Simple Tales (1806): Reviews

La Belle Assemblée, Suppl. vol. V1, 1806, pp. 40-1.

            THE name of Mrs. Opie is tolerably well known in the novelist’s vocabulary; for these some years past, she has maintained a distinguished place on the shelves of Circulating Libraries; and even as a poetess, has aspired to and obtained greater honours than have been awarded to most of her sex. We will not undertake, indeed to say that she has not been praised to much; but we will maintain that she has had enough of what Reviewers have it in their power to bestow; since, by what means we know not, she has plainly got to the blind side of these gentlemen, and those, who agree in nothing else, have agreed in praising her.

            Justice obliges us to confess, that her talents and her works have bene much over-rated. When compared with a Mrs. Radcliffe, a Mrs. West, Madam D’Arblay, or Charlotte Smith, she sinks very low indeed. Her poetry has something of simplicity and naiveté, but her own ambition could scarcely, we should think, flatter her into an imagined rivalry with the latter authoress; and as an amusing and moral instructress, what are her pretensions when compared with any of the above names?

            Her Tales of “Mother and the Daughter,” and the “Father and the Daughter,” deservedly attained her credit. The stories in each, though they smacked somewhat of a German palate, and were occasionally vitiated with those extravagant and unnatural passions which have disgraced the compositions of that school, were nevertheless animated with very warm and just descriptions, and supported by a vein of true pathos which did honour to her head and heart. But when surveyed by a calm, critical perusal, as works aspiring to solid repute, and permanency of fame, they sink into nothing. They are precisely of the same class, though of a quality a little improved, with those that issue form the novel shops in periodical quantities; and which, as they are read to forget others, are all in their turns read and forgotten. The true level of Mrs. Opie’s reputation is that of standing distinguished amongst these benefactors to the rich, the idle, and the luxurious; who, but for the employment of reading novels, and having their sensibility occasionally worked upon by a pretty tale of love, or a pretty tale of grief, would be infinitely less idle than they are used to be, and therefore, in all probability, more mischievous.

            This station, which is Mrs. Opie’s just station, long may she preserve; – may the fountain of her invention never be exhausted; may it alternately sparkle with love, and murmur with grief; may it supply as shall be wanted, streams of tears, and gushes of tenderness; may the pool never be stagnant, and never, never let it be overflow with the “bitter waters of disappointment.”

            The present work, which she has entitled “Simple Tales,” has the general characteristics of her style and manner of thinking. The work consists of sixteen or twenty tales on different subjects. Some of them are very interesting, and prettily related; though they can maintain but slender claims to original invention, or to force and novelty of character. These tales are, for the most part, composes of the same materials which have been immemorially employed in all edifices of the same sort.

            The characters present few features which are not familiar to novel readers. The heroes are gentlemen, and the heroines gentlewomen. The style is the best commendation. It is uniformly simple and graceful, and tolerably correct. It is never much animated, and derives little vigour or beauty from illustration; but it is, in one word, the style of an accomplished Lady.

British Critic, vol. 31, May 1808, pp. 566-7.

            Mrs. Opie may not unreasonably accuse us of want of gallantry in so long deferring to notice these ingenious and interesting Tales. Our time of gallantry is past, but we gladly acknowledge that these compositions would have entitled the author to undeniable literary distinction, if she had not demonstrated other and higher claims. They have all the vivacity of imagination and strength of colouring, which characterize the productions of Mrs. Opie; but we rather lament, that they are generally marked by features of melancholy. It would be almost invidious to designate any one of the volumes, as better entitled to commendation that the rest, but perhaps the Soldier’s Return, and indeed the contents of the third volume altogether, have been read, by us at least, with most impression. The characters of Fanny and Mary, in the Soldier’s Return, have much pathos and genuine simplicity. The catastrophe of the Tale, called the Revenge, is worked up with great ingenuity, and would perhaps, with a little management, make an excellent dramatic after-piece.

Critical Review, series 3, vol. 8, Aug. 1806, pp. 443-6.

            WE cannot but surmise that Mrs. Opie has either been the reviewer of her own work, or has at least got it criticized by some partial friend in a certain northern review, which has in this instance deviated from its professed plan of severity, and may therefore fairly be suspected of sometimes suffering that to be done, which it has of late unbecomingly insinuated to the prejudice of other journals.

