Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Opie, Amelia

OPIE, Mrs. AMELIA (1769–1853), novelist and poet, born on 12 Nov. 1769 at Norwich, was the only child of James Alderson, M.D. (son of J. Alderson, a dissenting minister, of Lowestoft). Her mother, Amelia Briggs, was daughter of Joseph Briggs of Cossambaza up the Ganges, a member of an old Norfolk family. Dr. John Alderson [q. v.] was an uncle, and Baron Alderson her cousin. Her father was popular in Norwich, where he enjoyed a large practice as a physician. He was generous to poor patients, had literary tastes, was a radical in politics, and a unitarian in religion. Amelia, who was brought up in her father's belief, had little serious education. She learned French under John Bruckner, a Flemish clergyman settled in Norwich, and devoted some attention to music and dancing (cf. Beloe, Sexagenarian, i. 412). On 31 Dec. 1784 her mother died, and Amelia at the age of fifteen took charge of her father's house and entered local society. One of its leaders, Mrs. John Taylor [q. v.], the mother of Mrs. Sarah Austin [q. v.], proved an admirable friend and counsellor (cf. Ross, Three Generations of Englishwomen, i. 8, 9).

Miss Alderson rapidly became popular. She was good-looking and high-spirited. She sang ballads of her own composition, and gave dramatic recitations, while some poems written by her in childhood were printed in newspapers and magazines (Mrs. John Taylor's ‘Account of Mrs. Opie’ in the Cabinet, 1807). When about eighteen she wrote a tragedy entitled ‘Adelaide,’ which was acted for the amusement of her friends, she herself playing the heroine.

In 1794 Miss Alderson visited London. The excitement to be found in courts of law had already made her a regular visitor at Norwich assizes. She now attended the trials of Horne Tooke, Holcroft, and others for treason at the Old Bailey. She shared her father's radical opinions, and the prisoners had her fullest sympathy. When Horne Tooke was acquitted, she is said to have walked across the table and kissed him (Mrs. Sidgwick, Recollections of Mrs. Opie). Miss Alderson's acquaintances soon included Mrs. Barbauld, the Duc d'Aiguillon, and other French emigrants, the Kembles, and Mrs. Siddons, for whom she formed a lasting affection. Her admirers at the same time grew numerous. Godwin had met her in Norwich in 1793, and was now credited with an intention of asking her to marry him. But Miss Alderson merely regarded him as a friend, and her attachment to him was compatible with unbounded admiration for Mary Wollstonecraft. Everything that she saw for the first time disappointed her, she declared, except Mary Wollstonecraft and the Cumberland lakes (Kegan Paul, Life of Godwin, i. 158). A more serious suitor was Thomas Holcroft [q. v.] ‘Mr. Holcroft,’ she wrote, ‘has a mind to me, but he has no chance.’

It was at an evening party in London in 1797 that she first met John Opie [q. v.], the painter. He had already divorced his wife on the ground of her misconduct. According to Miss Alderson, Opie at once became her ‘avowed lover,’ and they were married on 8 May 1798 at Marylebone Church, London. The union proved wholly satisfactory, although Mrs. Opie's love of society was not shared by her husband, and occasionally produced passing differences.

With a view perhaps to fixing her attention at home, Opie encouraged her to become what she called ‘a candidate for the pleasures, the pangs, the rewards, and the penalties of authorship.’ She had published anonymously before her marriage ‘The Dangers of Coquetry,’ a novel in two volumes, but it attracted no attention. Her first acknowledged book, ‘Father and Daughter,’ appeared in 1801; it was dedicated to her father, and claimed ‘to be a simple moral tale.’ With it were printed, in the first issue, ‘The Maid of Corinth,’ a poem, and some smaller pieces. The book was warmly received. A second edition was called for in the year of its publication, and it reached a tenth or twelfth edition in 1844. The tale has pathos, the interest, although purely domestic, is sustained, and the literary style is tolerable. Sir Walter Scott cried over it, and it made Prince Hoare so wretched that he lay awake all night after reading it. The ‘Edinburgh Review’ (July 1830) called it ‘an appalling piece of domestic tragedy.’ Paer based his opera of ‘Agnese’ on it (Mayer, Women of Letters, ii. 79), and Fanny Kemble's mother took from it the plot of her play ‘Smiles and Tears’ (Frances Kemble, Records of a Girlhood, i. 10). Early in 1802 Mrs. Opie published a volume of poems which went through six editions, the last appearing in 1811. It contained several pretty songs. One of the most popular, ‘Go, youth beloved, in distant glades,’ was quoted approvingly by Sydney Smith in one of his lectures on moral philosophy at the Royal Institution (1804–5). Mrs. Opie, who was present, was surprised at the unexpected compliment. The volume also contained the most popular of all her poems, ‘The Orphan Boy’ and ‘The Felon's Address to his Child.’

