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


1   Overall the article in The Edinburgh Review was so favorable, that, according to Margaret Eliot MacGregor, The Critical Review accused Opie, without consequence, of writing it herself. ^ up

2   As is typical in criticism of women writers, Opie is chided by her contemporaries for her technical "incompetence." Women were not thought to possess the speculative or argumentative skills necessary to comprehend or produce works of literature. According to Gary Kelly, "women were assumed to lack the rhetorical training, intellectual range, and even technical competence (correct grammar, spelling and punctuation) necessary to the professional writer" (WW&R 10). Reviewers tended to patronize women writers and their articles on women's novels often degenerated into editorial criticism. Both The Monthly Review and The Critical Review make personal appeals to Opie's "good sense" hinting that her style is inaccurate and at times affected and inelegant. The Edinburgh Review, however, is rather less generous. She is said first to have "no great share of invention" (465) and her characters are called unoriginal, even common. More tellingly, the review proclaims, at length, that Opie

does not reason well; but she has, like most accomplished women, the talent of perceiving truth, without the process of reasoning, and of bringing it out with the facility and the effect of an obvious and natural sentiment. Her language is often inaccurate, but it is almost always graceful and harmonious. She can do nothing well that requires to be done with formality; and, therefore, has not succeeded in copying either the concentrated force of weighty and deliberate reason, or the severe and solemn dignity of majestic virtue. To make amends, however, she represents admirably every thing that is amiable, generous, and gentle (467).

In the end, though, Opie's seemingly inherent respectability overshadows her technical "inaccuracies." ^ up

3   Opie's life was indeed incredibly full of event. She was closely associated with Thomas Holcroft, Elizabeth Inchbald, and William Godwin, with whom she was perhaps romantically involved for a time. She married a favored court painter, once known as the English Rembrandt, and moved in the most fashionable circles, meeting such personalities as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, James Fenimore Cooper, Maria Edgeworth, Madame de Staël, Joseph Turner, the Prince of Wales, the Marquis de Lafayette, Letitia Buonaparte (Napoléon Mére), and Queen Marie Amélie. ^ up

4   Menzies-Wilson and Lloyd in their preface declare their intention to retell Opie's life "full of incident" and state that Opie's letters and journals "make delightful reading" (vi); indeed, their biography of Opie is itself highly readable even, at times, providing dialog. They do, however, make much of Opie's friendship with Wollstonecraft, stressing Opie's loyalty and declaring that "the intimacy between the two women was strongest at those times when Mary's actions were most censored by the world" (38). ^ up

5   This is the first of many curious, flagrant errors made in reading Adeline Mowbray. Menzies-Wilson and Lloyd likewise confuse the title; in their biography it is Adelaine Mowbray. Gregory also misconstrues an important detail in the novel's plot: he refers to Adeline's soon-to-be-husband, Berrendale, as the man "who will understand and protect her and her child" (209), but Adeline's only child, a daughter named Editha, was fathered by Berrendale and was not born until "after [Adeline] had been ten months a wife" (AM 185). More recently, B. G. MacCarthy and Claudia Johnson also mis-read Adeline Mowbray, remarkably at the same passage which troubled Gregory. MacCarthy also dates the birth of baby Editha before Adeline's marriage to Berrendale; Johnson repeatedly refers to baby Editha as Adeline's son. One wonders if these critics are reading the same texts or if they are even reading the texts at all. ^ up

6   MacGregor acknowledges Opie's interest in the trial of Horne Tooke, whom she says Opie was very anxious to meet, and her attention to all matters of French politics: she relates Opie's eagerness during her first visit to Paris in 1802 to "see 'L'Indivisibilité de la République' written on the walls" (37) and her interest during her last visit to Paris in 1829 to meet "the hero of her childhood" (103), the Marquis de Lafayette. ^ up

7   In Kelly's The English Jacobin Novel, Opie is never even mentioned; she is not connected with her friends Inchbald, Holcroft, and Godwin whom three of the four chapters discuss. Opie's husband John, however, is mentioned briefly as being a reliable adviser on art to Godwin. ^ up

