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


i. Contemporary

The last two centuries have shown Amelia Opie's literary reputation moving in and out of obscurity. She was one of the most popular and prolific fiction writers of her day. Her popularity has since resurged through three phases of revival: the first occurred at the end of her own life and the most recent is still continuing. In his article on Charlotte Smith in Lives of the Novelists (1827), Walter Scott ranked Opie among the "highly-talented women [novelists], who . . . distinguished themselves advantageously" (190). Opie herself remembered meeting Scott, writing that he had said that he cried over her first novel "more than he ever cried over such things" (Brightwell 175).

Opie's contemporary reviewers responded similarly. Both The Edinburgh Review1 and The Critical Review praised Adeline Mowbray for its finely-wrought pathos. In addition, reviewers commended her for her respectability, reading her as a writer possessed of "good sense" (Monthly Review 320) whose works are "perfectly unobjectionable on the score of morality" (Edinburgh Review 470) and are presented in "defence of the good old cause" (Critical Review 220). Indeed, Opie was read as a strict moralist, railing against the liberal views "inculcated by certain modern writers" (Monthly Review 321). The Edinburgh Review, however, questions Opie's morality, but only for its utility: "she is too pathetic, to be read with much advantage to practical morality" (471 emphasis added). The Critical Review, however, presents somewhat stronger reservations as to Opie's morality and intentions and objects to "the fascinating colours thrown over the erroneous virtues of [the lovers] Adeline and Glenmurray, 'making . . . vice more dangerous by giving it an air of respectability'" (219-20). But the article still remarks that Opie does "honour to her sex and country" (219).2

In her own time Opie's was considered a rather benign voice in literature. Her writings were widely read and widely praised. The worst criticism Opie received was that her writings, while "very amiable and very beautiful . . . can be of no great use in training ordinary mortals to ordinary duties" (Edinburgh Review 471). Remarkably, none of Opie's contemporary reviewers seem to recognize a correlation between the lives of Opie's title character Adeline Mowbray and Wollstonecraft. Opie's aforementioned "good sense" and acclaimed "uncommon talents" (Critical Review 219) are perhaps what preserved her from censure. Opie's respectability was so well refined that an association with the questionable beliefs of the English Jacobins seemed impossible.

ii. Victorian

In the Victorian era, Opie's respectability was promoted and glorified. The popular conception of Opie as a highly conservative writer is greatly owing to Cecilia Brightwell's Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie, published in 1854, the year after Opie's death. Brightwell carefully and extensively edits some of Opie's letters, "with the intention of portraying Opie as an eminently proper 'lady writer'" (Eberle 148n). She even revises the very history of Opie's life. Indeed, Brightwell emphasizes Opie's "good sense and firm rectitude of principle" and separates her from the revolutionaries with "their extravagant zeal for a liberty which speedily degenerated into license" (41). She acknowledges, though, that Opie was at times "enthusiastic, ardent, perhaps imprudent" but finally asserts unequivocally that because of her respectability she could not have sympathized with the English Jacobins and that she was not "spoiled even though exposed to the influence of Horace Walpole's 'philosophising serpents, the Paines, the Tookes, and the Wollstonecrofts' [sic]" (41). Of course, Brightwell acknowledges no friendship between Opie and the still disreputable Wollstonecraft, whom she calls "a strange incomprehensible woman" (59). In fact, Brightwell takes pains to edit out any of Opie's potentially suspect beliefs to preserve intact Opie's highly respectable reputation. Nearly thirty years after the furor that Wollstonecraft had created subsided, Ann-Isabella Thackeray Ritchie published A Book of Sibyls discussing the lives of Mrs. Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, Opie, and Jane Austen and portraying them as the rather simple predecessors of the "noble and brilliant writers who were to follow them" (150) in the Victorian era. Ritchie, writing that "the authoresses of heroines are often more interesting than the heroines themselves [and] . . . Amelia Opie was certainly no exception to this somewhat general statement" (152), devotes herself principally to detailing Opie's eventful and fashionable life.3 Eventually, though, she briefly addresses herself to Adeline Mowbray, which she calls "a melancholy and curious story, which seems to have been partly suggested by that of poor Mary Wollstonecraft, whose prejudices the heroine shares and expiates by a fate hardly less pathetic than that of Mary herself" (177). Ritchie refers to Wollstonecraft as a "mistaken but noble and devoted woman" and calls Opie, without reproach, "no ungenerous advocate" (177) on her behalf. Ritchie further describes Opie's Simple Tales as "artless, graceful, [and] written with an innocent good faith" (184), stating that Opie's highly genteel personal charm, and not her works themselves, accounts for her popularity. Brightwell and Ritchie primarily critique Opie's personal reputation, scarcely mentioning her professional accomplishments. For them Opie as a novelist is secondary to Opie as a personality. Brightwell and Ritchie, in their works, pass down the legend of Opie's exciting life and respectable reputation.

