Temper; or, Domestic Scenes (1812): Reviews

British Critic, vol. 39, 1812, p. 526.


We were among the first to hail Mrs Opie’s entrance upon the literary theatre, zealously cheered her progress towards celebrity, and with the animation of a friendly partiality extolled her merits and accomplishments. Notwithstanding these testimonies of our good will, and perhaps in proportion to their warmth, earnestness, and sincerity; we confess that we have been sadly disappointed. As prosperity is hard to bear, so is too much praise, and there is reason to fear that Mrs Opie has been spoiled. Amid the false splendour of a delusive flattery her judgment has been warped, her taste corrupted, her imagination misled. In short she seems to have over-written herself. These volumes certainly exhibit indubitable marks of mental ability, of good thinking, and of judicious observation, but all this is so deformed by a tissue of absurdities and improbabilities, that it requires no common exertion of patience and perseverance to linger through the whole. It is useless to expatiate upon these, for they occur perpetually, but how could Mrs Opie so far lose sight of consistency, as to represent in her first volume the mother of her heroine at one moment in the anguish of despair, and prepared for self-destruction, and in the very next, calmly sitting down to show her talents in drawing flowers and sketching likenesses. Two accomplishments by the way which do not often meet in the same individual. Or how again so extravagantly caricature the heroine herself, as to represent her in that foolish situation in the post-chaise, seeing her grandmother feasting through the window. Many such absurdities occur. We nevertheless must willingly acknowledge, that scattered through the narrative are many salutary maxims of discipline for the management of temper, many sensible and judicious observations on the human character, and a certain knowledge of life. We always liked this lady’s poetty [sic] better than her prose, and her tales better than her novels. In our opinion, she has never printed any thing in greater excellence than one of her very first poetical productions, called the Virgin’s First Love, which may be found in one of the volumes of the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Critical Review, series 4, vol. 1, June 1812, pp. 621-6.

THIS tale of Mrs. Opie’s commences with an important lesson to parents.  We would request those mothers who read novels for their amusement, when their children are asleep, to take instruction from the first page of the first volume, and to reflect on the baneful consequence of suffering a child to get the better.  We could almost fancy, that we hear a fond mother exclaim at this, our request, ‘Ah, it is fine talking; it is very easy to write on such subjects;’ but that is a good proverb which says, ‘Maids, children and bachelors’ wives are well taught.’ And so it is a good proverb; but like many good proverbs, and many good things, it is miserably perverted.  Many an anxiously fond mother takes this proverb in a wrong sense, and fancies that those persons who are not parents themselves, talk upon education and the bringing up of children, as subjects which it is impossible for them to understand, whereas, from being divested of those blindly fond feelings of a parent, they see the little faults which children exhibit; in a more clear light than the parents themselves.  But we would have that mother beware who, from a mistaken fondness, an indolence of disposition in herself, an impatience of temper, or any other cause, we would have her beware how she overlooks the first impulses of temper in her children. For let it be remembered that temper proves either the bane or the blessing of life.

            Every observing person will agree, that temper in children displays itself at a very early age.  On its first appearance, it may be effectually checked, and brought under proper controul by judicious management.  But if the little ebullitions of temper are suffered to have a temporary reign, the task of correction becomes terrific.  We often hear – ‘Oh, poor little loves; they know no better; they are but babies;’ and parents are too apt, when a child is tiresome and shows a violent temper, to give up the point in contention merely for peace-sake; but this is but a sorry and a selfish feeling on the part of the parent.  To be sure, order is restored for the time; but the next offence of the child, which follows quick upon the heels of the former, is committed with a more daring countenance, and with a mind more assured of gaining its point.  With all the delightful artlessness of infancy, children frequently evince a degree of cunning which is thought to belong only to more advanced life.  It is surprising how soon they know, that a smile, an arch look, a rosy lip put up to be kissed, or a pertinent answer, will call forth a blessing on the little darling, that has just offended.  It is indeed wonderful how soon the little creatures know their power over the affections, how warily they feel their way, and how daringly they proceed, after gaining a point.

            If obedience be not firmly inculcated, self-controul earnestly impressed, and government of the temper strictly enforced, parents may bid a long farewell to all the dreams of bliss they had fondly cherished for their old age.

            In the female character obedience and good temper are great essentials; for let a woman’s rank in life be ever so exalted, let her possess all the beauty of her sex, let her have the capacity of calling forth for the hour all the fascinations it is possible for the mind to imagine, if she have not good temper by her own fire-side, and a proper sense of obedience, as a wife she is nothing; and as a daughter it is a thousand to one but she brings her parents’ ‘grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.’