8   The most recent treatment of Opie's work is Roxanne Eberle's "Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray: Diverting the Libertine Gaze; or, The Vindication of a Fallen Woman." Eberle alone writes against two hundred years of criticism, reclaiming Opie's revolutionism first by establishing Opie's association with Godwin, Holcroft, Inchbald, and Wollstonecraft and next by asserting Opie's utmost sympathy with Wollstonecraft. Adeline Mowbray, Eberle contends, is Opie's negative response to Godwin's painfully honest, "naïve and often distorted portrait of his wife" presented in his Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, which Robert Southey likened to "stripping his dead wife naked" (qtd. 126). Eberle reads Adeline Mowbray as a skillful tribute to intellectual constancy and "interdependent female unity" (146) even in the face of societal prejudices. The novel, Eberle says, subversively presents itself at once "as a conventional indictment of radical philosophy" disrupted by "alternative readings of [Adeline's] life" (140). There is, though, still some sense that Opie's revolutionism is somehow less preferable than Wollstonecraft's. ^ up

9   By recommending only "useful" literature, conduct books self-servingly created a market for themselves. Women writers, however, took their cue. Jane Spencer writes that for women writers "the novel could serve as a kind of dramatized conduct book for young women" (142). Early women's fictions were by and large instructional. Indeed, as fiction drew upon conduct books, so conduct books drew upon fiction. Mary Pilkington, in her 1799 conduct book Biography for Girls, gives her advice in the form of cautionary tales. In women's writing of this time, the boundary between fiction and instruction was murky. ^ up

10   For more than a century after its publication, other conduct books lift phrases, passages, and indeed whole chapters, from Allestree's text without acknowledgment. In fact, in 1737, The Ladies Calling was republished anonymously as The Whole Duty of a Woman (with the inclusion of several recipes) which was itself re-published (anonymously, with additions and subtractions) by William Kenrick in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. Allestree's text continued to be published as late as 1787, when it appeared in a new edition. ^ up

11   Like Allestree, many conduct book writers ally the authority of the parent with the authority of God. Wetenhall Wilkes in A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice (1748) reminds young women that "God has given [your mother] Power over you" (120); James Fordyce in his Sermons to Young Women (1766) suggests that "she who truly reverences her parent in heaven, would tremble at the thought of dishonouring his representatives on earth" (186); Hester Chapone in Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1774) says that a daughter's duty to her parents are "the first duties next to that we owe to God, and inseparably connected with it" (195). Filial disobedience, then, is akin to sacrilege. ^ up

12   This is virtually the same text as Thomas Gisborne's 1797 publication, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. ^ up

13   There also came the criticism of the practice of swaddling and the use of stays, back-boards, iron-collars, and stocks (in female children). But, of course, as wet-nursing did not immediately disappear, neither did physical restraint of children; both practices were still common enough that to advocate otherwise was revolutionary. ^ up

14   "The feet of Adeline bleeding on a new Turkey carpet proved that some clothing for the feet was necessary" (5). Mrs. Mowbray is less concerned about Adeline's wounds, than about the damage done to an expensive rug. ^ up

15   Through Mrs. Woodville's last illness, "sooth[ing] the declining hours of an aged parent . . . did not suit the habits of Mrs. Mowbray" (9) and Adeline performs these duties in her place. Mrs. Mowbray is not only deficient in her maternal duties, but in her filial duties as well. ^ up

16   Glenmurray, like Godwin, is said to be "the oracle — the head of a sect, as it were" (21) of "persons . . . [with] a passion for the bold in theory" (20-1). ^ up

17   Savanna and Mrs. Pemberton are both unconventional models of femininity. Both women are excluded from society because of their race and religion, respectively, but both women are outspoken in their beliefs. They compliment Adeline's challenge to the status quo. See Eberle for further discussion of this point. ^ up