iii. Modern

Beginning in the early twentieth century, criticism of Opie's writings became more serious and underwent something of a revision. Treatments of Opie's works became more scholarly, but still retained something of the Victorian interest in incident. In 1911, Ada Earland wrote her biography of Opie's husband, devoting several chapters to Opie herself still because of Earland's self-proclaimed fascination with "the winsome charm of [Opie's] celebrated wife" (vii). And in 1937 Jacobine Menzies-Wilson and Helen Lloyd presented Amelia: The Tale of a Plain Friend a mostly anecdotal reworking of Brightwell's Memorials.4 But in 1915, Allene Gregory devoted a chapter to Opie in his The French Revolution and the English Novel, addressing for the first time Opie's political beliefs. Gregory wrote that "all [of Opie's writings] contain some expression of her liberal political belief (one can hardly call anything so gentle Revolutionism)" (207). Indeed, Gregory emphasizes her "gentle good sense" (210) and says that "her real interest is in . . . the domestic virtues, like the Typical Lady Novelist she is" (212-13). He observes that Adelina Mowbray, as he refers to the novel,5 is one of two of Opie's works "in which Revolutionism plays the most important rôle" (208), but continues to assert that the novel is "opposed to Pure Reason absurdities" (210), as professed by the revolutionaries. Margaret Eliot MacGregor, in Amelia Alderson Opie: Worldling and Friend, although marginally interested in Opie's fashionable reputation, presented the first truly scholarly treatment of Opie's professional career and her political influences. The second section of this book, entitled "Amelia Alderson and the Revolutionary Group," refers to Godwin, Holcroft, and Inchbald as Opie's "intimate friends" (19). She continues, saying that when Opie met Wollstonecraft in 1796, they became "fast friends" and that Opie "was deeply impressed" (22) by Wollstonecraft.6 She also addresses herself to the previous receptions of Opie, citing the reviews of Opie's works in The Monthly Review, The Critical Review, and The Edinburgh Review. In the early twentieth-century, Gregory and MacGregor provided the first scholarly studies of Opie and her work, but while Opie's contemporary reviewers' preoccupation with respectability had virtually disappeared, remnants of the Victorian's interest in incident, in the works of Earland and Menzies-Wilson and Lloyd, still remained.

iv. Current

Opie again has been revived in the last decade and a half. Although in 1994 B. G. MacCarthy plainly stated that "Mrs Opie's novels . . . are anti-Revolutionary" and that "her didactic purpose is primarily moral" (442), most recent critics discuss the revolutionary-reactionary tensions in Opie's works. Gary Kelly suggests that there is "a lack of congruity between what [Opie's] tales preach and what they are interested in" and argues that the tales "profess one thing, and practice another" ("Discharging Debts" 201). According to Claudia Johnson, Opie's novels "ride on the waves of reaction [and] are decidedly unenthusiastic about the forms they appear to advocate" (12). Likewise, Eleanor Ty writes that while at first Adeline Mowbray seems to be "an anti-Jacobin text against the new 'philosophy,' several other elements in the text reveal a contradictory view, an underlying sympathy for revolutionary advocates" (29). But Kelly,7 Johnson, and Ty associate Opie with domestic novelists including Lady Caroline Lamb, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Brunton, Ann Radcliffe, and Elizabeth Hamilton, distinguishing her and these writers from the more traditionally recognized revolutionary writers including Mary Hays, Wollstonecraft, Inchbald, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, and Helen Maria Williams. Ty explains the tensions in Opie's works between "the Burkean and the radical beliefs" as Opie's reluctance "to declare [her] political affiliation with a cause which was becoming notorious" (19). These critics characterize Opie as a sort of armchair revolutionary. In their accounts, she attempts revolutionism, but finally remains too timid to speak out. 8

In her fictions, Opie indeed does not speak out to the degree to which, for example, Wollstonecraft does in her overtly political writings. Opie's texts, located in the domestic realm, do however explore socio-political issues. In the era of the French Revolution and its aftermath the private was becoming overtly political. Read against the highly traditional conduct books of the time, Opie's domestic fictions can be seen to critique the status quo and her advocacy of revolutionism becomes clear.