Edinburgh Monthly Review, vol. 1, Mar. 1819, pp. 276-95.
IT is one of the miseries of mortality, that it can have no security for the continuance of any qualification or enjoyment–that the soil which yields its chief beauties has no perpetuity of creative power–and that its fairest and finest productions afford no guarantee to the hope of future excellence. We have the most unequivocal evidences of this mortifying truth in the history of literary men, and more especially in that class of them which cultivates the field of imagination. It is the main source, perhaps, of their most afflictive calamities, though the lively and busy writer (D’Israeli) who has undertaken to depict them, does not appear to have bestowed on it a sufficient portion of his regard. There is something so peculiarly precarious and evanescent in genius, that it is quite impossible to form any correct opinion of what a poet or a novellist may do, from what he or she has already done. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained are nominally the offspring of the same mine: Walter Scott wrote the Lay of the Last Minstrel and the Lord of the Isles–Guy Mannering and the Heart of Mid-Lothian are ascribed to the same author: Miss Burney favoured the world with three, in their own style, matchless tales, Evelina, Cecilia, and Camilla; and then lost her name and her celebrity in–we forget what–some piece of bewilderment: and to Mrs. Opie, the lady now before our tribunal, we are indebted for the Mother and Daughter, one of the most affecting and best-told stories in our language, and two or three of the tales in the present collection, of which the highest encomium that can be given is, that they would not disgrace the offspring of the Minerva press; and some dozens of similar examples might be adduced, to demonstrate the very vexatious position from which we set out.
The desire of applause, in reality–and, be it remembered, this is the very essence of the scribbling cacoethes–has a natural tendency to procreate itself, even in very untoward circumstances, and to survive the possibility of any thing that could either justify or account for its existence. This is no doubt an extreme case; but, in common, it is so nourished and increased “by that it feeds on,” that it not unusually acquires the keenness and the force of appetite, when it will break through the most prudential regimen–an appetite, moreover, which is of so singular a kind, that it never, by any chance, exceeds the power of digestion, and which is yet so convenient, that whilst it craves the choicest of aliment, it can be contented with the husks and chaff of criticism, or the very garbage of a reviewer’s butchery.
Be it our objects to avoid the odium tertii on which literary celebrity is sometimes founded–to despise the consequence which seems to attach to the office of a pander to the love of scandal–whose feelings and susceptibilities are rendered keener than other men’s, by the very circumstances which have brought him to our notice.
We have selected the present work as our first specimen in the department of romance, not so much on account of the superior merit of the publication, as from the celebrity which the fair author has already acquired as a writer of tales and poems. For many years, Mrs. Opie has pleased and delighted us with her numerous works of fiction, and has sparkled in this division of the literary hemisphere, a star not perhaps of the first, but certainly of the second magnitude. She displays not the general brilliancy of an Edgeworth, the narrative genius of a Porter, or the exquisite powers of discriminating and depicting national character, so justly admired in the tales of our anonymous Scottish novellist; but her unaffected piety, the easy simplicity of her style, and her talent for exciting the most amiable feelings of our nature, as well as rousing the less gentle emotions of horror and resentment, distinguish her as no mean proficient in this kind of writing, and rank her among the most popular authors of the present day. We do not propose, in the present article, to enter into a disquisition on the general effects and moral tendency of novel reading. We aim not at being the censors of the age in any thing but literature; and as novels are still published in abundance, and are read with avidity, we shall, from time to time, analyse such as appear most to deserve praise, or merit reprehension.
Among the first class must decidedly be placed the tales before us; and of these we shall, without further preface, proceed to give an account; and, after analysing the contents of the volumes, we shall offer a few observations on the general merits and defects of Mrs. Opie as a writer of romance.
The tales are nine in number, each of the first three volumes containing two, and the fourth three. The tales in the first volume are entitled, “Mrs. Arlington, or all is not gold that glitters,” and “Proposals of Marriage.”
The first of these is a pleasing and interesting story, and contains rather more incident than most of the others. Its chief object is to shew, that happiness consists not in wealth and splendour; but it conveys another moral, that, in selecting a partner for life, less regard should be paid to external form and accomplishments, than to temper, disposition, and character. Two plots, which appear at first sight very little connected, though, as the story proceeds, they are found to be intimately blended together, form the fable of this tale. Mrs. Derville, the wife of a country clergyman, with her son Lionel, and her two daughters, Jane and Mary Ann, was returning from London, whither she had been to receive a handsome legacy left her by a relation of quality, and where she had been immersed for several weeks in the frivolities of a gay and fashionable circle. Here her son had nearly become the dupe of a profligate gamester, and her elder daughter had unconsciously listened to the voice of love from a worthless nobleman, who was not only old enough to be her father, but was already married; while the good lady herself had acquired such a taste for extravagance and luxury, as seemed likely to render her legacy a curse rather than a blessing. In this frame of mind they arrived, on their way home, at Lawn House, the seat of Mrs. Arlington, which, in their eyes, appeared an earthly paradise. A splendid mansion, extensive and highly ornamented grounds, with spacious shrubberies, gardens, and parterres, combined to delight the eyes of the travellers, and excite the envy of Mrs. Derville. An accident introduced them to the interior of the mansion, and occasioned them to become, for a time, the guests of its wealthy and highly accomplished mistress; and an opportunity soon presented itself to Mrs. Derville, of repaying the obligation, by saving the life of Mrs. Arlington. These reciprocal acts of kindness cemented a friendship between the two ladies, and afforded the means of recalling Mrs. Derville to a sense of her own happiness, in being the beloved wife of an excellent man, with a competent share of the good things of this life, and of weaning her from those extravagant habits and desires, which her journey to London, and her avocations in that gay metropolis, had excited. Soon after her return home, she received a packet from her late hostess, containing the history of her life, written expressly to eradicate from her mind those seeds of vanity and ambition, which Mrs. Arlington had, with regret, observed her new friend was cherishing. This history had the desired effect, and proved to Mrs. Derville, that “all is not gold that glitters.”
