Alone Together All the Way
Amelia Alderson Opie's Life Journey from Self to Self
In a letter of June 1824, Sir Walter Scott writes "I am sorry Mrs. O. P. has past into the next letter of the Alphabet and turned Q. I hate all conversions of mere form[;] they are usually a change of garments not the heart."31 He continues:
As you may be a little incredulous as to Mrs. Opie's conversion to Quakerism, I can attest having seen a letter from her to Southey in which she informs him of the change in her religious opinions & 'Thees & Thous' him unmercifully. . . . Mrs. Opie is sedulously bent on obtaining his friendship, & they are much together.32
Robert Southey, England's poet laureate since 1813, was indeed very much taken by Opie's conversion to the Society of Friends; he writes of her as
one who has been the liveliest of the lively, the gayest of the gay; admired for her talents by those who knew her only in her writings, and esteemed for her worth by those who were acquainted with her in the relations of private life; one who, having grown up in the laxest sect of semi-Christians, felt the necessity of vital religion, while attending upon her father, with dutiful affection, during the long and painful infirmities of his old age; and who has now joined a sect, among whose members she first found the lively faith for which her soul thirsted, not losing, in the change, her warmth of heart and cheerfulness of spirit, nor gaining by it any increase of sincerity and frankness; for with these nature had endued her; and society, even that of the great, had not corrupted them. The resolution, the activity, the genius, the benevolence, which are required for such a work, are to be found in her.33
Opie's conversion to Quakerism engendered such comment from many of her former acquaintances. Well might Scott's correspondent be incredulous at Opie's conversion. She had lived the gayest of gay lives, as Southey put it. In a 1796 letter she proudly boasts of William Godwin's attachment to her:
It would have entertained you highly to have seen him bid me farewell. He wished to salute me, but his courage failed him. 'While oft he looked back, and was loth [sic] to depart.' 'Will you give me nothing to keep for your sake, and console me during my absence,' murmured the philosopher, 'not even your slipper? I had it in my possession once, and need not have returned it!' This was true; my shoe had come off, and he had put it in his pocket for some time.34 You have no idea how gallant he has become.35
The next year in a letter she coquettishly mentions that "Mr. Holcroft too, has had a mind to me, but he has no chance."36 Indeed, the next year she was married to John Opie. In 1800, bedridden because of an injury to her foot, she writes to an intimate friend:
I enjoyed my confinement, as I was not . . . in pain. My husband was so kind as to sit with me every evening, and even to introduce his company to my bedside. No less than three beaux had the honour of a sitting in my chamber. Quite Parisian you see, but I dare not own this to some women.37
This is the past with which Opie is haunted in her journal. She recalls "slights and trials," and is repeatedly affected by "paroxysms of regret" that earlier in life she had not "employed" herself usefully. She blames her "pride of heart" and her own "vileness."
About this time, Opie remembers an event from the early years of her marriage:
We were one evening in a company consisting chiefly of men who possessed rare mental endowments, and considerable reputation, but who were led by high animal spirits and a consciousness of power to animadvert on their absent acquaintance, whether intellectual or otherwise, with an unsparing and ingenuous severity which I have rarely seen equalled, and even the learned, the witty, and the agreeable were set up like so many nine pins only to be bowled down again immediately. As we kept early hours, I knew that we should probably be the first to go away; and I sat in dread of the arrival of twelve o'clock. At length it came, and I received the usual sign from Mr. Opie; but to go, and leave ourselves at the mercy of those who remained, was a trial that I shrank from; and in a whisper I communicated my fears to my husband, and my wish to remain longer in consequence of them. An angry look, and a desire expressed aloud that I should get ready to go, was all the answer that I received; and I obeyed him. When we were in the street, he said: 'I never in my life acted from a motive so unworthy as that of fear; and this was a fear so contemptible, that I should have scorned to have acted upon it; and I am really ashamed of you.' No wonder I was ashamed of myself.38
Indeed, when Opie's other self her traveling companion preaches to her, she ranks her self among "the backbiters, the haters, and the severe animadverters on the faults of others,"39 certainly reminiscent of this evening many years earlier. And, when she censures her aged friends' and her own worldliness in her journal, she is reminded of "dress, cards" the mainstays of any ball. On February 19th, 1827, Opie wrote to her friend that
the painful past, the London past, I mean, lived before me, and I wished I had not told thee of the masquerade there, 'a charity ball' it was called. So worldlings cheat the soul's adversary! I do repent of former follies in dust and ashes.40
