Article body

Literary critics have not been kind to the 'conservative' women educationalists of the 1790s and early nineteenth century. The moral didacticism of the leading writer of this school, Hannah More, is often treated by critics of educational literature as self-evidently unattractive, something a child of the period had to be forced to read, unlike the delightful fairy tales and fantasies concocted by later Victorian writers. Even after a lapse of two centuries some find it hard to discuss didactic literature with equanimity, losing all perspective on the original work in a blaze of resentment. [1] Not all critics take such an extreme position, but a consensus appears to have been reached on the way Hannah More should be read, namely as a foil to her more radical contemporaries. Is it not time we reassessed this interpretation? A reading of More's work for her 'opinions' misses out on the message conveyed by her stylistic choices. In the context of the 1790s, More's Cheap Repository Tracts were recognized as innovatory by friends and enemies alike, particularly in the way that they addressed themselves to the labouring classes. In the vibrant written culture of the decade following the French Revolution, literary approaches carried political implications - a fact that has long been acknowledged in the study of radical poets and novelists. Why do we not perceive More's tracts in this light?

The main obstacles to a progressive reading of Hannah More's tracts are our own dominant cultural assumptions, which tend to be secular, liberal and - until very recently - masculine. If we do not take these into account, we are in danger of patronising More in the very same breath as we accuse her of patronizing the lower classes. It should give us pause for thought that Hannah More's work was favourably reviewed by a number of radical publications of the day, including the Critical Review and the Analytical Review - the journal that published articles by Wollstonecraft. [2] The similarity of More's moral codes to that of Wollstonecraft's own educational stories, as well as to those of other women educationalists, Maria Edgeworth and Harriet Martineau, indicates that there is no easy answer to the question of how her works were perceived by the lower classes she was addressing.

It is understandable that we identify with those writers in the period who come closest to a modern notion of politics - both constitutional and sexual. Many feel more comfortable with the radicals, Wollstonecraft and Paine, because they seem to articulate accepted concepts about human liberty and the dignity of each individual regardless of class, creed or sex, in contrast to the voices whose values were submission, loyalty and gratitude - the latter being attitudes which have been identified as antagonistic to a boisterous 'popular' culture. [3] Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace puts the dilemma well in feminist terms:

When we encounter what seems to be a strain of political conservatism in the works of such writers as Hannah More, it is only natural that we would gravitate instead toward the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft; it is far easier to identify with Wollstonecraft's revolutionary sympathies....Yet only a gesture that opens out to embrace the more elusive - and less attractive - literary foremothers can offer us a profound understanding of our situation. [4]

However, Kowaleski-Wallace's embracing gesture is to interpret More as one of a number of 'case studies in complicity' with the patriarchal system, [5] perpetuating (whilst ostensibly revising) the image of More as the bad fairy at the christening of modern feminism. Her approach is in part due to what she sees as the castigation of feminine energies in More's works. We should ask, however, what kind of feminine power is More criticising? For example, one of the characters in the Cheap Repository Tracts, Tawney Rachel, could be interpreted as a relict of the matriarchal power of witchcraft and soothsaying, but she is punished with transportation for wielding her influence. A new reading is produced when we consider Rachel as a negative alternative to a contemporary form of feminine power that was able to co-exist, as distinct from being in complicity, with the predominant masculine culture. Far from being a beleaguered outpost of traditional female knowledge, Tawney Rachel is characterized as an enemy to other women, peddling lies to corrupt the girls she manages to ensnare. She is the dark sister to the positive images of helpful female advisers, the Sunday School teachers and active ladies. She represents the primitive, uncultivated mind, spreading its nets of irrational superstition, pitted against rational femininity that enlightens and sets free from crippling fear and ignorance. More does not offer us the revolutionary feminism of her contemporaries, Wollstonecraft or Mary Hays, yet, as Gary Kelly notes in Women, Writing and Revolution, 1790-1827, 'even this model could have feminist and revolutionary potential'. [6]

