Ella Morrish, ‘Hannah More: The Politics of Liberty’

Ella Morrish, a third-year English Literature undergraduate at Cardiff University, adapts her paper from the inaugural CRECS Conference for the CRECS Blog.

‘… the most sensible females, when they turn their attention to political subjects, are more uniformly on the side of liberty than the other sex.’—George Dyer, ‘On Liberty’ (1792)

But what do we mean by liberty?

John Barrell regards the late eighteenth century as a period of linguistic uncertainty, when ‘every moral and political word had a thousand shades of meaning’ (Barrell, 2000). Supposedly, the government were publishing manipulated definitions of certain words in newspapers so that radicals, who had used alternative definitions, appeared incapable of using language correctly. So, as Barrell understands, we can regard the political conflict of the period ‘as a conflict, among other things, about the meanings of words’. And consequently, the interpretation or manipulation of terms such as democrat, equality or liberty became a politically loaded act. With this in mind, I have been investigating how liberty is defined within the work of Hannah More, exposing the complexity of her political identity.

To a modern-day reader with feminist principles, More is an unappealing subject. As Marcus Wood notes, she has been sidelined as a result of ‘her unwavering patriarchalism, and her belief first in the subservient role of women’ (Wood, 2003). But Harriet Guest complicates this reading. She understands that More and other conservative women ‘made significant contributions to the development of feminism, even though they may not have advocated the rights of women’ (Guest, 2005). And Kevin Gilmartin also notes an element of progression within her work. He refers to it as an ‘aggressive revisionism’ that reimagines certain traditions through a passive, moral and gendered framework (Gilmartin, 2003).

NPG 412; Hannah More by Henry William Pickersgill

Hannah More (1745–1833)
National Portrait Gallery

Evidently, More is a conflicting figure. Embracing this multi-faceted quality, I have been researching the contradiction that surrounds moments of liberty in ‘The Black Slave Trade: A Poem’ (1788) and ‘The Riot’ (1795). Although the language and imagery surrounding liberty intends to encourage the continuation of a repressive social hierarchy, the presence of a feminine discourse integrates elements of the female private sphere within the male domain of politics. And as a consequence, More transgresses the patriarchal order which she herself so revered.

This paradox reveals itself in the abolition poem, ‘The Black Slave Trade’. The text presents its reader with a definition of liberty using language that relates to stillness. Ultimately then, of not actively making a change. Unlike ‘mad liberty’ who is an active, roaring monster, intellectual liberty is depicted as the bright sun: an unmoving, unmovable entity. The phrase ‘not sway’d’ underlines this fact and establishes liberty as something stable and fixed. Evidently, this does not encourage radical social change. What’s more, the sun is an example of a positive hierarchy as the people below are nourished by its elevated position. So the image suggests liberty is also achieved through a hierarchy, subtly encouraging the persistence of Britain’s social order.

But this order is disturbed, as female matters of the private sphere infiltrate the political domain. Liberty itself is assigned a female gender and political stability is achieved through ‘smiles chastis’d and decent graces dress’d’, inadvertently empowering women by suggesting these typically feminine attributes have agency in the public sphere. And when the slaves are liberated at the end of the poem, gender roles are subverted altogether. The female personification of Liberty overthrows the male figure, Oppression, who faints ‘beneath the blaze’. In the eighteenth century, fainting ‘is typically associated with romantic heroines who faint at the sexual intention of the male’ (Needham and Utter, qtd in Hall, 1993).

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Isaac Robert Cruikshank, A Dandy Fainting or an Exquisite in Fits: Scene a Private Opera Box (1818)
British Museum

But in More’s poem, the male is threatened by the female. There is a sexual tone to the line before, where ‘the bright ensign’s glory she displays’ suggests Liberty is displaying herself to Oppression. In this way, the female is presented as sexually dominant in contrast to the male, a fainting figure of sensibility. So despite More’s devotion to patriarchal values, she is inadvertently progressive as she subverts the gender power balance.

There is a similar pattern in ‘The Riot’, published in the Cheap Repository Tracts. The tale illustrates the liberty of the lower classes as Jack Anvil and Tom Hod celebrate their fortune: ‘Tho’ I’ve no-money, and tho’ I’ve no lands, I’ve a head on my shoulders, and a pair of good hands’. More paints an idealised vision of Britain and implies that liberty is something already achieved. And as the upper classes generously give ‘up their puddings and pies’, the text presents the financial trickle-down of a hierarchical society, explicitly claiming its benefits.

And yet, there’s an undercurrent of progression as the references to puddings, pies, corn, potatoes and bread infiltrate the public sphere with the domestic chore of cookery. The association of political stability with a traditionally female role locates femininity within the public sphere, inadvertently contributing to the emergence of women in politics. What’s more, gender roles are thrown off balance. The female author feminizes her male characters, silencing their public voice in the line: ‘a dinner of herbs, says the wise man with quiet, is better than beef amid discord and riot’. Significantly, she exchanges their typically masculine joint of beef for a more feminine, floral plate of herbs.

NPG D12466; 'French liberty  British slavery' by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey James Gillray, French Liberty British Slavery (1792)
National Portrait Gallery

The image recalls James Gillray’s cartoon, French Liberty British Slavery, which contrasts an emaciated Frenchman eating herbs with a stout Englishman carving a joint of beef. We can see from his long hair, ribbons and torn trousers that closely resemble a skirt, that the herbs are being used to feminise the Frenchman in the same way that Anvil and Hod are feminised. So despite her reputation as a proto-anti-feminist, More is inadvertently progressive as she blurs the gender roles which are considered fundamental within her patriarchal society.

So, returning to George Dyer’s statement, I suggest we resist responding with a simple yes or no but rather focus on its implication: females are turning their attention to political subjects. And we can see, in these moments of liberty, how the public spaces of Britain are beginning to be permeated with female voices, like that of Hannah More.

— Ella Morrish

Works cited

Barrell, J. (2000). Imagining the King’s Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide 1793–1796. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cruikshank, I, R. (1818). A Dandy Fainting or an Exquisite in Fits: Scene a Private Opera Box. British Museum, London. Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1503791&partId=1.

Dyer, G. (1792). ‘On Liberty’, Poems. London: Joseph Johnson.

Gillray, J. (1792). French Liberty British Slavery. National Portrait Gallery, London. Available at: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw61593/French-liberty-British slavery.

Gilmartin, K. (2003). “Study to Be Quiet’: Hannah More and the Invention of Conservative Culture in Britain’. ELH, 70.2: 493–540.

Guest, H. (2005). ‘Conservative Feminism’, in Women’s Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century: Authorship, Politics, History, ed. Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.158–70.

Hall, K, G. (1993). The Exalted Heroine and the Triumph of Order: Class, Women and Religion in the English Novel, 1730-1800. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

More, H. (1834). ‘The Riot’, in The Works of Hannah More. London: Fisher, Fisher & Jackson, vol. 6, pp.62–65.

More, H. (2003). ‘The Black Slave Trade: A Poem’, The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology 1764–1865, ed. Marcus Wood. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.101–110.

Pickersgill, H, W. (1822). Hannah More. National Portrait Gallery, London. Available at: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw04512/Hannah-More?LinkID=mp03163&search=sas&sText=Hannah+More&role=sit&rNo=2

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