            A tedious insipidity pervades, with a few exceptions, every one of these tales, for which the fair author makes us no other, recompense than a few pathetic touches at the dénoument of each.  Mrs. O. we presume, was of opinion with Moses in the Vicar of Wakefield, that when once in favour with the public, she had nothing to do but to go to sleep; and impressed with this idea she has not exerted her usual diligence.  In the story of the ‘Soldier’s Return,’ and the ‘Brother and Sister,’ she is more successful than in any of the rest.  It requires some art to clothe the thoughts and phrases of common people, without letting them rise into bombast or sink into vulgarity; but in the two last mentioned tales Mrs. O. has observed a happy medium.  As our fair readers, we know, will consider us as unpardonable unless we present, them with a specimen of Mrs. Opie’s pathetic, we cannot select a passage which will better exemplify the remarks we have just made than the following:

[quotes from ‘Brother and Sister’]

Edinburgh Review, vol. 8, July 1806, pp. 465-71

            WE owe some apology to Mrs Opie, for omitting, at the proper time, to take notice of her beautiful story of the Mother and Daughter; the second volume of which is perhaps the most pathetic, and the most natural in its pathos, of any fictitious narrative in the language.  In the tales now before us, we find much of the same merits; the same truth and delicacy of sentiment; the same graceful simplicity in the dialogue parts of the work; and the same happy art of presenting ordinary feelings and occurrences in a manner that irresistibly commands our sympathy and affection.

            Mrs Opie has no great share of invention, either in incident or in character.  We often see through the whole story from its first opening; and few of her personages can be said to be original, or even uncommon, when compared either with the inventions of dramatists, or the variety of common life.  They have a merit, however, which in our eyes is incomparably superior, — they are strictly true to general nature, and are rarely exhibited, except in interesting situations.  We have always been of opinion, indeed, that no character can be natural, unless it be pretty common; and that that originality, of which so many writers are ambitious, is of value chiefly in bringing out the effect of ludicrous and violently comical representations.  For more serious sympathy, we must be made to feel that the sentiments and actions of the characters are such, as must inevitably belong to all persons in their situations; and it is on the delicate adaptation of their language and conduct to their circumstances, and not to any supposed peculiarity in their character, that the success of the writer will generally depend.  It will be found accordingly, we believe, that almost all the fine traits of natural expression that are quoted and remembered, from the dramatists and greater poets, both ancient and modern, derive their whole beauty from this perfect and beautiful conformity to general and universal nature; and that they reach the heart of every reader, just because every reader perceives at once that they express the concentrated and appropriate emotion, which it is natural for persons in such circumstances to feel.  There is no need for the representation of ideal individuality.  The general conception of a delicate and affectionate girl – of a gallant and warm-hearted young man – of a tender mother, a patriotic warrior, or an anxious lover – are quite sufficient to call forth our sympathies, and to make us feel, in its whole force and extent, the truth of the sentiments imputed to them.  The task and the triumph of the fabulist is in selecting situations that give rise to the most powerful and commanding of those sentiments, and in expressing them with simplicity and directness.

            These observations might be illustrated, we conceive, in a very striking way, by an examination of the most impressive passages and characters in the works of Shakespeare; nor would it be difficult perhaps to show, that what have often been quoted as examples of originality in the conception of character, are nothing more than the exquisite adaptation of common and familiar feelings to peculiar situations.  It is impossible for us, however, to enter into such an investigation at present.  We shall merely desire our readers to consider how little substantial diversity of character there is among the female person of this great writer; and whether it is to any thing, but to the difference of their situation, that we can refer the variety of emotion which we receive from the natural expressions of Desdemona, Imogen, Juliet, Ophelia, and Miranda.

            There is something delightful feminine in all of Mrs Opie’s writings; an apparent artlessness in the composition of her narrative, and something which looks like want of skill or of practice in writing for the public, that gives a powerful effect to the occasional beauties and successes of her genius.  There is nothing like an ambitious or even a sustained tone in her stories; we often think she is going to be tedious or silly; and immediately, without effort or apparent consciousness of improvement, she slides into some graceful and interesting dialogue, or charms us with some fine and delicate analysis of the subtler feelings, which would have done honour to the genius of Marivaux.  She does not reason well; but she has, like most accomplished women, the talent of perceiving truth without the process of reasoning, and of bringing it out with the facility and the effect of an obvious and natural sentiment.  Her language is often inaccurate, but it is almost always graceful and harmonious.  She can do nothing well that requires to be done with formality; and, therefore, has not succeeded in copying either the concentrated force of weighty and deliberate reason, or the severe and solemn dignity of majestic virtue.  To make amends, however, she represents admirably everything that is amiable, generous, and gentle.

