Accountable Motherhood and the Rise of the Child in Amelia Opie's Revolutionary Family


i. Simple Tales

Like most fiction by women writers, Amelia Opie's texts investigate the domestic realm. Even just a perfunctory glance at the table of contents of Opie's Works suggests her primary interest in exploring the dynamics of family. Among her titles are Adeline Mowbray, with the subtitle The Mother and Daughter; "The Mother and Son;" "The Brother and Sister;" "The Uncle and Nephew;" and The Father and Daughter. A closer perusal of her fictions confirms her preoccupation in particular with parent-child relations. The phrases "filial piety," "filial duty," "maternal tenderness," and "maternal affection" appear repeatedly throughout her Simple Tales (1806). Like the conduct book writers of the period, Opie too aims to define for children and parents the proper behavior toward one another. But she challenges the established codes of conduct and relocates familial authority squarely with the children.

Several themes recur in Opie's Simple Tales. These tales repeatedly present trangressive parents who abandon or otherwise neglect their children, having been distracted most often by sexual urges and / or economic concerns. The children in Opie's tales, who are spotlessly virtuous and dutiful, frequently instruct their parents in virtue and duty. These parents also often suffer consequences for their faulty parenting, consequences which require them to prostrate themselves at the feet of their children. In her tales, Opie reverses the traditional roles of child and parent, thereby emphasizing the obligations of parents and holding parents accountable for their children's upbringing. Three of Opie's Simple Tales, "The Black Velvet Pelisse," "The Death-Bed," and "The Mother and Son" are characteristic of Opie's attitudes toward familial authority.

In "The Black Velvet Pelisse," Julia Beresford is the daughter of a wealthy, but miserly, widowed merchant who is "eager to be honoured upon account of his wealth" (228). He dotes upon his only child and heiress and hopes only that she "should marry a man of rank" (228). Because Mr. Beresford wants to show Julia off to advantage at a gathering in the presence of a rich, single young baronet, he allows her enough money to purchase a rather extravagant velvet pelisse. On her way to purchase the cloak, she encounters a family nearly torn apart by poverty and, despite worrying about her father's reaction, gives them all of the money her father gave her. When Julia later appears at the party in her old, faded pelisse, Mr. Beresford berates her calling her "a fright" (230) and "a dowdy" (231). When she admits to him that she gave the money away, Mr. Beresford vows not to speak to her for a month and avoids her for the remainder of the party. Julia, overcome by emotion, absorbs herself in thought, and reminds herself that "poor are the gratifications of vanity [compared] to the triumphs of benevolence" (231). As the group removes itself to the garden, a little boy comes looking for Julia and beckons his mother and father, to whom Julia gave her money. The family thanks her and blesses her, but Julia, "oppressed with ingenuous modesty" (232), attempts to send them away. The baronet, however, already charmed by Julia, begs to hear the story. The family's account of Julia's generosity forces tears to the eyes of Mr. Beresford. In a remarkable scene, Mr. Beresford, in front of the crowd (after ceremoniously blowing his nose) cries out:

Now, ladies and gentlemen . . . you shall see a new sight — a parent asking pardon of his child. Julia, my dear, I know I behaved very ill — I know I was very cross to you — very savage; I know I was. You are a good girl — and always were, and ever will be the pride of my life — so let's kiss and be friends (233).

In the end, not only does Julia get her black velvet pelisse, she gets the baronet, and most significantly, she earns equivalence with, if not superiority to, her father.

In "The Death-Bed," Mr. Belmour is nearly ruined by his wife's extravagant spending. For a time after the birth of a daughter, Mrs. Belmour is able to curtail her expenditure. But after she ceases to nurse her infant, Mrs. Belmour again begins to incur debt. A "rich and profligate young man of fashion" (235) comes to Mrs. Belmour's "rescue," pays off her debts and showers her with gifts, and plans an elopement to the continent. Mrs. Belmour abandons her baby daughter Laura for her seducer. Mr. Belmour is carefully attentive to his daughter's education, and as a result Laura grows into a beautiful and highly accomplished young woman, all the while remaining "ignorant . . . of the guilt and existence of her unhappy mother" (236). When Laura is introduced to London society, she attracts the attention of Sir Edward Tyrconnel, a young baronet and would-be bigamist. One evening, as Laura and her father return home from the theater, Mr. Belmour encounters his wife, now "pale and haggard" (237), and haphazardly sends his daughter away with the first familiar face he sees, a man who happens to be a friend of Sir Edward's. After much commotion, Laura is rescued from the clutches of her seducer. Mr. Belmour, having conducted his wife to her death-bed, brings Laura to see her mother's corpse, gruesomely "introducing" her and bidding her to "tremble . . . lest [she] be like her" (240). Thereafter, Laura never forgets "the warning example of her mother" (240) and is taught to remember her mother with scorn and disgust.

