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Women in late 18th century dress at the time of Hannah More

I blame it on Four Weddings and a Funeral – the 1994 Richard Curtis RomCom that propelled Hugh Grant to fame when he dumped Duck Face or rather Henrietta (Anna Chancellor) at the altar in wedding number four. It began a vogue for wedding ceremonies that didn’t go the distance. There was Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts in 1999 in which her character Maggie makes a career out of dumping men at the altar, while in Coronation Street the soap opera added a new twist with Sian Powers running away on her wedding day from her lesbian lover Sophie Webster – who had been unfaithful.

In Downton Abbey Sir Anthony couldn’t resist dumping Lady Edith in a change of mind half way up the aisle while in Eastenders Mandy Salter couldn’t face tying the knot with Ian Beale – but then who could? Of course, it’s nothing new. Thomas Hardy had Sergeant Troy waiting eternally for poor Fanny Robin in Far From The Madding Crowd – she was late having gone to the wrong church – but he soon finds a more punctual bride in Bathsheba – who is also loaded.

Milena Mottram outside Hannah More Cottage in Cheddar in a fashion shoot in 2013

It does of course happen in real life – although usually the drama happens in the days leading up to the wedding – meaning there’s none of the high tension of a bride or groom standing at the church door waiting and waiting and waiting. Instead normal people get cold feet. I met three brides when I worked for Beautiful Brides magazine who had got married – in a wedding dress bought for a wedding. In each case the first wedding was organised and day booked – but with just a couple of months to go they called the whole thing off. But being frugal young women they kept their wedding gown and used it when they met someone else a year or three later.

Is it money? Love – or a lack of it? Perhaps it’s just the realisation of who you’re getting hitched to – you suddenly see them for what they are – a control freak or worse – someone who is only in love with themselves. Like when Sofia Vergara dumped Tom Cruise. Or is it when friends and family put on the squeeze – saying he or she is not good enough or rich enough as the chosen one?

A portrait of Hannah More (1745-1833)

In Hannah More’s case the story would have made a good novel for Jane Austen if she hadn’t have died at the age of 42 when she had so many more novels to write. In fact Jane may have met Hannah when she visited friends in Bristol in 1806 – but little is known of the meeting if it actually happened. By then Hannah now in her 60s was famous as a philanthropist and founder of schools while Jane was an unknown writer yet to become famous.

Women in late 18th century dress at the time of Hannah More

The story of Hannah More’s troubled love life is all the more fascinating for what was to happen to her afterwards – and for the position of women in the late 18th century. If you weren’t wealthy then life was very tough. With little education to be had most girls were destined to be maids, servants, governesses, nannies or prostitutes. There were some trades such as dressmaking and weaving as well as factory work in the new temples of the Industrial Revolution – but for many poverty was a harsh reality.

Hannah’s dad however had given her and her sisters home education meaning they could read and write – and with a population thirsty for knowledge – especially amongst girls of the rapidly growing middle class – the More sisters started a school off Park Street in Bristol. It worked well – and Hannah was soon one of the teachers – making friends with some of the older girls – and visiting them in the holidays. On one such occasion aged 20 Hannah visited two students who were staying at their uncle’s home near Wraxall. William Turner was 20 years older than Hannah and quickly took a shine to her. They had the same interests in gardening and reading and he obviously enjoyed her lively company. He was rich and had devout Christian moralist views on philanthropy and reform which fitted Hannah’s ideals.

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A photo taken at a fashion shoot by Harry Mottram for Beautiful Brides magazine in 2011

When he proposed it came as no surprise – and preparations were made for the wedding in Bristol. Hannah’s life was to be transformed from running a private girls’ school with her family to becoming a member of the landed gentry with wealth and status. She threw in her hand at the school and turned into a bridezilla buying clothes for her new life along with her wedding gown. But the wedding never happened. According to Thomas de Quincey Hannah was left waiting at the church door – although there are no other written accounts. Embarrassed by the event the family and Hannah’s friends erased all mention of the jilting.

Hannah More in later life by Henry William Pickersgill, oil on canvas, 1821

The pressure was on Turner who had humiliated Hannah – as the gossip columnists of the time were having a field day: School Governess Jilter at the Altar Shock (!) was the talk at village pumps across Somerset and Bristol. Stung into action – her sisters demanded Turner say something. After a short period of reflection he once again named the day and the wedding was back on. There was relief all round – relief that was to turn to horror when the cad changed his mind again. There was another change of heart and the wedding was not cancelled but postponed. And put off. And the date moved again and again – for an incredible six years of dithering. It caused Hannah to have a nervous break-down.

So what was the problem? Turner was in his 40s and she was in her 20s. Let’s be honest – most middle-aged men privately rather like the idea of marrying a younger model. So that can’t be it. Hannah was no Elizabeth Bennett but in pictures of her and in descriptions of the writer she is perfectly presentable. Maybe William batted for the other side – although again there’s no evidence of this – he seemed permanently attracted to the company of young women.

Hannah More Cottage in Cheddar

In her biography of Hannah More Anne Stott describes the family negotiations with Turner as trying to wrestle a jellyfish. He was vague, full of false promises, inconsistent and unable to make a commitment. With Hannah now depressed her sisters recruited a family friend in James Stonhouse – who was a wealthy clergyman. Stonhouse pointed out to Turner that he had ruined Hannah’s reputation and demanded compensation. Eventually he got Turner to make her an annuity of £200 – a huge sum in those days – which set Hannah up for life. They say don’t get mad get even. And that’s what she did – by writing a hit play called The Fatal Falsehood – which was about a woman being jilted by a lover.

Hannah More Cottage at the turn of the 19th century. Pic: Tery King

From then she went on to write a novel, more plays and poems before turning her attention to starting schools for the poor across Bristol and the future Strawberry Line District with her sisters. Not a bad comeback when she could have simply crawled into a hole after being left at the altar by the dithering William Turner.

And so we come to her life outside the prism of jilted bride. A Christian Evangelist, a playwright, a founder of schools for women and children, an educationist and an anti-slavery campaigner but no 21st century feminist – as she was against female votes.

Diane Lukins as Hannah More in 2020 – a photo to promote the Axbridge Pageant by Ian Mason

In the 2021 Axbridge Pageant we will see Hannah More confronting the excesses of the Rev Gould and championing the rights of children and women for a Christian education in a backward 19th century town.

The drama unfolds over the Bank Holiday weekend in 2021, August 28-30 in the town Square when the pageant takes place.

Make sure you are there – see