Work has already begun to question the way we read women educational writers of the 1790s. Recent articles by Mitzi Myers have championed a gynocentric interpretation of Hannah More's tracts and Wollstonecraft's Mrs Mason of Original Stories. Instead of trying to imagine what the 'child' would have thought - she points out that this concept of 'child' is usually constructed by critics as possessing a male Romantic sensibility - the stories should be read for what they are saying about the woman who teaches and the girl who learns. 'From the ideological materials at hand, didactic women like More shaped a new ideal of educated womanhood', writes Myers. 'Through female influence and moral power, this cultural myth's new woman would educate the young and illiterate, succor the unfortunate, amend the debased popular culture of the lower orders, reorient worldly men of every class, and set the national house in order'. [7] Her argument implies a huge expansion of the scope for women's activity: if the woman should exert her influence at home, then the whole nation was now seen as one large 'house'. We find numerous examples of such women in More's tracts: most notably Mrs Jones of the Sunday School series. In 'The Cottage Cook', later relabelled 'A Cure for Melancholy' to give greater emphasis to the beneficial effects of public works on the female psyche, Mrs Jones is persuaded by the local clergyman to put aside her self-indulgent sadness and act as a force for good in her community. She sets about closing down the alehouse, reforming the character of the local girls - and by extension their families - and correcting cheating tradesmen. Attempting to close the alehouse has been cited as a typical example of upper class contempt for lower class culture: a hostile middle class take-over of popular leisure patterns. [8] Such criticism would be fair if popular culture was experienced equally by all members of lower class society, but it was not. Looking at it from the woman's point of view (women were largely excluded from the drinking club that met at the alehouse fireside), alehouses drained away the scanty family finances and promoted drunkenness with its associated violence in the home. Whilst defending the culture of the underdog in eighteenth century society, we are in danger of thinking of the lower classes as being represented by the more vocal adult men and we dwell on the admirable resistance of their culture to attempts to impose foreign values. It is possible, however, that More articulates a view, albeit from her privileged perspective, that would have found favour with the women and children whose interests were subordinate in some aspects of popular culture to a man's right to drink in company. Interpreting More as a defender of the family, her recipe for lower class socializing (domestic and sober) reads, not as a curb on pleasure, but as a suggestion that the male reader should pursue less destructive forms of recreation. Nor was her advice class specific: her moral writings for the rich also cast domesticity and sobriety as desirable qualities.

More's tracts were innovative in ways that went beyond definitions of gender as she also attempted to communicate across the perceived class divide of the higher and lower orders. The status of women in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century aligns them in some respects with the lower classes as both groups shared a subservient position to upper class power-holding men. Taking this model, Kowaleski-Wallace concludes that moderate advances for middle class Evangelical women writers (such as More) came at the expense of the lower classes: 'if Evangelicalism afforded middle-class women an opportunity for self-definition and self-advancement, that advancement also exacted its price: the perpetuation of an unequal class system'. [9] Kowaleski-Wallace implies that the middle class ideal of self-help was a deeply divisive message to preach to those in abject poverty as they were unable to raise themselves to take the first step on the ladder of self-improvement. Counter-balancing Kowaleski-Wallace's argument is the possibility that More's type of cautious progressivism eroded traditional social divisions through the spread of education. More's implementation of education for the poorest through her schools in the Mendips and her provision of cheap literary materials provided practical assistance to the poor with the result that some were empowered to take greater charge of their own lives. Thus, whilst from a modern perspective self-help is an ideology associated with the middle class, [10] this in itself does not invalidate the contemporary belief of More and many other writers that it was a lesson relevant to all classes and both sexes, if those already on the ladder were prepared to help those below them. Criticism of More has travelled too far in the direction of accusing her of imposing her values on others. Susan Pederson, for example, reads the tracts as launching an all out attack on popular culture. Whilst acknowledging the value of such arguments, we should remind ourselves that More did not promote her values by force. Her enthusiasm for her standards was that of a determined proselytiser seeking to convert the individual; but it remained in the power of the individual to accept or reject, buy or pass over her message. Popular culture was not homogeneous: it contained a sizeable religious constituency who shared her pious views, and there were no doubt some who had a taste for aspirational literature which suggested they may join the middle classes by adopting its values and work ethic.