Mrs. Arlington’s story, though interesting, is soon told. She was the only child of a gentleman of large fortune, and her hand was sought by a man, her equal in rank, and of unblemished character; but, having conceived an affection for a young lieutenant of dragoons, of handsome person and attractive accomplishments, but of bad temper and profligate morals, she, contrary to the inclination of her parents, though at length with their concurrence, married him. The result was such as might have been expected. Mr. Seymour treated his wife with harshness and neglect; dissipated the money which she brought him; occasioned her premature delivery and the death of his child; broke the heart of her father, and married another woman. Fortunately, however, an uncle of Mrs. Seymour’s arrived from India with an immense fortune, and at his death, which took place very soon, bequeathed the whole to her, on condition that she should separate from her husband, and take his name of Arlington. Thus put in possession of independent affluence, and having discovered her husband’s infidelity, Mrs. Arlington generously determined to allow her husband, who retired to the continent, the income arising from her father’s estate, and to place the victim of his illicit love, who, she found, had been seduced by his artful duplicity, in an asylum, secluded from his knowledge and observation. In a short time, she found that Seymour was dangerously ill, and flew to France to render him those services which duty, rather than affection, prompted. He died penitent and happy, in the undeserved attentions of his amiable wife; and she remained abroad for above a year. During this interval, she renewed her acquaintance with her former admirer and cousin, Sir Henry Arlington, and, on their return to England, married him, and became, what she described her friend Mrs. Derville to be, a wife to be envied.
In gratitude for the service rendered her by Mrs. Derville, Lady Arlington presented to her son a living worth a thousand pounds a-year, and settled handsome portions on the daughters.
In this story, there is, as we have said, a good deal of incident, though the adventures are so briefly narrated, and so much crowded together, that an extract would excite but little interest in our readers. The tale is good as a whole, but its separate members are rather trifling;’ and the characters are, in general, of that common-place description, which is but too frequent in Mrs. Opie’s former publications. The most amiable of them appears to be Mr. Derville, though this conclusion is drawn rather from what we hear, than from what we see of him. The most natural character in the piece is Mary Ann Derville, a child of eight years old, who, amid the gaieties of London and the delights of Lawn House, is continually wishing to return to her papa, her dog Nelly, and her rabbits.
The second story is a trifling and insipid tale about an old man of quality and a lord’s daughter, the latter of whom, to avoid being forced by her parents to marry a nobleman of advanced age and broken constitution, while her affections are placed on a young and amiable clergyman, proposes to the old gentleman, who tells the story, to marry her himself. Instead of this, he procures a living of considerable value for her younger lover; and, by advancing, besides, a large sum of money, persuades the parents to consent to the match. This is the least interesting of the present tales, and seems produced chiefly to eke out the first volume. Indeed, it is not given as the production of Mrs. Opie, but as the contribution of a friend.
The tales contained in the second volume, though of a very different character, are both highly interesting, and merit particular notice. The first is entitled “White Lies,” and inculcates the moral, which cannot be too often repeated, that a disregard to truth, even on trifling occasions, is often productive of serious consequences. As in the first tale, we shall, to render it more interesting, give our analysis of the present the form of an abridgement. Clara Delancy and Eleanor Musgrave were cousins and heiresses, the former of thirty thousand, and the latter of fifty thousand pounds, and were placed, during their minority, under the immediate guardianship of Mr. Morley, a gentleman of respectable character and genteel connections, but not over-scrupulous in regard to strict veracity. Clara was of an amiable and ingenuous character, and possessed accomplished but not obtrusive manners. Eleanor was her superior in personal attractions and showy accomplishments, as well as in fortune, but was artful and intriguing, and, still more than her guardian, addicted to that species of disingenousness fashionably called white-lying. A nephew of Mr. Morley, Sidney Davenant, having realised a considerable fortune in the East Indies, arrived at the house of his uncle in London, while these two young ladies were its inmates. This gentleman, before he left England, had been enamoured of Clara’s mother, and. after her death, had, in imagination, transferred his affections to the daughter; but, piqued at her seeming indifference on his arrival in London, and allured by the superior attractions of Eleanor, who employed all her arts to gain the heart of the nabob, and estrange him from the meek and unsuspicious Clara, he was induced to offer his hand to the wealthier heiress. He was further persuaded to form this resolution in consequence of hints thrown out by his uncle, who, conceiving Eleanor to be a better match for Davenant, and believing her to be really in love with his nephew, had insinuated to him, without sufficient proof, that Clara had formed an attachment for another gentleman. Soon after this engagement, however, Mr. Davenant discovered so many instances of duplicity and disregard to truth in his betrothed bride, that he broke off the match; and having found, to his inexpressible delight, that he had been deceived in the supposition of Clara’s affections being pre-engaged, or, at least, that he himself was their object, he gladly renewed his attentions to that lady, and succeeded in making her his partner for life.
Eleanor’s derelictions from truth require a particular detail, as they nearly proved the ruin of two respectable characters. Mr. Harrison, a respectable and honest tradesman, had become bankrupt, and was just about to obtain a certificate from his creditors, when an exaggerated account, by Eleanor, to the wife of the principal of these, of a friendly entertainment given by Mr. Harrison on the return of his son from abroad, which Eleanor described as a splendid ball and supper, induced Mr. Somerville, the creditor in question, to use his influence with the rest to withhold the necessary document. In consequence, Mr. Harrison was reduced to the greatest distress, but was saved by the interference of Davenant, and the avowal of Eleanor’s indiscretion.
