Avoiding the Perils of the Muse: Hannah More, Didactic Literature, and Eighteenth-Century Criticism
Nardin, Jane, Papers on Language & Literature
In 1761 a pious teenager named Hannah More sat down to write a play. As a teacher at her sisters' school, More had noticed that few plays available in English were appropriate for performance by schoolgirls. If she could write such a drama herself, she might both advance the cause of morality and establish a reputation as a poet. The result of her labors was The Search After Happiness: A Pastoral Drama for Young Ladies, which circulated briskly in manuscript. Published in 1773, the play launched More upon a long and successful writing career.
What made so many of the available plays unsuitable for performance by schoolgirls? The prologue to The Search After Happiness answers this question in terms that reveal More's precocious familiarity with literary criticism. In rather lame verse, the speaker, "a young lady," worries that this play may surprise and disappoint the average spectator:
How dare we hope an audience will approve A drama void of wit and free from love? Where no soft Juliet sighs, and weeps, and starts, No fierce Roxana takes by storm your hearts; . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No libertine in glowing strains described, No lying chambermaid that rake had brib'd: Nor give we, to reward the rover's life, The ample portion and the beauteous wife. (Works 111)
This passage identifies four characteristics of English stagecraft to which critics had objected on moral grounds: the use of wit to embellish the style, of star-crossed love to drive the plot, of flawed but glamorous protagonists to add complexity and interest, and of conclusions that do not reward virtue or punish vice. "Such are the perils the dramatic muse,/In youthful bosoms, threatens to infuse," the author asserts (Works 111). But she claims to have excluded them all from her play.
The position More took here was very conservative, for the critics had by no means been unanimous in their condemnation of the practices to which she alludes. But this converation is not surprising. The boarding school students who might perform in her play were no more than seventeen, the age at which girls usually concluded their formal education. As members of the upper- or middle-classes, they had been instructed in religion and shielded from personal experience of sin. Their moral needs were largely negative: above all, a dramatist must avoid tainting their innocence and purity by acquainting them with "noxious scenes," "ungovern'd passions," or "dangerous maxim[s]" they would not yet have encountered elsewhere (Works 111). More decided to err on the side of safety by ostentatiously repudiating every artistic technique whose morality had been called into question. Her prologue made it a matter of pride that she "preferr'd plain virtue to the boast of art" (Works 111).
The first element of literary art More claimed to have omitted from her play was wit. During the seventeenth century, the word had often been used to refer, in a wholly positive manner, to the capacity for poetic perception. But by the end of that century it had acquired negative connotations. Although wit could certainly be employed to castigate misconduct, Addison's view that it was more frequently used "to laugh men out of virtue and good sense by attacking everything that is solemn and serious" gained ground as the eighteenth century progressed (345). In his Essay on Human Understanding (1689), John Locke argued that witty men "have not always the clearest judgment." For wit lies "in the assemblage of ideas," while judgment lies "in separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein can be found the least difference," to avoid being "misled by similitude" (qtd. in Addison 334). The belief that wit links dissimilar notions together in a clever, but potentially deceptive, way surfaced often in succeeding decades. By the late eighteenth century, wit was firmly associated with intellectual irresponsibility and with the "disagreeable and trivial forms of laughter" to which irresponsibility led: "raillery, ridicule, and nasty satire" (Wimsatt and Brooks 243). …