The reading I am offering of Hannah More's tracts emphasizes her understanding of the coincidence of interests between classes, rather than the potential conflict. I am not arguing that she matched the popular appeal of Tom Paine or Thomas Spence. She is self-evidently more conservative, more middle class than either of them, differentiated by the fact that she spoke into a culture rather than out of it as they did. She was separated from her readership but she attempted to reach across the gap. Her work constitutes a bridge, so far largely unrecognised, between the lower and upper classes in a period of great social upheaval. And no insubstantial bridge at that: she was a 'best seller' in her day. Over two million copies of More's tracts are estimated to have been sold or distributed by March 1796, not counting the bound volumes for the more affluent purchaser. The tracts appeared in such numbers that, according to Henry Thompson writing five years after More's death in 1833, they still 'formed a principal part of the English cottagers' library' - though it should be noted that he was a partisan commentator. [11] Gary Kelly has cast doubt on whether the labouring orders actually bought the tracts for themselves, suggesting that they were merely passive recipients of middle class distributions. However, his approach does not explain why More's publisher, John Marshall, carried on producing tracts in the same format after More and her sponsors withdrew. Marshall evidently saw the tracts as a viable business proposition. Nor does it account for the fact that More appears to have persuaded hawkers to carry her productions as these salemen expected to sell them, not hand them out for free. Whilst allowing for a significant element of upper class subsidising and distribution, the two considerations above suggest there was a market for the tracts amongst the labouring classes. [12] Thus, in the context of her time, her educational writings were as familiar to the reading public as Scott and Byron, and more frequently read than Shelley and Keats. Yet most critics have been content to give her tracts only cursory consideration, using them as a short-hand for the conservative extreme imposed on the lower orders to which radical popular writings can be compared, seeing them in opposition to progressive writings rather than considering their similarity.

The misreading of the tracts as ultra-conservative works is in part due to their didactic nature. Didacticism is deeply unfashionable. The history of children's literature is usually described as a flight from moralising works into the wonderful realms of fantasy (a bias traceable to Wordsworth's influence with his elevation of childhood into a time of unstructured exposure to the nature). This version neglects the ongoing importance of writing that seeks to teach by entertaining, and to do so in a 'naturalistic' setting, as opposed to Fairyland or Arabia. More was joined by an acknowledged radical, Mary Wollstonecraft, in writing in a tradition of moral tales that had been exploited during the eighteenth century by progressives as well as conservatives. Thomas Percival, for example, friend of Diderot and Voltaire, founder of the Manchester 'Lit. & Phil.' (a group similar to the Midlands Lunar Society frequented by R. L. Edgeworth), produced A Father's Instructions (1775) for his children in the format of moral tales, convinced that 'nothing can operate more forcibly, than striking pictures of the beauty of virtue, and the deformity of vice; which at once convince the judgment, and leave a lasting impression on the imagination'. [13] His description of the subject matter of a moral tale associates it with 'manners and mores', thus going beyond the narrow definition of a cautionary tale. Percival's publisher - J. Johnson - also published Maria Edgeworth and Wollstonecraft. Contemporary readers, seeing this cluster of works coming from a radical publishing house, would have understood that moral tales were at the forefront of the attempt by progressive thinkers to educate their readers into judging for themselves, shaking off the shackles of received opinion or superstition. From this evidence I would suggest that it is an historically incorrect reading to equate More's moral tales simply with conservatism.

Once the moral tale is accepted as a potentially progressive genre, other aspects of her work can be re-examined in a sympathetic light. The first point that should be recovered is that she wrote on a radical new assumption: the lower classes were an audience worth addressing. Her approach entails an acceptance of education, even if a qualified one. In a passage much quoted as characterizing More's educational conservatism, she wrote to one correspondent:

My plan for instructing the poor is very limited and strict. They learn weekdays such coarse works as may fit them for servants. I allow of no writing. My object has not been to teach dogmas and opinions, but to form the lower class to habits of industry and virtue.

