Today, I'm thrilled to host literature professor and author, Karen Swallow Prior. Karen's new book, "Fierce Convictions" is about poet, reformer and abolitionist Hannah More (1745-1833). Hannah More was a woman after my own heart. Strong and yet deeply sensitive, she also suffered recurring episodes of deep depression. Reading "Fierce Convictions," I couldn't help but be inspired by this courageous Christian woman who didn't let mental illness define her life but fought against the great injustices of her day. Karen has offered two copies of her book to my readers. Please leave a comment to win! xo. EE.
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The following essay is drawn from Karen Swallow Prior’s new biography of this exemplary woman, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson):
The image of the suffering artist is deeply embedded in our cultural imagination.
Hannah More’s passion—the word means “suffering”—for writing, language, and words first took bodily form. She was so moved when she read Shakespeare as a girl that she couldn’t sleep. As a child, she practiced her French so fervently that she is said to have fainted under the effort.
On the other hand, her love for words offered release, too. Once, during one of many illnesses that kept her bedridden for periods throughout her life, the doctor came. She engaged him in such a lively fashion on the topic of literature until both forgot her bodily complaint. The doctor was on his way out before he remembered the purpose of his visit and had to cry from half-way down the stairs, “How are you today, my poor child?”
More’s suffering seemed to be constitutional. More contended all her life against bouts of illness: headaches, colds, numbness, nausea, vertigo, sharp pains, and “rheumatism in the face.” Many of her illnesses resemble what today would be identified as migraines; some of her bouts suggest even the possibility of clinical depression. Her bedridden bouts were often triggered by times of stress, such as her broken engagement with Turner and her yearly trips to London.
Even as her illnesses increased with age, More’s wit, will, and words provided her best medicine. And when she was well, which was most of the time, she demonstrated extraordinary fortitude.
Yet, the obstacles women writers such as More faced added pressures that only exacerbated her health struggles. She described the obstacles feared by women writers in her early drama The Search After Happiness:
"Tho' should we still the rhyming trade pursue, The men will shun us, -- and the women, too; The men, poor souls! of scholars are afraid, We shou'd not, did they govern, learn to read, At least, in no abstruser volume look, Than the leam'd records - of a Cookery book; The ladies, too, their well-meant censure give, "What! - does she write? a slattern, as I live - "I wish she'd leave her books, and mend her cloaths, "I thank my stars I know not verse from prose ... "
She noted elsewhere that the woman writer “will have to encounter the mortifying circumstances of having her sex always taken into account; and her highest exertions will probably be received with the qualified approbation, that it is really extraordinary for a woman.”
But More’s special savvy was in turning obstacle into opportunity. If esteem were necessary to succeed as a woman writer, then she would gain that esteem. At times, perhaps, she valued that esteem too much. Her greatest illnesses occurred following attacks on her work.
When More—a lifelong member of the Church of England—was accused of “Methodism” because of the extemporaneous prayers taking place in one of her schools, the controversy that ensued consumed all of More’s energies and attention. After raging for three years, the controversy finally saw vindication for More. But it proved too much to take, even for as tough a woman as she. In 1802, she confessed to her good friend and fellow abolitionist, William Wilberforce, "I have been so batter’d daily and monthly for the past two years about the wickedness and bad tendency of my writings, that I have really lost all confidence in myself, and feel as if I never more cou’d write what any body would read ….”
More was strong, but she was sensitive. When she was strong, she was very strong. When she was weak, she was debilitated. From 1803 to 1805, she underwent what came to be called her "great illness." Today we would call it full-blown depression. On November 27, 1803, More wrote in a journal entry, “I have to lament that through my want of faith and piety, they [attacks against her] had nearly destroyed my life."
Her sisters rallied around her; she stayed home from London that winter and emerged from one of her worst illnesses yet. Although nearing sixty, More had another phase of life ahead and volumes yet to write. She was overtaken by renewed vigor, and lived and wrote for another 30 years. However, she probably never fully recovered from the physical and mental toll of this event.
Years later, she would still decry such strife within the church body, writing, "Oh how I hate faction, division and controversy in religion!"
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Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is an award-winning Professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press 2012) and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson 2014). Prior is a contributing writer for Christianity Today, Think Christian, and The Atlantic. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective and serves on the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live in rural Virginia with sundry dogs, horses, and chickens.
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