Biographical Sketches: The Atheneum

The Atheneum, vol. 1363, December 10, 1853, p. 1483.

Mrs. Opie

The death of Amelia Opie, aged eighty-five, is one among the thick-coming mementos which mark not merely the flight of Time, but the quality of popular fame. In her day, the part played by Mrs. Opie was not an obscure one.–She was first known in her birthplace, Norwich, as the beautiful and accomplished daughter of Dr. Alderson, a physician of that cathedral town–and this at a time when Norwich possessed other local celebrities besides herself. Subsequently, as the fascinating second wife of the “Cornish wonder,” Mrs. Opie, by her grace and musical talents, drew a circle round her in London, only broken up by the untimely death of her husband, the Painter, in 1807. This social reputation, too, was largely helped–nay, in the first instance, perhaps, created–by the attention which Mrs. Opie excited as a novelist. She was sought and prized as one of the women of genius of her time–and the list included Harriet Lee, Charlotte Smith, Madame D’Arblay, Mrs. Inchbald, the Porters, Lady Morgan, Miss Edgeworth, and Anne Radcliffe:–most of these pioneers, if not positive inventors in fiction,–who opened in Romance, historical and supernatural, in Domestic fiction, and in the National tale,–paths that the proudest men (as Sir Walter Scott bears witness for us) were only too glad to follow further, when their turn and time of appeal to the public came. Were they now published, Mrs. Opie’s ‘Simple Tales,’ her ‘Tales of the Heart,’ her ‘Father and Daughter’ (the most popular, perhaps, of her novels) would be thought to want both body and soul;–to be poor as regards invention, slight in manner–unreal in sentiment,–and they are so, if they be tried against the best writings by the authors of ‘the Admiral’s Daughter,’ and ‘Mary Barton,’ and ‘Jane Eyre.’ In their day, however, they were cherished, and wept over, as moving and truthful. They won for their authoress a Continental reputation; and one of them, ‘The Father and Daughter,’ in its translated and dramatized form as the opera ‘Agnese,’ with Paër’s expressive music (some of Paër’s best) and Ambrogetti’s harrowing personation of the principal character, will connect Amelia Opie’s name with Opera so long as the chronicles of Music shall be written.

In these pursuits, accomplishments and successes the girlhood, married life, and first years of widowhood of Amelia Opie passed over. Then came a change: strange, though not without its parallel in the history of women of beauty, genius, and social success. She became tired of the world, its pomps, pleasures, and vanities,–and, attracted, it is believed, by the influence exercised over her mind by Mr. Joseph John Gurney, of Earlham, (the brother of Mrs. Fry, and one of the most learned and refined of Quakers,) Amelia Opie sought and obtained a membership in that sect, of which the ordinances admit neither music, nor tale-telling, not the entrance of frivolous and imaginative gaiety in any form. When she repaired to London from Norwich, it was to the Friends’ yearly Meeting, or to the platform of some philanthropic assembly,–of which the slave, the prisoner, or some other “desolate and oppressed” creature was the magnet of attraction. What was more noticeable still by way of attesting the sincerity of neophyte, Amelia Opie did her best to force her old self, the novelist, into her new uniform of staid silk bonnet and dove-coloured shawl. After having ceased for some years from imaginative creation, the newly-fledged Friend suddenly appeared as the authoress of ‘Illustrations of Lying,’–a work in which Fiction, by thought, word or work, was whimsically denounced in a series of small fictions. This was followed by ‘Detraction Displayed,’–a second draught from the same fountain. But neither in the world she had quitted nor in the world she had entered were these hybrid attempts to reconcile “old things with new” received with any extraordinary complacency. The fame of ‘The Father and Daughter’ and of the opera ‘Agnese’ could not be got rid of, could not be dyed drab,–and for its sake, the worldly world of critics forgave the feebleness and unconscious disingenuousness of Amelia Opie’s later attempts to reconcile callings, habits and associations essentially and sternly irreconcilable.

After some years of these new efforts, Amelia Opie gently and gracefully oscillated back to some place and pleasure in the world, where her earlier, and, we think, her more real life had been led. She was once more seen, though still as a Friend, in general society,–and when seen there was always welcome for the vivacity of her manner, the kindliness of her heart, and her anecdotes and reminiscences of gone-by worlds of Art and Fancy. By those who were personally acquainted with her, Amelia Opie must always be pleasantly remembered;–by those who knew her not, she can never be overlooked, when the works and claims of English authoresses of the nineteenth century have to be summed up.

Biographical Sketches