On another occasion, Eleanor was induced, by Lady Sophia Mildred, the wife of a wealthy baronet, to substantiate, by her false evidence, and accusation brought by that lady against a very worthy and respectable man, of maltreating her son, who had been placed under his tuition. In consequence of Eleanor’s evidence, Sir Richard removed his son from the academy, and used his utmost influence to prevent Mr. Bellamy, the supposed tyrant, from procuring a very lucrative and honourable situation in the way of his profession. This led to a trial between the parties, in which Eleanor was cited a witness by both. The result is shown i the following extract:
[quotes from “Sir Richard rose on Eleanor’s entrance” to “I ought in conscience, I own, to have said ‘No.'”]
To add to Eleanor’s mortification, she not only lost the man for whom she was laying her snares, but a former lover, for whom she really had a predilection, and whose heart, doubting the success of her own schemes, she was endeavouring to preserve, at the very time when her hand was engaged to Davenant. The discovery of this last act of duplicity gave the final blow to her hopes, and convinced Davenant that he had placed his affections on an unworthy object.
The above is a brief outline of the plot; but there are several well-told incidents, and some characters not ill pourtrayed, which assist in the general development. We consider this ass a good moral tale, related in a pleasing manner, and affording an additional example of the ill success of that intriguing spirit which Miss Edgeworth has so admirable depicted in her “Manoeuvring.”
Henry Woodville constitutes the fourth tale, which completes the second volume. This is, in Mrs. Opie’s favourite style, a tale of horror, and in it she has contrived strongly to excite the feelings of her readers. The hero of the tale, the son of a respectable merchant, who, through unavoidable misfortunes, had been obliged to yield to the tide of adversity, and compound with his creditors for fifteen shillings in the pound, was, at the opening of the story, a clerk in an eminent mercantile house in London, the head of which was Mr. Courtenay. After completing his engagement in this capacity, he was received into the firm as a partner, in preference to Mr. Bradford, another clerk of greater fortune, but of idle and dissipated habits. The consequence of this preference was an inveterate hatred on the part of his disappointed rival Bradford. Woodville, taking a leisure opportunity, made an excursion to Reading races, where he encountered Bradford, and, to avoid such unpleasant and dangerous company, proceeded to Abingdon, just at the time when the assizes were held in that town. The inns, of course, were crowded; and the only apartment which Woodville could procure, was a chamber which communicated by an inner door with another, in which was lodged his obnoxious acquaintance Bradford. Having successfully avoided this young man during the day, he was compelled to meet him at supper in the evening; and an altercation took place, in which, after a conflict at single rapier, a challenge was interchanged, and the parties, flushed with liquor, retired to their apartments. In the course of the dispute, a bag of money, produced by Bradford, had attracted the notice and excited the avidity of Everett, one of the waiters, who had formerly belonged to a gang of highwaymen, and who, as he was next day to quit his present service, resolved to attempt gaining possession of Bradford’s property. Accordingly, at midnight he entered Woodville’s chamber, and finding him asleep, took his sword, and proceeded to his destined prey. In the attempt to rob Bradford, he awakened him, and there ensued a scuffle in which Bradford was overpowered and killed. Alarmed by a noise, the murderer fled, without effecting the robbery; and, to screen himself from suspicion, returned Woodville’s bloody sword into the scabbard. A few hours after, Woodville awoke, and, determined to avid the duel, was preparing to depart, when he was prevented by the appearance of a waiter, who came, according to orders, to rouse Bradford. A discovery of the murder, of course, took place; and well-grounded suspicion falling on Woodville, he was detained, and, after the investigation of the business by the coroner’s inquest, was fully committed for immediate trial before the sitting judges. On the trial he was convicted, on what was considered unquestionable circumstantial evidence, condemned, and ordered for execution; but, through the humane interference of the jailer, he escaped from prison, and, with the assistance of his friend Courtenay, retired into Wales under another name. Here he met with the real murderer, Everett, labouring under symptoms of a severe mental and bodily disease, and was recognised by the culprit, who, in consequence of Henry’s kind attentions, had formed the resolution of exculpating him at the expense of a life which remorse had now rendered burdensome to himself. But Everett’s wife had seen an advertisement, describing Woodville, and offering a reward for the apprehension of the supposed murderer; and, without knowing the circumstances of the case, discovered the resemblance, and betrayed to the officers of justice the benefactor of her husband. He was apprehended, and speedily conveyed back to Abingdon, to suffer the punishment awarded by the judges. The wretched Everett, on discovering what had happened, used his utmost exertions to follow Woodville, and, very fortunately, met with the High Sheriff of Berkshire, at a time when, but for his assistance, he would have been incapable of proceeding on his journey. The issue is well told in the following extract:
[quotes from “The High Sheriff and his nearly exhausted companion” to “he was gone forever.”]
As no novel can be interesting without love, it was not to be expected that our fair author should have neglected to furnish Henry Woodville with a mistress. He has a mistress, with whom he falls in love in a romantic manner, without having been introduced to her; and, in a still more romantic manner, finds her in his seclusion in Wales; becomes her preceptor in drawing, and, of course, soon inspires her with a reciprocal passion. Nay, even as the murderer Woodville, he contrives to interest both her and her mother in his fate, and, when exculpated, is, of course, received as her accepted lover.
Notwithstanding the interest which this story excites, we cannot be blind to the forced and marvellous contrivances by which the principal incidents are brought about. That Woodville and Bradford should be placed in contiguous apartments, opening into each other–that the former, during the encounter between Bradford and the murderer, should not awake–that Woodville, in his seclusion, should meet with the very man who could be the only effectual witness in his favour–and that this man should meet with the High Sheriff of Berkshire at such a critical time, so far from the place of his usual residence, are all very singular and extraordinary incidents. But we must not quarrel for these trifles with lady-writers, and will therefore proceed to the third volume.
