Tales of Real Life (1813): Reviews

Monthly Review, vol. 72, 1813, pp.326-7. 


While some authors are satisfied with merely amusing, and others almost affront their readers by the pertinacity of their admonitions, Mrs Opie appears to take a happy medium; generally proposing to herself to shew the effects of some virtue or the consequences of some error, and seldom losing sight of this object, though she courteously allows her readers to draw their own conclusions from her tales.

In the present publication, the characters of ‘Lady Anne and Lady Jane’ exhibit the importance, to young females, of uniting pleasing manners with steady principles; and the tale contains some dialogues which are exquisitely natural. The history of ‘Austin and his Wife’ admirably displays the evils resulting from either undue severity or improper indulgence in education. The composition, however, intitled ‘The Mysterious Stranger,’ though it awakens interest and conjecture, turns them to less profit than Mrs Opie’s other narratives generally create; since, if the heroine were supposed to [327] love her second husband, her story would be immoral, though perhaps more natural; and, as it now stands, her feelings and conduct are at variance, both being too improbable to afford warning or instruction.

With the exception of this story, the volumes possess the same pathetic eloquence, and accurate developement of human motives and feelings, which must always charm in the writings of this author; and by which she is enabled to make the strangest fictions appear in her narration to be Tales of Real Life.

Critical Review, series 4, vol. 4, Aug. 1813, pp.190-200. 

THESE tales are four in number.  The first is entitled Lady Anne and Lady Jane.  The following is a slight sketch of the story.  Lady Anne and Lady Jane are orphans and also first cousins.  They are both left on the death of their parents under the guardianship of a Mr. Percy.  This Mr. Percy has an only son, who is a very charming, sensible, and fashionable young man; and who, as it may be presumed, falls in love with one of his father’s beautiful wards; but unfortunately he stumbles upon the one who is the least likely to make him happy.  Lady Jane, though a beautiful and a most fascinating woman, is by no means calculated to make a good, though she is eminently qualified to for a fashionable wife.  She is beautiful; she is witty; she is volatile; she is thoughtless.  She is the votary of pleasure; she is extravagant; she is a contractor of debts; and she is a determined gambler – yet she is represented as having an affectionate heart; but her thoughtlessness and extravagance render this affectionate heart of very little use.  At a tle of wo she is all commiseration.  She is the general ‘ patroness of distress,’ and she ‘gave to charity what she ought to have given to justice.’ She possessed unfortunately what Mrs. Opie calls

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            Lady Jane pursues her giddy career, and is a second Mrs. Harrel in her expensive and thoughtless life; but possessing more intellect than that lady is represented to have had.  Lady Anne is described as the Cecilia of the tale, but without her sweetness of manner.  Lady Anne is sternly virtuous; but yet liberal and beautiful.  She struggles with a hopeless passion, as she had fallen in love with Mr. Percy before he declared his passion for her cousin Lady Jane.  The scenes of distress which are subsequent to the marriage of Mr. Percy with Lady Jane and are the product of her careless prodigality and gambling infatuation, and the generous and enlightened conduct of Lady Anne are very feelingly portrayed and exhibit a bright contrast between sense and fatuity, virtue and vice.

            Lady Jane, after borrowing immense sums of her cousin, merely, as the vulgar phrase is, to keep the wolf from the door, — and delude her husband, at last comes to a melancholy end.  This votary of fashion and folly, gives a fete, and, as her taste was unrivalled, and as every thing she did, every thing she said, every thing wore, and, every room she decorated, was the fashion, — she, of course, spared no expense to keep up her name for elegance and profusion in the haut ton.  At this splendid fete she had bespoken her decorations for her rooms of artificial flower maker of great eminence in his line, who had employed a poor man to make him some roses, &c. for the occasion.  The man, who was needy, expected to be paid at the time he carried home his work.  This, however, was not the case; but, as he could not wait, he solicited or rather dunned his employer, who, knowing that he might not be paid by Lady Jane for years, sent him to her, desiring him to say that he had sent him, accompanied by a statement of great pecuniary exigency. – Lady Jane, whose heart always melted at the word poverty, distress, &c. goes with her flower bill to her husband, who immediately gives her money for the occasion; but, instead of paying to the poor flower maker, she loses it at cards in the evening.  Lady Jane is also frequently importuned for payment by the poor man’s wife, but gets nothing but empty promises for her pains,

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            The poor man who was oppressed with debts which a small part of what was owing to him would have paid, is arrested, and rather than go to a jail he commits suicide.  His wife is overwhelmed with distraction, and for some time is confined in a mad-house.  She is at length dismissed as cured; but, on returning to her melancholy home, she fancies that she is warned in a dream to revenge her husband’s death on Lady Jane Percy, who had been the cause of all her wo.  She finds the knife with which her husband had committed the rash act of self-murder, and proceeds to the house of Lady Jane, and joins the crowd that always thronged her ladyship’s door, in order to see the beautiful woman of fashion step into her carriage in full dress.