In "The Mother and Son," Emily Villars marries Mr. Melbourne and gives birth to a son, Aubrey, vigilantly nursing him through a "severe indisposition" (286). Soon, though, becoming disenchanted with married life, she leaves her husband for Colonel Dorville, who is "celebrated for never having lost any conquest which he gained" (285), and abandons her baby son. Emily lives with Dorville adulterously, but some years later, after meeting her son Aubrey, also abandoned by his father, her "maternal tenderness" (289), and hence her morality, is awakened and she walks out on the afflicted Dorville. Later, when Emily is harassed at the theater by Dorville, "a pale, sickly looking young man" (293) comes to save her and announces his identity as Aubrey Melbourne. Dorville disappears and Emily faints into her son's arms "hanging round his neck" (293), crying out that she does not deserve his aid. He takes his mother into his home and cares for her believing that

no unworthiness on the part of a parent could exonerate the child from the most scrupulous observance of the virtues of filial piety, and that no sacrifice for the sake of a parent ought to be scrupled by a virtuous child (295).

Emily realizes, though, that she is preventing the marriage between Aubrey and his intended, so against the wishes of her son, she penitently returns to live with Dorville to endure "agonies" (302). The tale ends with Emily's letter to her son, blessing him and asking his forgiveness.

Despite their intricate plots, these tales are straightforward and uncomplicated. They are exceptionally pathetic, didactic illustrations of conduct-book-like precepts. While Julia Beresford, Laura Belmour, and Aubrey Melbourne are all perfectly dutiful, diligently following the most important conduct book principle of obedience, Mr. Beresford, Mrs. Belmour, and Emily Villars exhibit the main fault about which the later conduct books warn: they do not, in Allestree's words, "live a perpetual Lecture to their Children . . . to exemplifie to them all Virtu and Piety" (60). In these tales, Opie turns the family hierarchy (as defined in the conduct books) upside-down. The children, in fact, exemplify virtue and piety to their parents. These tales advocate a new latitude for children, granting them a new standing within the family hierarchy. At the same time they inform parents of the significance of their new duties toward their children and their accountability for their children's lives, warning them of the serious consequences of negligence.

ii. Adeline Mowbray

Adeline Mowbray, like Simple Tales, is informed by conduct-book discourse. In fact, Editha Mowbray, the title character's mother, attempts herself to contribute to the conduct-book market. She is "wholly engrossed in studies [to develop a system of education] for the future benefit of Adeline" (7). In these studies, "she turned over innumerable volumes in search of rules on the subject [of education]" (3); indeed, she probably pored over every word that Allestree, Gisborne (and all the other conduct book writers), Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft wrote on the subject of child-rearing. And, as varied as all their advice is, at some time or another Mrs. Mowbray surely heeded every bit of it, however contradictory, in her daughter Adeline's upbringing. Indeed, we learn that "now, [Adeline's] form and well-turned limbs were to be free from any bandage, and any clothing save what decency required, — and now they were to be tortured by stiff stays, and fettered by the stocks and the back-board" (3). Mrs. Mowbray effectively swaddles and unswaddles her daughter depending on whether she reads advice suggesting the former or the latter. But while Mrs. Mowbray is developing her system of education she neglects her daughter completely; while pondering whether light shoes or heavy shoes are more beneficial to a child's health, she lets Adeline go barefoot until her feet bleed.14

Adeline is, in fact, a living, breathing experiment for her mother and nothing more than a means to her end. Opie presents Mrs. Mowbray as less concerned with her daughter's education than with the gratification of her own ego. Mrs. Mowbray desires to be "held up as a pattern of imitation to mothers" (3) and expects to be "styled . . . the best of mothers" (107). However, in her upbringing Adeline receives from her mother the "proper exertion of parental authority" (4) just once and she enjoys her mother's "tenderness" (6) for only three weeks during a serious illness. Mrs. Mowbray, we come to learn, is "deficient in maternal fondness" (6) and "dead to every graceful impulse of maternal affection" (104).

