Alone Together All the Way
Amelia Alderson Opie's Life Journey from Self to Self


Amelia Alderson Opie was the only child of Dr. John Alderson and his wife, Amelia Briggs. She was born in Norwich, England on November 12th, 1769. Opie's first biographer describes Amelia Briggs Alderson as "a woman of good sense and judgment [who] endeavored early to teach her child obedience and self-denial."9 But Mrs. Alderson's health was fragile and she died when her daughter was only fifteen. The young Amelia Alderson attached herself to all she had left, her father. Dr. Alderson was an eminent and well-respected physician in Norwich, known as the center of the "Dissenting intelligentsia."10 Nearby Norwich was Earlham, the home of the Gurneys, a Quaker family, with whom Dr. Alderson and his daughter had been friends for many years. Miss Alderson as a young woman read the revolutionary-republican thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and William Godwin. She shared their writings with her friend, the young Kitty Gurney. Many years later, she would remember Miss Alderson's influence on her and the other Gurney children and write that

The foundations of truth and duty, such as had existed for us before, were shaken, and we were led astray in conduct. Our opinions, which began in sentiment, had advanced to infidelity . . . we were truly in the wilderness of error.11

Miss Alderson was exposed to these writings by her father, who was in fact acquainted with Godwin. Dr. Alderson was himself a free-thinker, a Unitarian, and a member of the Norwich Corresponding Society, "a radical group based on the Jacobin clubs in France."12 When Horne Tooke, who had taken the side of the revolutionaries in America, was tried for treason in 1794, Dr. Alderson vowed to seek refuge in America if Tooke were found guilty.13

Sometime in the late 1780s, Amelia Alderson began her yearly visits to London. The young Miss Alderson, eager for her father's affection, continued to imbibe his revolutionary zeal and attended the Tooke trial in London. She wrote many letters to her father in Norwich detailing the events of the trial. Although she would later deny it, it was reported that upon Tooke's acquittal, Miss Alderson gave him a congratulatory kiss.14

In her visits to London throughout 1795 and 1796, Miss Alderson kept the company of her father's acquaintance, whom she had known since 1790, William Godwin, and his friends Thomas Holcroft and Elizabeth Inchbald. Godwin, Holcroft, and Inchbald had all been published writers since the 1780s, writing most actively in the first few years of the 1790s, when the French Revolution was at its bloodiest. By the time Miss Alderson knew them, Holcroft and Inchbald had produced a number of plays and novels, and Godwin had brought forth a novel and a philosophical work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Godwin's Political Justice was seen by many as "embodying the very essence of the radical heresies, the accepted creed of democratic opinion"15 as professed by the trio. And, like Tooke, Holcroft in 1794 had also been tried (and acquitted) on charges of treason. Today this trio are known as the foremost Jacobin — revolutionary — novelists, and their works are commonly classified as "novels of ideas." Instead of writing to amuse "love-sick girls and boys,"16 as Holcroft sneeringly suggested that his contemporaries did, Godwin, Holcroft, and Inchbald had loftier objectives. They supported the revolutionary principles of equality, justice, and freedom, and in their writings they attempted to make sense of their vastly changing time. Unapologetically polemical, Godwin's, Holcroft's, and Inchbald's works were steeped in social criticism, with roots in an optimism that with ample reform humanity might reach a state of perfection.17

Miss Alderson had already herself, in 1790, published her first novel, The Dangers of Coquetry, which was politely received. Not interested in revolutionary ideas, Alderson's novel was aimed more at instructing than at amusing lovesick boys and girls. Like many of her contemporary women writers, Alderson published her novel anonymously. In her novel, also like many of her contemporaries, she keeps to "topics and genres seen as expressions or extensions of 'woman's' subjective, domestic domain."18 Conduct-books, which explicitly lay out woman's duty, and which sell themselves on their title pages with such buzz-words as "practical" and "useful," and which advise women to aspire at all times to the utmost "respectability," were very much the model for women's novels. Alderson's first literary effort, The Dangers of Coquetry, like many other women's novels, was in fact little more than a "dramatized conduct book for young women."19

