Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]
With a moving foreword by Eric Metaxas , this book seeks to right a wrong by rehabilitating the reputation of one of the more neglected luminaries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Hannah More. In the biographer’s loving and fair-minded hands, we are treated to a full and balanced account of what seems like an impossibly productive life. Hannah More’s complicated family history, including a somewhat scandalous parentage that cost her father an honorable job for seducing a teenage servant girl in the household he served as a bailiff, as well as her own close friendships (and even a six-year long engagement) with confirmed bachelors of questionable manliness and a wide array of people of all different ages and social groups and backgrounds, suggests a rich and complicated personality full of tension and contradiction from someone who greatly influenced Great Britain for the better during her lifetime (and even beyond).
This book, which is just over 250 pages of main text, strikes a balance between a chronological and thematic organization as it looks at Hannah More’s life from being an early prodigy as a poetess and playwright to her friendship with cultural, religious, and political elites, to her massively important social work at ending the slave trade and then slavery, fighting against cruelty to animals, educating the poor and illiterate masses of rural England, encouraging the wealthy and powerful to serve as good examples of a heartfelt and genuine Christianity (as she understood it), even as she wrote volume after volume of plays, poems, essays and pamphlets, stories, and even a novel. How such a staggeringly prolific and massively influential writer as she became obscure in the first place is a bit of a mystery, largely resulting from acquiring a false reputation as someone who was a plaster saint and extremely censorious and severe on others. Sadly, she also fell victim to a culture war that pitted two trends hostile to her and other intellectual women, a romantic movement that desired helpless damsels in distress and a reactionary backlash that saw any progress, including that of women as the moral, intellectual, and social equals of men, as something to fight against.
What is perhaps the most touching about this book is the way it shows the humanity of its subject in a great deal of praise as well as honest admission of faults and foibles. Whether discussing the tension between More’s close friendships and great generosity to Catholic refugees and her steadfast hostility to increased political power for Catholics in Great Britain, or her combination of socially liberal views on education and gender with her conservative moral and political views, or her combination of flirtatious wit and friendship (and even romantic gossip) with flamboyant bachelors and her strong-minded moral rectitude, to her ambivalent views about fame and her literary prowess, and her insecurity as a social climber with a parvenu background, this book shows a talented and complicated individual who tried to live a quiet life but constantly found herself sought out by friends, who was internationally known yet wrote anonymously (yet unsuccessfully so) for much of her life, and a woman of a frail constitution often burdened by the stresses of her life yet lived a long life despite her sensitive nature and uneven health. She is someone many of us would like to know, and may in many ways resemble, and lived a life that is worthy of both appreciation and emulation, much like this book about her. Those who can appreciate great lives may aspire to someday live them, after all.
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