Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is an award-winning Professor of English at Liberty University. She earned her Ph.D. in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Literature (Brazos, 2018). Prior’s writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Books and Culture and other places. She is a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, a Senior Fellow with Liberty University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Ashley chats with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior (Liberty University) about women writers in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Great Britain. While the conversation focuses on Hannah More and Jane Austen, this "Context Chat" highlights the ways that British women writers contributed to abolitionism and used their writing skills to influence societal change.
After some online research, I saw that your Ph.D. dissertation examined “Hannah More and the Evangelical Influence on the English Novel.” What first attracted you to studying women writers in the eighteenth century, particularly a relatively unknown figure like Hannah More?
Scholars have coined the term “evangelical novel” to describe certain types of morally improving fiction in the early part of the nineteenth century. What are some traits of the evangelical novel?
After I told a friend about the women writers that I feature in season one of this podcast, she asked me: was it unusual for women to write publicly in the eighteenth century? Given this question, how can we situate women writers in the literary landscape of eighteenth-century Britain?
Why was talking about religion and creating religious fiction attractive to British women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
During season one of this podcast, we will look at women writers who wrote abolitionist tracts and essays. In fact, you can argue that each of the ten women featured this season is a “writer” in the broad sense of the term. Can we draw any connections to modern Christian women that gain a following through writing in blogs and books and social media in order to create a platform for themselves and the issues that matter to them?
Turning to your work Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More - Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, why did you decide to write a Christian women biography for a popular audience?
Why do you think Jane Austen’s novels resonate more with modern readers than, let’s say, Hannah More’s works?
Standard Final Questions for a “Context Chat”
Which do you prefer: tea or coffee? Coffee
What is a book that you have read more than once that you would recommend? Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Do you have a hero of the faith? Hannah More
Featured Women of the Church
Hannah More (1745-1833): After achieving literary success in London as a writer and playwright, Hannah turned her attentions to her personal faith and the welfare of others. In addition to her work as an abolitionist, Hannah sought to reform society through writing educational literature, religious tracts, and political pamphlets. At Hannah’s funeral, the officiating minister quoted from her famous novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife “to describe her guiding principle in life: 'If it be absurd to expect perfection, it is not unreasonable to expect consistency'” (Skeed).
Jane Austen (1775-1817): She is one of the most celebrated English novelists of all time. Today, devotees of Austen lovingly call themselves “Janeites.” However, a lot of people don’t know that she was a devout Protestant and grew up surrounded by clergymen.
The Brontë Sisters: Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849) were the children of a devout Anglican clergyman. Through their novels (Jane Eyre by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne), these sisters expressed their religious and social views, particularly when it came to women’s vocation.
On the fact that Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife was more popular than Jane Austen’s novels during the nineteenth century: “It tells us a lot about what readers of that time were expecting and what they looking for and what they wanted and their tastes…knowing how popular it was [helps us] to understand a bit, a lot, about that culture and what they wanted and what they needed in their reading.”
On religious women writers: “I think that writing was one of the few things that women could do that was public that didn’t violate the social customs and mores.”
On any connection between early pamphlets to the blogs of today: “I think today’s blogs are really analogous to the pamphlets of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century. Pamphlets were this form of this new print culture. They were relatively cheap to create, to duplicate, to disseminate...I think we see a replication of that in the blogosphere…[which gives] many more people the opportunity to write and read more widely…”
On Jane Austen: “She so insightfully offered insights into eternal truths about human nature and human relationships…She saw some improvements that needed [in society] so she used gentle satire to gently correct people into improvement.”
Blue Stocking Circle: Dr. Swallow Prior defines this eighteenth-century group as “A society of literary women who were learned and witty and wrote a great deal.”
Evangelical Novel: A type of morally improving fiction from the eighteenth and nineteenth-century. According to Dr. Swallow Prior, these types of novels tended to prioritize conveying moral truth over telling an artful story. For example, Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) does not always have a clear plot and strong character development but instead the novel reads like a series of essays on different topics.
Didacticism: A philosophy of literature that focuses on moral instruction.
Victorian Period: Most historians date this period from the time that Queen Victoria became Britain’s monarch (1837) until her death (1901). Overall, the period was more conservative than the previous century. Conservative Victorians also emphasized that men and women should have different roles in public and private life.
Restoration: “Restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660. It marked the return of Charles II as king (1660–85) following the period of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth” (Brittanica.com). As Dr. Swallow Prior notes, it also began a new era of the arts, which is known as the “Silver Age” of British literature.
Dr. Swallow Prior’s Sources
Portrait Source: “Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo” by Richard Samuel, National Portrait Gallery 405
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