This volume commences with the “Quaker and Young Man of the World,” a pleasing and affecting tale, but containing so little incident, that it scarcely admits of a particular abstract. The character of the quaker is well drawn and well supported; but we doubt whether the mere resentment of a son, for the imprudent second marriage of his mother, could produce such violent and long-continued ecstasy of passion, as is described in the character of Frank Warburton.
By far the greater part of the third volume is occupied with the “Tale of Trials,” supposed to be related by the heroine Adelaide, Countess of Seaton, in a letter to her children. Although this tale cannot be considered one of Mrs. Opie’s best productions, as it excites little interest, except towards the conclusion, it exhibits some characters which are drawn in a style superior to her usual manner. Of these the most prominent are Mr. Falkland, and Madame du Vernis. The story is briefly this: Mr. Falkland, an English gentleman of small fortune, was inducted, during the civil war between Charles I and his Parliament, to retire with his family to France, and fixed his residence in Provence. There Adelaide formed an attachment for Delaval, a Scotch gentleman of small property, and. with the approbation of her parents, consented to marry him, as soon as their affairs should assume a more prosperous aspect. At the restoration of Charles II Falkland returned to England; and, after residing in Cumberland, where he lost all his children but Adelaide, repaired to his family estate in the county of Surry, to which he succeeded on the death of his elder brother. Here he received, as his guests, Madame du Vernis, a Frenchwoman of profligate character, but insinuating manners, with her daughter, Adrienne, and her brother, the Marquis de Merinville, a wretch of the most abandoned character, who had been compelled to fly his country for forgery. These miscreants had contrived to procure and introduction to Falkland, who was then a widower, with the view of possessing themselves of his fortune, by inveighing him into a marriage with Adrienne. But this young lady chose to elope with a more youthful lover. They changed their plan; and, by a false report of the death of Madame du Vernis’ husband, induced Falkland to marry her, with whose accomplishments he had been already fascinated. The consequence was the ruin of the infatuated Falkland. By means of secret intelligence, Adelaide learned that her father, reduced almost to indigence, was confined to his house in London, and affected with the plague, which then raged in the metropolis. She flew to comfort and relieve him, and had the happiness of rescuing him from almost inevitable death, not only from the ravages of the plague, but from the sword of an assassin. This is by far the most interesting part of the story, as will appear by the following extracts:
[quotes from “The door opened, and with difficulty” to “I fired, and he fell on the floor.”]
Falkland, thus rescued by his daughter, hastened to quit London with her and Delaval; who, after an absence of some time, during which Adelaide had believed him dead, had arrived at Falkland’s house, and assisted his mistress in the attentions necessary for her father’s perfect recovery. The travellers, disguised as peasants, made the best of their way to Yarmouth, where they embarked for Rotterdam, and thence proceeded, by way of Paris, to their old habitation on the banks of the Durance; but as this situation recalled to Falkland’s mind circumstances which excited his grief and remorse, his daughter and Delaval, now married, accompanied him to Marseilles. Here they resided for about twenty years; till, on hearing of the revolution in England, they finally bade adieu to France, and returned to pass the remainder of a quiet and domestic life in their native country. To complete the happiness of all parties, Delaval became Earl of Seaton, by the death of a relation who bore that title, and died without male issue.
The narrative part of this tale is unusually meagre and barren of incident at the beginning and conclusion, and besides, abounds in many faults which we shall more properly notice after having given some account of the remaining volume.
The three tales contained in the fourth volume are, The Confessions of an Odd-Tempered Man; the Ruffian Boy; and The Welcome Home, or the Ball. With the first of these stories we were so much provoked, that we had scarcely patience to read it to an end, and our first impulse was decidedly to condemn it; but on second thoughts we conclude, that these feelings do credit to the author for having drawn a consistent, if not a natural character. The odd-tempered man is continually dong something to alienate the affections of an amiable girl who loves him, and who is beloved by him; and after he has prevailed on her to marry him, contrary to the advice of her best friends, he contrives, by what he justly calls the obliquities of his temper, to render her miserable, and at last to break her heart. We hope, for the honour of humanity, that this is at least a very uncommon character; and though the concluding scene is so described as to produce a powerful effect on the feelings, we must say, that we think the subject is less happily chosen than any of those which form the foundation of Mrs. Opie’s other tales.