            These tales are of very unequal merit; and we do not propose to give any detailed account of them.  Those in the third volume, we think, are clearly the best.  The Soldier’s Return, and the Brother and Sister, though the scene is laid, in both, in humble life, and the incidents by no means new either in real or fictitious story, are pathetic to a painful and distressing degree.  The latter in particular is written with great delicacy and beauty.  We regret that our limits will not permit us to give some part of it to our readers.  We can only make room for the last words of the unfortunate heroine, with one sentence of necessary explanation.  Ellen Percival, the beautiful daughter of an English farmer, is seduced by a French Nobleman who had lodged in her father’s house during a period of illness.  After his desertion of her, and his return to his own country, she is driven, by shame and temporary distraction, to destroy, at the moment of its birth, the fruit of their unlawful connexion.  She is condemned to die; and, on the eve of her execution, writes this letter to the author of all her agonies.  We are sensible that it will lose much of its effect when read without any further knowledge of the tender and simple character of the writer; but it is impossible to read it, we believe, without being struck with the tone of natural and gentle feeling which it expresses so admirably.

[quotes from “Brother and Sister”]

            The story of ‘the Orphan’ is pretty, and very interesting.  It contains the following verses, supposed to be written by a gentle and timid young woman, pining under the oppression of a romantic and concealed passion for a man who entertained no suspicion of her attachment.  We think they have great tenderness and beauty.

[quotes from “The Orphan”]

            ‘The Uncle and the Nephew’ is amiable and well managed. – ‘The Death-Bed’ – ‘The Robber’ – and ‘Murder will out,’ are not very natural.  ‘The Fashionable Wife’ is still worse; and, though many of the particular scenes are well drawn, we cannot help withholding our sympathy from distresses, deduced from a source so inadequate and fantastic.  In the other tales, there is occasionally something frivolous, and something too obvious and inartificial; but in all, there is much just representation of manners and character, and much pleasing composition.

            We cannot place Mrs Opie so high in the scale of intellect as Miss Edgeworth; nor are her Tales, though perfectly unobjectionable on the score of morality, calculated to do so much good.  They are too fine for common use; and do not aim at the correction of errors and follies of so extensive and fundamental a nature.  She does not reason so powerfully; and she is not sufficiently cheerful; Indeed she is too pathetic, to be read with much advantage to practical morality.  Her writings, however, are very amiable and very beautiful; and exhibit virtuous emotions under a very graceful aspect.  They would do very well to form a woman that a gentleman should fall in love with; but can be of no great use in training ordinary mortals to ordinary duties.

Literary Journal, a Review, ns, vol. 2, Aug. 1806, pp. 159-67.

            BEFORE these tales came into our hands, we accidentally heard a lady in conversation criticising them.  They were, in her opinion, very common place things.  They contained nothing sublime, nothing striking, nothing wonderful, but consisted of every day transactions which every one knew and every body might write.  She gave Mrs. Opie no credit for invention, and concluded that she would make a very bad romance writer.   We instantly recollected Partridge’s remarks on Garrick, and could not but consider the lady’s observations as an unintentional eulogium on the composition whose value she endeavoured to depreciate.  The consequence was that we began the perusal of the Simple Tales with some degree of partiality in their favour.

            The criticism above mentioned, was to a certain extent correct.  The Simple Tales, it must be owned, contain little that is wonderful, and for the most part, detail only such transactions as might very naturally have occurred.  If this had not been the case we should have said the epithet “simple” was rather ill-applied, any thing in the fair one’s criticism to the contrary not withstanding.  Mrs Opie, however, is reduced to a dilemma between us.  One thinks that tales are nothing without something to confound and astonish, another prefers simplicity, and Mrs. Opie is left to console herself with the old remark that there is no pleasing every body.

            At any rate Mrs. Opie agrees with us that simple tales ought to be simple, and that it is much better to afford a correct picture of the real manners of life than to fill volumes with extravagance and absurdity.  When fiction is employed to represent human nature, as it is to give an accurate view of characters and manners, to trace the means by which they have been formed, and the consequences naturally resulting from them to point out the real causes by which virtue and vice are generated and fostered, and consequently to enlighten mankind with respect to the proper mode of cherishing the one and avoiding the other, then a simple tale may justly be considered as an apt and pleasing illustration of the soundest philosophical reasoning.  But to construct tales of this sort requires no ordinary share of judgment, discrimination, and accurate knowledge of human nature, and therefore it is, that so few have succeeded in this way.  In the tales before us we meet with many things which serve to shew that Mrs. Opie does not possess the proper requisites to the extent that might be wished, but at the same time they in general furnish ample proof that she possesses them in a much higher degree than the ordinary writers of fiction.

