Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
A Religious Family
By Hannah More (17451833)
AT tea, I found the young ladies took no more interest in the conversation than they had done at dinner, but sat whispering and laughing, and netting white silk gloves till they were summoned to the harpsichord. Despairing of getting on with them in company, I proposed a walk in the garden. I now found them as willing to talk, as destitute of anything to say. Their conversation was vapid and frivolous. They laid great stress on small things. They seemed to have no shades in their understanding, but used the strongest terms for the commonest occasions, and admiration was excited by things hardly worthy to command attention. They were extremely glad, and extremely sorry, on subjects not calculated to excite affections of any kind. They were animated about trifles, and indifferent on things of importance. They were, I must confess, frank and good-natured, but it was evident, that as they were too open to have anything to conceal, so they were too uninformed to have anything to produce; and I was resolved not to risk my happiness with a woman who could not contribute her full share towards spending a wet winter cheerfully in the country.
In the evening Mrs. Ranby was lamenting, in general and rather customary terms, her own exceeding sinfulness. Mr. Ranby said, You accuse yourself rather too heavily, my dear; you have sins to be sure.And pray what sins have I, Mr. Ranby? said she, turning upon him with so much quickness that the poor man started. Nay, said he, meekly, I did not mean to offend you; so far from it, that hearing you condemn yourself so grievously, I intended to comfort you, and to say that, except a few faultsAnd pray what faults? interrupted she, continuing to speak however, lest he should catch an interval to tell them. I defy you, Mr. Ranby, to produce one.My dear, replied he, as you charged yourself with all, I thought it would be letting you off cheaply by naming only two or three, such as Here, fearing matters would go too far, I interposed, and softening things as much as I could for the lady, said, I conceived that Mr. Ranby meant, that though she partook of the general corruption Here Ranby interrupting me, with more spirit than I thought he possessed, said, General corruption, sir, must be the source of particular corruption. I did not mean that my wife was worse than other women.Worse, Mr. Ranby, worse? cried she. Ranby, for the first time in his life, not minding her, went on:As she is always insisting that the whole species is corrupt, she cannot help allowing that she herself has not quite escaped the infection. Now, to be a sinner in the gross, and a saint in the detail; that is, to have all sins, and no faultsis a thing I do not quite comprehend.
After he had left the room, which he did as the shortest way of allaying the storm, she apologised for him, saying, he was a well-meaning man, and acted up to the little light he had; but added, that he was unacquainted with religious feelings, and knew little of the nature of conversion.
Mrs. Ranby, I found, seems to consider Christianity as a kind of free-masonry, and therefore thinks it superfluous to speak on serious subjects to any but the initiated. If they do not return the sign, she gives them up as blind and dead. She thinks she can only make herself intelligible to those to whom certain peculiar phrases are familiar; and, though her friends may be correct, devout, and both doctrinally and practically pious, yet, if they cannot catch a certain mystic meaning, if there is not a sympathy of intelligence between her and them, if they do not fully conceive of impressions, and cannot respond to mysterious communications, she holds them unworthy of intercourse with her. She does not so much insist on high moral excellence as the criterion of their worth, as on their own account of their internal feelings.