The Ruffian Boy is of a very different description. It abounds in incidents which continually keep alive the attention, and interest the feelings of the reader; though they are often so romantic and so marvellous, that, were we not assured of their being “founded on fact,” we should regard them as the creatures of a highly poetical imagination. Ethelind Manstein was left by her father a wealthy heiress, of good education and accomplished manners, while she inherited from nature a handsome person and sweet deportment. Circumstances of a peculiar nature had induced her father to settle at Ratisbon, where, at the opening of the tale, Ethelind resides with three companions of rather a singular description, viz. an elderly lady of disordered intellect, an old male domestic, and a Newfoundland dog. These inmates of her dwelling were cherished by her with such affection, that she refused several advantageous offers because her suitors would not consent to her retaining her favourites after her marriage. At length Count Waldemar, a German nobleman, saw Ethelind, and became so heartily in love, that he determined to wed her with all her incumbrances. He sued and was accepted. Waldemar was of course entrusted with his wife’s secret reasons for not discarding the dependents so much dreaded by her former suitors; but these reasons are withheld from the reader, till, on Waldemar’s departure on an important and necessary journey, they are related to some friends whom he had left to beguile her solitude, and protect her from probably danger. Ethelind had an early and inveterate enemy, Geraldi Duval, a young man of low extraction, but of tolerably independent fortune, who, in his boyish years, had presumed to address her as a lover; and, in consequence of her having refused to dance with him at a ball, was excited to such a pitch of mad resentment that he determined to assassinate her; but from the accidental circumstance of her resembling a young female friend, and this friend having on her shawl, Ethelind escaped, and her friend became the victim of the assassin. The mother of this young lady was so much shocked at the murder of her child, that she became deranged, and was from that time received into the family of Ethelind’s father. The ruffian boy Geraldi, in consideration of his youth, was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment, with a condition, that if his conduct during his confinement should appear to deserve it, five years of the term should be remitted. In apprehension of this event, the old domestic and the Newfoundland dog were retained about Ethelind as her constant guardians. During Waldemar’s absence this dreaded event of Geraldi’s release from prison took place; and soon after Ethelind was surprised, during a short separation from her friends, by the sudden appearance of the ruffian. The second attempt on her life was prevented by the courage of the dog; and on her friends coming up, Geraldi was seen to escape on a fleet Arabian horse. Several other attempts were made by the ruffian boy to wreak his vengeance on the devoted Ethelind, so that her life became miserable from constant dread and anxiety, and she and her husband were repeatedly compelled to change their place of residence. On their journey to Bohemia, during a short halt a an inn near which was a public garden, Ethelind was attacked by Geraldi while she was walking with the insane mother of his former victim; and in this encounter this poor woman died of terror, while warding off the blow from her whom she believed to be her daughter. Waldemar and his wife, however, reached Bohemia in safety, and took up their abode in an insulated castle. Here, during another separation from her husband, Ethelind found herself again in the power of Geraldi.
After escaping from a fourth and fifth attempt in Bohemia, a report, on what appeared the best foundation, was brought, that Geraldi had been executed in England for a robbery; and as all future apprehension from that ruffian had thus ceased, Waldemar carried his wife to Brussels, where she had resided when first exposed to the threatened vengeance of the ruffian boy. It so happened that she was persuaded to go to a masked ball, where, to her horror and consternation, she once more encountered the eyes of the once dreaded Geraldi, now suppose to be no more. He met her while her husband was absent ordering their carriage;
[quotes from “It was not long after this, that Waldemar” to “confined in the same prison.”]
Ethelind with difficulty recovered from her wound; but her intellects suffered such a shock, that even when she saw the dead body of her enemy, who at length suffered the punishment due his crimes, she could scarcely be persuaded that she was safe from his machinations.
Reserving any strictures on this tale for our general observations, we proceed to the last of the series, The Welcome Home, one of the most insignificant of the present collection; for though the plot is good, and the catastrophe well described, there is a poverty of incident, and a paucity of dialogue, unusual even in Mrs. Opie’s productions.
The tales which we have now gone through, afford ample illustration of the general beauties and defects of Mrs. Opie’s prose writings. The former we have stated to be piety, simplicity of style, and a talent for the pathetic. Her piety is not obtrusive, though it is habitual; and though Mrs. Opie’s tales have not so much religion as those of Mrs. Hannah More and Miss Hamilton, they have more than those of Miss Edgeworth, and in point of morality they are generally unexceptionable. We say generally, because we are not sure that Mrs. Opie has quite made up her mind about the criminality of duelling, and we think that the levity and infidelity of fashionable manners do not always meet the reprehension and punishment they deserve. Still our author is unaffectedly pious, and her general morals are all good. In the present tales Mr. Derville and Adelaide Falkland are remarkable for piety.
Although we have allowed Mrs. Opie the praise of simplicity of style, we can by no means afford her the additional meed of correctness and propriety. Her composition is often careless, and even slovenly; and the expression is not unfrequently inelegant, if not homely. Our author is by no means remarkable for spirit and interest in her dialogue, which is often of that loose insignificant character denominated chit-chat. This circumstance, with the want of incident in many of the tales, throws over them an air of insipidity which is one of the most common faults of sentimental novels.
Mrs. Opie certainly excels in the pathetic, and her best tales are of this description. The Tale of Trials, Henry Woodville, and The Ruffian Boy, owe their chief merit to this talent, as will have appeared from the extracts we have made. Indeed most of her former tales are of the sombre cast, and the sprightly and humorous are either not her forte, or she has taught herself to despise them.
Nature and originality are not often to be expected in modern novels; and if Mrs. Opie is deficient in these respects, she has abundance of good company to keep her in countenance. At the same time, it is necessary to notice the defect, especially when it is particularly glaring, as in some parts of the New Tales. We have already noticed some of the most unnatural incidents; but, in the Ruffian Boy, they meet our eye at every step. This tale may, in the main, be “founded on fact;” but surely the circumstance of Geraldi being always mounted on the same horse–the strength and agility of a dog, which, on a moderate computation, must have been near twenty years old–the continual hocus-pocus appearance of the Ruffian, like the Bravo of Venice in the play–and, though last, not least in improbability, the identity of circumstances which attended his first and last assaults, savour too much of the marvellous for any thing but a fairy tale.
Many of our best novellists, even Fielding, Smollet, Edgeworth, and the author of Waverly, have imitated themselves–and so has Mrs. Opie. Several of the characters in the present Tales are little more than transcripts of those which have appeared in the former productions of our author. These imitations, by an author who writes a great deal, are perhaps not easily to be avoided; but it is surely not difficult to forbear using names that have been employed in the celebrated works of other writers. This is a fault not unfrequent with Mrs. Opie. The Henry Woodville of her present Tales continually reminds us of an amiable youth of the same name in Cumberland’s Wheel of Fortune; and General Monthermer, in the Welcome Home, is evidently the very person who forms so prominent a character in Mrs. West’s Refusal.
