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"Study to be Quiet": Hannah More and the Invention of Conservative Culture in Britain

From: ELH
Volume 70, Number 2, Summer 2003
pp. 493-540 | 10.1353/elh.2003.0015

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ELH 70.2 (2003) 493-540

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Although not as widely known and anthologized as Village Politics, Hannah More's 1795 History Of Tom White the Postilion and its sequel, The Way to Plenty, are in many respects more typical of the kind of writing through which her Cheap Repository Tracts (1795-1798) achieved a leading role in the antiradical and antirevolutionary campaigns of the 1790s. For this reason, Tom White can provide a useful preliminary map of More's reactionary fiction, and of the challenge it presents to our understanding of the literary history of Romantic-period Britain, particularly the impact that reactionary movements had upon cultural politics in an age of revolution. The Tom White series is typical, to begin with, in its heterogeneous narrative form (the dialogue of Village Politics is less characteristic of More's work), and in the pressure it brings to bear upon the social world More believed her readers inhabited. Like many of the Cheap Repository Tracts, Tom White serves up a moral parable that rests, in the first instance, upon a precisely situated sense of rural virtue:

Tom White was one of the best drivers of a post-chaise on the Bath road. Tom was the son of an honest labourer at a little village in Wiltshire: he was an active industrious boy, and as soon as he was old enough he left his father, who was burthened with a numerous family, and went to live with farmer Hodges, a sober worthy man in the same village. He drove the waggon all the week; and on Sundays, though he was now grown up, the farmer required him to attend the Sunday-school, carried on under the inspection of Dr. Shepherd, the worthy vicar, and always made him read his Bible in the evening after he had served his cattle; and would have turned him out of his service if he had ever gone to the ale-house for his own pleasure. (5:219-20)

While a sober employer and the weekly round of labor and piety would seem to be adequate security for Tom's virtue, the attractions of the nearby "Bath road" soon lure the young hero from the simple discipline of the wagon to a more glamorous career as a postchaise driver, and from there to the Black Bear public house and a litany of corrupt habits: "oaths and wicked words," "drunkenness," "fives, cards, cudgel-playing, laying wagers, and keeping loose company" (5:221-24). Taverns and public houses, strung out along the avenues of transport and communication that linked village and metropolitan life, occupy a critical position in the distinctive cultural geography of the Cheap Repository Tracts. In the Black Bear of reality and imagination, the residue of morally offensive popular recreations catalogued in Tom White met emerging patterns of popular literacy and radical organization, which More had noticed earlier in Village Politics, in the form of the "mischief" introduced by the Painite Tim Standish when he threatened to "corrupt the whole club" at the Rose and Crown tavern (1:347). For this reason, antipathy to the plebeian tavern underworld provided More with a ready meeting point for her own evangelical moral reform project and the more narrowly political campaigns of loyalist organizations like John Reeves's Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. If Tom White's departure from village honesty begins at the Black Bear, it culminates at another public house, when a "foolish contest" among the young post-chaise drivers to see who "would be at the Red Lion first—for a pint"(5:225) ends in catastrophe. Tom emerges from the wreck with a broken leg and a chastened conscience, and the period of his recuperation at a London charity hospital brings to a close the tract's initial sequence of lively incidents, opening up a very different narrative and spiritual "space for repentance" (5:230). As his early Sunday School education returns to him with the added force of experience, "Tom began to find that his strength was perfect weakness," and remorse quickly yields conversion and reform. From London, he retraces the course of his decline, returning first to the Bath...



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