1854 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Amelia Opie

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 41 (January 1854) 95-97.



Dec. 2. At her residence, Castle Meadow, Norwich, in her 85th year, Mrs. Amelia Opie.

The last two years have been fatal to some of the most ancient among the literary women of our land. Harriet Lee, one (and the principal) of the authoresses of The Canterbury Tales; Mrs. Sherwood, of large repute in what is usually called "the religious world;" Miss Berry, the friend of Horace Walpole; and now, with Amelia Opie's time-honoured name, must close the record of deaths for 1853.

Mrs. Opie was the daughter of Dr. James Alderson, of Norwich; the name is best known at the bar and on the bench, where still its representative is sitting; but Dr. Alderson was a popular physician in his day, practising during his whole medical career in Norwich, and particularly noted for his kindness and attention to the poorer class of patients. He had literary tastes, and was a great politician of the radical — almost revolutionary — kind. Amelia's mother dying in her infancy, she was left as the sole charge of her father. It is clear that he greatly endeared himself to her. With the exception of her nine years of married life, he was her companion during nearly the whole of their joint career: for she did not marry till the age of twenty-nine, and returned to live with him on the death of her husband. It cannot truly be said that Dr. Alderson gave his daughter the best education which her time might have afforded, since we have instances at that day of women much more solidly informed and better grounded, who thus became less tolerant of imperfection in writing and reasoning, and far less likely to be misled by outward shows. What may, however, fairly be stated is, that he showed his value for sterling principle and solid attainments, by promoting, as far as possible, her intercourse with a woman eminent for both — domestic and simple in her habits, while keen in her appreciation of excellence in literature and art. Still, here was a young lady, — brilliant, winning, and popular, — of delightful disposition, but not at all unambitious — loving society, and early its darling — what wonder was it if her wit, her gaiety, her poetical and her musical powers, (united as these last were in song,) carried the day, and filled that ground with flowers which might otherwise have more richly abounded in fruits? Fruits, however, there were — rich and precious ones.

Amelia Alderson, besides the early cultivation of her natural powers and tastes, seems to have thrown herself warmly into her father's political feelings. Being in London at that stirring time (in Nov. 1791) when the trials of Hardy, Horne Tooke, &c. were going on, she accompanied some of her friends to the law court, and wrote daily accounts of the proceedings home. Her letters are well remembered by those who heard or rend them, as chronicling in the liveliest manner the exciting incidents to which each day gave rise. One cannot help regretting their destruction; but Dr. Alderson, as a member of the Norwich "Corresponding Society," already lay under suspicion. The Habeas Corpus Act being suspended, no man could tell how soon his house might be entered and his correspondence examined. He read the letters therefore only at the fireside of the friends with whom his most intimate hours were passed, and then burnt them all.

We pass on to Miss Alderson's marriage in 1798, when, as has been said, she was twenty-nine years of age. She had written before that time, but not, we believe, for the press; unless, possibly, occasional songs: for here must be mentioned, what always appeared to us her true vocation in poetry, song-writing. Her exquisite ear made her intolerant always of inharmonious verse; she adapted well: the single thought or emotion of a song was often beautifully rendered. We have understood that many unpublished proofs of her genius in this department have been seen by private friends. She sang these songs finely. In interpreting, &c. a lyrical ballad, it would not have been easy to find her equal. There might be a slight shade of exaggeration; but she felt deeply, and threw herself into the feeling or thought she represented; — the power and pathos were rare and unquestionable.

We do not pretend to enter on the question of the suitableness of her marriage connection: no one, at least, could question her faithful, unremitting, earnest endeavours to forward the objects of Opie's life, nor her warm sympathy in his pains and pleasures. We cannot read the memoir prefixed to his Lectures, and not feel both her attachment for and her understanding of him. It is known that she bore meekly with his occasional roughness — shed the light of her own charming temper on his somewhat moody, anxious turn of mind; — was helper, comforter, inspirer, nurse. He died in 1807, and she, after her nine years of wedded life, returned to Norwich, never thenceforth to quit it, as a home. It is right to add, that during her married years her pen was frequently under exercise; not without need, for the painting-room successes were not such as to place her at her ease, and her love of society could not be indulged without expense. Of her works, The Father and Daughter, published in 1801, is perhaps the most striking. It was translated and dramatised, and, as the opera Agnese, with Paer's music and Ambrogetti's acting and singing, it will, as a contemporary says, "connect Amelia Opie's name with opera so long as the chronicles of music shall be written." More feeble writings followed; in fact, she wrote too rapidly, and with a careless pen; yet among her tales are some of real power — Murder will Out, and The Ruffian Boy, in Simple Tales, rest in our recollection with haunting force. The Odd-tempered Man, in a different style, is seriously, deeply, impressively pathetic. Temper, St. Valentine's Day, and her later Illustrations of Lying, and Detraction Displayed seem to us inferior. In the last two, particularly, the mode of summing up, as if the two vices were on their trial — as if the result of their reasonable condemnation would bring us in real life one step farther from their contaminating influences — was surely unworthy of one acquainted with human nature.

