Valentine’s Eve (1816): Reviews

Monthly Review, ns, vol. 79, 1816, pp. 438-9.

This story is not calculated either by its conduct or its circumstances to display advantageously the talents of the writer; and, since ‘most animals know where their strength lies,’ as Warburton said, when referring to his critics, such persons as attempt to perform the critical office towards Mrs Opie must consider her as an exception to his rule. Why, else, does she so often attempt the composition of playful dialogue, in which she has never succeeded; and the exhibition of consummate villainy, such as is here attributed to Melvyn and Sophia Clermont, and such as her own mind is too amiable to assist her in conceiving? The heroine, however, (Catherine Shirley,) is a high and christian character, doing honour to the principles and feelings of the fair delineator. The plan of confining the reward of her innocence entirely to another world is also a stroke of originality: but, ‘as readers go,’ her example might have been more inviting, if her misfortunes had not arisen from the exercise of her virtues; and if her death had been retarded, and she had been allowed to enjoy the esteem of her husband and the caresses of her children before she went hence to be no more seen. Lord Shirley is not consistently drawn. He ought not to have listened to nor visited Sophia and the defamers of his wife, when he had once been apprized of their real characters; and, on the other hand, he abandons his suspicions too lightly at first, after having acted on them so strongly. It is scarcely [439] worth while to add the remark, but surely the title of the work is not justified by the single, adventitious, and uninfluential circumstance from which it is derived. If the event in question (though itself important) had happened on a Thursday or a Friday, would Mrs Opie have called her history by the name of that day of the week?

The introductory chapters of this interesting but unequal performance are in Mrs Opie’s best manner, and full of the natural touches for which her pen is deservedly distinguished; though the first begins rather oddly with stating that ‘General Shirley was dining with a friend in the year eighteen hundred and odd.’ We should like to ask the fair writer what year this was; and also to suggest to her the revision of the following passages: Vol. i. p. 112., ‘going in and out of the room to find up all his books.’ – Vol. ii. p. 95., ‘Melvyn was firm in his refusal to stay no longer.’ – P. 125., ‘he feared his hopes of an union between the earl and his heiress was as far off was ever.’ – P. 266., ‘Pray how soon does she go?’ ‘Oh, not of a month, replied Lady Shirley.’ – P. 334., ‘they are always expressly forbidden never to come in when their lady is singing,’ &c.

Augustan Review, vol. 2, June 1816, pp. 583-5.

MRS. OPIE possesses by nature two great requisites for good writing – simplicity and pathos.  ‘The Father and Daughter,’ her first prose performance, combined these qualities in a manner scarcely exceeded in the English language; her ‘Mother and Daughter,’ though not altogether so successful an effort, is yet a work of which many authors might be proud; and some of her ‘Simple Tales’ possess strong powers of interesting and affecting the reader.  We do not, upon the whole, think that her excellencies have encreased in proportion with her fame.  Brought more into the notice of the fashionable world, she has appeared to think it necessary to employ her pen more in delineating fashionable manners: and she must not be displeased when we say, that for this delineation she is by no means fitted; here her simplicity is misplaced, her pathos lost.  Neither the characters nor the incidents she has of late chosen appear congenial to her; no wonder, therefore, that they do not appear natural to the reader.  What is unwillingly drawn, can never have the ease of real life.  Besides, to this class of society belongs a sameness, both of manners and of incidents, which we have daily proof is sufficiently ennuyant to themselves, and which we think must in time prove as much so to the most indefatigable reader of modern novels, which turn so entirely on the follies and frivolities of the higher classes, that one would imagine the middle rank of life cannot, under any circumstances, possess as claim upon sympathy or admiration.

            This performance opens with much of Mrs. Opie’s native manner; and how delightful that manner is, the feelings it irresistible excites in the reader are an undeniable proof.

[quotes from Valentine’s Eve]

            His impatience to get to town, his anxiety to procure a newspaper at the first coffee-house, and his agony at finding his son’s name in the list of the killed, are affectingly told.  Staggering through the crowd, stupefied with grief, and bewildered with the glare of illuminations around him, he is enabled to reach his own house only through the assistance of a young girl, who hears the name of General Shirley from the sympathizing spectators, and who is herself described as in the wildest agony of grief.  This young girl proves to be his grand-daughter, the orphan and only child of his deceased son.  Her adoption into his family follows of course, and is agreeably described; but with it much of the interest expires, and the succeeding incidents are common-place and unaffecting.  The heroine herself, instead of being the wild child of nature, which we are led to expect from the circumstances attendant on her first appearance, proves to be in possession of the most perfect self-command and decision of character; interlarding her conversation with so many sententious remarks and scriptural quotations, that we are not surprised at the censure cast upon for her “pompous piety,” by her aunt, Mrs. Baynton.  There is not much more consistency in the character of her friend Miss Merle, though she is exceedingly well described as a beautiful virago of warm heart, but of republican principles.  That such a character may be perfectly in nature, no one will deny, who recollects the fever of mental excitement into which, near thirty years ago, the French revolution threw many even of the innocent, the lovely and the young.  But Miss Merle’s principles might as well have been those of George Fox or John Wesley, in regard to any particular results that arise from them; and it is perfectly natural that they should gradually vanish on her reception into a family of superior rank and refined habits, where she becomes the object of admiration to a young peer.  But Mrs. Opie seems to have sketched her characters without knowing precisely how to group them, or what places they should occupy in her piece.  She must, at first, have meant Mr. Melim to be a much more agreeable personage than we afterwards find him.  Like many fine gentleman, he appears to the greatest advantage, when others speak for him; — in the author’s description, he is vulgar, inconsequent, and dull; and his villany seems of hat gratuitous sort which works without fee or reward.

            The main incident turns upon a mystery so insignificant in itself, and guarded by an oath so improbable in its administration, that the sorrowful conclusion in which it involves the work is as unsatisfactory to the mind of the reader, as it is unproductive of any moral impression, unless we are to learn from it that a man should not, under any appearances, however suspicious, presume to believe it possible for his wife to be betrayed into error.  We are not fond of fictitious narratives, that turn entirely upon either the actual or supposed infidelity of married persons.

            From such a pen Mrs. Opie’s we ought only to have tales of simple life and virtuous attachment.  The first volume of this work awakens expectations, which are certainly disappointed in the succeeding ones; but the writer who can awaken such expectations in such a manner, can gratify them likewise, if she will but take the trouble to do so: and however much the present performance may fall short of our wishes, we shall be among the first to take up any other from the same author.