On the whole, we are much pleased with these “New Tales;” though we think them, in many respects, so inferior to Mrs. Opie’s former tales, as, we say it with pain, unfortunately to justify the application of our introductory remarks to the case of the highly esteemed author. So far are we, however, from wishing to discourage the exercise of whatever talents she may possess, that we have no hesitation in saying, a work of even less merit, from her hands, would find willing readers.
European Magazine, vol. 74, Aug. 1818, p. 153.
IT is always with feelings of satisfaction and self-felicitation that we examine a new production of this amiable and attractive writer. On the present occasion, we are particularly gratified to observe, that Mrs. Opie has resumed that appropriate, and therefore exquisitely-becoming, dress in which she first captivated our youthful fancy, and for ever established her ascendancy over our sympathies and affections. We prefer her Tales, not only because they are more acceptable to our taste, but because we have an internal conviction that they must be infinitely more pleasing to the author, whom we can imagine engaged in their composition as a delightful pastime, and even beguiling her solitary labours with an artless song. Some of the stories in the present volumes have a serious character, and inculcate excellent moral principles; such is — Mrs. Arlington – White Lies. There are others, and perhaps we entertain for these a too partial fondness, in which our author seeks to touch the feelings and captivate the imagination: to this class belong, the Proposals of Marriage – Henry Woodville – the Welcome Home – and, above all, the Ruffian Boy, a tale founded in fact, which excites intense interest, and almost painfully agitates the feelings. The Confessions of an Odd-tempered Man, though not didactic, are highly instructive. We wish we could consider it a fancy sketch; but experience compels us to confess, that there is no less truth than talent in the portraiture.
[quotes from “The Confessions of An Odd-Tempered Man”]
Literary Gazette, Aug. 15, 1818, pp. 517-8.
In our last we alluded to the difficulty of giving a satisfactory idea of a work of fiction within the compass of a publication like ours; — Novels are long, our sheet is short; they require much room to epitomise them, and we must consult the tastes of our readers for variety as well as – “the copious stories oftentimes begun,” which “End without audience, and are never done;” The embarrassment of which we have complained, is not diminished, when, instead of a single story, as is generally the case in such productions, we have many stories, as is the case in the particular production before us. Mrs. Opie is not satisfied with one stroke, but cuts again and again, in every possible direction, like a skilful dragoon at his sword-exercise, till she accomplishes her purpose, which, to her honour be it recorded, is invariably to destroy Vice and protect Virtue.
There is something, we feel, acquired by the constant habit of reading books for the purpose of delivering an opinion upon them, which is not favourable to too kind a judgment upon those of fancy and imagination. We become rigid in our censures; we look much at small faults; we examine and criticize the composition, the style, the connexion of incidents, the dramatic effect, the whole minutiae of literary execution, as well as the more obvious scope of the invention. This is evidently too severe a trial; and though Mrs. Opie has little reason to dread it, many novel-writers would be justified in appealing from the tribunal, to the sense of that class of the community whose tastes and inclinations are chiefly studied in such performances. We are glad, therefore, under such circumstances, and with these impressions on our mind, to gather the sentiments of some intelligent female friends before we pronounce sentence upon works of this kind. One of the most celebrated dramatic writers that ever lived, used to read his Comedies to an ancient servant, and if she did not laugh, he returned with the piece to his closet; but if she enjoyed the humour heartily, he received it as a sure token of public success. Fortified in a similar manner by the opinions of more competent intellects, we hesitate not to say, that the unanimous testimony of mothers, wives, and daughters, is decidedly in favour of these NEW TALES. They say that they inculcate nothing but what is pure and good. They amuse while they instruct; and plant the scions of sound principles, together with the flowers of fancy. Their interest is sufficient to excite mature attention, and their morality eminently calculated to improve youth.
This is a high character, and we assent to its being deserved. All the Tales are praiseworthy, and several of them excellent. Each volume has two, except the last, which has three. Of the whole, we prefer that entitled, White Lies,” in the second volume, for its admirable exposition of the sin and shame of the practice known under that flattering name; –the Tale of Trials,’ in volume third, for its incidents and pathos; and the Ruffian Boy,’ in the last, for its dramatic interest and effect. The Odd-tempered Man,’ is, we trust, rather too much of an exception to human nature to be very applicable as a moral rule: not so the Young Man of the World,” a charming lesson of filial piety, though not of the highest claims as a fable. Mrs. Arlington, or all is not gold that glitters,” also inculcates in an agreeable way, the useful precept of contentment with our own estate.
It would be too much for us to epitomize all these Tales, but we shall so far follow our accustomed path, as to give the outline of one of them, and a specimen from which the rest may be estimated: —
White Lies is founded on that too seldom checked propensity for telling apparently slight falsehoods, which do not seem to threaten any evil consequences. Clara Delaney and Eleanor Musgrave, two cousins and co-wards of Mr. Morley, are contrasted; the former being a strict adherer to truth, the latter inclined to disregard it in those trifles which occur in every-day life. These different qualities have a striking influence upon the future fortunes of the young ladies.