Jones p. 152

Emphasis has been given to her decision to omit writing from the curriculum, but less attention has been paid to More's rejection of dogma and opinions, concentrating on forming 'habits of industry and virtue', which puts her tracts in line with Percival's description of the way a moral tale should work. However, on the issue of writing, it should be remembered that More had to defend her actions against reactionary critics. This passage is less progressive than the series of tracts she presided over. In one of the tracts in the Cheap Repository, Charles Jones, a footman, explicitly recommends that the lower classes learn to write in their spare time so that they can rise in the world. He takes his own advice and from being the most menial servant becomes the bailiff of his master's estate and a tenant farmer. Perhaps More should be judged by her practice rather than the professions she tailored for a sceptical audience?

In the early days of the industrial revolution, many people considered education for the lower classes anything other than desirable. Hannah More experienced this attitude at first hand as she was not only a writer, but a pioneering founder of a network of schools for the poor in the Mendips. Her attempts to forward the moral education of the poor by teaching them to read improving works repeatedly ran across powerful local opposition. Of one scheme to establish a school she writes in 1797, '[t]he principal adversary is a farmer of £1000 a-year, who says, the lower class are fated to be wicked and ignorant, and that, as wise as I am, I cannot alter what is decreed.' [14] She dramatised this kind of opposition in her tract 'The Sunday-School'. The farmer here tries to discourage Mrs Jones when she asks him to subscribe to the new school with the words, '[o]f all the foolish inventions, and new-fangled devices to ruin the country, that of teaching the poor to read is the very worst'. [15] The farmer is eventually won over when he sees the improvements brought to the local girls by the school and he promises half a sheep for the first May-day feast. In reality, More's experience was less optimistic than her tale and she was forced on a number of occasions to shut down schools due to ill-feeling towards them amongst the most influential figures in the community. The characteristics of Hannah More as an educator of the poor are frequently measured by critics and found wanting; it is worth noting as a corrective to this negative image that More was criticized publicly by some contemporaries for her enthusiasm and radicalism as a teacher. [16]

Hannah More did not cast herself as an easy convert to the cause of writing for the poor. Her own version of the train of events that led to her writing Village Politics shows her initial distaste for the task. Having once refused the Bishop of London's request that she put pen to paper to counter the seditious writings of Tom Paine, More eventually succumbed: an evil hour, against my will and my judgment, on one sick day, I scribbled a little pamphlet called Village Politics by 'Will Chip'....It is as vulgar as heart can wish; but it is only designed for the most vulgar class of readers. I heartily hope I shall not be discovered; as it is the sort of writing repugnant to my nature, though indeed, it is a question of peace rather than politics. [17]

Until this time in 1792, More had been known for her poetry, plays, and - more lately - her moral observations on the manners and education of the elite. [18] She had been moving in refined London circles: she had reason to fear ridicule in the press for metamorphosing into 'Will Chip'. Her repugnance is not only directed at sullying her reputation as a writer by stooping to furnish material for a 'low' taste; she also shied from any imputation that she, a woman, was meddling inappropriately in politics - hence the rider 'it is a question of peace rather than politics'. However, the success of her first venture in this field helped change her mind. By the end of 1794 she had been persuaded by the bishop to form a scheme to publish a whole series of tracts. Between 1795 and 1798, a hundred and fourteen tracts were published, of which More contributed at least fifty, as well as acting as editor of the whole (Jones p. 139). Her sustained effort to produce the Cheap Repository series demonstrates that More was convinced that the usefulness of these little books far outweighed any consideration of her own sensibilities on the matter. They were integrated in her greater scheme of education for the lower classes as they were written in part to provide her own schools with suitable teaching material.

In another important respect, her practice illustrates how her work was a radical departure. It is not enough just to wish to educate the poor: the materials must be within their reach to have any effect. The format chosen by Hannah More was designed to reach the widest possible audience, and in this respect she should be credited with the first systematic attempt by an educational writer to provide affordable literature. Her tracts were produced in as cheap chap-books - the staple fare of the hawkers and pedlars - and priced at a penny or half-penny, a price within reach of most pockets. [19] She used travelling salesmen and sympathetic contacts amongst the privileged classes to distribute her wares, understanding that most poor people would not dream of stepping into a bookshop.

