The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 8. Hannah More

The bluestocking, however, whose fame reached to the furthest ends of the earth—though as a philanthropist rather than as a blue—is Hannah More. When she first appeared in the bluestocking coteries, she had not yet become a passionate reformer, a stern moralist, “the eminent divine,” as she was called in later years. Her connection with the blues represents the “gay and worldly” side of her serious life. During her first winter among them she was still in the twenties, and her hasty impressionist descriptions of the literary society of London scintillate with the fresh enthusiasm of a girl whose eyes and mind are slightly dazzled by unaccustomed experiences. She was not unworthy to be admitted to the society of those learned ladies and ingenious gentlemen. She spoke fluent French, polished by conversation with some French officers on parole, who often visited her home. Her father taught her Latin, and some mathematics, though, frightened by her precocity, he did not take her far in the latter science. Her elder sisters, not having any fortune in prospect, opened a boarding-school at Bristol to which she was sent, at the age of twelve. later, like her four sisters, she taught in the school, assiduously carrying on her own education at the same time. She studied Latin, Italian and Spanish, improving her style by translations and imitations of the Odes of Horace, and some of the dramatic compositions of Metastasio.

Hannah More was a precocious child—a child who, indisputably, was the mother of the woman. In youthful days, she would treasure any stray scrap of paper on which she scribbled verses or essays that were always adorned with “a well directed moral.” When her ardent wish took form in the shape of “a whole quire of paper to herself,” it was soon filled by the budding moralist with supposititious letters to depraved characters, intended to reclaim them from their errors. The one romance of her life began when she was twenty-two, and came to naught, though, indirectly, it paved the way for her literary career. She was engaged to a wealthy man of good position, the cousin of two of her pupils. This gentleman named Turner is said to have had every good quality to make marriage a success, save “a cheerful and composed temper,” and—still more important lack—the initial courage to marry. Twice was the wedding-day fixed and postponed, when Hannah, on the advice of her friends, determined not to be trifled with any longer. Turner was repentant, but Hannah was inexorable. Finally, however, he insisted on settling on her an annuity of £200, to compensate her for her great expense in preparing to be the wife of a man of large fortune. This income permitted her to devote her time to literary pursuits, though, when she first visited London in 1774, she had not published anything except a small play for schools, The Search after Happiness. She was introduced to London society by one of those fortunate events that suggest the guiding hand of destiny. She, with two of her sisters, had not been in London a week when she wrote to a friend describing her emotions at seeing Garrick as king Lear. Her friend, who knew Garrick, showed him the letter, and, as the actor was curious to see the young enthusiast, an introduction was arranged. The day after this she was invited to the Garricks’ house to meet Mrs. Montagu, and, as her biographer succinctly puts it, “her introduction to the great, and the greatly endowed, was sudden and general.” Her portrait, painted some years later by Opie, suggests a strong and pleasant personality, and one finds that, wherever she was taken by the Garricks, she gravitated towards people of high rank in intellect by a species of mental elective affinity. She had long desired to see Johnson, but Sir Joshua Reynolds, at whose house she met him, prepared her, as he “handed her up the stairs,” for a mood of possible sadness and silence in the great man. She was, however, fortunate enough to find him advancing to meet her “with good humour in his countenance, and a macaw of Sir Joshua’s in his hand,” while he gallantly greeted her with a verse from a morning hymn of her own composition. Other introductions speedily followed: to Edmund Burke, to bishop Percy, the collector of the Reliques, who was “quite a sprightly modern, instead of a rusty antique,” and to other distinguished members of the bluestocking coteries.

