The Clapham Sect and the middle classes: the case study of Hannah More

photoI posted recently on how a study of the social backgrounds of the various members of the Clapham Sect shows the complexity of the concept of the middle class in the late Georgian period. I now want to look more closely at how the writings of Hannah More give an insight into the way the language of class was evolving and changing in the period – which is another way of warning against simplistic terminology.

The full (and very cumbersome!) title of Wilberforce’s celebrated book, published in the spring of 1797 is A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System or Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country contrasted with Real Christianity. A year later Hannah More published her most influential conduct book, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune. Unlike Wilberforce, she seemed to be neglecting the middle classes, a fact which puzzled the reviewer of the ultra-conservative periodical, The Anti-Jacobin Review (vol. 4, September-November 1799, pp. 198-9). The reviewer defined this group as gentry, merchants, officers and clergymen, thus illustrating the contemporary confusion of class: the lower ranks of the landed classes were placed in the same category as men in receipt of salaries or (in the case of the clergy) tithes.

To add to the confusion, More had devoted a passage of her book to the women of ‘the middle orders’ [not class], whom she designated as ‘this very valuable part of society’. She equated this with ‘the elegantly dressed but slenderly portioned curate’s daughter…the equally fashionable daughter of the little tradesman, and of the more opulent but not more judicious farmer’ (vol. 1, p. 69). Unlike the haute bourgeoisie, which was clearly in the mind of the Anti-Jacobin reviewer, this group can be described anachronistically as lower-middle class. To More these middling-sort women were ‘humble females, the chief part of whose time is required for domestic offices’, who should not attempt to ape the intellectual accomplishments of upper-class women (vol. 1, pp. 71-2). (Was she conveniently forgetting her own background?)

More’s views about what was appropriate for their menfolk followed a theme that had preoccupied her since she began to found her Sunday schools in 1789. This comes out especially clearly in her Cheap Repository Tract, The Two Wealthy Farmers, or the History of Mr Bragwell. She saw this group as frugal tradespeople, benevolent farmers and honest shopkeepers. As jurymen, constables, overseers, and independent electors, they filled a role in society ‘no less necessary… than that of a magistrate, a Sheriff of a County, or even a Member of Parliament’. Like Hogarth’s industrious apprentice, the middling sort of characters in her tracts often rise socially through their talents and energy. However, these busy, useful individuals were not part of the economic group the Anti-Jacobin had in mind. The fact that More and her reviewer both recognised the existence of a middling order of society but named it and categorised it differently illustrates very well what Penelope Corfield has called the ‘ferment in social terminology’ and the difficulty involved in combining the traditional language or orders, ranks, and degrees with the new language of class ( P. J. Corfield, ‘Class by name and number in eighteenth-century Britain’, History, 72 (1987), p. 59).

Hannah More was very well aware of the concerns of middle-class groups of higher status than farmers and tradespeople. On 18 December 1789 she complained to Wilberforce about the imposition of William Pitt’s new income tax (sold to Parliament and the public as a temporary war-time emergency tax!). She described those affected as ‘200 a year people – Parsons, Officers, Old Maids and Widows’ – the less affluent professional classes (University of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Wilberforce, c. 3, of. 45). As a ‘middle-class’ lifestyle could begin at £40 or £50 per annum, such people were reasonably well-to-do even if feeling the pinch of wartime taxation. Nevertheless the new taxes of the late 1790s were defining moments in the evolution of middle-class consciousness. (See, for example, Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: the Political Representation of Class in Britain, c. 1780-1840, Cambridge University Press, 1995.)

In recognition of this, More changed her terminology, a change that can be precisely measured by the edition of her works that came out in 1801, when, in revising The Two Wealthy Farmers, she altered the word ‘station’ to ‘class’. Along with the new vocabulary went a more sophisticated appreciation of the existence of a stratum that could properly be described as middle class. In 1808 she deliberately targeted them when she published her only novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Although the novel’s exemplary family, the Stanleys, are substantial country gentry, Coelebs was aimed, she told her friend Sir William Weller Pepys, at the subscribers of circulating libraries, ‘a large class of readers whose wants had not been attended to’ (William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs Hannah More, 2nd ed. 1834, vol. 3, p. 313). The subscription charge for the larger circulating libraries was 3s a quarter, a sum within the reach of many middle-class readers who might have been deterred by the 12s purchase price of the two volumes.

However the middle classes were to be defined, More was careful not to flatter this market. In her Moral Sketches (2nd. ed. 1820, p. 9) she quoted Voltaire (of all people!) to the effect that

‘the English people resembled their own beer, the top was all froth, the bottom all dregs, but the middle was excellent. If this were at that time true, the middle class has now merged its distinctive character in the other two; it is abandoning the honourable station in the cup which it then held, is adopting its worst ingredients from above and below; and by its mixture with the froth and feculence has considerably lessened its claim to its one distinct commendation.’

Far from being modern, this was a conventional theme, a response to the increased affluence made possible by industrialisation and the expansion of overseas trade. By the early nineteenth century her anxieties could seem rather old-fashioned when compared with a rival, potentially subversive discourse that saw the middle class as the exemplar of virtue in contrast to a corrupt aristocracy.

Hannah More was one of the more conservative members of the Clapham Sect and her concerns were not necessarily echoed by all her friends. But the fluidity of her language shows the need to use extreme care in applying the vocabulary of class to the period. The social reality was always accompanied by a range of discourses that owed as much to ideology as to precise sociological observation.

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