Biographical Sketches: The Art-Journal

The Art-Journal, ns, vol. 6, 1854, pp. 26-7.

Memories of Amelia Opie
By Mrs. S. C. Hall

The foot-marks of the old year have been pressed on many new-made graves; pestilence has been with us, and the “green churchyard” tells truly of a sickly season; the young–those to whom life was all sunshine–have been stricken down; strong men and blooming women have solved the great mystery of the “hereafter,” and are no more seen among us; from afar comes the clangour of the trumpet, and the Moslem and the Frank have encountered each other in deadly combat. The year has passed with more than usual rapidity–as all years seem to do, as we advance in life–but much individual sorrow has attended its progress, and numbers who rejoiced in the many-coloured gaieties of the Christmas preceding, have, during the high festival of the past year, been clothed in sackcloth, and mingled their cup with tears. Among others who have been “removed,” even during the last month of the desolate old year, was one, whose name we have loved from the time we were permitted to read her “Simple Stories,” and who was popular as an author before we were born.

AMELIA OPIE was the daughter of Dr. Alderson of Norwich, the widow of Opie, the painter; but she is better known, and will be longer remembered, as the author of some “here and there” poems, of much expression and tenderness, of one Novellette, “The Father and Daughter,” which after the lapse of half a century maintains its position in our literature, and a series of true and valiant tales “Illustrations of Lying,” which still act as key-notes to the frauds of society. We particularize these among many productions of this accomplished woman, only because we know them best, and believe they are the best known of the much she wrote. Mrs. Opie was a large contributor to some, indeed almost all the annuals, in their palmist days. “Thou knowest–or thou ought to know”–she wrote at the commencement of our correspondence in the year 1827, “that since I became a Friend, I am not free to what is called ‘make a story,’ but I will write a fact for thy annual, or any little matters of history, or truth, or a poem if thou wishest, but I must not write pure fiction, I must not lie, and say, ‘so and so occurred,’ or ‘such and such a thing took place’ when it did not; do’st though understand me?” but we did not quite understand her, nevertheless, although that correspondence brought about an acquaintance, which ripened into a cordiality, only chilled by Death! We never did, as we confess, understand the delicate distinction which Mrs. Opie made between fact and fiction; we were only convinced of one thing, that she believed in it herself; she earnestly and truly believed she was simply writing a fact, when it was evident to others she had taken the smallest possible ground to take her data from, and then illustrated and embellished it according to her own lively and overflowing imagination, which she must always have had “hard work” to keep within moderate bounds. We have heard that in her early days she was one of the most lovely and brilliant women in her native county; and Norwich, the city of her birth and death, was proud of her wit and beauty. She was perfect as a musician according to the simple “perfecting” of those days, and sung with power and sweetness the music then in vogue; the “Sally in Our Alley,” and the “Savourneen Deelish,” the soprano songs in “Love in a Village,” in “The Beggar’s Opera,” and “Artaxerxes” and added to this fascinating accomplishment, a knowledge of, and affection for Art, which doubtless led to her marriage with Mr. Opie, who (apart from his art) seemed the last man likely to make an impression upon the heart of a gay, a beautiful, and a refined woman. She was happy in this wedded life of her own choice; and the biography she wrote of her husband she considered a failure, only because she had “not done justice to his talents or his virtues.” Our first interview with Mrs. Opie was in the house of her cousin Mr. Briggs, the late Royal Academician, who resided in Bruton Street. This was some time after she had renounced music, the pomps and vanities, and usual female adornments of the world, and became, as she remained to the last, a member of the “Society of Friends.” Mrs. Opie was seen to great advantage in the house of this much-loved relative; he had married his cousin, and intelligent and graceful woman, and to both Mr. and Mrs. Briggs, Mrs. Opie was attached with the warmth and devotion inseparable from her enthusiastic nature. Her appearance was, despite a certain clearness approaching severity in her quick blue eye, exceedingly prepossessing; there was a coquettish simplicity in the folds of the pure white kerchief that was skillfully arranged over a silver grey dress of the plainest make and richest fabric, and her exquisite cap was composed of the clearest and whitest gauze, the border delicately crimped over hair not then grey. Her carriage was erect, her step firm and rapid; her manner decided; her voice low and sweet in tone, her smile perfect sunshine. She “flirted” a fan with the ease and grace of a Spanish lady, and if her bright, enquiring, and restless eyes, made you rather nervous at a first interview, the charm of her smile and the winning grace of her manner, placed you more at ease after a few minutes’ conversation than on your introduction you ever imagined you could have been. Still the incessant sparkling of those quick blue eyes told–
—–“that e’en in the tranquillest climes,
Light breezes might ruffle the flowers sometimes;”
Yet when we met in after years the restless manner was much calmed; as the face became less beautiful it became more soft, less commanding, but more loveable. Like a valuable picture, Mrs. Opie was improved by age–however impossible that may seem, when we write of women.