Before she delves into the story of Adeline, Opie begins in the first chapter of the novel by detailing Mrs. Mowbray's childhood. Opie shows us that Mrs. Mowbray's faults originate in her own upbringing. She was the "idol of her parents" and receives from them "unremitted attention" (1). In short, Editha was a "spoiled child" (7). Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Woodville, encouraged her intellectual pursuits, but did not supervise her instruction. And so, Opie says, Editha's self-education schools her in "egotism" so that she "consider[s] it as the chief duty of all who approached her, to study the gratification of her whims and caprices" (1). Even her own daughter is not exempt from this duty.

Strangely though, Adeline Mowbray is a perfectly dutiful child. The narrator repeatedly alludes to her "filial tenderness" (42), "prudence," and "filial piety" (101). We are even told that other parents "prayed to have a child like her" (127). Adeline is in fact "spotless" (17), entertaining for her mother "the most perfect respect and affection" (6). She says herself that "the claims which my mother has on me are in my eyes . . . sacred" (92).

William Kenrick in The Whole Duty of a Woman (17-?) writes that "the love of children to their parents commonly needs a spur, while that of the mother frequently requires a bridle" (42). But in Adeline Mowbray, Opie exactly inverts this concept. Adeline's love for her mother amounts to devotion and reverence, whereas Mrs. Mowbray's love for her daughter barely amounts to fondness. In fact, with Adeline and Mrs. Mowbray, Opie reverses the very roles of mother and daughter. In the novel, Mrs. Mowbray is likened to a "newborn babe" (7) and Adeline, at the age of fifteen, must care for her mother, "assum[ing] the entire management of the family" (8). The thirty-eight-year-old Mrs. Mowbray is said to experience "a second childhood" (27), whereas the eighteen-year-old Adeline is referred to as an "extraordinarily motherly young creature" (54). In the relationship between mother and daughter in Adeline Mowbray, "the order of nature is reversed" (54).

Although Mrs. Woodville approached the upbringing of her daughter with "blind folly" (1), she does supervise her granddaughter's education. Mrs. Woodville begins to instruct Adeline in "all the ideas of economy and housewifery" (7). But before Adeline can complete her education, Mrs. Woodville dies15 and Adeline can only turn to her mother. Adeline, "too humble to suppose that she could ever equal her mother, . . . resolved to try to make herself more worthy of her" (13) by dedicating herself completely to her mother's studies and pursuits. So, although Mrs. Mowbray never nursed her daughter, Adeline, starving for her mother's attention and tenderness, hungrily ingests what mother's milk, albeit acrid, Mrs. Mowbray provides. In effect, though, Mrs. Mowbray sends her daughter out to nurse on the "abstruse speculations" of theorists, politicians, and philosophers, in particular the "bewitching pen" (13) of Frederic Glenmurray.

Glenmurray, however, espouses controversial, revolutionary opinions regarding marriage and is consequently considered "dangerous and disreputable" (24).16 But Mrs. Mowbray and Adeline, ignorant of the "usual customs and opinions" (24), consider themselves fortunate to be able to meet him at Bath. Immediately, Adeline and Glenmurray become "mutually enamoured" (26). Meanwhile, Mrs. Mowbray, "approaching her fortieth year!" (26), and by then a widow for nearly ten years, falls in love with the virile Sir Patrick O'Carroll who lewdly boasts of his "clean inches (six feet one, without shoes)" (33).

Sir Patrick proposes to Mrs. Mowbray with designs on her fortune, but actually prefers the daughter and intends to act upon his preference. Sir Patrick makes advances toward Adeline, who by informing her mother wounds her vanity. Mrs. Mowbray, however, too impassioned by Sir Patrick, still decides to marry him "regardless of her daughter's interest and happiness" (27). She thinks to herself that "it would be absurd for her to sacrifice her own happiness to her daughter's" (49). Mrs. Mowbray, selfish and un-motherly, sees Adeline as her rival and views her own happiness at odds with her daughter's.