More went further than may have been expected of her because she immersed herself in the literary culture of the poor, the chapbooks and broadsheets peddled by hawkers for a penny, collecting an impressive library of such materials. Her common sense told her that 'it is vain to write what people will not read' (Jones p. 139). She had plenty of failures in front of her from which to learn. As Victor E. Neuburg writes in Popular Education in Eighteenth Century England,

At a time when society was changing, well-intentioned men of religion provided a large number of cheap publications which were almost entirely hortatory, and neglected the popular imagination which had been nourished in a pre-literate society by oral culture and the communal ceremonies and customs connected with the agrarian cycle of the year. [20]

It took a woman of religion to realize the shortcomings of this approach. To get her message across, she decided to do it on the terms with which the popular imagination was already familiar. She chose an instantly recognisable format to convey her message, complete with woodcut to attract the eye. Her friends and family who also contributed to the series were instructed to write in a like manner. Whilst in contrast to the unruly world of 'Jack the Giant Killer' and 'Mother Bunch' More's tracts may strike the reader as anodyne, they were a vast improvement on the lack-lustre publications that had gone before from religious societies.

The importance of the populistic approach to More was that it got her tracts read by the people she was targeting. Her shrewd market awareness - even more remarkable for a woman in her era considering her genteel spinster background - was carried from the design concept to distribution, marketing the tracts at a price below the normal one penny wares of the hawkers and offering whole-sale incentives to the salesmen themselves if they carried the Cheap Repository. However, the importance to literary historians is that the series offers one of the first examples of literature, emanating from the respectable end of publishing, consciously fashioning itself (after market research) for the perceived capacities and taste of a huge audience, mining popular culture for its materials. Jon Klancher, in his study of the development of mass reading audiences at the beginning of the nineteenth century, characterizes Romantic era as the first period in which writers had to carve out a readership for themselves: '[t]his inchoate cultural moment compelled a great many writers to shape the interpretive and ideological frameworks of audiences they would speak to' [21] Though he does not have More in mind, taking his examples from periodicals and writers such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, Klancher's argument is well illustrated by the deliberate manner More set about fashioning a product suited for a particular class of reader. Her use of the materials of popular culture was in contrast to the contemporary fashion for ballad collecting which took lower-class songs, refashioned them and presented the result in the equivalent of coffee-table books for the rich, the kind of exercise in which Walter Scott first made his name. More took to give back. She attempted to create an image of lower class society, ventriloquising recognisable genres, in the hope that her readers would accept the representation as one by which they could fashion their own values - in a sense, identifying themselves with the virtuous characters, and rejecting the 'sinful' alternatives.

The Cheap Repository makes extensive use of the range of genres found in chapbooks - ballads, allegories, and tales. More replicated the alluring titles to tempt her readers further, such as the charmingly titled

The Story of Sinful Sally, told by herself, shewing how from being Sally of the Green she was first led to become SINFUL SALLY, and afterwards DRUNKEN SAL, and how at last she came to a most melancholy and almost hopeless End; being therein a Warning to all young Women both in Town and Country. [22]

The prose is followed by a jaunty ballad charting the progress of the heroine through her sad (but sexy) decline and late repentance - a dose of morality delivered in a racy story.

Adopting a popular format was not without dangers. More had to keep a tight control over the editorial policy of the tracts to check that the moral content was maintained. 'Sinful Sally' is a case of a tract that sails close to the wind, dealing as it does with the theme of prostitution. How easily the same material could be nudged over the moral line was demonstrated when More broke with her publisher, John Marshall, in 1797. Marshall continued to produce tracts in the same style, trading on the popularity of More's series, but without the same concern for morality, as demonstrated by the mildly rude 'The Contented Cobbler and his Wife' (Jones p. 143). Nothing could be better calculated to distress the serious minded More than dubious tracts being sold on the reputation for probity she had patiently constructed.

