Oxford University Press, £25

Hannah More: the first Victorian by Anne Stott

Why we still have this Georgian on our mind

Hannah More – evangelist, playwright, moralist, Sunday School pioneer, novelist and anti-slavery campaigner – was a child of the Enlightenment but a feisty old lady in pre-Victorian Britain. Born in 1745, she died 88 years later, just four years before Queen Victoria's accession in 1837.

More was born in the family cottage in Bristol, daughter of a customs official, one of five sisters, with not a silver spoon in sight. But her achievement shows just what one unmarried, late Georgian woman could achieve. "What could she have been in an age of greater opportunities?" asks Anne Stott.

More's big break was meeting David Garrick while visiting London. He nicknamed her "Nine", because for him she embodied all nine muses. She eventually wrote several successful plays for Garrick, although her career as a dramatist ended after the great actor's death in 1779.

It was an episodic life. More's evangelical piety and deep dislike of "Popery" deepened steadily. That led to the founding of the Mendip schools – trailblazing Sunday schools for educating the children and adults of Cheddar and its environs, where More and her sister Patty now lived.

She was a skilled manager, prepared to negotiate, accommodate and compromise. By the 1790s, her schools had become a national focus of evangelical pilgrimage. Some survived into the 20th century, to be absorbed into the state system.

Famous in her lifetime, More numbered among her friends Johnson (who dubbed her "the most skilled versifactrix in the English Language"), Burke, Walpole, Pitt, Wilberforce and a battery of bishops. Her branded "Cheap Repository Tracts" appeared regularly and were supported by committees nationwide. "Hannah More's mission to spread improving literature among the poor was arguably more successful than she could have dreamed," Stott comments. More was also a leading light in the first great middle-class pressure group, the anti-slavery campaign. And she was involved in the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Her most famous book was the best-selling novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809). In it, Charles meets various girls, some more "suitable" than others, and strives to make a good moral choice. Translated into both French and German, it became what Stott calls "a cultural reference point, a book that was talked about even when not read" well into the Victorian age.

Stott is an impeccable researcher. Her accessible but scholarly – and never hagiographic – biography throws new light on the development of Victorianism by examining its roots. She is also entertaining on historical jigsaw pieces. She details several links between More's Clapham friends and the later Bloomsbury group (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were great-granddaughters of James Stephen, for example). Then there are the familial connections between the Macaulays and the Trevelyans. And who would have thought that More's friend, the Staffordshire clergyman Thomas Gisborne, was the father of Lydia Gisborne – later the notorious Mrs Robinson, the undoing of Branwell Brontë?

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