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            The husband’s agony at this horrid scene is very pathetically described, as well as the shock which he suffers on hearing the following tale when he went into the room where she was detained.

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            The death-bed scene of this profligate woman of quality is highly wrought, and holds up to the thoughtless and volatile part of her sex an awful lesson; though we could wish that the fair authoress had employed any other means of bringing about the catastrophe than that of assassination.  The necessity of inculcating self-denial in children is very happily exemplified in the above tale of Lady Anne and Lady Jane.

            The second tale is entitled ‘Appearance is against Her.’  This is by no means equal to the first.  It, however, conveys an excellent moral; and places the crime of female coquetry in a very edifying point of view.  The third is called ‘Austin and his Wife;’ and this we look upon as the most important as well as the most interesting of the whole.  It is a very melancholy tale; but it is fraught with so many important truths, that we shall give as full an account of it as our limits will permit.

            Austin is a country shopkeeper, and has an only child, a fine handsome lad, whom he endeavours to impress with a love of truth and with every good principle that would make him an honest and respectable member of society. – Austin looked upon the class of society in which he was placed to be, as it were,

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            This worthy man practiced, as far as lay in his power, what he wished to inculcate.  But his wife, who was a fond and doting mother, by her ill-timed indulgence counteracted her husband’s wiser plan of education.  For instance, when Edwin, her darling boy, was punished by his father for telling an untruth and sent to bed without his supper, she would, in the fondness of her heart and unknown to her husband, sit by his bed-side, soothe him with caresses, and pamper him with plum-cake &c.

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            Edwin proceeds step by step into the paths of vice; he quite subdues his repugnance to falsehood, and shows but little reluctance to theft; but all these bad symptoms are hid from his father by the foolish fondness of his mother.  The following scene is a good lesson to weak and indulgent parents.

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            On the boy’s showing some kind of penitence his doting mother was induced to forgive him and to conceal it from his father!  This ill-timed indulgence in the end proves fatal to the unfortunate Edwin.  At the age of fifteen, ‘when his father began to think it time to bind him out apprentice, the beauty of his face and person, the plausibility of his manners, and the quickness of his talents, caused him to be spoken of as a lad of much promise.’  When his mother was labouring under a fit of illness, Edwin’s attention was extreme, and the poor deluded woman in congratulated by her friends on the affection of her son.

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Edwin is apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in the city of – some distance from this native place.  He is apparently well pleased and going on as he ought.  His year of trial was nearly at an end; and at Christmas he was to pay a visit to his parents.  The happy time at length arrives; the fond mother prepares her good cheer; and invites her friends to welcome home her darling son.  The father hastens to meet him at the coach-office: but no Edwin appears.  At last the postman brings a letter stating ill health to be the reason for his non-appearance: but that a few days would effect his recovery; and he desires them not to write, as, in all probability, he would be on the road home before their letter could arrive.  ‘That night,’ the fond parents, ‘went to bed, happy in the bliss of ignorance!’ but on the third day a letter from Edwin’s master informs them that he had eloped with his wife’s sister, a married woman, who had been on a visit at his house; that he had discovered their retreat, and had sent the lady off to London and taken Edwin back.  This overwhelming intelligence nearly breaks the poor mother’s heart, and cuts the worthy Austin to the soul

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            And here, let every offended parent hold in mind the worthy Austin’s reply.

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            We must hasten in as short a space as possible to the catastrophe of his instructive and pathetic tale.  The scene on Edwin’s return home, and the reception which he experiences from his parents after his delinquency are well conceived and highly natural.  There is something truly affecting in the poor mother’s tender attentions to her beloved child.