            Without attempting to analyse the tales, we shall briefly notice a few of them, from which a tolerably correct judgment may be formed of the nature and tendency of the whole.  The first is founded on a triumph of benevolence over personal vanity in particular circumstances.  Julia Beresford was the only daughter of a purse-proud merchant who had retired from business.  She delighted in acts of benevolence; though from the sordid disposition of her father, she had not the means of gratifying her inclinations in this way to their full extent.  Beresford was eager to have his daughter married to a young baronet of the neighbourhood, who had just returned from his travels; and have her twelve guineas to buy a new pelisse, that she might appear to advantage.  Julia, on her way to effect her purchase, happened to observe a case of such a distressing nature that she gave away her twelve guineas, and was consequently forced to appear at an entertainment given by a neighbouring gentleman on the baronet’s account, in her old shabby pelisse.  Her father was enraged at the result, as it is briefly stated, and as it furnishes a specimen of the style and manner of the tales, may be given in Mrs. Opie’s own words:

[quotes from Simple Tales]

            The second tale, called “The Death Bed,” paints the consequences attending the frailty of a wife and a mother, in deep but true colours.  It contains the following reflection, which is just and well expressed.

[quotes from “The Death Bed”]

            The next tale called “The Fashionable Wife and Unfashionable Husband,” is an excellent one, and forms a clear and just illustration of the influence of bad habits, the difficulty of eradicating them, and the mischievous consequences with which they are attended.  The story turns upon the unthinking extravagance and rambling disposition of a wife, who though herself a woman of strong understanding, and married to a man particularly eminent for his virtues and talents whom she adored, yet rendered her own and her husband’s life miserable by these pernicious habits, which she had contracted in her early years owing to the foolish indulgence of her parents.  The bad effects of such injudicious indulgence are still more strongly displayed in the tale called “Murder Will Out.”  “The Soldier’s Return,” is a good illustration of the mischievous tendency of female vanity in low life, and “The Brother and Sister” displays in vivid colours the progress and consequences of seduction.  But the most important and interesting of the whole is the tale entitled “Love and Duty.”  It is founded on a celebrated trial which took place in France, or rather is, with some additions and alterations in the mode of description, an account of the trial itself.  The Count de Montgomery, and Monsieur D’Anglade occupied different apartments in the same house in Paris, with their families. The Count being about to visit one of his country seats, invited D’Anglande and his family to his residence, but the invitation was refused.  When the Count returned to town he found that his house had been robbed of money and jewels.  The apartments of the D’Anglades were searched, and things found of a similar description with those that had been lost.  They were therefore taken up on suspicion, and D’Anglade was several times put to the torture to force him to confess but without effect.  The circumstantial evidence was however so strong, that he was condemned to the galleys, but he had suffered so severely by the rack that he died before he reached them.  Madame D’Anglade died in prison after her misfortunes had caused her to miscarry, and one daughter was alone left of the family of the unfortunate D’Anglades.  In some years after, the real robbers, who were servants of the Count de Montgomery were discovered, and confessed to the crime at the place of execution, and the innocence of the D’Anglades was fully established beyond the possibility of a doubt.  The daughter was afterwards married to a counsellor of parliament; but what most forcibly strikes us on the perusal of this remarkable story is the danger of depending entirely on circumstantial evidence in the trial of an accused person.  On this account it is of the greatest importance, and cannot be too much known or too highly valued.

            From the above sketch of the nature of these tales, it will be readily seen that they contain a fund of moral instruction; and this conveyed in that easy, simple style which must be pleasing to almost everyone, and cannot disgust even the most fastidious.  Mrs. Opie’s works are indeed of that unexceptionable nature in point of morality, that they may be with perfect safety put into the hands of persons of any age or sex.  They cannot do harm, and it is not Mrs. Opie’s fault if they are not attended with benefit to those who peruse them.  This indeed is praise of the highest kind, but it is one seldom deserved that we ought to be eager to bestow it where it is due.

