Amelia Opie Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.