The Collected Letters of Hannah More

More’s Manuscripts

Nicholas Smith

Offering her verdict on Hester Thrale’s recently published Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, LLD, 2 vols (London, 1778), Hannah More declared that ‘They are such Letters as ought to have been written, but never ought to have been printed’. Their preoccupation with the humdrum minutiae of daily life – ‘Every place to which he was invited, every dose of physic he took, every body who sent to ask how he did’ – was relieved only by the fact that More ‘knew and loved the man’ and was ‘often named, never with unkindness, sometimes with favour’. Moreover, she was uncomfortable about the fashion for publishing private letters believing that ‘The imprudence of editors and executors is an additional reason why men of parts should be afraid to die’ (Roberts, II, 100). More might have added ‘women of parts’, for the popularity of women’s biographical and epistolary writing in the early nineteenth century meant that there was a very real prospect that her own memoir (authorised or otherwise) might be published even though she was not a particular fan of the genre when it was executed poorly: she complained, for example, that the posthumous Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter (1807), her old Bluestocking friend, contained ‘little Criticism of books, and no Anecdotes’ (Folger Shakespeare Library, L.g.159).

To her friends and family, the publication of More’s letters was inevitable. In 1813, William Weller Pepys urged her to compose her letters so that ‘the subjects, though familiar, should be always interesting’. He acknowledged that writing for publication ran the risk of producing mannered and contrived letters ‘yet I would not have you totally lose sight of the possibility of such a thing taking place’ (Roberts, III, 380). Prior to her death in 1819, Patty More undertook the initial editorial groundwork by collecting together relevant letters and papers (without her sister’s knowledge). The task was continued by Mary and Margaret Roberts, to whom Patty had entrusted the papers and whom More later appointed her literary executors, who worked on arranging, copying and dating the letters, ‘the most troublesome part of a posthumous concern’, More observed from a distance (Huntington Library, HM 30620). The Roberts sisters also approached their brother, William, a lawyer and journalist, about taking on the role of More’s official biographer and editor. The resulting four-volume Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More was published in 1834.

More had some experience of the administration of a literary estate. In early 1781, she assisted Eva Maria Garrick, the widow of David Garrick, More’s theatrical mentor of the late 1770s, to arrange and dispose of his letters. Among them she discovered her own letters but, observant of protocols for such matters, considered it ‘a breach of trust to take them till they are all finally disposed of’ (Roberts, I, 193). Garrick’s carefully ordered papers, however, contrasts with the disorderliness of More’s own extensive archive which fell increasingly into disarray as her mental faculties diminished in old age: Mary Roberts worried how More, who was ‘no longer capable of exercising the same care & caution as formerly’, suffered private letters to ‘lie scattered on her Table’ (British Library, E.g 1965, fol. 100).

The size and content of More’s archive inevitably fluctuated over the years. The majority of the letters that she wrote, of course, ended up in the collections of their recipients: some groups remained largely intact, such as More’s letters to Mary Hamilton (Harvard University) and Richard Hart Davies (Yale University), or have been divided, as is the case with her letters to William Wilberforce (Duke and Oxford Universities) and Zachary Macaulay (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and Huntington Library). Some groups of letters, however, did find their way back into More’s archive, such as her letters to Horace Walpole and her early letters to William Weller Pepys, although what survives today cannot reflect the extent of the original accumulations. Not all of More’s letters were considered worthy of long term retention. William Roberts observed that when More was afflicted by a pleuralic fever, ‘The letters which were received by her sisters … amounted to some hundreds. They were destroyed; but had they been preserved, their unvarying topic would have excluded the variety to which letters owe their interest’ (Roberts, III, 244). More herself, concerned for her posthumous reputation, was not averse to destroying letters: she burnt nearly two hundred letters sent to her by Clapham Sect friend, Henry Thornton, and requested that Marianne Thornton destroy a series of her own letters after her death (Huntington Library, MY 669 and MY 716). Consequently, the letters that survive in manuscript and print must represent only a fraction of More’s epistolary output.