            In the sad story of Agatha Torrington, which Mrs. Opie has sketched in these volumes, the government of the temper is many parts very powerfully displayed. ‘Shut the door, Agatha,’ said Mr. Torrington, to a beautiful girl of four years old; ‘the wind from the passage is intolerable.’ But Agatha stirred not. – ‘Did not you hear what I said?’ resumed her father; ‘shut the door, for I am cold.’  Still, however, the child heeds not what is said, and continues to amuse herself.  During a sensible conversation between the father and mother, in which the former endeavours to persuade the latter how very wrong this false tenderness of overlooking will be in the end, the child seizes a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, and runs away with them to the end of the room.

[quotes from Temper]

            Under the controul of Mr. Torrington, Agatha’s temper improves, but a short time afterwards this sensible parent is snatched away by death.  The affliction which this event brings upon Mrs. Torrington, so far weakens her mind as to induce her to relax the wise system her husband had begun.  The fatal consequence is that when Agatha approached the period of womanhood, she became an object of fear to her mother; ‘and the tyrant of her mother’s household, the torment and destestation of all the relations and friends who visited at the house.’  This turbulent, fiery-spirited young lady (who is of course very beautiful) falls in love at a ball with the handsome Mr. Danvers; and as her mother disapproves (from very good reasons) the match, Miss Agatha chooses, in contradiction to her mother’s will, to go off with him and marry him.  The unsubdued and unhappy temper of Agatha is not qualified to make a husband happy.  Danvers is so disgusted by it, that after the birth of a daughter, he abandons her, telling her at the same time that when he married her, he had a wife living in India.  In the few scenes which follow between this unhappy couple, Mrs. Opie has evinced her capacity of acting upon the feelings, as will appear from the following extract:

[quotes from Temper]

            We do not enter fully into the particulars of the story; but give the above as a specimen of the work.  The daughter of Agatha, who is named Emma, evinces the same untractable violence of temper as her mother had done in her infancy; but on the death of Agatha, the education of her daughter is undertaken by a worthy clergyman, of the name of Egerton, under the aid of whose judicious tuition, she turns out a different character from her unfortunate mother.  In the description of the process of instruction pursued with Emma, by Mr. Egerton, the principal merit of the work consists.

            Mrs. Opie, as a novel writer, has met with her full meed of praise, nor do we withhold it from this tale of Temper.  But we do not think the present performance at all equal to Adeline Mowbray, or the tale of the Father and Daughter.  The few characters, which are introduced, independently of those connected with the story, are very poor, quite beneath the genius of Mrs. Opie.  Mrs. Felton, the conquest-making widow, Mrs. St. Aubyn, silly and extravagant – and the vulgar Mr. Popkinson, are mere ephemerals.  The latter, we must own, made us smile; for in his conversation with Emma at the ball, we renewed our acquaintance with certain venerable personages not an hundred miles from the famed city of Norwich, a place of some note for good dinners and scarlet-dyers.  We have in our young days heard of such a character as Old Sal, which answers to Mrs. Opie’s delineation of Old Peg.  And perhaps our good friend, Mrs. O. may have heard tell of such a being as Old Bob, and an Old Sal of Norwich?  Surely this is not The Opie, to use an opera phrase.

            We cannot very much commend the plot which Mrs. Opie has adopted in these volumes.  It comes too near that in the novel of Evelina.  In fact the denial of Danver’s marriage with Agatha Torrington is similar; and the conduct of Sir John Belmont is not unlike Danvers’s.  But the discovery of the legality of Agatha’s marriage is not so well managed; nor is the tout en semble of the piece so skillfully arranged.  The forbidding of the marriage with Emma and Balfour, who proves to be her brother, just in the nick of time, is but poorly contrived; and, as we said before, very much beneath the genius of Mrs. Opie.  What interests most in this novel is the unhappy story of Agatha, and the correction of her daughter’s temper; and in this consists the chief merit of the performance.

            It is well known to every reflecting mind, that the most serious ills arise from an immoderate indulgence in early life; and that every good may be expected from proper attention to the correction of a child’s temper and disposition.  The unsubdued spirit of Emma showed itself on the following occasion.  A dispute having arisen between her grandmother and a gentleman by the name of Hargrave, a near neighbour, who had a nephew almost brought up with Emma, it was desire by Mr. Hargrave that the young Emma and Henry should not meet.  However, the young folks, like all other young folks, who really love, do find an opportunity of meeting, though without the wish, or the thought of doing wrong.  But when Emma is told it is wrong, what is her answer?

