Amelia Opie Essay - Critical Essays

Opie, Amelia


Amelia Opie 1769-1853

(Born Amelia Alderson; later Mrs. Amelia Alderson Opie) English novelist, poet, and essayist.

Opie belongs to a period in the development of the English novel of manners that is transitional between Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) and Jane Austen (1775-1817). Opie's best known works are The Father and Daughter (1801) and Adeline Mowbray (1804), which were popular for their naturalistic portrayal of the lives of ordinary people, for their ability to move the emotions of the reader through their pathos, and for the example that they provided for correct living. Opie's works declined in popularity as they became less pathetic, less realistic, and more didactic.

Biographical Information

Opie was born in Norwich on 12 November 1769 to Dr. James Alderson and Amelia (Briggs) Alderson. In place of a formal education, Opie received informal training from the influence of her father, the discipline of her invalid mother (which included instruction on the evils of slavery and the reading of contemporary novels and poetry), her visits to the local insane asylum, instruction in dancing and music, and her friendship with the Gurneys (a family who belonged to the Quakers in Norwich). In 1784, at the age of fifteen and upon the death of her mother, Opie took the place of hostess in the Alderson household, and so began to take part in her father's association with such intellectuals as William Godwin, James Mackintosh, Harriet Martineau, Thomas Holcroft, and John Aiken. Following Aiken's encouragement, Opie wrote (anonymously) her first novel, Dangers of Coquetry (1790), produced (privately) a play, Adelaide (1791), and published various poems in The Cabinet during the 1790s. These works did not receive critical acclaim, but their reputation enabled Opie to enter the circles of London literary figures, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Inchbald. On her journeys to London in the 1790s, Opie was escorted by a Mr. Boddington, a married man whom Opie seems to have been in love with, but she set aside this relationship for marriage to the painter John Opie in 1798. Through her husband's encouragement, Opie devoted herself to writing, and began the most successful part of her career, publishing the popular and critically acclaimed novel The Father and Daughter; then Poems (1802); Adeline Mowbray, which was considered a roman à clef dealing with the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (whose marriage had achieved notoriety because Wollstonecraft prior to her involvement with Godwin had declared herself married to Gilbert Imlay—without benefit of a wedding ceremony—and Godwin prior to his involvement with Wollstonecraft had written in opposition to the institution of marriage); and Simple Tales (1806). After her husband's death in 1807, Opie moved from London back to Norwich to live with her father. Opie's first publication from Norwich, a collection of poems entitled The Warrior's Return and Other Poems (1808) received mixed reviews, and thereafter, except for her last book, Opie published only prose. The fact that from 1814 onward Opie attended Quaker meetings with her friend the Quaker minister Joseph John Gurney may account in some degree for the didacticism evident in such writings as Valentine's Eve (1816) and Madeline (1822) (although didacticism is present even in Temper [1812]). It was not until Opie formally joined the Quakers in 1825 shortly before her father's death that didacticism became the defining characteristic of such works as Illustrations of Lying, in All Its Branches (1825) and Detraction Displayed (1828). Opie's Illustrations of Lying, in All Its Branches is the last piece of fiction that she wrote before she began to observe the Quaker prohibition against fiction-writing. Opie also tried to foster the abolitionist movement with her book The Black Man 's Lament (1826). Her non-fictional and didactic works did not attract critical attention, and she published nothing after Lays for the Dead (1834) until her death in 1853.