Later, in her mother's absence, Sir Patrick sexually assaults Adeline. She is able to escape him, but knowing that further informing her mother "will ruin [Mrs. Mowbray's] peace for ever" (62), she chooses to flee to her only protector, Glenmurray. Mrs. Mowbray, though, mortified at her daughter's intent to live with Glenmurray without marriage, has already forbidden Adeline to associate with him. By running away with Glenmurray, Adeline realizes that she will "no longer [be able] to reside under the roof of her mother" (65). She gives up all chances for a relationship with her mother to protect her from becoming "miserable by revealing to her the wickedness of Sir Patrick" (65). Adeline behaves with an affection that her mother lacks, sacrificing her own well-being by forsaking her mother to protect her happiness.

Despite his previous condemnation of marriage, Glenmurray proposes to Adeline. More interested in maintaining her principles than in appeasing society, Adeline steadfastly refuses. The lovers elope to the continent, but not before Adeline begs for her mother's forgiveness. Mrs. Mowbray, though, having lost her husband in a freak accident after learning that he was a bigamist, disowns her. For the next year, and the next hundred pages, Adeline continually tries to realign herself with her mother, all the while declining Glenmurray's marriage proposals. She also repeatedly faces society's prejudices and gradually comes to realize the censure she must suffer for acting upon her principles. She encounters Dr. Norberry, her "oldest and best friend" (90), with his wife and daughters. Even this dear friend of her childhood, who repeatedly praises Adeline, barely acknowledges her in public and will only agree to meet with her "in the dark hour" (91). He attempts to bring about a reconciliation between Adeline and her mother, but at their meeting Mrs. Mowbray is too proud to forget her husband's preference; she can only remember the "disgrace and misery" (100) she believes her daughter has caused her. She sends the pregnant Adeline out of the room calling her a "shame to [her] race [and a] disgrace to [her] family" (108) and "load[ing her] with maledictions" (109). Adeline however, on her knees dutifully calls out to her mother through the key-hole:

Let me thank you for all the affection, all the kindness which you have lavished on me during eighteen happy years. I shall never cease to love and pray for you . . . I sincerely, and from the bottom of my heart, forgive this rash action: — and now, my dearest mother, hear my parting prayers for your happiness! (111).

Still, Mrs. Mowbray renounces Adeline.

Glenmurray and Adeline settle in England. Adeline miscarries and nurses Glenmurray through his last illness. At his urging, after his death, she marries his cousin, Mr. Berrendale, and again becomes pregnant. Although Adeline still writes to her mother attempting reconciliation, she is comforted by her association with her new friends: Savanna, her fierce and devoted mulatto servant; and Mrs. Pemberton, a staid and righteous Quaker minister.17 In the absence of Adeline's mother, Savanna and Mrs. Pemberton provide support for Adeline and act as her surrogate mothers.

Adeline gives birth to a daughter, whom she names Editha after her mother, and who significantly "was nursed at her own bosom" (187). As a mother, Adeline is able to regain something of her happiness. Indeed,

that moment, the moment when she heard her infant's first cry, seemed to repay her for all she has suffered; every feeling was lost in the maternal one (185).

Unlike her mother, "Adeline had all the keen sensibilities of a parent" (227): she is "alive to the maternal feeling" (192); she gives up "her whole soul to the joys of maternal fondness" (195); she constantly thinks of "what she owed her daughter" (199) and is concerned with "act[ing] properly by her child" (203); and in fact, she "forget[s] . . . every thing but Editha" (207).

Already the perfectly dutiful child, Adeline also becomes the ideal mother, vigilantly attentive to her daughter. Adeline's flawless maternal piety serves to heighten Mrs. Mowbray's maternal negligence. Indeed, unlike her mother, Adeline is "wholly taken up all day in nursing and in working" (187) for her daughter. And, like her mother, she too writes, yet she composes hymns and stories for children instead of "experimental philosophy" (3). Adeline does not write "for the benefit of society" (3) — that is for notoriety, as her mother does — but with the aim of being "useful to her own child as well as to the children of others" (187).