[quotes from Temper]

            Mr. Egerton enters the room and hears this undutiful speech of his pupil’s; and Mrs. Castlemain, Emma’s grandmother, thus addresses him:

[quotes from Temper]

            This is no very amiable specimen of the heroine of the tale; but it is a useful lesson to know, that such a temper as Emma here displays, is corrected and improved by proper discipline; and that she becomes an amiable, sensible, and worthy member of society.  Her mother’s marriage is proved; and her father, whom she discovers by chance, dies penitent for the injury which he had committed against Agatha.  Emma marries the man whom she loves; and all ends as it should, according to those laws, to which most novelists render an unqualified obedience.

Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 82, no. 2, Nov. 1812, pp. 463-4.

THE motto adopted by Mrs. Opie carries with it an indisputable truth, “A horse not broken becometh head-strong, and a child left to himself will be wilful;” and she has undertaken the praise-worthy task of illustrating the position, by shewing the baneful effects of uncontrolled temper. One more amiable or more necessary cannot be devised: and such attempts surely deserve more encouragement than can possibly be due to those who write fiction for the mere purposes of amusing and entertaining the indolent adult. While we thus commend the intention, we heartily wish it was in our power to entice parents and guardians to place “Temper,” and similar Tales, in the hands of young person: and while they compelled attention, to comment on the events related which bore any degree of reference to the conduct of the child instructed: but it is not in this point of view alone that we think this description of work useful, as it is in the power of numbers of parents to extract highly salutary lessons for themselves respecting the evil tendency of absurd indulgence – we are fearful there are too many lax instructors of youth that the following extract will exactly and minutely reflect:

“Shut the door, Agatha, said Mr. Torrington to a beautiful girl of four years old, the wind from the passage is intolerable. –But Agatha stirred not.
“Did you hear what I said? Resumed her father. Shut the door, for I am cold. –Still however, the child continued to build houses, and her father spoke in vain.

“I will shut the door myself, said her fatally indulgent mother; Agatha is not yet old enough to understand the virtue of obedience.”

This relation is succeeded by a well-managed altercation between the two parents, the father maintaining the necessity of mild punishment for disobedience, and the mother contending that it should never be inflicted till Agatha was old enough to comprehend the nature of offences. And here Mrs. Opie has very happily seized upon the ridiculous excuse of over-fond Mama’s, founded upon the examples derivable only from a Peter, the wild boy, or the Savage child, found some years past in a forest in France. To punish such miserable objects for non-compliance with directions to them incomprehensible, would indeed be unjust; but it is far otherwise with the infant constantly nursed and cherished, whose attention is for ever excited to passing occurrences; who observes and understands, as might be demonstrated by thousands of instances, things it cannot possibly explain for want of language. Nay, who has not noticed children checked by a few unmeaning and unintelligible sounds, even at the age of a few months? Can we therefore suppose any age too early for instruction? Thus much we have ventured to remark in promoting the plan of Mrs. Opie, which we must not venture to develope further than to say, that she traces her subject through three descents, and by a variety of sagacious means, contrives to place infantile and more mature unrestrained Temper in lights which must be fearful and odious to every reflecting reader who would wish to see society under those wholesome restrictions necessary to keep everything in its due place.

Monthly Review, ns, vol. 68, June 1812, p. 217.

We estimate so highly this lady’s literary talents, and we so cordially approve the tendency of the present work, that we reluctantly qualify our opinion of its merits by first noticing its defects.  Mrs. Opie has delineated some traits of uncontrolled temper with a refined as well as a powerful pencil, but she might have excited greater interest if she had treated the subject less didactically; and a few additional scenes, of which a violent or a corrected temper formed the outline, would perhaps have been more amusing and useful than Mr. Egerton’s Dissertations on self-controul.  The fair author rather mistakes her powers in trying to be lively, and in penning long conversations, although some of the occasional speeches are excellent.  The simplicity of the story is injured by the introduction of improbable circumstance, such as Clara dying “to a moment,” and the frequent fainting fits of the whole party.  The hero also ‘falls senseless on the floor;’ and again he ‘sinks into the arms of the person next him,’ which has a strained and effeminate effect.

            Even the styles of this novel, though so easy and unaffected that it amuses and edifies without fatiguing the reader, is sometimes disfigured by a degree of tautology and inelegance, which can only be pardoned on the principle that induced Pope to rank among the privileges of Genius, “the freedom of saying as many careless things as other people, without being so severely remarked upon.”

            On the other hand, we cannot too much extol the new and exemplary character of St. Aubyn; his noble refusal of the challenge is well imagined; and the description of his sensations at his mother’s funeral, on reflecting that he had done his duty, must strengthen the virtuous resolutions of all who read it. – In the second volume, are some admirable observations on selfishness; and from the touching and beautiful passages which occur in various parts of this work, we may infer that, if it be less attractive than Mrs. Opie’s former productions, the reason is that she has diverged from the pathetic style of writing, in which she so eminently excels, for the amiable purpose of being more generally useful to her readers.