Major Works

A letter written by Opie relates that she liked to make people cry, and that her readers were disappointed when she did not so affect them. Opie's The Father and Daughter, published under her own name rather than anonymously, develops through the portrayal of the fate of Agnes Fitzhenry the sense of pathos and sensibility as well as the realistic commonplace situation that characterizes most of Opie's works of fiction. After Agnes abandons her father for a faithless seducer, she becomes pregnant, and is abandoned in turn by her lover. Agnes penitently returns to her father but discovers that he has gone insane from grief at her desertion. While earning a living for herself and her son through her needlecraft, Agnes cares for her father for several years while he is at the asylum and even later when he is diagnosed as incurable and released. The father regains his sanity during the crisis of an illness, gives his blessing to his daughter, and dies in her arms. Agnes is so distraught by his death that she soon dies too, and the father and daughter are buried together. Then the faithless lover, now raised to the rank of nobleman, returns and acknowledges Agnes' child as his own. Besides its attention to sensibilities, the novel also questions the place of the fallen woman in society. This theme can be seen in Adeline Mowbray as well. Adeline reads the Godwin-like philosophical works of Frederic Glenmurray that present the institution of marriage as cruel, and she decides to adopt this position as her own. However, Adeline and Glenmurray later meet, and fall in love. Glenmurray proposes to Adeline, but she insists on living with him and having his child outside of wedlock. Adeline suffers the abuse of respectable men and women for persisting in her anti-marriage beliefs, and this brings about the early death of Glenmurray. Adeline is eventually forced by circumstances to marry Glenmurray's cousin, but she is so miserable that she dies, just managing to be reconciled with her mother on her deathbed. The situation of these fallen women has attracted the attention of various modern scholars. Claire Tomalin suggests that Opie's opinion of the fallen woman's views is expressed by a character in Opie's The Father and Daughter, who argues that it is wrong to exclude the fallen woman forever from proper society since this encourages the woman to forsake penitence, and that it is better to accept the woman back after she has shown penitence, patience, and self-denial. Gary Kelly sees these stories as the incurring of moral debts, which alienate loved ones, are paid back with penitence, and are ended through reconciliation. Susan Staves suggests that these fallen women indicate British society's preoccupation with seduced maidens as that society became more secularized and underwent a transition from ecclesiastical to legal remedies for unchastity. Opie's Poems (which includes the very popular "Go, youth beloved") and The Warrior 's Return and Other Poems often show the same pathetic quality as her prose fiction. Later works, such as Temper and Valentine 's Eve, display more moralizing and less pathos and realism. These trends continue through Tales of the Heart (1820), which has failed to arouse any strong emotions in the critics, and Madeline, which is more sentimental but still didactic and lacking in realism, and which received no critical consideration in Opie's time. Opie's last two major prose works, Illustrations of Lying, in All Its Branches and Detraction Displayed, have been received favorably by some critics but have been discussed primarily as instruction manuals for morality rather than as works of entertainment.

Critical Reception

The Father and Daughter and Adeline Mowbray have consistently been the most well-received of Opie's tales for their pathos and natural quality. Both novels remained popular even after Opie's death, and they receive the most critical attention today—more because they offer insight into Opie's contemporary world than because they move the reader with their excellence as literature. However, critics then and now have interpreted these stories differently. Critics contemporary with Opie tended to interpret these stories as supporting orthodox morality. On the other hand, modern critics tend to interpret these stories as supporting orthodox morality in word only with the actions of the heroine probably subverting the traditional ideology with a questioning, feminist ideology. Opie's poems, though usually well-received for their pathetic quality, were sometimes praised and sometimes criticized for their lack of technical ability. Critics agree that Opie wrote essentially the same kind of story in the same way throughout her career. Her appeal lay in her ability to describe the ordinary situation and to evoke the emotions appropriate to that situation (not in her ability to develop different, intellectually appealing, or original characters or to present her ideas with technical perfection), and her popularity declined when her writings no longer provided accurate descriptions or evoked appropriate emotions. This decline in the quality of her writings is generally associated in some way to her increased interest in Quakerism in the latter part of her life.


Dangers of Coquetry (novel) 1790

Adelaide (drama) 1791

The Father and Daughter (novel) 1801

Elegy to the Memory of the Late Duke of Bedford (poetry) 1802

Poems (poetry) 1802

Adeline Mowbray (novel) 1804

Simple Tales. 4 vols. (novellas) 1806

The Warrior's Return and Other Poems (poetry) 1808

Duty [editor; from work begun by Margaret Roberts] (novel) 1809

Lectures on Painting, Delivered at the Royal Academy of Arts [editor; from lectures prepared by John Opie; with a memoir of John Opie by Amelia Opie] (lectures) 1809

Temper (novel) 1812

Tales of Real Life. 3 vols. (novellas) 1813

Valentine's Eve (novel) 1816

New Tales. 4 vols. (novellas) 1818

Tales of the Heart. 4 vols. (novellas) 1820

Madeline (novel) 1822

The Negro Boy's Tale (novella) 1824

Illustrations of Lying, in All Its Branches. 2 vols. (novellas) 1825

Tales of the Pemberton Family, for the Use of Children (novellas) 1825

The Black Man's Lament; or, How to Make Sugar (novella) 1826

Detraction Displayed (essays) 1828

Lays for the Dead (poetry) 1834


Monthly Review (review date 1801)

SOURCE: Review of The Father and Daughter by Amelia Opie, in Monthly Review, Vol. XXXV, 1801, pp. 163-66.