Hannah More not only used popular genres, she also employed popular culture as part of her content. One particularly interesting tale in this respect is 'Tawney Rachel; or, The Fortune Teller: with some account of Dreams, Omens and Conjurers'. The purpose of the tale is to debunk popular superstitions, but in the process More records many country customs, weaving a picture of the world in which these beliefs flourished:

Poor Sally Evans!...She delighted in dream-books, and had consulted all the cunning women in the country to tell her whether the two moles on her cheek denoted that she was to have two husbands, or only two children. If she picked up an old horse-shoe going to church, she was sure that would be a lucky week. She never made a black-pudding without borrowing one of the parson's old wigs to hang in the chimney, firmly believing there were no other means to preserve them from bursting. She would never go to bed on Midsummer eve without sticking up in her room the well-known plant called Midsummer-men, as the bending of the leaves to the right or to the left, would not fail to tell her whether Jacob...was true or false.

Works v. 454-455

Sally is an easy dupe of Tawney Rachel who manipulates her credulity to make her marry the wrong man, unleashing a sequence of events that ends in Sally's early death. This criticism of country customs, however, can only be achieved by first detailing them and the society in which they function. More has preserved for the historian social practices that otherwise may well have gone unrecorded. Her intention, however, was to allow her readers to examine their own beliefs by comparing their experience to that on the printed page; the story leads them through the process of freeing themselves from superstition and irrational fears; in the eighteenth century tradition of an enlightened education, More educates them out of their prejudices. To free the reader from the impositions of quack soothsayers can be plausibly described as a liberating message, rather than as an attack on country customs.

More's tracts not only recorded country life, but also detailed the life of cities and industrial towns as the author understood them. Her knowledge in these tales is drawn from second-hand observations as well as her own experience. She supplemented her knowledge gathered from her residence in London in the 1770s and 1780s and later visits with material from the most up-to-date sources so as to give the tracts as authentic a basis as possible, a sign that she wanted them to have credibility with her readership. For example, in 'Betty Brown, the St Giles's Orange Girl: with some Account of Mrs Sponge, the Money-Lender', More investigated the murky waters of London crime, taking her facts from P. Colquhoun's A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (1796). 'Betty Brown' introduces a new kind of heroine. Sinful Sally was all too familiar as the village girl gone wrong in the big city; Betty is more remarkable as the city girl making good against the odds and by obeying the law - a prototype Samuel Smiles. Betty, like many homeless unplaced children of urban centres, 'was born nobody knows where, and bred nobody knows how' (Works vol. V, p. 372). She starts at the bottom of society: '[t]he longest thing that Betty can remember is, that she used to crawl up out of a night cellar, stroll about the streets, and pick cinders from the scavengers' cart' (Works vol. V, p. 373). As a scavenger from a scavenger, she can hardly get any lower. Through her own exertions, and the timely advice of a lady who takes an interest in her case, Betty raises herself to be first an orange-woman, then the keeper of 'that handsome sausage-shop near the Seven Dials' (Works vol. V, p. 396). More gives her fictitious character an air of reality, rooting her in a specific locality by referring to the shop as evidence. Betty, on her way up the social ladder, presumably passes Sinful Sally on her way down.

The facts drawn from Colquhoun on which More builds her story form the central plot issue. Betty is cheated by Mrs Sponge into paying an exorbitant rate of interest for money lent to her to start up her orange business. She is not even aware of her plight until the lady and her husband, a magistrate, open her eyes to the truth and help to free her from the financial net spun by Mrs Sponge to catch the unwary entrepreneur. Betty is not at fault for her ignorance - More does not blame the poor from falling unintentionally into a poverty trap. The tale puts the onus on the privileged upper classes to help the vulnerable members of society. The resolution is an idealistic picture of a city where the poor live close enough to the rich to receive their help and guidance, but the underworld of Mrs Sponge is convincingly sordid in its petty trickery and misery. The money-lender would be a fitting mother for Fagin.