At such a ball, in between dances with various partners, perhaps with Godwin or Holcroft, she might have played at the card-tables set just off the dance-floor, with Inchbald, Edgeworth, and Lamb.41 Famous for her fashion-sense, she might also have appeared in a gown of "a rich purple-brown Carmelite ['a fine woollen stuff'42], and a lavender silk brocaded with white enriched with bouquets of carnations, auriculas, and jessamines the size of nature."43 And she would certainly have topped it all off with a bonnet ornamented with feathers standing out from the head at "a height of half a yard."44 But Opie could no longer indulge her vanity this way since her conversion to Quakerism. She had to adopt the "plain" style of dress, a simple gray gown. Even then, Opie still could not release her former self. She indeed wore the gray gown, but reportedly sent away to London for the finest "pale grey satin"45 and wore it with a "crisp fichu crossed over the breast, which set off to advantage the charming little plump figure with its rounded lines."46
Opie, however, was more faithful to the requirement that she give up fiction writing. She "even recalled a novel which was in the hands of her publisher, at no small loss and inconvenience to herself."47 In a March 1827 letter to a publisher, she writes:
I find that I must tell thee explicitly how impossible it is for me to write a tale for thy book or for any other
Having joined the Society of Friends, I cannot, without a breach of the duty I have taken on myself, that of conformity to their views, indulge myself in this branch of writing
But I have written a true story, that is, I have put in my own language a true . . . anecdote, which I fully believe to be true, and have finished it for thy book if thou like to insert [?] it but it does not quite fill 3 pages of letter-paper It is an interesting story, and I think it may answer thy purpose 48
She continues to inform him that she will include some poems with her "true story" in order to fill her contracted length. And she notes that, "as it is more difficult to write verse than prose,"49 she deserves the full amount that she was promised for her contribution.
Aside from the remuneration she certainly lost by no longer publishing, Opie also felt the loss of her literary pursuits. Just a few days before she wrote this letter, after a lengthy narrative in memory of her father and an expression of regret "for things done and undone, said and unsaid," she notes that she spent her day "reading an old favourite." She can only remark though that she wasted her time doing so, and was "displeased, and shocked even" at her life spent in such literary pursuit. Later, in a letter written in January 1829, she chastises her folly further:
The cold, on going out, was intense; the wind was a keen north-easter, and blew full in our faces; while I, though shuddering in the blast, ankle deep in snow, and with fingers in agony, romantically attempted to convince myself how delightful the walk was, by repeating a sonnet to winter, written in the days of my youth. But even my own fictions had not power to warm me; and as, with blue and quivering lip, I spouted my tuneful admiration of what was taking away my breath, and inflicting pain on me besides, I ended in a hearty laugh at my own absurdity.50
In these two most painful moments one emotional, one physical Opie attempted to comfort herself with the writings from her former life. She found, however, that they could no longer soothe her distress and, in fact, they only added to her discomfort.
Although Opie reads extensively in 1827, as her journal evidences, she avoids just this sort of work that might add further to her discomfort. She repeatedly mentions reading Scripture and also religious commentary. She spent a May afternoon reading the letters of Samuel Rutherford, a seventeenth century Puritan minister, who, after the restoration of Charles II, faced charges of treason for his participation in the Glorious Revolution. Still deeply in mourning after the death of her father, Opie remarks in her journal that she has lost her "earthly all" and that "the memory of his deep and ever-enduring and unselfish love is frequently recurring and clinging to me" and that the regret she feels "for omitted filial duties" can only be assuaged by her own death. She may have found special comfort from Rutherford's letter to a woman grieving at the loss of her daughter:
You can no more justly quarrel against your great Superior for taking his own, at his just term-day, than a poor farmer can complain, that his master taketh a portion of his own land to himself, when his lease is expired . . . But what! do you think her lost, when she is but sleeping in the bosom of the Almighty? Think her not absent who is in such a friend's house. Is she lost to you who is found to Christ? . . . Oh now, is she not with a dear friend, and gone higher, upon a certain hope that you shall in the resurrection see her again.51
She also notes that she read eighty pages of a book by "H. Tarford." She refers to Hugh Turford's "The grounds of a holy life: or the way by which many who were heathens came to be renowned Christians; and such as are now sinners, may come to be numbered with saints; by little preaching." Turford died more than fifty years before Opie was born, but his "Grounds of a Holy Life" was in its eleventh edition in 1788. Opie seems to have thought of her former self as such a heathen. Instead of continuing to behave like a heathen attending balls and gambling at the card tables, worrying about her dress, indulging in gossip-sessions, bragging about her romantic attachments she occupied her time, as she notes again and again in her journal, ministering to the to the sick and the poor, bringing them gifts of coquilles and oranges and cakes, and reading from the Bible to them. Perhaps she performed these good works with aspirations to be numbered with the saints.
