice to the right people. She became everyone’s best friend.
The same trick helped in her second and better-known career as an Evangelical. When Hannah More hit 40 she decided that she had had enough of fashionable London, and bought herself a cottage at Cowslip Green near Bristol. Shocked by the Bristol slave trade, she made a timely conversion to the fashionable cult of Evangelicalism. She attached herself to Wilberforce, the charismatic abolitionist, who became the new David Garrick in her life. Dedicating herself to the glory of God rather than the advancement of Hannah More (though, as her biographer says, the distinction was not clear-cut), she and her sister Patty founded a network of schools around Mendip for the labouring poor.