[In the following excerpt, the critic describes the favorable impression made by Opie's The Father and Daughter in regard to its ability to describe pathos and distress and to elicit the appropriate feelings in the reader.]

The pleasures of melancholy are suited only to minds of uncommon susceptibility,—to those persons who may be said to have a sympathetic taste for distress; and from readers of this class, the tale of woe now before us will meet with peculiar acceptance. For ourselves, we own that we have been truly affected by the...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Edinburgh Review (review date 1802)

SOURCE: Review of Poems by Amelia Opie, in Edinburgh Review, Vol. I, October, 1802, pp. 113-21.

[In the following review, the critic commends the shorter works of Opie's Poems for their elegance in sentiment and pathos but finds fault with the longer works for their lack of technical correctness, their lack of originality, and their overuse of reflection, inversion, and personification.]

There are, probably, many of our readers, who at some fortunate, or unfortunate moment of their lives, have been tempted to dip their pen in the fatal ink of publication, and who still remember the anxiety with which they looked forward to the reception of their first...

(The entire section is 3596 words.)

Edinburgh Review (review date 1806)

SOURCE: Review of Simple Tales by Amelia Opie, in Edinburgh Review, Vol. 8, July, 1806, pp. 465-71.

[In the following article, the critic favorably reviews Opie's Simple Tales for its ability to present human nature and feelings in an artless but graceful and accurate way.]

We owe some apology to Mrs Opie, for omitting at the proper time to take notice of her beautiful story of the Mother and Daughter; the second volume of which is perhaps the most pathetic, and the most natural in its pathos, of any fictitious narrative in the language. In the tales now before us, we find much of the same merits; the same truth and delicacy of sentiment;...

(The entire section is 2474 words.)

Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle (review date 1808)

SOURCE: Review of The Warrior's Return and Other Poems by Amelia Opie, in Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Vol. LXXVII, July, 1808, pp. 612-13.

[In the following review, the critic praises Opie 's The Warrior's Return and Other Poems for its originality and the polish of its meter.]

This neat diminutive volume, containing 185 pages, is thus modestly introduced to the Publick by the fair Authoress, the relict of Opie, the late excellent painter, who had the singular good fortune to unite the sister Arts of Poetry and Painting by his marriage with this lady: "The Poems which compose this little volume were written, with two or three...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Monthly Review (review date 1808)

SOURCE: Review of The Warrior's Return and Other Poems by Amelia Opie, in Monthly Review, Vol. LVII, 1808, pp. 436-38.

[In the following review, the critic censures Opie 's The Warrior's Return and Other Poems for its lack of rigorous poetics such as good rhyming and for its waste of sentiment on topics remote from the present day.]

It is said by Ben Jonson, in his lines on Shakspeare, that

A good poet's made as well as born;

and the remark is just, since due cultivation must be superadded to poetic talent before its due expansion can be obtained. Parnassus ceases to be fertile when...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Monthly Review (review date 1812)

SOURCE: Review of Temper; or Domestic Scenes by Amelia Opie, in Monthly Review, Vol. LXVIII, 1812, p. 217.

[In the following review, the critic counterbalances praise of Opie's Temper; or Domestic Scenes with mention of such defects as excessive didacticism and the use of unlikely circumstances.]

We estimate so highly this lady's literary talents, and we so cordially approve the tendency of the present work, that we reluctantly qualify our opinion of its merits by first noticing its defects. Mrs. Opie has delineated some traits of uncontrolled temper with a refined as well as a powerful pencil, but she might have excited greater interest if she had...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Monthly Review (review date 1816)

SOURCE: Review of Valentine's Eve by Amelia Opie, in Monthly Review, Vol. LXXIX, January-April, 1816, pp. 438-39.

[In the following review, the critic commends Opie 's Valentine's Eve for the virtuous example of its heroine, but finds fault with the dialogue and the portrayal of various characters.]