Opie did, in 1827, also "indulge" herself in reading literary works. She mentions Anna Letitia Barbauld, specifically her poem "Behold, where breathing love divine!" otherwise known as "Hymn IV," a Christian elegy.52 She also mentions Felicia Dorothea Hemans, whose poetry, she says, breathes of "salvation and heaven." Hemans was then at the height of her popularity. Greatly influenced by Byron and the other major Romantic poets, she wrote poems in celebration of the glory of nature. One of her most popular, from 1827, was "Night-Blowing Flowers":
Call back your odours, lonely flowers,
From the night-wind call them back,
And fold your leaves till the laughing hours
Come forth on the sunbeam's track!
The lark lies couch'd in his grassy nest,
And the honey-bee is gone,
And all bright things are away to rest
Why watch ye thus alone?
Is not your world a mournful one,
When your sisters close their eyes,
And your soft breath meets not a lingering tone
Of song in the starry skies?
Take ye no joy in the dayspring's birth,
When it kindles the sparks of dew?
And the thousand strains of the forest's mirth,
Shall they gladden all but you?
Shut your sweet bells till the fawn comes out
On the sunny turf to play,
And the woodland child, with a fairy shout,
Goes dancing on his way.
Nay, let our shadowy beauty bloom
When the stars give quiet light;
And let us offer our faint perfume
On the silent shrine of night.
Call it not wasted the scent we lend
To the breeze when no step is nigh;
Oh! thus for ever the earth should send
Her grateful breath on high!
And love us as emblems, night's dewy flowers,
Of hopes unto sorrow given,
That spring through the gloom of the darkest hours,
Looking alone to Heaven!53
Having lost her "earthly all," Opie may have flattered her vanity by thinking of herself as a lonely flower in the gloom of a dark hour. But that she was a night-blooming flower would have inspired her. As a Quaker, she no longer had the opportunity to spread her leaves and send forth her odor in her fictions, but she could offer her perfume in a less public arena; she could not write for the "sunbeam," so she wrote for the "quiet light" of the stars. She still faithfully recorded her life in her journal and censures her "indolence and neglect" when she was not diligent in keeping her journal. She also shared her well-wrought letters with her family and friends. She, in fact, wrote voluminously. Within her journal, she notes that she spends several days writing letters. Many years later, in an 1849 letter, she says:
If writing were an effort to me I should not now be alive, but must have been absolument épuisée [absolutely exhausted]; and it might have been inserted in the bills of mortality "dead of letter-writing A. Opie."54
Her talent was not wasted, instead of living for worldly pursuits lending her scent to the breeze like the night-blooming flower, she looked to heaven.
In her journal for 1827, Opie is just beginning her transformation from woman of the world to religious devotee. Perhaps in the overwhelming grief she felt for her many lost loved ones and for the loss of the activities of her former life, she found comfort in the regimented life of religious devotion. At the age of fifty-eight, the residue of her former self still remained and haunted her. But in the years after her conversion to Quakerism, she folded her beautiful multi-colored butterfly wings and became a chrysalis. In the twenty-five years which still remained in her life, she would complete her transformation. As a long-time, respected member of the Society of Friends, these many years later she could climb out of her cocoon and be born again as a butterfly, this time with pure white wings, bound for heaven.
« OPIE'S JOURNAL | EPILOGUE »