Mr. Opie's death brought his widow only to the age of thirty-eight, and she lived forty-seven years longer. She might, we are assured, have married again, but she remained as she was, her father's inmate — the friend, — the cheerful, lively guest, whose conversational and musical powers were always welcome; who was ever "a friend in need." Her father died after a long decline, during which she tended and nursed him with devoted affection. It was during the long confinement of that time that religions impressions were certainly deepened and strengthened in her heart. Her father, till then apparently not much accustomed to converse upon these subjects, now found pleasure, advantage, and comfort in his long conversations with the late Mr. J. J. Gurney, and, by his own desire, was interred in the burial-ground of the Friends.

Her own after assumption of the Quaker faith, garb, and speech, excited at the time a degree of surprise and clamour, which it this day appears quite disproportioned to the occasion. Brought up and baptized among Unitarians, Mrs. Opie had been for a long time, as we know from her own authority, verging towards, and, finally, a convert to orthodox views.

"The choice of a religious community," she observed, "in my own mind, only then lay between the Wesleyan Methodists and the Friends;" but in the former she had scarcely a connection — in the latter many and dear associates. It was therefore the least possible wonder, excepting in so far as her lively, joyous tendencies could not but appear unsuited to the outward costume. Such broad contrasts between past and present, in minor matters, are always undesirable — always more or less forced, when manners and dress and speech have all to be arrayed in a style unknown till now. All that can be said is, that they may be sincerely adopted as part of a system, in the main considered as good and wise; may be barricades against retrogression and pledges of being in earnest. In Mrs. Opie's case, we do not think either her new or old friends had the least reason to charge her with fickleness: and doubt whether for two minutes together, she ever felt a wish to be free of what seemed trammels to others. One needed only to observe how her overflowing, exuberant spirit of enjoyment stood unrebuked by her garb, or how her countenance only softened into a look of more serious happiness, to be assured that there was no self-deception in the matter. What would the world have had? She was loving and candid; willing to be at peace: with it where she could; quietly walking in her own ways where she could not.

The trials of her later years were sharper than she was willing to allow. She had more bodily affliction than even those in the house with her easily found out; for it was her perpetual habit to make as little as possible of pain. Far deeper, more real was the grief that sprung from the loss, one by one, of her most cherished friends. The death of Sarah Buxton, of North Repps Cottage, Cromer, — then of her brother, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton — of J. J. Gurney — of his married daughter — and, last not least, that of the late Bishop of Norwich — whom she greatly loved and valued — were successive shocks from which she did not easily recover; and it is said that she seldom mentioned either of these persons without shedding tears; though always winding up with a few warm words indicative of the strong belief in a re-union hereafter.

In May, 1851, she came to London on her last visits, and attended the great Exhibition; on which occasion, while conducted in her chair round the building — for she was very lame — she met Miss Berry, then ninety years of age, and conversed with her in her usual lively manner. She returned to Norwich. Her occasional animated notes and letters still came to her friends. In one of these, dated 4th Month 27th, 1852, she speaks with more disturbance than was usual to her of a threatened removal from her house in the Castle Meadow, in consequence of City alterations. "Only think, dear friend, what an unfortunate person I am! I must go, if alive, somewhere else, and this is the most complete house for a lame invalid that ever was. Well! what must be, must be; and I hope I shall get a habitation somewhere, even before I inhabit my grassy grave!" It is a comfort to think that no move was made, until the last and final one. But the last half-year appeared to be marked by more rapid stages of decline. None of her relatives resided with her, for in general she preferred being alone; but during the last month she was attended by one of a younger generation, the Rev. R. Alderson, who performed all the filial offices, and closed her eyes. She was interred in the grave of her father, at the Friends' Burial Ground, Gildencroft, Norwich, amid a considerable concourse of persons who had known, and many of whom loved her. What has been said of her before, we now, in conclusion, repeat. She was "true in heart and true in life generous, confiding, and faithful. Her cheerful heart shone through her bright face, and brought comfort and pleasure into every house she entered; and her deep reverence for all lofty and sacred things was as remarkable as the cheerfulness itself."

We shall ever regard her life as one of the healthiest and happiest we have known, and consider it as one of our blessings that a portion of our own has been brightened by the friendly regard of Amelia Opie.