MOTHER'S MILK AND WITCH'S MILK
Accountable Motherhood and the Rise of the Child in Amelia Opie's Revolutionary Family
Despite her connections to Norwich, England, where the "Dissenting intelligentsia centred" (Kelly EJN 5) during the time of the French Revolution and its aftermath, and despite her intimate ties with the most renowned of English Jacobins, Amelia Opie is typically read as reactionary, as a writer who didactically upheld women's "respectable" domestic tradition in literature. In her works Opie supports revolutionary principles, opposing tyranny and oppression and advocating an elimination of distinctions between men and women. But while Opie's promotion of revolutionary principles does not much resemble that of her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, Opie is not the conservative, rigorously moral writer represented by most critics for the last two hundred years. She certainly sympathized with the most revolutionary of causes, but the terrible specter of her dear friend Wollstonecraft (notoriously known during her own lifetime as "a hyena in petticoats" and after her death as a "philosophizing serpent") certainly haunted her. Within her fictions, Opie indeed fights for individual rights and an end to oppression, but she does so by instigating a subtle, but nevertheless subversive, domestic revolution.
Opie has received critical attention in fits and spurts from her own time until ours. Opie's works, though, have not been carefully read, nor do the extant readings treat her texts in a satisfying manner. Opie's ties with the English Jacobin novelists and with their revolutionary causes are many and undeniable, yet critics examining her works for the last two centuries are loath to name her a revolutionary. Those who do indeed allude to her support of revolutionism, do so with serious qualifications. For these critics her revolutionism never seems to "measure up" to that of someone like Wollstonecraft. However, Wollstonecraft's was not the only, and perhaps in the end not the best, road to revolution.
Opie published her first work in 1790 and wrote prolifically until 1824, throughout the time of the French Revolution and its aftermath. She was shaped by the era's social upheaval and responded in her works to the changes occurring around her. In her fiction, Opie primarily concerns herself with familial relationships and hierarchies. She locates her revolution within the household, making the family a sort of microcosm of society. She criticizes oppression in the form of self-seeking parents, advocating, at the same time, a new liberty for blameless children. Opie's works clearly respond to the sweeping changes occurring in family structures and domestic practices in the decades during and just after the French Revolution. Most of her works are little more than curiosities steeped in the controversial issues of the time, but Adeline Mowbray, now widely recognized as a roman à clef about the infamous relationship between Opie's revolutionary friends Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, is Opie's most notable and complex work. As the story of a young woman's personal protest against society's unreasonable principles, the novel analyzes the education which Adeline receives from her mother and details Adeline's estrangement from her mother and their eventual reconciliation. In Adeline Mowbray Opie examines the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship, making this relationship an emblem of the revolutionary turmoil occurring in her time.
Pandora Press calls Adeline Mowbray "the first novel of ideas to develop within women's fiction" (title page). To be sure, Opie stands apart from other contemporary female domestic novelists in her attention to socio-political issues. Opie's works are rife with the revolutionary-reactionary tension of the period. And although to modern readers familiar with members of the era's recognized revolutionary group (including most notably Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, and Elizabeth Inchbald) her arguments may seem exceedingly conservative, it is important to locate Opie's works in their historical context. When compared to conduct books of the time Opie's liberality is quite unmistakable. Although she retains the era's traditional concerns and values, it is my argument that Opie critiques the status quo and unquestionably promotes her own social revolution.