Righting & Re-writing their Characters
Amelia Opie and the variant editions Adeline Mowbray
Sonia Hofkosh begins her article exploring the problematics of female authorship in the Romantic period with the following epigrams:
I would only separate the Author from those pollutors of the press who have turned a vestal into a prostitute. Isaac Disraeli (1812)
I have an utter aversion to Bluestockings. I do not care a fig for any woman that knows even what an author means. William Hazlitt (1821)1
Amelia Opie published Adeline Mowbray, or The Mother and Daughter in 1805 and revised the novel several times through the first two decades of the nineteenth century,2 when Disraeli and Hazlitt wrote these words. Opie's Adeline Mowbray (in its various editions), the novel's title character, and Opie herself together make a striking case study for examining the position of the woman writer in this uncomfortable period between the Enlightenment and the so-called Romantic period which saw the emergence of the ideology of feminine propriety.3
As Hofkosh points out, Disraeli's and Hazlitt's language is highly sexually charged. Disraeli and Hazlitt were reacting to the flood of women into the literary market place at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Women were reading in higher numbers than they ever had before and there were, for the first time in English literary history, large numbers of established professional women writers. These women writers often referred to with opprobrium, à la Hazlitt, as Bluestockings, or as "learned ladies," or as "masses of scribbling women" were thought, by Disraeli for example, to debase the profession of letters. Gary Kelly further notes that "once published [the woman writer] became public, risking loss of femininity."4 So, women writers were also thought to debase themselves, making themselves "unfeminine." Kelly5 and Poovey, to name just two critics, have made much of this tension between the proper lady and the woman writer in their readings of women novelists. Kelly suggests that women writers who wished to express themselves without being censured could "keep to acceptably 'feminine' genres and subject matter, especially prose fiction, and even to keep to acceptably lady-like decorums and moralising but to create a contradiction between theme and form."6 Poovey similarly argues that women who write must "express themselves in a code capable of being read in two ways: as acquiescence to the norm and as departure from it."7 According to Kelly and Poovey, because of the emerging eighteenth-century ideology of feminine propriety, the woman writer who wants to express her radical ideas must couch them in suitably proper that is, generally, self-effacing, domestic, and moral narrative structures.
Opie's title character, Adeline Mowbray, early in the novel represents the female reader, whom Kelly refers to as "supposed to be gullible and uncritical and therefore susceptible to ideological seduction."8 In fact, as with Adeline, the naive female reader who is ideologically seduced is also at risk of being physically seduced. Adeline's negligent mother, Editha Mowbray, encourages Adeline's reading of philosophical works and political tracts. She is seduced first by the words of Frederic Glenmurray, who denounces marriage. Full of admiration of his writing, Adeline later is seduced by Glenmurray, despite himself, to accept a life "in honor of their principles," that is without the benefit of marriage. Disowned by her mother for her "practice of vice" (1825, 13), Adeline makes a trek with Glenmurray across the Continent, through England, and to Scotland. All the while, she repeatedly refuses Glenmurray's proposals of marriage, even after she becomes pregnant and delivers a still-born child. Adeline cares only about being reconciled to her mother. A family friend, Dr. James Norberry, and a Quaker minister, Mrs. Rachel Pemberton, unsuccessfully aid Adeline in her attempts at reconciliation. Glenmurray, always sickly, eventually dies and, at his urging, Adeline marries his gluttonous cousin Charles Berrendale, who eventually runs away to Jamaica and takes a second wife. Adeline attempts to prosecute Berrendale, but is unsuccessful. Thoroughly dejected, she returns to her childhood home and is reconciled with her mother. The novel ends with Adeline, on her death-bed, repenting of her youthful folly in challenging "the experience of ages" and "general society" (1825, 266). Ostensibly, Adeline Mowbray is a treatise against free love.9 The Monthly Review in its brief article on Adeline Mowbray plainly states that
It is the intention of this work to portray the lamentable consequences, which would result from an adoption of some lax principles relative to a rejection of matrimonial forms, which have been inculcated by certain modern writers.10
Indeed Adeline rejects matrimonial forms and suffers immensely for years until, lamentably, she dies, albeit penitently. In Opie's novel Adeline makes a move from radical individualism toward feminine propriety and acquiescence, from defiance of society's norms, toward acquiescence.
Although Adeline Mowbray is today commonly recognized as a roman à clef about the infamous relationship between Wollstonecraft and Godwin,11 in an important way, Adeline's life imitates Opie's. Opie was raised in Norwich, the center of the tradition of intellectual Dissent, by her free-thinking father, John Alderson, a medical doctor. Her father's acquaintances, William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft, politely encouraged her in a literary career. After her marriage to the "English Rembrandt," the portraitist John Opie, she moved to London, continuing her friendship with Godwin and Holcroft and coming to be friends with other of the English Jacobin novelists, Elizabeth Inchbald and Mary Wollstonecraft. She published some poetry and much fiction for 35 years until, at the age of fifty-six, she converted to Quakerism. After her conversion, she published only a few moral instructive tales, mostly for children.12 Her interest early in life in Dissent and politics, and in fact in authorship, is overshadowed by her interest late in life in morality and religion. Her revisions of Adeline Mowbray reflect this shift in her beliefs.
In 1805, The Critical Review, in its rather lengthy article on Adeline Mowbray, found the novel's morality suspect enough on these points to issue, along with its generous praise, a mild warning:
We cannot avoid remarking that the effect of [the novel's] moral does not seem to have been consulted, when the state in which Adeline and Glenmurray lived was represented as perfectly happy, as far as their happiness rested in themselves; but the instant that Adeline marries, she becomes miserable from the conduct of her husband. Rightly considered this reflects nothing upon the marriage state; but what we have to object to are the fascinating colours thrown over the erroneous virtues of Adeline and Glenmurray, 'making' (as the benevolent quaker observes, Vol. ii. page 109) 'vice more dangerous by giving it an air of respectability' (219-20).13
Indeed, as the succeeding editions of Adeline Mowbray prove, Opie moves to ally herself much more with this respectable (in the eyes of The Critical Review), that is to use Poovey's term, proper, Quaker.14 The later editions of Adeline Mowbray contain less matter for such objection.