This story is not calculated either by its conduct or its circumstances tö display advantageously the talents of the writer; and, since "most animals know where their strength lies," as Warburton said, when referring to his critics, such persons as attempt to perform the critical office towards Mrs. Opie must consider her as an exception to his rule. Why,...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Monthly Review (review date 1819)

SOURCE: Review of New Tales by Amelia Opie, in Monthly Review, Vol. LXXXVIII, March, 1819, pp. 327-28.

[In the following review, the critic commends Opie 's New Tales for the realistic depiction of various characters.]

Much variety and amusement will be found in these volumes: but, in the tale of the "Ruffian Boy," this justly celebrated writer departs from her usual practice of inculcating an important moral in every narrative: since this is a tale of fear and sorrow in which we cannot sympathise with the characters, and from which no higher lesson can be learned than the old rule that young ladies in a ball-room must not refuse one partner and afterward...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Monthly Review (review date 1820)

SOURCE: Review of Tales of the Heart by Amelia Opie, in Monthly Review, Vol. XCII, May-August, 1820, pp. 375-87.

[In the following review, the critic finds fault with Opie's Tales of the Heart for its inability to stir the emotions, the presence of unlikely situations, poor diction, and a lack of care in describing everyday events.]

It is the fate of our craft to be frequently assailed by feelings that interfere with the cool and deliberate exercise of our judgment; and this is a predicament which happens chiefly when a female writer is before us. We cannot speak harshly, or judge austerely, of authors in muslin and sarsenet: gallantry, or...

(The entire section is 5322 words.)

W. D. Howells (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: "Heroines of Miss Ferrier, Mrs. Opie, and Mrs. Radcliffe," in Heroines of Fiction, Vol. I, Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1901, pp. 79-89.

[In the following excerpt, Howells describes Opie's work as being allied to the nature school of writing and as achieving its effects through great imaginative inventiveness and the inclusion of extraordinary accidents.]

[Daniel] Defoe, [Samuel] Richardson, [Oliver] Goldsmith, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen: this is the lineage of the English fiction whose ideal is reality, whose prototype is nature. To this illustrious company there are others worthy to be added, especially that Miss Susan Edmondstone...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Oliver Elton (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: "The Novel of Manners and Jane Austen," in A Survey of English Literature: 1780-1830, Vol. I, Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1912, 172-201.

[In the following excerpt, Elton discusses the context for Opie's writings, the influence of her own morality on her writing, and her ability to present pathos, dialogue, the embroiled situation, and personal portraits.]

The 'poetic genius, which is the Lord,' was also astir, during the last decade of the century, in Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge; but its record must now be forsaken awhile, in order to notice other workings of the English mind and imagination, in prose. And first of fiction,1 which for...

(The entire section is 2577 words.)

Margaret Eliot MacGregor (essay date 1932-33)

SOURCE: Introduction to Amelia Alderson Opie: Worldling and Friend, in Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, Vol, XIV, Nos. 1-2, The Collegiate Press, October, 1932-January, 1933, pp. xi-xv.

[In the following essay, MacGregor discusses Opie's moralistic purpose in writing as well as Opie's response to issues of her day.]

I have been reading over my journal. Amazing! It is really now as long as a book, yet it contains nothing but the history of a weak woman's heart. But is not that heart a world to its possessor? . . . after all, is there, can there be any history more interesting than a history of the affections? . . .


(The entire section is 1741 words.)

Donald H. Reiman (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Introduction to Amelia Opie and Mary Tighe: "Elegy to the Memory of the Late Duke of Bedford"; "Psyche," with Other Poems, in Romantic Context: Poetry; Significant Minor Poetry, 1789-1830, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978, pp. v-xv.

[In the following excerpt, Reiman discusses Opie's purpose in writing fiction, her social concerns expressed in her poetry, and her lack of technical skill in writing poetry.]

In any full discussion of the literary career of Amelia Alderson Opie, primary attention would undoubtedly be given to her fiction. Her novels and tales include The Dangers of Coquetry (2 vols., 1790); The Father and Daughter: A Tale...

(The entire section is 2689 words.)

Gary Kelly (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Discharging Debts: The Moral Economy of Amelia Opie's Fiction," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XI, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 198-203.

[In the following essay, Kelly asserts that the underlying pattern of Opie's prose fiction is the heroine's incurring of a real or apparent moral, social, or financial debt, which is repaid with inner suffering and some public expression of this suffering, and which is terminated by reconciliation with the creditor.]

