Putting the Reader Right: Reassessing Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts[Record]

  • Julia Saunders

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  • Julia Saunders
    Wolfson College

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. 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. 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. Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace puts the dilemma well in feminist terms: However, Kowaleski-Wallace's embracing gesture is to interpret More as one of a number of 'case studies in complicity' with the patriarchal system, 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 …