In August 1802 the Opies went to Paris (cf. her account of the journey in Tait's Mag. iv. 1831). There she met Charles James Fox, Kosciusko, West, David d'Angers, and many others. She caught a glimpse of the First Consul, and saw Talma play Cain in the ‘Death of Abel.’

In 1804 she published ‘Adeline Mowbray, or the Mother and Daughter,’ a tale in three volumes, in part suggested by the history of Mary Wollstonecraft. A third edition appeared in 1810, the latest in 1844. Mackintosh (Life, i. 255) allowed the tale pathetic scenes, but judged ‘that it may as well be taken to be a satire on our prejudices in favour of marriage as on the paradoxes of sophists against it.’ In the spring of 1806 appeared ‘Simple Tales,’ in four volumes; a second edition followed in the same year, a fourth in 1815.

On 9 April 1807 Opie died, and his widow returned to Norwich, to live once more with her father, to whom she proved through life exceptionally devoted, and to participate in what Harriet Martineau unfairly denounced as the ‘nonsense and vanity’ of Norwich society (Martineau, Autobiography, i. 299). She at once prepared a memoir of her husband, which was prefixed to his ‘Lectures on Painting’ (1809); and her friend Lady Charleville encouraged her to continue her literary work. In 1818 she told Mrs. Austin that she was writing eight or ten hours a day (Ross, Three Generations of Englishwomen, i. 37). She published tales at intervals until 1822. In the spring of 1810 she revisited London. Thenceforward she spent some weeks there annually, and secured a high position in society. She numbered among her friends Sheridan, Sydney Smith, Humboldt, Mme. de Stael, Byron, Scott, and Wordsworth. She constantly dined at Lady Cork's, who was one of her intimate friends, and danced vivaciously in a pink domino at the ball given to the Duke of Wellington at Devonshire House in 1814. On Sundays her house was thronged with visitors. To offers of marriage she turned a deaf ear, but Miss Mitford declared that she was in 1814 engaged to Lord Herbert Stuart, a brother of Lord Bute (L'Estrange, Life of Miss Mitford, iii. 294). In 1816 Mrs. Opie visited Edinburgh, and stayed for a short time with Hayley in Sussex. She published in that year ‘Valentine's Eve,’ a novel in three volumes, explaining somewhat vaguely her religious views. Hayley declared that it ‘happily recommended to everyday practice the cordial lessons of simple, genuine Christianity’ (Memoirs, ii. 183). Meanwhile, at Norwich, Mrs. Opie had renewed an early intimacy with the quaker family of Gurney, and Joseph John Gurney [q. v.], whom Dean Stanley called ‘the quaker pope’ (Prothero, Life of Stanley, i. 252), obtained great influence over her. Mrs. Opie's affection for him was probably something stronger than mere friendship. In 1814 she commenced attending the Friends' religious services. Her religious opinions, although nominally unitarian, had never been very definite. The Friends' principles attracted her; and she experienced religious misgivings, which she confided to Mrs. Fry, Gurney's sister, and thereupon Gurney offered her spiritual advice (Braithwaite, The Memoirs of J. J. Gurney, i. 234–41). In December 1820 her father fell ill, and she remained in attendance on him until his death in October 1825. With his approval, she was formally received into the Society of Friends two months before (11 Aug. 1825). Dr. Alderson, at his express desire, was buried in the Friends' burying-ground at the Gildencroft, Norwich.

On joining the quakers, Mrs. Opie necessarily ceased novel-writing. Her last novel, ‘Madeline,’ was published in 1822, in two volumes. It won Southey's approval. She commenced another, but it remained unfinished. She wrote to Mrs. Fry, 6 Dec. 1823: ‘As it is possible that thou mayest have been told that a new novel from my pen, called “The Painter and his Wife,” is in the press, I wish to tell thee this is a falsehood; that my publishers advertised this only begun work unknown to me, and that I have written to say the said work is not written, nor ever will be. I must own to thee, however, that as several hundreds of it are already ordered by the trade, I have felt the sacrifice, but I do not repent of it.’ According to Miss Mitford, Mrs. Opie thus sacrificed ‘upwards of a thousand pounds copy-money’ (L'Estrange, Life of Miss Mitford, ii. 198–9). In 1823 she contributed to the ‘European Magazine’ a series of poetical epistles from Mary Queen of Scots to her uncles, a few tales, and a short memoir of Bishop Bathurst. When S. C. Hall asked her to write something for his ‘Amulet,’ she answered that her principles would only permit her to send an anecdote, which proved to be a pathetic tale, apparently ‘The Last Voyage: a true Story,’ in the volume of 1828 (Book of Memories, p. 169). In 1825 she published, in two volumes, ‘Illustrations of Lying in all its Branches,’ and in 1828 ‘Detraction Displayed.’ She had read the latter in manuscript to Gurney, and adopted his suggestions. It was praised by Archdeacon Wrangham, but Caroline Bowles found both works vulgar (Correspondence of Southey and Caroline Bowles, p. 105). The former had a large circulation in America.