'Betty Brown' is also an example of one of More's writing strategies to attract a popular following for her works by creating a sense of community between the characters of her tracts. If we are interested in Betty, we may also be interested to read about her husband, the Hackney Coachman, in the ballad 'The Way to Get a Good Fare'. If Tawney Rachel intrigued us, then why not read about her equally evil husband and sons in the two-part tale 'Black Giles the Poacher'? More's most elaborate sequence involves Mrs Jones of 'A Cure for Melancholy' who sets up the school in 'The Sunday School' and teaches the eponymous heroine of 'The History of Hester Wilmot'.

The overt didacticism may have palled with some readers, but compared to alternative strategies used by contemporaries to drill the poor in their duties, the tracts are thoroughly entertaining. Teaching until this date had largely happened, if it happened at all, in church where sermons and catechisms formed the staple diet. Women educationalists had begun to change this: both Anna Laetitia Barbauld in Lessons for Children (1778-9) and Sarah Trimmer in Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature (1780) had used a catechistic format as the basis for a more interactive teaching tool. [23] More and her sisters had taken inspiration from these examples and refined their teaching techniques in the girls' school they ran in Park Street, Bristol. More experimented with ways of relieving the monotony of the conventional method of learning by rote, introducing drama and conversational discussions as a means of conveying moral principles. Another way of looking at the tracts is to see them as an extension of the good teaching practice she had already tried with rich young ladies. Village Politics can be termed a dramatic dialogue; the discussions of moral principles in some of the tales can be called animated discussions, models for the poor to use amongst themselves on other issues. It is worth noting that many of the tracts are based on the idea of the labouring classes teaching themselves, or even teaching their social superiors. This strategy should be acknowledged when judging why More adopted the pen name of Will Chip for her first venture. It has been interpreted as a duplicitous move - a hidden condescension on her part - but it can also equally be seen as a championing of native wit and wisdom. Compare Village Politics with William Paley's 'Equality', another dialogue published at the same period to put quietist arguments to the labouring-classes. In Paley's tract the two characters are 'a Master-Manufacturer and one of his Workmen'. Though the manufacturer is a self-made man, drawn from the same class as his employee, he now speaks for the elite. He is travelled (he recounts his adventures in France where he almost got lynched for wearing a coat with steel buttons) and is full of aspirations well out of reach of most men:

Workman - You, master! why you are merry, surely you do not expect to be made a lord?
Master - Certainly I do not, John; but it is not at all improbable that my children should. [24]

He may be proof of a new social mobility brought by industrial wealth, but only a few could hope to follow in his tracks. He has moved beyond the sphere of the working-man before the conversation begins. More, on the other hand, teaches her lesson for contentment through a double layer of labouring class spokesmen: the supposed author and the character of Jack Anvil, who acts the part in the dialogue Paley ascribes to the manufacturer. Jack has wit and imagination, such as when he uses the allegory of the landlord's castle to put the history of the constitution in parabolic form for his friend, the enthusiastic Tom Hod. Jack's able grasp of political ideas proves him to be eminently qualified to assume responsibility for the running of local affairs. The resulting portrait of the labouring class is thus rather flattering.

In the Cheap Repository Tracts, More extends this strategy further. A close parallel to Village Politics is found in the poetic dialogue, 'Turn the Carpet', where two weavers discuss their life and God's providence. One weaver is given the image - at once both elegant and reassuringly homespun - that forms the title to the piece, explaining,

This world which clouds thy soul with doubt,

Is but a carpet inside out.

Works vol. I, p. 289

The pattern, or meaning, of life will only be revealed when we see the finished product from the other side (i.e. in heaven). The spokesmen of Village Politics, Jack Anvil and Tom Hod, reappear - this time in rhyming couplets - in the 1795 dialogue 'The Riot or Half a Loaf is Better than no Bread'. More reuses Will Chip as the supposed author of 'A Country Carpenter's Confession of Faith with a few plain remarks on the Age of Reason in a letter from Will Chip, in Somersetshire to Thomas Pain [sic], Stay-maker, in Paris'. This tract is rather a shameless venture on More's part as it reproduces the worst of the spurious slanders against Paine circulated by Francis Oldys, the hostile biographer of the author of the Rights of Man, and crows over his imprisonment. However, it shares with the other tracts the elevation of home-bred common sense and, by assuming that its readers were aware of the religious and political ideas of the day, involves them in a debate that rarely was addressed to them by writers from the privileged classes.