To annoy a Mrs. Sommerville, Eleanor gives her gasconading account of a splendid entertainment at a Mrs. Harrison’s: she sanctions a slanderous misrepresentations of a Lady Sophia Mildred, through which a respectable teacher, Mr Bellamy, is considered an inhuman man, and has the son of Sir R. Mildred taken from under his tuition. Upon these two variations from sincerity and truth, a good deal afterwards hinges. Sydney Davenant, an old connection of the families of Delaney and Musgrave, returns from India, every thing that woman could desire in a husband. His preference is for the best of the two cousins; but by the arts and falsehoods of Miss Musgrave (the evil habit growing upon her,) he is detached from Clara, and becomes the betrothed of Eleanor. We need not dwell on the many troubles into which this young lady is plunged, in order to maintain her deceptions unmasked: — they are well contrived, and after various discoveries and escapes from duels, &c. the confidence of Davenant in his bride is dreadfully shaken. It turns out now that the Harrison family have been utterly ruined by the severity of Mr. Somerville, (the principal creditor of Harrison in an unfortunate turn of his affairs) inflamed by the envious representations of his wife respecting their extravagance, as related by Eleanor. It also happens, that Mr. Bellamy is prevented from obtaining a desirable promotion, in consequence of the ill opinion expressed towards him by Sir R. Mildred. Both these events come under the cognizance of Davenant, together with other falsehoods and misconduct, no longer to be concealed, and he renounces the detected and humbled Miss Musgrave for the noble-minded and sincere Miss Delancy. The latter leads a subsequent life of honour and happiness; the former of contempt and misery. The lesson is further improved by rendering Mr. Morley also too regardless of strict veracity, which involves him in a proper proportion of his Ward’s shame and punishment.
Our extract must be brief: we take it from the Tale of Trials. A daughter, whose father has disowned her for a worthless second wife, seeks her parent when robbed and deserted during the plague of London. She obtains admission to his infected abode, and thus describes it: —
[quotes from “Tale of Trials”]
The rest of this colloquy is, if possible, more affecting; but we can only add, that the filial duty of Angèle is rewarded by the restoration of her parent, after she has intrepidly resisted an attempt to rob and assassinate him, proving that an affectionate woman is as heroic in the moment of danger, as soft and soothing in the hour of sickness and disease.
To conclude, we most heartily recommend these Tales to every class of readers, and especially to families who wish to cultivate the virtues in their rising progeny. Sometimes the incidents and dialogue are a little artificial, but there is not one sentiment which it is not desirable to impress deeply on the youthful mind.
Monthly Magazine, vol. 46, Sept. 1818, p. 158.
Four entertaining volumes, under the title of New Tales, by Mrs. OPIE, will prove a welcome addition to the stock of that species of writing, for which this lady’s talents are peculiarly adapted; and for which we know no better name than Novellettes. The requisite genius for the production of a superior novel, in three or four volumes, does not appear to belong to Mrs. Opie; at least, if we are to judge from such specimens as her “Valentine’s Eve,” or “Temper.” The invention and gradual disclosure of a well-arranged and interesting plot; the delineation of characters natural, yet striking, skillfully contrasted, and sustained in true keeping through a succession of various scenes, which scenes shall at once carry on the story, and exhibit new, yet just, pictures of society and manners; these are tasks to which few, indeed, are equal. If, however, in the Novellettes of Mrs. Opie we do not recognise the finished pictureof the patient master, we are pleased with sketches of manners and outlines of characters, which, as such, are masterly, and which cannot fail to improve, as well as amuse, the minds of her readers. Of the present collection, we particularly admire “Mrs. Arlington,” for its originality; and “Henry Woodville” has strong marks of the same pencil which produced the pathetic tale of the “Father and Daughter”.
Monthly Review, ns, vol. 88, Mar. 1819, pp. 327-8.
Much variety and amusement will be found in these volumes but, in the tale of the Ruffian Boy,’ this justly celebrated writer departs from her usual practice of inculcating an important moral in every narrative: since this is a tale of fear and sorrow in which we cannot sympathise with the character, and from which no higher lesson can be learned than the old rule that young ladies in a ball-room must not refuse one partner and afterward dance with another.
The story called ‘White Lies’ is more useful and more natural, though it begins with a faulty expression, bordering on an Hibernicism: viz. ‘Clara Delancy and Eleanor Musgrave were passing the morning together alone.’ The misrepresentations which are supposed to uttered, and the excuses made for them, so much resemble the falsehoods and sophistry that may be found in real life, as to afford an impressive and valuable lesson: but it would be still more convincing if Mr. Davenant, who detects and punishes the ‘white lies’ of his neighbours, did not himself prevaricate in order to conceal his intention of fighting a duel. (see volume ii. page 182) ‘Let us,’ Mr. Davenant and myself I mean, said Fielding, ‘enter the pit arm-in-arm, and speak together as if we were friends.’ – ‘And do you meanwhile,’ said Davenant, ‘go before us, O’Bryne, and say we are coming on the best terms possible.’ – ‘O’Bryne, on pretence of wanting to speak to a friend going abroad, took care to leave the ladies; and Davenant’s refusal to accompany them on account of the lateness of the hour and a bad head-ache, put the finishing stroke to their suspicions.’
Perhaps the most ingenious and original of these narratives is that which is entitled ‘The Confessions of an odd-tempered Man.’ Some persons, who have no real sorrows, supply that happy defect in their destiny by encouraging peevish sensibilities and capricious fancies, regardless of the annoyance which they cause to others, if they can enjoy “the luxury of grief” in a gloom of their own diffusing. Mrs. Opie has developed this obliquity of temper with so much skill, that the tale affords not only a profitable example, but an interesting view, not often taken, of the “mingled yarn” of human feelings.
Scots Magazine, ns, vol. 3, Sept. 1818, pp. 260-2.