Mrs. Opie’s society was eagerly sought for by the most enlightened persons of the age; to name her friends would be but to catalogue the most remarkable of those who are interwoven with the history of our times. She was earnestly and sincerely philanthropic; her name was not frequently seen in the list of subscribers to public charities; but when a tale of want or sorrow was told to Mrs. Opie, tears rapidly twinkled in her blue eyes, and gradually those pretty hands, which were demurely folded quaker-fashion, would unclasp, and presently the right one found its way through the ample folds of her dress to her purse, from which she gave with frank liberality. Her politics had the firm decided tone of her adopted people, and she expressed them without reserve, and not always without bitterness.

Soon after the “Three glorious days” which formed one of the frequent eras in the history of the domestic revolutions of our neighbours, who are so boastful of a liberty which evaporates more rapidly in France than in any other country, we had the good fortune to be in Paris; we say “good fortune,” because Paris was then in the full blaze of a triumph that succeeded a successful struggle. The bullet-marks were still fresh upon the house; the bon-bons were cannon-balls; and the little children blew trumpets, beat drums, carried flags, marched in columns and formed squares, with a degree of pleasure and precision to which no English-born child could by any possibility attain, or would ever dream of attempting. At that time Mrs. Opie occupied an entresol in the Hôtel de la Paix; and a servant with something of the appearance of a sobered-down soldier in his dress and deportment, waited in the ante-room of the Quaker-lady to announce her visitors. Singularly enough, Mrs. Opie was never more at home than in Paris, where her dress in the streets as well as at the various reunions at which she assisted, attracted much attention and curiosity–the Parisians believing she belonged to some religious order akin to the Sisters of Charity. There Mrs. Opie did not make a distinction we always fancied bore some relation to that between “fact and fiction.” In London she always shook her head, and drew herself, if possible, a little more upright than usual, when pressed to spend an evening in society–“No, no, I never, I thank thee, go out of an evening; I go to breakfasts or dinners, but not to evening parties; no, I thank thee, I go to no PARTIES;” but it really was only the hour she objected to, for she never cared how large the breakfast or dinner “party” was, and frequently did not retire early from the latter, enjoying music (without saying so)as keenly as if she had never concealed “the organ” beneath a Quaker-bonnet. In Paris Mrs. Opie was one of the lights of the liberal and aristocratic, soirées. One evening we met her in the circle at the Baron Cuvier’s, where the Bourbonists were certain to congregate, and where the Baron’s magnificent head “stood out” like the head of Imperial Jove. At one moment she was discussing some point of natural history with the great naturalist; the next, talking over the affairs of America with Fenimore Cooper, who, however he disliked England, was always kindly and courteous to the English in Paris; the next, explaining in very good English-French to some sentimental girl, “who craved her blessing and called her Mère,” that she never was, and never would be a nun, that she belonged to no such laborious, useful, or self-denying order, as the Soeurs de Charité; and at the close of the evening, when, in compliment to the English present, a table covered with a white cloth, and tea was made and kindly poured out by Madame Cuvier’s daughter, Mrs. Opie was certainly one of the pillars of the tea-table, laughing and listening (she never could have been so universally popular had she not been a good listener), and being to perfection the elderly English lady, tinged with the softest blue, and vivified by the graceful influence of Parisian society. On the succeeding evening, we met our Quaker countrywoman as much at home, with General La Fayette, in his Republican little brick-floored rooms, as she had been on the previous night at the Jardin des Plantes, in the splendid salon of the Baron Cuvier.