In 1796 Alderson met Godwin's infamous lover Mary Wollstonecraft, who had herself, in 1790, published her famous response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Two years later she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and two years after that published An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. Alderson was familiar with Wollstonecraft's works and had been eager to meet her. Alderson was not disappointed — she was deeply impressed with Wollstonecraft. They formed a fast friendship and Alderson enthusiastically listened to Wollstonecraft's "shocking experiences in Paris during the French Revolution."20

Wollstonecraft joined their circle formally after marrying Godwin the next year and died after complications from childbirth a few months later. After her death, Wollstonecraft was vilified for her radical beliefs. Horace Walpole referred to her as a "hyena in petticoats," Cecilia Brightwell called her a "philosophising serpent," and she was commonly likened to a prostitute. Even Godwin's publication of his wife's Memoirs added to the frenzy; the poet Robert Southey would say that in the Memoirs Godwin displayed "a want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked."21

The next year Alderson met the fashionable portraitist John Opie, often known as the English Rembrandt. He had already been married and divorced and, like a true Jacobin, was so careless in his dress that the always fashionable Alderson called him a sloven.22 Nevertheless, Alderson, anxious to get married at the ripe age of twenty-six, was impressed with his fame and affluence and married him in the spring of 1798. In the early years of their marriage, they associated with the "learned, the gay, and the fashionable."23 At the death of Wollstonecraft, Mrs. Opie had dissolved her ties with Godwin, Holcroft, and Inchbald, but after her marriage to John Opie she added some of the eminent members of the literary world — William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Robert Southey — and of the art world — Joseph Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Fuseli — to her circle of friends.

In 1801, comfortably a wife, Amelia Opie again turned toward her literary career and published The Father and Daughter, which was wildly popular for decades. Mrs. Opie tells the story of a young woman who abandons her widowed father, elopes with her lover, and returns home finally to find that her father has gone mad; the novel is wrought with pathos. The Father and Daughter was translated into French and Portuguese and became the basis for an opera and two plays.24 The dramatist Prince Hoare said that the novel "made him so wretched" he could not sleep,25 and Sir Walter Scott told Mrs. Opie that he cried over her The Father and Daughter "more than he ever cried over such things."26 Scott would later rank Mrs. Opie among the "highly-talented women [novelists], who . . . distinguished themselves advantageously."27 John Opie encouraged his wife in her literary pursuits and she published a volume of poems again in 1802; in 1805 she published Adeline Mowbray, a novel based on the relationship of her friends, the late Wollstonecraft and Godwin; and in 1806 she published Simple Tales, a collection of short stories. Like The Father and Daughter, these works are also filled with the pathetic. But in Adeline Mowbray and, to a lesser extent, in Simple Tales, Mrs. Opie displays her interest in revolutionary principles.

In April 1807, after a short, undiagnosable illness, John Opie died. Amelia Opie left London and returned to her father's house in Norwich. She returned to London frequently to attend parties and balls and also continued to write. She published another volume of poems in 1808, her husband's Memoir in 1809, and four more novels by 1818. All the while, Opie happily kept her aging father's house and cultivated a new circle of friends, including the grown-up Joseph John Gurney, by this time a Quaker minister. Gurney was critical of her writing, calling it impure and unsuitable to read aloud to ladies. Opie violently resisted his opinions, but only for a short time.28

In late 1820 Dr. Alderson fell ill and Opie nursed him devotedly throughout his five-year illness. She found the time to write her final novel which was published in 1822. But her writing could not console her during her father's long illness. Instead, she began to find comfort from Gurney and other Quakers. In 1823 Opie consulted Gurney about converting. She stopped writing fiction, began to use "plain" language not only in conversation with other Quakers, but also with strangers, and adopted Quaker dress.29 In 1825 Opie formally joined the Society of Friends, just a few months before her father died.

In the years after her father's death Opie was plagued with grief. As a Quaker, she could no longer write fiction, but she published two moral tracts, Illustrations of Lying and Detraction Displayed. She also brought forth Lays for the Dead, a volume of poems written to the many friends and family members she had lost. The most affecting is the poem written for her father. In her loneliness, Opie embraced her new religion and began to view her former life with antipathy. But, having lived such a sensational life, every day for her was a struggle to subdue her former self. She thought of herself as vile and was racked with thoughts of her own worthlessness. I begin by quoting at length from Opie's journal for the year 1827.