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Sarina G. Moore


An Unacknowledged Legislator

Formidable Hannah More.

In January 1809, all of fashionable London society was talking about one book: Coelebs in Search of a Wife, the first and only novel by the then-famous evangelical poet, abolitionist, social reformer, and prolific pamphleteer, Hannah More. At least one reader had a different response, though. Here is Jane Austen, writing to her sister Cassandra: "You have by no means raised my curiosity after Caleb [sic]; —My disinclination for it before was affected, but now it is real; I do not like the Evangelicals. Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people, but until I do I shall dislike it."[1] Ah, the perils of popular literature for the literary snob.

Coelebs tells the story of a godly young man's search for an ideal wife in a culture where women were not often encouraged to develop their minds. Fashion, needlepoint, dancing, a smattering of modern languages, a little ability in music—these were the achievements that would qualify a woman as "accomplished," and thus ready for marriage. But what the protagonist, Charles, wants is a wife capable of running a household, holding sensible conversation with her husband, raising and educating their children, and setting an example of moral propriety and spiritual maturity for the neighbors.

For literary scholars, Coelebs marks an important turning point in the history of the novel—the point at which the conduct manual, the didactic essay, and popular fiction were combined to make possible, in Karen Swallow Prior's words, "the genre's transformation from lowbrow to high art in the hands of historic nineteenth-century novelists such as Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and William Makepeace Thackeray." Coelebs also marks a gradual sociological shift that had been happening throughout the 18th century: marriage was no longer primarily viewed as an economic relationship cementing familial or political alliances but rather as an individual's ...

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