The gathering at La Fayette’s is never to be forgotten by us; the General himself was (no matter how we regarded his politics) a most remarkable and most deeply interesting man, he was at that time, (in 1831), worn down, with much of his fire quenched–resembling rather a patriarch than a soldier. The rooms were crowded, and in the crowd was Fenimore Cooper, more at home with the Republicans, warmer and more genial than he had been on the previous evening, where the society was courtly and constrained. All the remarkable men of that party were there, and all seemed agitated by something going forward, which was at first incomprehensible to us. La Fayette stood in an inner room, conversing with a staff of old friends, who appeared privileged to crowd around him; but every five or six minutes the circle opened–a youth in a foreign uniform approached, the old man pressed his hands, looked earnestly and affectionately into his face, addressed to him a few words in a low tone, and then the youth bent and kissed his hand, some even knelt and craved his blessing, and he dismissed them with a sentence, “Ah, Le bon Dieu vous benit, mon fils!” or “Allez à la gloire!” or “Vive la Patrie!” One, a fine handsome fellow, more than six feet high, the General embraced and kissed; tears rushed to his eyes, and twice when the young man knelt, he raised him and pressed him to his heart. Mrs. Opie wept, as indeed many did, who hardly comprehended the cause either of the reception or the parting, but we soon learned that the youth was the son of a distinguished Polish officer, who had fallen in defending his country, and that he was going to Poland with his countrymen to renew the struggle–that all those who so craved the blessing of La Fayette were Poles, all resolved to conquer or die, all to leave Paris at the dawn of the following day; and they did so, and in six weeks all those young hearts had ceased to beat–
–“Their last fight fought–
Their deeds of glory done:”
Indeed, the meeting was a singularly solemn one for Paris; even when the little ceremony was concluded, there was so much serious matter connected with Poland to think of and talk about, so much anxiety as to the result of the struggle, the young “braves” excited so much interest, and La Fayette appeared so over-powered, that we withdrew earlier than usual, leaving Mrs. Opie walking through the rooms, in earnest and animated conversation with, and leaning on the arm of, a six-foot Pole.* [*We make it a rule to destroy every letter where the contents are such as the writer, even after death, would not like the public eye to rest upon, but we still have many of Mrs. Opie’s letters, that are preserved as tokens of one we both respected and loved–one is now before us, where she alludes to this remarkable evening” “Well do I remember thee and thy husband at Paris in 1831, after the revolution; I was there six months and a half, living in the Hôtel de la Paix by myself. Those six months were full of enjoyment. What happy days I passed a La Grange, with the Lafayettes.”] Her knowledge of foreign literature was extensive, and more frequently within the last five years we received little notes in her clear small hand, written without spectacles, when she fell in with a book which afforded her peculiar pleasure and amusement. “The Caxtons” she preferred to all the novel from the fertile pen of the highly gifted author, and often spoke of her acquaintance with his mother; she was fond of recalling all the celebrated friends of her early life, and yet cherished the most genuine admiration for our modern authors. In another note, dated 1851, she says, “I am now reading Household Words for the first time, a friend has lent me the whole together (as far as it has gone) and I am so fascinated: I don’t know how to lay the work down.” It was delightful at all times to receive her letters; her feelings were so well expressed, her criticisms (she hardly ever wrote of what she did not admire) were so overflowing with kindness. She felt so much pleasure in giving praise that she never appeared happy until she had poured forth all she thought to those whom she well knew would sympathise with her.

