Alone Together All the Way
Amelia Alderson Opie's Life Journey from Self to Self
Opie's first biographer, Cecilia Brightwell takes pains to edit from Opie's life any of her potentially suspect beliefs and associations to cleanse away the residue of Opie's former self from who she would become. She writes of Opie's association with the English Jacobins:
Her own good sense and firm rectitude of principle, happily preserved her from the follies and errors into which not a few around her were led, by their extravagant zeal for a liberty which speedily degenerated into license. She too, was enthusiastic, ardent, perhaps imprudent, at least so she seems to have judged in cooler moments; but there was too much of the pure womanly character in her, to suffer her ever to sympathize with the assertors of "woman's rights," (so called;) and she was not to be spoiled even though exposed to the influence of [the] philosophising serpents, the Paines, the Tookes, and the Wollstonecrofts [sic].55
Roxanne Eberle, however, suggests that Opie could not have been impervious to the backlash unleashed against Wollstonecraft after her tragic death in 1798. Opie did write that in her life "two things only . . . had fulfilled her expectations the Lake Country and Mary Wollstonecraft."56 There was, in fact, enough intimacy between the women for Wollstonecraft to write a confessional letter to Opie in 1797. Some acquaintances of Opie's and Wollstonecraft's had broken off their friendship with Wollstonecraft after learning that she had never been married to Gilbert Imlay, the man whom they assumed was her husband because he was the father of her child. Wollstonecraft writes to Opie about this event:
I shall be sorry to resign the acquaintance of Mrs. and Mr. F. Twiss, because I respect their characters, and feel grateful for their attention; but my conduct in life must be directed by my own judgment and moral principles . . . The wound my unsuspecting heart formerly received is not healed . . . I wished, while fulfilling the duty of a mother, to have some person with similar pursuits, bound to me by affection; and beside, I earnestly desired to resign a name which seemed to disgrace me . . . I am proud perhaps, conscious of my own purity and integrity; and many circumstances in my life have contributed to excite in my bosom an indignant contempt for the forms of a world I should have bade a long good night to, had I not been a mother. Condemned then to toil my hour out, I wish to live as rationally as I can.57
Opie did not go unaffected by this letter. In the years after Wollstonecraft's death she wrote a novel based on her life. In 1805, she published the novel as Adeline Mowbray. The heroine, Adeline Mowbray, like Wollstonecraft, although free-thinking, is full of purity and integrity, and also sensitive to the barbs of society. She falls in love with Frederic Glenmurray and decides to live with him "in honor of her principles," that is, without the benefit of marriage. She is disowned by her mother and censured by society. She suffers from the beginning to the end of the novel, when at nineteen, after being reunited with her mother, she dies from exhaustion, hoping that her baby daughter does not suffer in life as she had. The novel received mixed reviews. The Monthly Review made a jab at Wollstonecraft and Godwin in its brief article on Adeline Mowbray, but to Opie's credit:
It is the intention of this work to portray the lamentable consequences, which would result from an adoption of some lax principles relative to a rejection of matrimonial forms, which have been inculcated by certain modern writers.58
But The Critical Review, in its more lengthy article, found the novel's morality suspect enough on these points to issue a warning:
We cannot avoid remarking that the effect of [the novel's] moral does not seem to have been consulted, when the state in which Adeline and Glenmurray lived was represented as perfectly happy . . . we have to object to . . . the fascinating colours thrown over the erroneous virtues of Adeline and Glenmurray, 'making . . . vice more dangerous by giving it an air of respectability.'59
Although Opie certainly could not have wished to see her late friend vilified at her hand, she also could not have wished to see her own reputation destroyed. At this time, reviewers typically evaluated women's writings on the basis of their respectability. A female author's reputation was synonymous with her fictions. Therefore, a woman writer's questionable personal respectability could cast doubt upon the most respectable work, as in the case of Wollstonecraft. Conversely, a work of questionable respectability could cast doubt upon even the most respectable woman writer's reputation. This danger to her reputation may have motivated the rest of Opie's literary career and even her life choices.
In her 1827 journal, Opie mentions having read one of Anna Letitia Barbauld's hymns. Opie would probably have been familiar with other of her poems, perhaps "The Rights of Woman," published in 1825. The poem, an ambivalent response to Wollstonecraft's Vindication, begins:
Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest;
O born to rule in partial Law's despite,
Resume thy native empire o'er the breast!
But hope not, courted idol of mankind,
On this proud eminence secure to stay;
Subduing and subdued, thou soon shalt find
Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way.
Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought,
Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move,
In Nature's school, by her soft maxims taught,
That separate rights are lost in mutual love.
Barbauld's "The Rights of Woman" is an excellent example of what had happened to the revolutionary zeal of the 1790s. The bloodiness of the French Revolution and the threat of Napoleon persuaded many that the principles of the Jacobins had gone too far. By the mid- to late-1820s, when Wollstonecraft had been dead nearly thirty years and Godwin had ceased to be revolutionary, and after the next generation of revolutionary thinkers, the Romantic poets, had died tragically Keats in 1821, Shelley in 1822, and Byron in 1824 there was a cry for stability, aimed directly at women. Traditional femininity, as Barbauld calls for, came to be a cultural fetish. Femininity was celebrated as a civilizing, even evangelical, influence in the home; woman exemplified virtue to her husband, her children, and even to servants. The Victorians would celebrate such femininity as "The Angel in the House," as defined by Coventry Patmore in 1854, the year after Opie's death.
Opie, who had been born in the middle of the Age of Johnson, died at the height of the Victorian Age. Her life began in the Enlightenment, the era which used reason to scrutinize society's norms and traditions for moral content. She lived through the Romantic period which abandoned rational principles for an enthusiasm for freedom, equality, and especially individual morality. She ended her life alone among the Victorians, who came to esteem traditional virtue and morality. Opie managed to traverse a remarkable eighty-four year journey through these vastly changing times, shaping and re-shaping her self along the way.
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