Although affecting a disinterest in her biography while alive, More was concerned to assist in the reconstitution of her archive following her death: a provision in her will, which requested that all the friends with whom she corresponded hand over her letters or copies of them to her literary executors, was designed precisely to facilitate the posthumous editing of her letters. At least one friend, Marianne Thornton, refused to turn over her letters to Roberts believing them unfit for publication. Other friends, however, were more cooperative, such as John Scandrett Harford and Lady Olivia Sparrow. To the latter, Mary Roberts proposed a reciprocal exchange of letters and assured her that any ‘private or confidential matters’ would be expunged before publication (British Library, Eg. 1865, fol. 100). She also outlined the broad editorial methodology that had been adopted: as many as possible of More’s letters to her ‘intimate correspondents’ would be recalled at the earliest opportunity in order to allow sufficient time for their appraisal, and from each parcel a few of ‘most interesting & worthy of insertion’ would be selected for the memoir. A group of More’s letters to Lady Olivia Sparrow (with a few to her daughter, Millicent), was sold by her grandson, Lord Robert Montagu, to the British Library in 1865 and a selection of these form the basis for this pilot project. Five letters from More to Lady Olivia Sparrow are preserved in what remains on her original archive (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library), and the project team will in due course establish the extent to which these particular manuscripts relate to the letters that Roberts selected for publication.

Following William Roberts’s death in 1849, the bulk of More’s archive passed to his son, Arthur, who edited and published a series of her letters to Zachary Macaulay in 1860. Some of More’s papers also passed to Roberts’s daughter, Rosa, and thence her niece, Elizabeth Scott, who subsequently destroyed these disjecta membra. The fate of More’s letters to her parents, which Roberts deliberately omitted from his edition – ‘all letters on private and domestic topic have been withheld from the public’ – is not known. What remained of the archive passed by descent to Cuthbert Becher Pigot, who made it available to Mary Alden Hopkins for her biography Hannah More and Her Circle (1947). At the time, Pigot was unwilling to sell the letters (Smith College Archives, Katherine Gee Hornbeak Papers, 1916-1985, correspondence from and related to Cuthbert Becher Pigot); however, in 1953 he decided to sell a portion of the archive to Mary Gwladys Jones, who had used it previously to research her biography of More, which she published in 1952. Jones intended that the archive should be presented to Cambridge University Library following her death; however, her intention was not carried out and the archive vanished for the next forty-five years. In the meantime, those manuscripts that had been retained by the Pigot family were disposed of at Sotheby’s on 30 April 1968 and 19-20 July 1993. It is not known if this represented the entirety of the manuscripts that Pigot had refrained from selling to Jones.

In 1997, what remained of More’s original archive, considerably reduced in scale, was discovered (so the story goes) in a desk draw during a house clearance in Scotland. They were sold by Ximenes Rare Books Inc. to the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles, the following year, where they joined a synthetic collection of More’s literary manuscripts and letters, assembled by an American private collector, which it had purchased in 1996. The two groups of manuscripts were subsequently consolidated and catalogued (Hannah More Collection, MS.1997.009) and an electronic finding aid is available via the Online Archive of California (OAC):

Today More’s 1,500 letters are scattered across some ninety repositories in Britain and North America; at least two groups of letters remain in private ownership: More’s letters to John Haviland Addington and to Maria, Duchess of Gloucester, and Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester. Only recently five hitherto unrecorded and unpublished letters were discovered in New Zealand collections (Thomas Maclean and Shef Rogers (eds), In Her Hand: Letters of Romantic-Era British Women Writers in New Zealand Collections (Otago, 2013)). In fact, since the publication of Literary Manuscripts and Letters of Hannah More in 2008 an additional eighty-five letters and fragments have been traced (described in Nicholas D. Smith, ‘Hannah More Re-discoveries: Literary Manuscripts, Letters and Books (forthcoming)), eleven of which remerged at the Paula Peyraud sale (Bloomsbury Auctions, New York, 6 May 2009). It seems reasonable, then, to suppose that further autographs will be discovered in the course of preparing this electronic edition of More’s letters.