            But there are points in which some of the tales are very exceptionable.  That called “Murder will Out,” we must confess appeared to us not to correspond well with the epithet “simple.”  We are aware how much we differ from the fair critic before mentioned, but etiquette must here yield to truth.  Some idea may be formed of the story from a statement of the principle circumstances.  Two Britons while in prison at Rouen were in the habit of gazing from the window of their cell at the nuns and boarders who walked in the gardens of a neighbouring convent.  One of the prisoners, a Scotchman, named Dunbar, was particularly struck with the beauty of one of the boarders and became desperately in love.  His companion, Apreece, a Welshman, also took notice of her.  Both of them happening one day to look from the window earlier than usual, saw the fair incognita standing beside the dead body of a man.  She stooped down and drew a dagger from his breast, and having filled the pockets with stones, she rolled the body into a pond which stood close by and watched it till it completely sunk.  This spectacle excited a considerable degree of horror in the minds of the gentlemen, who conjectured that the lady had in a jealous fit murdered her lover.  Dunbar, however, eager to preserve her, thought of persuading Apreece that he had been dreaming and was mad, and that therefore he ought to say nothing about the affair.  Apreece, enraged at the imputation, became almost mad in reality, so that when the keeper appeared, his companion had no difficulty in convincing him of the alleged insanity.  Thus the matter ended for the time.  The prisoners were soon after liberated and came to Great Britain.  Dunbar, however, having settled his affairs, resolved to return to Rouen, with a view to learn something of his incognita.  She, in the mean time, had arrived at Brighthelmstone with her mother, and there Dunbar became acquainted with them.  Unfortunately he met Apreece in his walks, and was obliged to have recourse to new stratagems to prevent his seeing the lady, against whom he was the more enraged on account of the charge of madness, which he had not forgotten.  Dunbar accompanied the lady and her mother to Rouen, where he staid sometime; when, as he was one day walking out with them, who should again appear but the unlucky Apreece.  He knew the lady immediately, and without ceremony accused her of murder.  She was taken up, tried, and condemned to be executed.  She was accordingly carried to the scaffold, but as she was bending her neck to the executioner, a man rushed through the crowd and stopped the execution by declaring that he himself was the murderer.  This was the lady’s brother, who in fact had been the murderer.  His sister had come to the spot just as he had committed it and prevailed on him to make his escape, and afterwards took the whole on herself and was resolved to die for him.  The brother had been early initiated into vice owning to the indulgence of his foolish mother.  He was assassinated in his prison, and the sister was married to Dunbar.

            Now instead of “simple,” we think this story in the highest degree romantic and extravagant.  Unless the reader should be convinced of this by the bare statement, it would be in vain to reason with him.  The notion seems to have been borrowed from the story of Damon and Pythias, and the scene at the scaffold is a close imitation.  There is a bare possibility that such things might be, but bare possibilities are not the proper materials for a “simple tale.”

            Some of the tales are objectionable in another point of view.  The practice of killing people in an abrupt way, for the obvious purpose of getting rid of a difficulty, is a common resource with the ordinary novel-writing herd, but is very unworthy of Mrs. Opie.  Yet to this practice she has had recourse, and it detracts considerably from the natural and unaffected manner which is generally found to prevail in these tales.  In the above tale of “Murder will Out,” for instance, Mrs. Opie contrives, in a way which is not very probable, to have the murderer assassinated in prison, glaringly for the purpose of preventing the disgrace of a public execution, which might be disagreeable to the feelings of his relatives.  His death too would have been a sad mortification to his family had they not been before hand all swept away by a convenient fever.  In “The Robber” too it was rather hard to make Mrs. Sedley die of vexation, merely because Theodore might have found it inconvenient to live in the same house with her, and to marry her husband’s daughter by a former wife.  Yet Mrs. Opie has killed the poor woman with all the nonchalance of a common novel-scribbler, whose only object is to get on without considering whether what he writes be sense or nonsense.

            The tales, however, are upon the whole, like Julia Beresford’s ballad mentioned in the first story, neither showy nor brilliant, but natural, simple and interesting.  They contain a great deal of moral instruction, and in general are worthy of the reputation which Mrs. Opie has already deservedly acquired.

Monthly Review, ns, vol. 53, Aug. 1807, p. 438.

            These tales possess merits similar to those which we have before noticed in another production* of the same writer; and we willingly recommend them to the perusal of such persons as love to gratify their feelings by this kind of reading.

*Adeline Mowbray See M.R vol. li. p. 320.