            Edwin is afterwards placed with a relation in London, as a chemist.  Austin extracts from his son a solemn promise never more to see Mrs. Verney (the woman by whom he had been seduced) and Edwin ‘early used to habits of dissimulation and falsehood, had no objection to give the assurance required, because he did not feel himself at all bound to abide by it.’  It is not long before he accidentally meets with Mrs. Verney, who was in high keeping; and she regains her empire over the infatuated youth.  She proves a second Millwood; and induces him to rob his master as a resource for her extravagance.  This being detected he quits his relation, and gets into a counting-house; where by his plausibility and attention he conciliates the regard of his employer, who promises to make him his partner.  As the ill conduct of Edwin whilst with his relation was kept a secret from his parents their minds were set at rest concerning the abandoned woman, with whom their son was wasting both his money and his time.  Years pass on; they hear unpleasant rumours: they fear, they tremble, — but they hope for the best.  In his last visit to his parents Edwin evinced so much tenderness for them, that had not poor Austin caught him, as he fancied, recurring to his old and rooted habit of lying, he would have been at perfect ease.  Some months after this Edwin’s letters were confused; and his hand writing bore marks of agitation.  Austin hears also that Mrs. Verney, after having passed from keeper to keepr, was sunk in the lowest depths of profligacy, and that there was every prospect of her coming to an untimely end.  “If,” cried Austin clasping his hands with agony, “if this wretched woman’s state should have any thing to do with my son’s altered style and trembling hand!”  He writes to him a most pathetic letter; entreats him to confide in his best, his true friends, who lived for and in him.  This letter, blotted with the tears of parental affection, receives no answer. – At length the thunderbolt falls!  Edwin, madly devoted to this abandoned woman, in order to save her from jail,

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            The feelings of the parents may be conceived, but we must leave the description to the able pen of Mrs. Opie.  It is hardly possible to refrain from tears on reading the beautiful and simple descriptions of the grief of the worthy Austin and his wife.  Edwin, forsaken by his paramour, wanders over the United Kingdoms, associating with the profligate and drowning the sense of his misery in drunkenness.

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            To add to the keen regrets of this worthy couple after this dreadful blow, they come very unexpectedly into a handsome fortune, by the death of a relation; and would be happy beyond compare could they know the fate of their profligate but beloved child.

            Every parent who reads the tale of Austin and his wife, will feel most acutely the little tendernesses which Mrs. Opie has so faithfully and touchingly delineated.  We shall select the following.  After this worthy couple had settled in a beautiful small house, which was the bequest of their relation on Black Heath, one day in particular was passed

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            The above as well as what follows is full of interest, and will not be read without some strong emotions by those who are possessed of only common sensibility. – The story thus proceeds.  Austin and his wife

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            The necessity of bringing up children in a strict adherence to truth, could not well be more forcibly exemplified than in the above tale.  In our account of it we have omitted the character of Brograve, who brought up his only son upon the system of terror.  The contrast is an excellent one, though both parents failed in their attempts, and were frustrated in their hopes.  The next tale is called the Mysterious Stranger, which no doubt has its merits; but in point of interest it will not bear a comparison with that of Austin and his wife.  The literary fame of Mrs. Opie will receive a well-merited addition from these ‘Tales of Real Life.

British Critic, series 2, vol.2, 1814, pp.653-4

Whoever is conversant with the works of Mrs. Opie will, on sitting down to peruse a new production from her pen, be naturally induced, by his past experience, to anticipate a renewal of mental gratification. He will expect to find character, pathos, moral feeling, a skillfully-conducted story, and a chaste and elegant style. Such were our expectations, on taking up these volumes, and they have not been disappointed. These tales do not yield in merit to any of their predecessors. They are four in number; and each of them forcibly inculcates an excellent moral.

