Alone Together All the Way
Amelia Alderson Opie's Life Journey from Self to Self
Amelia Alderson Opie's reputation has been in a state of flux for more than two hundred years. In her own eighty-four years, she was one of the most popular novelists of her time and moved in the most notorious and most fashionable circles in London and Paris, while late in her life she became a religious devotee in the Society of Friends. After her death, her reputation was revived, becoming to the Victorians an emblem of feminine propriety and Christian benevolence; her stylish life and even her literary career were virtually ignored.1 In the early part of this century, perhaps owing to the entrance of women into the academy, there was a renewed interest in Opie as an author and a revolutionary, in contradiction to the more benign Opie that the Victorians created and so esteemed.2 In the last fifty years, however, Opie has been nearly forgotten. A facsimile edition of Adeline Mowbray; or The Mother and Daughter, which has become her most well-known novel was brought forth in 1974,3 but it has only been in the last fifteen years that Opie has received sustained critical attention. A handful of articles commenting on her works have appeared and her name is mentioned in a few surveys of literature of the Romantic or revolutionary period.4 Critics today are divided between the Opie whom the Victorians created and the Opie whom was created early in this century in opposition to the Victorian Opie. Her novels are acclaimed by some as undoubtedly moral5 and by others as excitingly free-thinking.6 Still others have worked to negotiate Opie's divergent reputation and read her as caught somewhere in between, masterfully encoding her suspect revolutionary ideas in an acceptably didactic framework.7
Margaret Eliot MacGregor, the earliest scholar to look at Opie's life and work, gets at the bifurcation of Opie's self with her title: "Amelia Alderson Opie: Worldling and Friend." While recent critics have worked to make sense of this bifurcation in Opie's fiction, Opie's biographers have been little concerned with reconciling Opie's selves. They divide her life into two parts before the conversion and after the conversion and do not attempt to find continuity in her life. Perhaps they have been infected by Opie's own ambivalence about her selves. Amelia Opie, the Friend, actively sought to repress Amelia Opie, the Worldling. In a remarkable 1832 letter, Opie writes:
I had a pleasant journey down, with a most agreeable companion, who never contradicted me; had the same opinions on all subjects as myself; had read all my works, and admired them of course! who slept when I slept and woke when I did, which was at three o'clock in the morning; but at that hour my companion ceased to be agreeable, for she began to preach to me:More than just the voice of her conscience, Opie writes about her unconscious, more than half a century before Freud began to develop the concepts of psychoanalysis. Opie admits that she is haunted by her powerful doppelgänger.
'And, like the dread handwriting on the wall,
To hold past actions up to my review;'
till, at last, unable to say nay to her accusations, and overpowered by their force, I happily recollected I had a pocket edition of the Psalms with me, and Isaac Crewdson's 'Spirit of Prayer,' and I took refuge in them from my troublesome monitor, who was no other than the egregious Amelia Opie my own self. She and I came alone together all the way.8
In the same way Opie is haunted by the ghost of her past self, Opie has haunted me. I stumbled upon her for the first time in February 1994. I was a junior in college in an upper level English course which examined gender and fiction. I met her completely by accident, while researching a paper for this course and browsing the shelves of the library. I came across an attractive group of fifteen or twenty paperbacks published by Pandora Press as part of the 1980s' "Mothers of the Novel" reprints, described by Dale Spender as a series of novels of some of the "100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen." Each reprint is introduced by one of our contemporary women novelists. I pulled Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray, or the Mother and Daughter from the series off the shelf and brought it home with me mostly because Jeanette Winterson (now my second favorite novelist, after Opie) had written the intriguing introduction. I first wrote about Opie for this English course. Even with my very limited reading, in a term paper I proclaimed Opie's fictions anomalous (among British women's literature of the period). The next year I proceeded to write my undergraduate thesis on Opie's fictions. I traced the evolution of Opie's reputation and attempted to locate her writings within a socio-historical context, examining domestic history, especially touching familial relationships, especially between mothers and daughters. I have since written two more papers investigating the nexus between Opie's historical moment, her biography, and her literary ambition. The idea I once naively postulated about Opie's writings being anomalous has come to seem in the last two years more and more plausible, and more and more pervasive. I can now say with certainty that Opie's fiction is truly remarkable and I fully believe that Opie herself was remarkable.