Mrs. Opie now spent her time chiefly in works of charity. She visited workhouses, hospitals, and prisons, and ministered to the poor. After a sojourn in the lakes in 1826, she began to keep a diary, in which she recorded her religious thoughts, as well as details of her daily life.

She visited London every year for the May meetings, and combined with them much social gaiety. She occasionally went to Paris, where she met Lafayette, Benjamin Constant, Cuvier, Ségur, Mignet, Mme. de Genlis. In 1829 she sat to David d'Angers for a medallion. He wished her to sit to him, she stated, because her writings had made him ‘cry his eyes out.’ She atoned for dining at the Café de Paris and praising French cooks by visiting the hospitals. Resuming her work at Norwich, she took especial interest there in the Bible Society and the Anti-Slavery Society; but in 1832 she sold her Norwich house, and spent seven months in Cornwall, Opie's native county (Tregellas, Cornish Worthies, ii. 245). She stayed with the Foxes at Falmouth in December 1832 and January 1833, and joined the essay readings at Rosehill, sometimes contributing a few lines to the subject of the week.

Her last book, ‘Lays for the Dead,’ appeared in 1833. It contained poems in memory of departed relatives and friends, chiefly written in Cornwall. Despite failing health, she visited the highlands of Scotland in 1834, and in the next year took her last journey, travelling in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. An account of the first part of the trip, entitled ‘Recollections of Days in Belgium,’ appeared in ‘Tait's Magazine’ for 1840. Once again settled in Norwich (now in lodgings), she spent much time in letter-writing. She calculated that she wrote six letters a day, besides notes. She also contributed to periodicals, among others, in 1839, to ‘Finden's Tableaux,’ then edited by Miss Mitford (Friendships of M. R. Mitford, ii. 40–43). In 1840 she attended the anti-slavery convention in London, as delegate for Norwich. She sat to Haydon, who called her ‘a delightful creature,’ and appears in his picture of the meeting of the delegates, now in the National Portrait Gallery. She is on the right-hand side, the second figure in the second row, in a tall black quakeress bonnet (Taylor, Life of Haydon, 2nd edit. iii. 159). She was in London in the two following years, attending meetings, dining out, and breakfasting with Rogers. For the next four years (1842–6) she remained in Norwich, in close attendance upon an aged aunt.

Time touched Mrs. Opie lightly. In 1839 Miss Mitford called her ‘a pretty old woman’ (Letters of M. R. Mitford, 2nd ser. i. 143); Caroline Fox dined with her in 1843, and found her ‘in great force and really jolly’ (Memories of Old Friends); and Mr. S. C. Hall, who saw her in 1851, declared that time ‘had only replaced the charms of youth with the beauty of old age’ (Retrospect of a Long Life, ii. 184–7). Till almost the end she retained her love of fun, her merry laugh and ready repartee, and her faculty of telling stories to children. In 1848 she again took a house of her own at Norwich on Castle Meadow. The house has since been pulled down, but the little street at the corner of which it stood is called Opie Street. In 1849 and 1850 she indulged in her favourite amusement of attending the assizes. At the age of eighty-two she visited the great exhibition of 1851 in a wheeled chair, and meeting Miss Berry, her senior by six years, in a similar position, playfully proposed that they should have a chair race. Mrs. Opie died at Norwich at midnight, 2 Dec. 1853, after a few months of enfeebled power and partial failure of memory. She was buried on 9 Dec., in the same grave as her father, in the Friends' burying-ground at Norwich.

Mrs. Opie's poems are simple in diction. Two or three of them are deservedly found in every anthology, and one, ‘There seems a voice in every gale,’ is well known as a hymn (Julian, Dict. of Hymnology, p. 871). Her novels, which were among the first to treat exclusively of domestic life, possess pathos and some gracefulness of style, but belong essentially to the lachrymose type of fiction, and are all written to point a moral. Harriet Martineau declared that Mrs. Opie wrote ‘slowly and amidst a strenuous excitement of her sensibilities’ (Autobiography, i. 299). Sydney Smith, when returning some manuscript tales that Mrs. Opie had sent for his inspection, said ‘Tenderness is your forte, and carelessness your fault.’ Mrs. Inchbald thought Mrs. Opie cleverer than her books. After her death, Miss Mitford complained of Mrs. Opie's ‘slipshod tales and bad English,’ although in 1810 she placed her beside Miss Edgworth and Joanna Baillie. In 1822 Miss Mitford amusingly writes, before reading ‘Madeline:’ ‘One knows the usual ingredients of her tales just as one knows the component parts of plum pudding. So much common sense (for the flour), so much vulgarity (for the suet), so much love (for the sugar), so many songs (for the plums), so much wit (for the spices), so much fine binding morality (for the eggs), and so much mere mawkishness and insipidity (for the milk and water wherewith the said pudding is mixed up)’ (L'Estrange, Life of Miss Mitford, ii. 148). Moore found her tales dull and impracticable (Memoirs, ii. 269–70).