The first volume contains the tale of “Lady Anne and Lady jane.” Its chief object is to point out the danger of that levity of mind which is but too common, and which too frequently produces the most terrible effects. It has, also, a secondary end in view, which is, to show that even the greatest virtues not only lose much of the respect which they ought to receive, but likewise much of their influence over others, when their possessor unfortunately happens to be of repulsive manners. The character of Lady jane, giddy, careless, and taking no thought for the morrow, is finely imagined and sustained; and her repeated resolutions of amendment, and as frequent lapses into error, till she ultimately falls a victim, are delineated with a masterly hand. Nor is the heroic and benevolent, though occasionally harsh, Lady Anne less strongly drawn. “Appearances are against her” forms the second volume. Emma Mordaunt, the heroine, lovely, amiable, noble-minded, and strictly virtuous, gives rise to injurious and degrading suspicions, by her disregard of appearances. Her history is told, throughout, with infinite spirit. The third volume contains two tales. The first of these, “Austin and his wife,” is an admirable and impressive lesson to parents, to shun the Scylla and Charybdis of excessive indulgence, and of continued and unprovoked severity. The second tale, “The Mysterious Stranger,” though said to be founded on fact, is of a somewhat more romantic cast than either of those which precede it. We recommend the perusal of it to all those females who have “a great contempt for the usual restraints laid on their sex, and a great violence of temper.” To such, it cannot fail to afford a useful warning. Indeed, we are disposed to think that no person can read these tales without deriving as much benefit from them as pleasure. Their morality is so strictly pure, that they do not present a single thought, or expression, which can excite any improper idea; and, considered merely as novel, they display a truth and reality of representation, which almost compel the reader to believe that they are not the work of fancy, but the faithful narrative of events which have really taken place.

Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 85, no. 1, May 1815, pp.433-4.


THESE Tales come before us without a single paragraph dedicatory or explanatory; but we take it for granted they are intended, like all the rest of Mrs. Opie’s productions, to forward the interests of morality and virtue, and to point out the true path which leads youth to prosperity and happiness. Circumstanced as we thus are, it becomes a difficult matter to explain or illustrate the different Tales, so as to make them understood by our Readers: for this reason, and as “Lady Anne and Lady Jane” occupies the whole of the first volume, we shall confine our remarks to that alone.

The first pages of this Tales in some degree elucidate the story. Mr. Percy inquires of his son which of his fair and Noble wards he is hereafter to call daughter- “You have been,” he observes, “seemingly a long time suspended, like Mahomet’s tomb, between two magnets.” In the progress of this conversation the father expresses his fears that young Percy likes Lady Jane, and that Lady Anne likes him.

“It would, indeed, have been more for Harry Percy’s interest to marry Lady Anne; as, not from vice, but thoughtlessness, he had, thought but just five and twenty, been forced to mortgage his only unentailed estate so considerably, that, as he had no ready money, a large sum with a wife could alone set him free; and as he knew that his father had no money to spare, he had carefully concealed from him an embarrassment which, he well know, it would distress him not to be able to remove.”

We are informed of the characters of the two ladies by an incident introduced in the 8th and 9th pages.

“At one-and-twenty he returned and found Lady Jane, who with her cousin had been presented at Court, a reigning belle in the fashionable world, and more full of fascination that ever: but, thought courted by all who beheld her, her eyes seemed, he thought, to look as tenderly as ever on him. Not so Lady Anne’s; her eyes never sought his; on the contrary, they seemed to avoid them; and when he returned, after a long and severe illness, during which his life was despaired of, the one wounded his self-love, while the other soothed it. Lady Anne, when she saw him, was so struck with the change in his appearance, that she could not as first speak; and when she did, it was to say, in a faltering voice, and with eyes filled with tears, ‘Oh Harry, how ill you look! I declare I should scarcely have known you! And you look so old!’ ‘Don’t mind what that raven says, Harry,’ exclaimed Lady Jane: ‘she always sees the worst side of everything; and I assure you I think, though you look as if you had been unwell, you never looked handsomer nor younger in your life.’ Harry held a hand of each at this moment; and it is certain that he pressed Lady Jane’s very tenderly, while he held Lady Anne’s so coldly, that she withdrew it. From that moment Lady Jane stood on a vantage ground with Harry Percy, which she never lost; for he thought the remark of Lady Jane kind, – that of the other cruel; and though deeply impressed, before he went abroad, in favour of Lady Anne, he saw not, heeded not, he understood not, the faltering voice, the involuntary tears that accompanied her remark – a remark impelled by real tenderness, thrown by the anxieties of tenderness completely off its guard. Nor did he observe that, though her words were flattering, Lady Jane’s feelings were cold. He therefore banished Lady Anne from his best affections, and received Lady jane to them, -like many others, rejecting the substance for the shadow.”

After this development, we need advance nothing more relating to the plot as it will be apparent to the Reader that the heedless perverseness of the two lovers will furnish ample means of exhibiting Lady Anne in a number of amiable lights, and contrasting her native excellence with the levity of her sister-ward, who dies in the sequel, when Percy becomes happy with her he had so absurdly rejected in the first instance.