Biographical Sketches: European Magazine

European Magazine, and London Review, vol 43, May 1803, pp. 323-4.

Mrs. Opie

High in the list of those who have exalted the female character, whose works have reflected luster on the age in which they lived, and put to shame the ill-founded assertion of those who, with more of malevolence and rancour than of justice and truth, have contended for the inferiority of female intellectual endowments, must be placed the subject of the following Memoir, whose Portrait decorates our present Number.

Mrs. Opie was born at Norwich (if we are rightly informed) about the year 1772, and is the only child of Dr. Alderson, a physician of that city, in great practice, and of acknowledged talents and estimation. At an early period, Miss Alderson was distinguished by great fertility of invention, and evident marks of a superior mind; and she is even said to have composed dramatic pieces and novels, as well as poems, at an age when others have scarcely completed their education. Many of these poems, and we believe one novel, have been published without a signature; and among her dramatic works, Adelaide, a Tragedy of considerable excellence (of which an account was given in Vol. IX of this Magazine), was performed, under the sanction of her father, at Mr. Plumbtree’s private Theatre at Norwich, the 4th, and again the 6th, of January 1791. In this play, the principal parts were supported by Miss Alderson, and her friends the Miss Plumbtrees. It is an observation no less common than true, that literary life seldom abounds with incidents; and when to the pursuit of literature is added the regular and unobtrusive performance of every domestic and social duty, much cannot be expected to be left for the notice of the Biographer.

On the 8th of May 1798, Miss Alderson became the wife of the celebrated Mr. Opie, an artist certainly in the first rank of his profession, and of increasing reputation.

Mrs. Opie possesses great sweetness of countenance, and eyes beaming with intelligence and good humour; her manners are unaffected, affable, and engaging; no one has enjoyed the fascinating charms of her conversation, without regretting the time of its termination; and the melody of her voice, especially in ballad-singing, is somewhat more than skilful; it is music which reaches the heart, and must be heard to be conceived.

To speak of living merit is often a difficult, and always a delicate task: whether we censure or commend, there are readers who will be read to impute to us illiberal or unworthy motives: happy, however, is it for our present purpose, that we possess, in the writings of Mrs. Opie, ample and undoubted testimonies of the strength of her judgement, and the goodness of her heart. “The Father and the Daughter,” in [324] opposition to the fantastic fictions which have disgraced the regions of romance, this amiable writer professes to be–a tale, founded in simple nature; as such, perhaps, there never was a composition so admirably calculated to rouse the passions in the cause of virtue, and to correct that false sensibility, that degenerating excess of sentiment, which have been proved to be incompatible with the real interests of humanity. The concluding sentences of this pathetic and deeply-affecting story cannot be too often impressed upon young minds; they breathe the purest spirit of philanthropy and good sense. As a proof of the high esteem in which “The Father and the Daughter” is held, it has not only had a very extensive circulation in this country, but has been twice translated into the French language. Mrs. Opie’s Poems are generally characterized by sweetness, simplicity, and pathos; her songs are exquisitely tender, and will help, in no trifling degree, to rescue this species of poetry from the neglect into which it has unhappily fallen. The stanzas “Under Æolus’ Harp” have probably not been equaled since the days of Thompson; and “The Maid of Corinth” will be read with attention and interest, as long as simple and natural expression shall have power upon the mind. Numberless are the occasions on which Mrs. Opie has exerted her talents for the benefit or consolation of the distressed. With these views, many of her poems have been expressly composed; and the “Orphan, and Negro Boy’s Tales,” “The Dying Daughter’s Address to her Mother,” and “The Felon’s Address of his Child,” are monuments of her feeling and benevolence, which cannot be too highly praised. Of Mrs. Opie’s single pieces, her Elegiac “Verses on the Death of the Duke of Bedford,” written on the evening of his interment in March 1802, are best known: they abound in pathos and delicacy of sentiment, and have not been read with inferior pleasure, from bearing the appearance of less study, and of being written upon the generous impulse of the moment. The following lines, written by Mrs. Opie, and sung some years since for the benefit of the widow of Mr. Sharpe, at Chapel-field house, Norwich, are worthy of more notice than they seem to have received: we do not find them included either in the volume of Poems Mrs. Opie has published, or among those inserted in the first edition of the volume, which contains “The Father and the Daughter.”

            “Cold are the lips whose gentle force
The reed to sweetest strains compell’d;
Hush’d is the breath whose ready course,
In lengthen’d tone, the cadence swell’d.

            Lov’d child of feeling! now no more
Thy tones the soul of taste shall feed;
And we, in Music’s brightest hour,
Shall sigh, and miss thy tuneful reed.

            With thee, to our neglectful plains,
The soul of genuine music came;
Taste, genius, fir’d us in thy strains,
While all thy precepts fann’d the flame.

            But short the boast–those strains so dear
No more the choral song shall lead–
Yet still in grateful memory’s ear
Will sweetly sound thy tuneful reed.

            As Mrs. Opie’s writings have invariably been well received by the Public, perhaps we cannot better conclude this short tribute to her good fame, than by recommending a complete collection and republication of her works, the greater part of which, it is to be feared, unless these means be adopted, will glide into obscurity and neglect with the mass of inferior productions among which they are now scattered and concealed.

Biographical Sketches