If we describe More as a writer who uses 'the language of common men', her affinity with the poets of her era - Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge - comes to the fore. She may be approaching the exercise from a different political direction, but her intentions are not dissimilar. She wished to communicate - as did the poets - and did so by using language and formats familiar to her readers. Like Southey's 'Botany Bay Eclogues' and 'English Eclogues', she used poetic dialogues to convey her message. Like Wordsworth, she drew her wisdom from 'salt-of-the-earth' characters, such as 'The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain' - a Wordsworthian title if ever there was one. If these comparisons sound far-fetched, it is perhaps because we have in the past been too eager to focus on the limits of her agenda for the poor and missed the empowering effects of her scheme. As a progressive educationalist who employed popular culture as a teaching aid, she appears in a different light from the traditional image of her as a reactionary writer preaching unquestioning quietism.

It is impossible to assess accurately the impact the tracts had on their lower class readers. The ecstatic letters More received from the rich sponsors of the scheme may indicate wishful thinking on their part rather than evidence that the poor had taken the message of the tracts to heart. Certainly, on one level, the tracts functioned as expressions of middle class preoccupations, working out the anxieties and spiritual dramas of the rich in the context of lower class poverty - a process Kelly characterizes as 'fantasies of plebian complaisance'. [25] More presented an imaginary picture of a lower class world as many in the higher classes would have liked it to be, which helps explain why the tracts were popular with affluent readers. More's contemporaries were apt to credit the Cheap Repository with great power. A story circulated that a riot in Bath in 1796 had been quelled when a quick thinking gentleman struck up the singing of 'The Riot or Half a Loaf is Better than no Bread' - a tale which, if it could be proved, suggests a popular familiarity with More's ballads and a susceptibility to their moral teachings, but there is no impartial confirmation of the incident. Another more reliable indication of More's effectiveness as a writer for the lower classes is William Cobbett's attacks on her in 1821 in his counter production, Monthly Religious Tracts. If he had not believed her work to be a significant threat to his lower class readership, he would not have felt the need to bombard her as the 'HANNAH [who] was, perhaps, as artful, as able, and as useful a scribe as ever drew pen in the cause of the system', putting his readers on the alert against her still famous tracts. [26] An early twentieth century historian, Elie Halevy, numbered More's tracts amongst the moral authorities of the era that helped check revolution in England, (Jones pp. 146-7) but we should be careful not to over-emphasize the impact of the written word amongst so many other influences on popular feeling.

Not all her contemporaries were impressed by the Cheap Repository. More reports to her sister that Horace Walpole took her to task for 'the ill-natured strictness of my tracts' (Roberts, vol II, p. 435). No one would deny that the tracts are uncompromising in their morality and they have been fairly criticized for this both then and now. Modern critics, however, have tended to simplify the complexity of 'popular culture' and assumed it to be hostile to More's productions. Whilst acknowledging that there were contexts in which the tracts were unwelcome, the probability remains strong that her values proved an inspiration to a significant number of readers. To a constituency of the religious and traditionally minded amongst the labouring classes, [27] her suggestion that high standards could be achieved by the poor on their own merits may have been received as ultimately encouraging self-improvement and self-determination. More included in her cast of characters loyal, God-fearing, virtuous labouring class subjects, challenging literary cliches of rural clods and vulgar city dwellers. This was not a picture for the consumption of the labouring orders alone: she taught her rich readership to admire and believe in the virtues of the lower classes, perhaps in a small way helping to prepare an audience that would come to accept Wordsworth's pedlar in The Excursion as an authority on English society. Moreover, she cultivated an articulate readership amongst the lower classes, enabling them to make informed moral choices. Thus, though her opinions locate her amongst the conservatives when compared to radical contemporaries, the implications of her educational and literary practice place her amongst the most progressive writers of her day.