Saturday, January 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: Fierce Convictions, by Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior.  Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—-Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.  Nashville: Nelson Books (An Imprint of Thomas Nelson), 2014.

Hannah More was a writer and an activist in eighteenth-early nineteenth century England.  She wrote plays, poems, and even a novel that was mentioned in one of Jane Austen’s unfinished works (albeit negatively).  More also worked with politician William Wilberforce to end the slave trade, established schools for the poor, and wrote against cruelty to animals.  I had not heard of Hannah More before requesting this book, and I did not know whether or not the book would be an interesting read for me.  But it was.

Karen Swallow Prior narrates Hannah More’s story in such a manner that I could connect with More as a human being.  More was a reserved woman, which may explain why she never married, and she came to have strong religious convictions.  Yet, she was able to interact effectively with various kinds of people, from different classes, religions, and walks of life, which was significant back then on account of the divisions between people in England.  Prior also explores many of the paradoxes of More’s life: how More was friends with Catholics yet opposed granting Catholics equal political rights, and how More was criticized by conservatives because they feared that her ideas could encourage revolution or upset the social order, and yet More herself held many traditional and conservative ideas.

Prior places More’s work within its historical context.  She explains More’s opposition to cruelty towards animals within the context of the chain-of-being concept, Christianity, and also Rene Descartes’ belief in the previous century that animals were merely machines that served humans, who should disregard animals’ feelings.  Prior also talks about the world of writing and publishing at that time.  Of particular interest to me was the criticism of novels by More’s friend Samuel Johnson, who believed that novels undermined morality by encouraging readers to identify with characters in their flaws.  More would come to see Johnson’s point, but she still believed in the power of story to promote moral behavior.  Prior also explores More’s religious beliefs: More was devoted to the Church of England, yet she disagreed with the Church of England in certain areas, and the view that she was too cozy with evangelicals threatened some of her projects because the Church of England could choose not to support them if they believed that to be the case.

Dr. Prior teaches English at Liberty University, a college founded by the late Jerry Falwell.  I do not know what Prior’s political beliefs are, but Jerry Falwell was politically conservative, and Liberty University has a reputation for being that, too.  That said, there were times when I wondered if Prior’s narration reflected a politically conservative viewpoint.  Prior does mention some things that probably would not resonate with many American conservatives: my impression is that American conservatives largely approve of the American Revolution, whereas Prior narrates that More was part of a movement that did not care for it, and that even criticized American revolutionaries who supported the slavery of African-Americans while championing freedom for the colonies.  Yet, Prior also talks about More’s attempts through stories to promote thrift and morality among the poor, and Prior on page 225 talks about the effectiveness of More’s tracts.  In the United States today, there are conservatives who attribute poverty to bad behavior on the part of the poor, whereas progressive voices note that there are many poor people in the United States who work hard and try to be thrifty with what they have.  I do not know to what extent eighteenth century English poverty resembled twenty-first century American poverty, but I wondered if Prior’s narration was reflecting a conservative view on poverty.  On the other hand, Prior on pages 181-182 does appear to criticize mildly William Wilberforce for not adequately addressing factory conditions in England.  Prior explains why Wilberforce believed as he did—-Wilberforce supported the free market and mass production—-yet Prior seems to question whether what Wilberforce did to improve factory conditions was sufficient.  That may indicate that Prior is not a supporter of complete laissez-faire economics.

I should also note that Prior has worked with the Humane Society, which stands against cruelty towards animals, and I applaud her for that.

There were also times when I thought that Prior might be bending over backwards to give More the benefit of a doubt.  For example, More mentored a poor poet, Ann Yearsley, but More chose not to give Yearsley control of Yearsley’s fund, resulting in a lawsuit.  Prior can understand the Yearsley’s point-of-view, yet Prior also says that the poet’s “earnings came as a result of More’s skillful promotion and management of Yearsley’s work” (page 79).  Personally, I did not find that incident to be one of More’s shining moments!  While Prior did seem to me to be sympathetic towards More, however, Prior’s book is not a whitewash, for it does talk about More’s weaknesses, such as More’s tendency to ingratiate herself towards people in higher social classes.  I found Prior’s remarks in the Epilogue to be beautiful: “Somewhere between Birrell’s hatred and Roberts’s hagiography is a woman who was at once ordinary and remarkable.  She was a woman with virtues and flaws, faith and fears, vision and blind spots.  But she was also one whose unique gifts and fierce convictions transformed first her life and subsequently her world and ours” (page 253).

I received a complimentary review copy of this remarkable biography through the BookLook Bloggers (http://booklookbloggers.com/) book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

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