Mrs. Opie's character presents some curious contrasts. She managed to combine a love of pleasure, society, and pretty clothes with the religion of a quaker. ‘Shall I ever cease,’ she avowed, ‘to enjoy the pleasures of this world? I fear not’ (Hall, Retrospect of a Long Life, ii. 184–7). She wore the quaker garb, although she confessed to Gurney the agony of mind she endured at the thought of adopting it (Braithwaite, Gurney, i. 242); but her dress, though fawn or grey in colour, was always of rich silk or satin. Miss Sedgwick fancied that Mrs. Opie's ‘elaborate simplicity and the fashionable little train to her pretty satin gown indicated how much easier it is to adopt a theory than to change one's habits’ (Letters from Abroad, i. 98). Crabbe Robinson declared that ‘her becoming a quaker gave her a sort of éclat; yet she was not conscious, I dare say, of any unworthy motive’ (Diary, ii. 277). Harriet Martineau, who neither approved nor was greatly interested in Mrs. Opie, noted in 1839 ‘a spice of dandyism in the demure peculiarity of her dress’ (Autobiogr. iii. 202). Dr. Chalmers, however, who met her in 1833, called her a plain-looking quakeress, and could hardly reconcile her appearance with his idea of the authoress whose works he had read with delight. Her benevolence was unflagging. She conceived the idea with Mrs. Fry of reforming the internal management of hospitals, and in this was warmly encouraged by Southey (Colloquies, ii. 322). She gave material assistance to Mrs. Inchbald, and took much trouble about the subscription for Miss Mitford in 1843. She drew profile likenesses in pencil of her visitors, and carefully preserved several hundreds of the sketches. Three of these drawings, portraits of members of the Gurney family, are in the possession of J. H. Gurney.

In appearance Mrs. Opie was of average height, rather stout, and of fair complexion. She had brown hair and grey eyes. Perhaps the most pleasing portrait is that painted by her husband soon after their marriage, now in the possession of Mrs. William Sidgwick. It was engraved in 1807 to accompany Mrs. Taylor's memoir of her in the ‘Cabinet.’ There are other paintings by Opie, and many engravings. A full list will be found in John Jope Rogers's ‘Opie and his Works.’ H. P. Briggs, R.A., painted her in 1835; the picture became the property of J. H. Gurney. A very fine bust by David d'Angers, dated 1836, came, like the medallion of 1829, into the possession of Mrs. Grosvenor Woods; there is an engraving of the medallion in Miss Brightwell's ‘Life of Mrs. Opie.’

Mrs. Opie's works, other than those already noticed, were: 1. ‘An Elegy to the Memory of the Duke of Bedford,’ 1802. 2. ‘The Warrior's Return and other Poems,’ 1808. 3. ‘Temper, or Domestic Scenes,’ 3 vols. 1812. 4. ‘Tales of Real Life,’ 3 vols. 1813; 3rd edit. 1816. 5. ‘New Tales,’ 4 vols. 1818. 6. ‘Tales of the Heart,’ 4 vols. 1820. 7. ‘Tales of the Pemberton Family, for the use of Children,’ 1825. 8. ‘The Black Man's Lament, or how to make Sugar,’ 1826. In 1814 she edited Mrs. Roberts's ‘Duty,’ with a character of the author. A collected edition of her ‘Miscellaneous Tales’ appeared in 1845–7, in twelve volumes.

[The chief authority for Mrs. Opie's life is Miss Brightwell's Memorials, published in 1854. A smaller edition, treating her religious life in greater detail, was published in 1855. Neither biography can be considered satisfactory, since the larger space is given to the years after Mrs. Opie turned quaker, at fifty-six. Other authorities besides those quoted in the article are: Mrs. Thackeray Ritchie's Book of Sibyls, pp. 149–96; Allibone, vol. ii. 1458–60; Brit. Mus. Cat. Information about the visit to Cornwall has been supplied by Mrs. Howard Fox, and about the portraits and drawings by their respective owners.]

E. L.