In the following year, 1775, Hannah again visited London in February. This time, she dined at Mrs. Montagu’s, where she met Elizabeth Carter and Mrs. Boscawen, the widow of the admiral. The bluestocking parties were now at their zenith, and the clear-cut thumbnail sketches Hannah gives of the chief dramatis personae are always vivid and lifelike. Of Mrs. Montagu, she says,

  • She is not only the finest genius, but the finest lady I ever saw … she lives in the highest style of magnificence … her form is delicate even to fragility … she has the sprightly vivacity of fifteen, with the judgment and experience of a Nestor.
  • The young provincial, though not “violently modish,” kept at least one eye on the fashion, and permitted her hair to be dressed in the extravagant mode that, as moralist, she was compelled to censure, even while she adopted it. She quickly noted Elizabeth Carter’s indifference to dress, which, with tactful euphuism, she thus describes. “Mrs. Carter has in her person a great deal of what the gentlemen mean when they say such a one is a ‘poetical lady’ … however, I like her much.” She was, perhaps, most attracted by Mrs. Boscawen, who, she said, was polite, learned, judicious and humble. This first impression was strengthened as she knew her more intimately, and there was not one of the bluestocking ladies of whom Hannah wrote with more admiration, though, perhaps because but few of her letters—that were thought not inferior to those of Mrs. Montagu—have been published, she is less well-known to the general reader.

    In 1775, after her return to Bristol, Hannah More told her sisters that she had been “so fed with praise and flattering attentions” that she would find out her real value by writing a poem, and offering it to Cadell. In a fortnight, she had finished Sir Eldred of the Bower, to which she added the poem entitled The Bleeding Rock, written some years before. Cadell had probably heard something of her, as he not only offered for it a sum beyond her expectation, but “very handsomely” said that, if she could discover what Goldsmith had received for his Deserted Village, he would allow her the same price. A unique fashion surely of receiving a young writer, even in the eighteenth century! The two poems, which scarcely filled thirty small pages, were welcomed with acclaim by the bluestockings. Garrick recited them, Johnson added a stanza, Richard Burke called the book “a truly elegant and tender performance,” and the writer’s head, said her sisters, needed to be unusually steady to withstand the flood of adulation—and it was!

    In the following year, the Garricks hospitably offered Hannah a suite of rooms in their house, and, from that time onwards, for more than twenty years, whenever she came to London, she invariably stayed with them at the Adelphi, or at their Thamesside retreat at Hampton. Under Garrick’s influence, her next literary venture was the play Percy, which launched her in London society as a celebrity. The bluestockings congratulated her and themselves on its extraordinary success, and if they did not “crown her, cover her, hide her with laurels,” as Richard Berenger, one of them suggested, Mrs. Boscawen, on its twelfth performance, sent her a laurel wreath with the “stems confined within an elegant ring,” for which she returned thanks in “an elegant copy of verses.”

    She had almost finished The Fatal Falsehood, when, in 1779, David Garrick died, and, greatly affected by his death, she determined to write no more plays. From this time, her thoughts followed their natural trend towards serious subjects, and, in her letters, she gradually reveals herself as philanthropist and reformer. She even attempted, said Cowper, “to reform the unreformable Great,” and her Thoughts on the importance of the Manners of the Great went into many large editions. Her grief at Garrick’s death found some vent in Sensibility, a poem addressed to Mrs Boscawen, in which several bluestockings are mentioned. The poem, however, that made the greatest stir in the bluestocking coteries, was Bas Bleu, or Conversation. It is illustrative of the fact that Hannah More, with her strong sense of dramatic values, had the faculty of mentally visualising the significance of the various movements with which she was connected. This poem, as she explained in the preface, owed its name to the mistake of a foreigner of distinction, who gave the literal name Bas-bleu to a small party of friends that had often been called by way of pleasantry Blue Stockings. She says further that these little societies—sometimes misrepresented—were composed of persons distinguished in general for their rank, talent, or respectable character, who met frequently at Mrs. Vesey’s and at a few other houses for the sole purpose of conversation. She adds a brief tribute to the charm of these gatherings, where, she says, learning was not disfigured by pedantry, good taste was not marred by affectation and conversation was as little disgraced by calumny, levity and other censurable errors as has, perhaps, been known in any society. The poem is not of permanent value, though Johnson told her that “there was no name in poetry that might not to be glad to own it.” Naturally, this poème à clef had a great vogue among the bluestockings, as most of them were mentioned either by their own names, or under some classical appellation. It was written to amuse Mrs. Vesey, and, after circulating some years in manuscript, was eventually printed in 1786.