The last time we saw Mrs. Opie was, we believe, in 1849, at a private view of the Royal Academy. She had come up as usual to the “May Meeting,” and never of course missed the sight she loved so well. She was looking as bright and interesting as ever, but she was very lame, and moved with difficulty, if not with pain, from one seat to another. She suddenly left off talking of pictures to speak of Jenny Lind, whom she had learned to love from her close friendship with the late Bishop of Norwich, as well as from public report. “She has the voice of an angel,” said the old lady with all her usual warmth of manner, “and no wonder: all she sings, and says and does, is inspired by heaven.–Now keep away from me, do, she said, half petulantly, half playfully, when, as usual, friends came up to present strangers, “keep away, I will not be interrupted, I am talking of Jenny Lind.”* [* In one of her letters after her return to Norwich, she writes.–“I think it is a week to day since I wrote to Jenny Lind, and sent her a description of the dear Bishop’s grave; it is covered by a large black marble slab, with a deep border round of variegated marble, the colours black and grey. He lies in the middle of the great aisle of the Cathedral, and when the painted glass window, as a memorial to his memory, is finished, and placed over the great western gates of entrance, it is thought that the rays of the setting sun, on which he loved to gaze, will shine upon the stone that covers his dear remains.”] Mrs. Opie’s affections were unchanging, and she clung to Norwich to the last with the most intense affection; at the age of eighty-three it may be believed that she had survived all her old friendships, but she had the happy fortune of finding friends amongst the young; her large sympathy was always in action, and she received visitors long after she had ceased to leave her pretty home on the Castle Meadows. She went in1849 to reside in the house in which she died. She seemed so charmed with this new residence, that her account of it is worth transcribing; we had informed her of our own migration from town to country, and her reply ran thus:–
“My dear kind friend,
“I too have taken a leas of a new abode, a lease for two years only, renewable I hope at the end of that time, if I live so long, as it is a small house, in my opinion charmingly situated; a road (not a street) runs beneath my windows which are to the south, with a point to the west, by that means I catch the radiance of the setting sun on the turrets and walls of our noble castle, on which I look in a direct line; it stands on a highish hill, and round the top of the green keep runs an iron rail, behind which I see persons of all ages promenading for air and exercise.
“I had long wished for this little residence; the view is a constant delight to me; my rooms are rather too small, but my sitting rooms and chamber being en suite, they suit a lame body, as I now am; and below I have three parlours, two kitchens and a pretty garden. The second floor commands Norwich and the adjacent country, but this is thrown away on me. I have seen it, and that is enough; the noble trees, flowering shrubs, and fine acacias, towards which I am daily looking, surround the noble old castle keep, and have to me an unfailing charm.
“The road which runs under my window leads to the Station, and I have seen many groups of le tiers ètat, hastening along, evidently to the Monday cheap train to London; it is a pleasant sight! The wind is rather high, and the trees I have told the of, are waving and bending their light branches so gracefully and invitingly before me, that I could almost fancy they were bowing to me, and get up to return the compliment however gauchely. After this extraordinary flight of fancy, it is necessary that I should pause awhile to recover it, so farewell! Thy loving friend,

In another of those frank cheerful letters she wrote so frequently to her friends, she told us she was the only child of James Alderson, M.D., of Norwich, and Amelia Briggs, who were married at Norwich; thus, having no children herself by Mr. Opie, whom she survived nearly fifty years, the line is ended! It is extraordinary how many celebrated “lines” have become extinct in our days.

Mrs. Opie was married in 1784, she continued to write till 1834, when her “Lays for the Dead”* [*In a letter dated 2nd mo., 27, 1832, she writes “I am engaged in preparing for the press, a little volume of ‘Lays for the Dead,’ containing many pieces never printed, and some that have appeared in annuals of past years; they will be in their order from the year 1813 to the present time: and as every on has, in turn, lost some dear relative, or friend, I hope that, however unable the power of the hand that touches the lyre on the occasion, some of the chords will vibrate to the hearts of some of my readers.”] issued from the press, and though her interest in literature continued unabated during the remainder of her life, still she published no connected work after 1834. she never lost her zest for society, and her friends were certain of a cordial greeting whenever she was able to receive them.

She died in the full possession of those clear and admirable faculties which rendered her one of the most remarkable women of her time, and it is no small evidence of her qualities–of the heart, as well as of the head–to say that al the young who knew her, regret her as they would a chosen friend and companion. Norwich has lost one of its attractions, for many made pilgrimage (especially from the New World) to the shrine of this brilliant but true-hearted woman, whose enthusiasm overthrew time, and outlived the decay of life itself.

Mrs. Opie’s nature was most essentially feminine. It was feminine in its gifts–in its graces–in its strength–in its weakness–in its generosity. She was without a particle of jealousy, and her colour rose and her eyes sparkled while she bestowed warm and earnest, if not always critically judicious, praise, on what she admired. She would have made a heroine, and died in a cause she believed right and righteous, but she could never have been guilty of the vulgarity of modern bloomerism; she honoured her sex and its peculiar virtues too much to wish it unsexed. The sensitive delicacy of her mind was evident, not only in her writings but in her words and deportment, and it was impossible for the young to have a better guide or a more excellent example; her manners would have graced a court and not encumbered a cottage.

Biographical Sketches