Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

OPIE, AMELIA (1769-1853)

OPIE, AMELIA (1769-1853), English author, daughter of James Alderson, a physician in Norwich, and was born there on the 12th of November 1769. Miss Alderson had inherited radical principles and was an ardent admirer of Horne Tooke. She was intimate with the Kembles and with Mrs Siddons, with Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1798 she married John Opie, the painter. The nine years of her married life were very happy, although her husband did not share her love of society. He encouraged her to write, and in 1801 she produced a novel entitled Father and Daughter, which showed genuine fancy and pathos. She published a volume of graceful verse in 1802; Adeline Mowbray followed in 1804, Simple Tales in 1806, Temper in 1812, Tales of Real Life in 1813, Valentine’s Eve in 1816, Tales of the Heart in 1818, and Madeline in 1822. At length, in 1825, through the influence of Joseph John Gurney, she joined the Society of Friends, and beyond a volume entitled Detraction Displayed, and contributions to periodicals, she wrote nothing more. The rest of her life was spent in travelling and in the exercise of charity. Mrs Opie retained her vivacity to the last, dying at Norwich on the 22nd of December 1853.

A Life by Miss C. L. Brightwell was published in 1854.

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

OPIE, Amelia (1769-1853) by Shelley King

The 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry on Amelia Opie—barely 200 words—might be set forth as a model of bland correctness. Based on Cecilia Lucy Brightwell’s 1854 Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie, it follows the Quaker biographer’s bias in fully downplaying Opie’s interest in radical politics in her youth and foregrounding charitable works, rather than authorship after she joined the Society of Friends in 1825; it does, however, concede her celebrated vivacity until her death. Note that even at the time of Brightwell’s publication, fellow writers decried the absence of a focus on Opie’s literary career. As Isabelle Cosgrave so amply demonstrates (Untrustworthy Reproductions and Doctored Archives: Undoing the Sins of a Victorian Biographer in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, 2013), Brightwell deliberately shapes an Opie more decorous and genteel than the one her documentary sources revealed.

Amelia Opie
Opie, John. Amelia Opie. 1798, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Although the entry enumerates most of Opie’s acknowledged publications, it curiously leaves out New Tales (1818) from its list. The 4 volumes of substantial tales contained some of her most psychologically complex characterization, especially the Confessions of an Odd-Tempered Man, which examines the psychopathology of love from a masculine perspective. It was as favourably reviewed as any other of Opie’s volumes, and offers considerable scope for the exploration of early experiments with the kind of psychological realism more familiar in later nineteenth-century fiction. More understandable, perhaps, is the omission of her works for children published by Harvey and Darton—the narrative poems The Negro Boy’s Tale (1824) and The Black Man’s Lament; or, How to Make Sugar (1826) as well as her Tales of the Pemberton Family (1825)—doubtless stemming from the relatively low status accorded the juvenile market at the turn of the 20th century. However, it is precisely the first two of these works for children that contribute to maintaining Opie’s relevance to current critics, who trace in them her sentimental abolitionism and participation in the Anti-Slavery movement. Although The Negro Boy’s Tale first appeared in that 1802 volume of graceful verses, Opie revisited the poem two decades later as a single volume, A Poem Addressed to Children. She included a lengthy preface giving a short history of the abolitionist movement, and urged her young readers to endeavour to remove all the sufferings of your Black fellow creatures. And if you look carefully at Benjamin Robert Haydon’s painting of The Anti-Slavery Society Convention of 1840, the right-hand side pictures a woman in a distinctive black Quaker bonnet—Amelia Opie in attendance and in support of the cause.

The author of the Britannica entry may be forgiven for the omission of Opie’s three works of fiction published anonymously. The Dangers of Coquetry (1790) is noteworthy both as Opie’s—or more accurately Miss Alderson’s—first published novel and as a connection with William Lane’s Minerva Press; this, perhaps, contributes to its reputation for publishing sentimental fiction by women writers. After establishing her career under her married name, Opie rarely failed to sign her work, but two novels published late in her professional life appeared anonymously: The Only Child; or, Portia Bellenden (1821) and Much to Blame, by A Celebrated Author (1824). Opie’s authorship of the latter two works was only established in 2000 following research by Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (The English Novel 1770–1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles) and the rediscovery of correspondence in which she lay claim to them.

Perhaps the most glaring absences from the Britannica entry are three volumes of poetry: after noting that She published a volume of graceful verse in 1802, the entry omits to mention the political Elegy to the Memory of the Duke of Bedford published in the same year, as well as the 1808 The Warrior’s Return and Other Poems. And of course, in keeping with the assertion that following her conversion to the Quaker faith in 1825 beyond a volume entitled Detraction Displayed, and contributions to periodicals, she wrote nothing more, no mention is made of her magnificent final volume of poetry, Lays for the Dead (1834), which collects a lifetime of work in elegy.

Finally, the entry tacitly omits perhaps the oddest of her works, Illustrations of Lying in All its Branches (1825), a curiously hybrid production combining moral essays developing a taxonomy of falsehoods, each with a companion tale purporting to be true and drawn from life. More popular in America than in Britain, it stands as a testament to Opie’s struggle to conform to the Quaker prohibition on writing fiction while celebrating the power of narrative to engage and transform the reader. When the publisher Grove and Sons reissued some of her novels in the 1840s, Illustrations was reproduced as The Stage Coach and Other Tales, bringing together the tales but omitting the moral essays that had accompanied them.

It would be safe to say that Opie’s contemporaries would not fully recognize her in the brief Britannica biographical sketch—neither in her early life, with no mention of her myriad song lyrics and collaborations with composers, no reflection on her moving performances of her songs and poems, nor on her eager participation in the celebrity culture of her day that saw her fêted in Paris and London, the guest of Lafayette, hero of the Revolution, and of Lady Cork, renowned society hostess who held pink parties for social fun and blue parties for more intellectual discussion; nor in her later life, with no recognition of her contribution to anti-slavery efforts, whether through her abolitionist poems for children or her attendance at the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. Nor would contemporary scholars recognize in the figure credited with a single volume of graceful verses one of the most prolific female poets of the Romantic era. In short, it tells a much abbreviated, much dulled down story of one of the most popular authors of her day, and a woman who, when visiting Paris in 1802, sang in her clear soprano Fall, tyrants, fall in the Boulevards of the city.

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