THE influence of female writers on modern manners and literature is, we are inclined to think, more important than philosophers and critics seem generally disposed to allow. With a few splendid exceptions, indeed, their efforts have, in our own times, been almost exclusively confined to one of the most humble departments of fictitious composition. But in this they have created a new era. They have given to the light and popular novel a degree of importance, considered as a means of moral function, which it never before possessed, and which Rousseau and Richardson in vain attempted to confer upon it. They have refined our perceptions of moral beauty, — exhibited a finer tact in the observation of manners and character, — opened new and rich veins of natural and pathetic eloquence, –and, moreover, purified the kind of writing which they adopted from much ridiculous pedantry, and more offensive grossness. We are not so chivalrous as to deny, that, in the progress of these achievements, our female novelists have oppressed their indulgent readers with a deluge of silly and pestiferous publications; and we will even go so far as to admit, that if the greater proportion of the half-bound duodecimos, romantic and sentimental, which still encumber our circulating libraries, were committed to the flames, the world would suffer no great detriment. We would not, if a wish could do it, rescue a greater number of them from the pile than was saved from the conflagration of Don Quixotte’s library. Yet, if the production of all this trash was a necessary evil in the intellectual progress of the sex, we do not see that we have any right to complain of it more bitterly than of many other literary nuisances. It has been at length amply atoned for. Miss Burney, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs. Hamilton, and Mrs. Opie, would alone have been sufficient to dispel, by the beautiful and beneficent blaze of their genius, all the noisome fogs which in this country overclouded the dawn of female literature. Like the beautiful songs of Burns, their works have, in fact, already almost superseded, in the hands of the rising generation, whatever was despicable or noxious in former productions of a similar kind; and they have, accordingly, taken their station in the literature of their country, along with the moralists and poets of the age, — inferior to these in rank, but to none inferior in the power of conveying at once pleasure and instruction.
The author of the work has long been advantageously known to the public. Her early poetical attempts, if not possessed of that striking originality of thought or richness of fancy, which have distinguished the higher poets of our times, at least merit the praise of great delicacy of feeling, and sweetness of expression, and have, we believe, been very generally admired for these qualities. Her former numerous tales and novels are familiar to every reader. In some of these productions, Mrs. Opie exhibits great mastery over the pathetic; and perhaps the consciousness of possessing this powerful weapon, has led her more frequently than could be wished, to an overstrained and injudicious use of it. In the present work, this propensity has been better restrained and modified; yet she still deals more with the hearts than the heads of her readers. This is, indeed a marked characteristic of Mrs. Opie’s genius. She cannot vie with some of her distinguished contemporaries in the development of striking and diversified character, or in dramatic vivacity, or in the humorous delineation of folly, affectation, or vulgarity, or in the graphic painting of national peculiarities, but she excels all of them, perhaps, in the natural and impressive delineation of female affection, displayed in its best and most endearing forms. It is not merely in the romantic devotedness of youthful love, (though she has also described this passion with much tenderness and truth,) but still more in the intimate relations of daughter, sister, and mother, that she has admirably portrayed the character of her sex, — and that with such feeling and fidelity, and with such a knowledge of all its strength, and all its weakness, that no heart, we can think, can fail to be both softened and improved by the perusal. Her exhibitions of the fondness, the fidelity, and frailty of the female character, must awaken at once all the kindness, and all the caution, of her youthful readers; and her delightful pictures of filial piety, and parental affection, must ever irresistibly call forth the most sacred and estimable sympathies of our nature.
The volumes now before us possess most of the author’s peculiar characteristics; but with an air of more restrained feeling, and well regulated judgment, and with fewer hazardous experiments in the terrible workings of passion, than are to be found in most of her former productions. If not the most powerful of her writings, they will be esteemed, we apprehend, as among the most attractive and permanently pleasing. We account it no trifling improvement in the present instance, that she has more generally aimed at producing a practical effect, or inculcating some moral lesson, than exciting violent interest, or agitating the feelings. She has here, also, laid bare the human bosom in some of its most intricate recesses, and shewn, particularly in the “Confessions of an Odd Tempered Man,” how the base leaven of selfishness and wayward pride, when admitted into a heart even originally good, is enough to neutralize every virtue, and poison the happiness of all with whom it comes in contact.
Though we can afford but little room for extracts, we shall give, as specimen of Mrs Opie’s style, a single scene from this edifying and impressive portraiture. The unfortunate and unamiable man, whose “odd temper” forms the moral of the piece, after many alterations of bliss and bitterness, at length, by a course of studied neglect, and affected coldness, breaks the affectionate heart of a being who only too tenderly loves him, and whom he all the while ardently and passionately loves. He is informed by a letter, while absent on a journey, that she is dying, and, stung with anguish and remorse, he hurries home.
[quotes from “The Confessions of an Odd Tempered Man”]
The following short passage is in a different manner, and from a different tale. We select it as exhibiting at once the author’s propriety of expression and right feeling in regard to a fashionable amusement of foreign extraction, — against which we have no objection that the Alient Bill should operate in all its severity, and without even reserving the right to confer upon it a private naturalization in Scotland. A young man of high spirit and principle is attending two young ladies, in whom he takes a deep interest, to a private assembly:
[quotes from New Tales]
It would be equally difficult, and unprofitable, to attempt any analysis of the various tales of which these volumes are composed; nor would we willingly anticipate, in any degree, the curiosity of our readers by too particularly characterizing them. The tale entitled “White Lies” is one of our greatest favourites. As its title imports, it is a detail of the embarrassments and unexpected mischiefs occasioned by a habit of equivocation, and a heedless disregard for truth; — it exposes, in a series of natural and well imagined scenes, the fallacy of the too general possibility of an innocent deception, or a harmless falsehood; — it demonstrates the equal criminality of an ambiguity, and a lie, and places in its most amiable and attractive light, the virtue of sincerity. Of the others, we rather prefer “Mrs. Arlington,” “The Quaker,” and the “Welcome Home.” The “Tale of Trials,” and the “Ruffian Boy,” though they display, perhaps, more powerful writing, are in a style we less cordially admire. But we can most conscientiously testify of all of them, (in terms which have already expressed as the unanimous opinion of mothers, wives, and daughters,) “that they inculcate nothing but what is pure and good; they amuse, while they instruct, and plant the scions of sound principles together with the flowers of fancy; — their interest is sufficient to excite mature attention, and their morality eminently calculated to improve youth.”