Amelia Opie (1769-1853) was one of the most popular fiction writers of the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and could be termed a representative woman novelist of her day—representative in her social...

(The entire section is 5793 words.)

Susan Staves (essay date 1980-81)

SOURCE: "British Seduced Maidens," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter, 1980-81, pp. 109-34.

[In the following essay, Staves discusses social responses to the seduction of maidens, which provides the historical context for the theme of the seduced maiden in Opie's work in general and in Opie's The Father and Daughter in particular.]

Pathetic seduced maidens, though frequent in eighteenth-century literature, are not universal characters. On the contrary, they appear at a certain historical moment, fascinate writers and draw deep sympathy from readers, then disappear, the pathos that contemporaries found in them now being more likely to evoke...

(The entire section is 7283 words.)

Gary Kelly (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Amelia Opie, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Maria Edgeworth: Official and Unofficial Ideology," in Ariel, Vol. 12, No. 4, October, 1981, pp. 3-24.

[In the following excerpt, Kelly argues that the writings of Opie (among others) demonstrate an adherence to traditional social values in the moral and outcome of their fictions, but also a questioning of those values in their examination of the lives of the central characters who suffer because of those values.]

The first few decades of the nineteenth century may be said to constitute the second phase of the invasion or appropriation of novel writing by large numbers of women—the first phase being the last three decades...

(The entire section is 4137 words.)

Jan Fergus and Janice Farrar Thaddeus (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Women, Publishers, and Money, 1790-1820" in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 17, edited by John Yolton and Leslie Ellen Brown, Colleagues Press, 1987, pp. 191-207.

[In the following excerpt, Fergus and Thaddeus examine the financial dealings of Amelia Alderson Opie with her publishers as an example of the social changes affecting women around the beginning of the nineteenth-century.]

At the end of the eighteenth century, a woman who considered herself genteel had few options if she wanted or needed to make money. Working-class women could procure jobs as servants or shop assistants; the work was ill-paid and constricting, but it was available. Those...

(The entire section is 3842 words.)

Claudia L. Johnson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Novel of Crisis," in Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 1-27.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson suggests that Opie endorsed the politically conservative status quo through her main plot but used parallel plots to question established social values and to promote reform for attitudes about women and marriage.]

[Not] all the villains or anti-heroes in conservative fiction are gross charlatans happy to employ "reason" in order to justify their mean actions. Some are earnest seekers after truth, and it is precisely their penchant for reflection that gets them into trouble. Woe to the indulgent parents who let...

(The entire section is 1967 words.)

Basem L. Ra'ad (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: " 'D. D.' Revealed?," in Melville Society Extracts, Vol. LXXXVI, September, 1991, pp. 10-11.

[In the following essay, Ra 'ad argues for identifying the "D.D. "found in Melville's correspondence to Evert Duyckinck with Opie 's Detraction Displayed because (among other things) Opie 's work represented a disappearing type of social commentary on contemporary morals.]

The May 1990 issue of Extracts (#80) contained a small trove of new Melville letters and notes. Among them is an undated note in which Herman Melville thanks Evert Duyckinck for helping "to procure" a book Melville refers to as "D.D." The title is not spelled out—presumably because...

(The entire section is 1290 words.)

Roxanne Eberle (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray: Diverting the Libertine Gaze; or, The Vindication of a Fallen Woman," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 121-52.

[In the following essay, Eberle explores Opie's criticism of conservative and radical expectations of women 's behavior and philosophy through her novel Adeline Mowbray.]

My father will have told you a great deal. He will have told you too how much we are interested & agitated by the probable event of the approaching trials .. . we are resolved to emigrate if the event of the trial be fatal.1

In 1794, the treason trials of...

(The entire section is 15367 words.)

Further Reading


Brightwell, Cecilia Lucy. Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie, Selected and Arranged from Her Letters, Diaries,and Other Manuscripts. 2d ed. London: Longman, Brown, & Co., 1854, 410 p.

Presents the life of Opie through her personal correspondence with special attention to the religious side of her life.

MacGregor, Margaret Eliot. Amelia Alderson Opie: Worldling and Friend. Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, Vol. 14, Nos. 1-2. Northampton, Mass.: Collegiate Press, 1932-33, 146 p.

Gives a scholarly, chronological account of Opie's life,...

(The entire section is 375 words.)