Berrendale, not fond of children, soon abandons Adeline and becomes a bigamist. Left alone, "forsaken, despised and disgraced" (203), Adeline finally is on a par with her mother and returns home to die near her, hoping that after her death Mrs. Mowbray, finally forgiving her daughter, will take in Adeline's baby Editha. In a rather strange twist of the plot, upon Adeline's return to her mother's home we learn that a female relation of Mrs. Mowbray's has come to live with her in Adeline's absence and has been sabotaging any chance of reconciliation by concealing Adeline's correspondence with her mother.

Mrs. Mowbray, in fact, long ago forgave Adeline and had been desperately searching for her. Mrs. Mowbray had learned from Mrs. Pemberton, who professes conduct-book-like principles, that Adeline's "faults originated in [her]! her education was cruelly defective" (257). Mrs. Pemberton lectures to Mrs. Mowbray, telling her that "her own vanity" and "self-love" blocked her heart from experiencing "maternal affection" (257). Mrs. Mowbray learns, most importantly, that "a child's education begins almost from the hour of its birth" (257) and that a mother ought to be to her daughter the "warning voice of judgment and experience" (258). Mrs. Pemberton actually trains Mrs. Mowbray in the conduct book precepts of motherhood.

Once back on her mother's estate, Adeline finally reconciles herself with her repentant mother and sees to it that her daughter will be cared for her after her death. She approaches her mother calmly and righteously, whereas Mrs. Mowbray repeatedly cries out, "with almost convulsive eagerness" (270), begging that "past grief be forgotten" (270). That done, Adeline and Mrs. Mowbray can comfortably slip back into their natural roles of mother and daughter. Mrs. Mowbray anxiously sits by her daughter's death-bed, finally nursing her through her last moments. In this the novel's final scene, in the presence of her surrogate-mothers Mrs. Pemberton and Savanna, and with Editha in the arms of Mrs. Mowbray, Adeline finally receives confirmation of her mother's love for her.

Here, Opie resolves the novel's main conflict. All at once, in a community of women, Adeline's perfect filial duty is finally consummated and Mrs. Mowbray's deficient maternal duty is corrected. Adeline's maternal duty is rarefied with the ultimate of sacrifices, her death, which she says is "of more service to [her] child than [her] life" (226) and Mrs. Mowbray's reform is affirmed with the transfer of baby Editha. The cycle of mis-mothering promises to end when Mrs. Mowbray swears to "love [baby Editha] as [her own] child . . . and behave to her better than [she] did to [Adeline]" (270).

Despite Mrs. Mowbray's considerable failings, Adeline is like James Fordyce's true heroine in his Sermons to Young Women. Adeline's "regard for her [mother] no unkindness of [hers] can conquer" (Fordyce 189). In fact, Adeline does indeed "promote [her mother's] reformation" (Fordyce 187). Mrs. Mowbray in fact reforms herself only "with the remembrance of her . . . daughter's benevolent example" (255). In Adeline's proclamation that one of the ways "in which a mother can be of use to her daughter . . . is by being to her in her own person an awful warning" (244) Opie, like the conduct books, suggests mothers' new accountability for their children's lives. But at the same time, because Adeline is, in fact, "an awful warning" to her mother, Opie suggests the rising status of the child within the family. Opie reverses the traditional roles of mother and daughter, locating familial authority with the daughter. While Mrs. Mowbray has been the "pupil . . . of affliction and experience" (258) and is punished with the death of her daughter for her crimes against motherhood, she is also given a second chance with her granddaughter and namesake.

Mrs. Mowbray, in effect, is given a new chance at herself. While "The Black Velvet Pelisse," "The Death-Bed," and "The Mother and Son," end with triumphant children and agonized parents, Adeline Mowbray ends with a broken (but praiseworthy) daughter and an admirably penitent mother. In Simple Tales there is the sense that crimes against motherhood are unforgivable, whereas in Adeline Mowbray faulty motherhood is redeemable. This redemption of motherhood is, in fact, brought about by the daughter. Mrs. Mowbray, tyrannical, vain, and hypocritical, is at first preoccupied with her reputation and her standing in society, while Adeline, pure of heart and selfless, cares only for individual virtue. Adeline's intervention redirects and improves Mrs. Mowbray's life. Thus, in the novel backward conventions are reformed and redeemed and individuality is accorded a new significance. In Adeline Mowbray, Opie affirms her basic faith in her era's spirit of reform and her confidence in revolution. The daughter's witch's milk purifies her mother's milk, so that mother and daughter can exist in symbiotic equality.