1853 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Amelia Opie

Harriet Martineau, Obituary in The Daily News (1853); Martineau, Biographical Sketches (1869) 13-20.



Another of that curious class of English people — the provincial literary lion — has left us. Mrs. Opie is dead. The young, and most of the middle-aged, of our day will say, "What of that?" — or "Who was Mrs. Opie?" — or will think of her only as a beneficent Quaker lady, whose conversion to muslin caps and silent meetings made a noise some good many years ago. But the elderly generation are aware that a good deal more than that is connected with the name and fame of Amelia Opie.

The long wars of George III.'s time largely influenced the fate of this lady, as they did, indeed, that of most people in England. One effect of those wars in an insular kingdom like ours was to shut up our towns with their peculiarities, and to preserve a state of manners which has disappeared from the world, unless it be in some remote German districts, or in some primitive communities in New England. Lichfield is still renowned for its departed literary coterie, and their conceits and pedantries: and Norwich was very like Lichfleld — only with less sentimentality, and with some additional peculiarities of its own. It had its cathedral; but neither the proverbial dulness nor the all-conquering High-Churchism of most cathedral towns. The liberality of good Bishop Bathurst prevented the latter during the long course of his episcopate: and the manufactures of Norwich preserved it from stagnation. It is true that when invasion was expected, the Church and Tory gentry set a watch upon the cathedral, lest the Dissenters should burn it for a beacon to "Boney;" and the manufacturers who were of Liberal opinions were not accepted as volunteers, but were simply intrusted with the business of providing for the conveyance of the women and children into the interior whenever the French should land at Yarmouth or Cromer. But still, while Bishop Bathurst touched his hat to the leading Dissenters of the place, and Norwich goods were in demand for the Spanish and Portuguese markets, the old city could not stagnate, like some other cathedral towns. The weavers, descended from the Flemish and French immigrants who had sought refuge in our Protestant country, were growing more and more peculiar, narrow, and obstinate — smaller in mind and body with each generation, and sure to ruin the trade of the city by their pedantry about their work, and obstinacy about wages, whenever the time should come for the world to be thrown open by a peace. The French taught in schools was such as was found to be unintelligible when the peace at length arrived — taught as it was by an aged powdered Monsieur and an elderly flowered Madame, driven from France long before, and rather catching their pupils' Norfolk pronunciation of French than conveying the Parisian to them. But it was beginning to be known that there was such a language as German, out of the counting-houses, and that Germany was beginning to have a literature: and in due time there was a young man there who had actually been in Germany, and was translating Nathan the Wise. When William Taylor became eminent as almost the only German scholar in England, old Norwich was very proud, and grew, to say the truth, excessively conceited. She was (and she might be) proud of her Sayers; and Dr. Sayers was a scholar. She boasted of having produced several men who had produced books of one sort or another (and to produce a book of any sort was a title to reverence in those days). She boasted of her intellectual supper-parties, where, amidst a pedantry which would now make Laughter hold both his sides, there was much that was pleasant and salutary and finally, she called herself the Athens of England. If Mr. Windham's family, could he induced to publish all of his papers, there would, we believe, be found some curious lights thrown on the social condition of old Norwich in the time of the war. And some lawyers and politicians — Sir James Mackintosh for one — who went that circuit in their early professional days, used to talk of the city and its illustrious citizens in a strain of compliment which had much amusement, if not satire in it. They kindly brought fresh ideas to Norwich, and in return were duly venerated, and extremely amused by so perfect a specimen of a provincial city up in a corner, which called itself Athens.

Amidst these influences, Amelia Alderson grew up, to be formed by them, and to renovate them, as far as it was in the power of a clever woman to do so. She was the only child of Dr. James Alderson, a physician of no great mark professionally, but of liberal tastes, and fond of literary society. Amelia lost her mother in infancy; and her childhood and youth were superintended by a lady of considerable ability and book-knowledge. While she was thus training for literary ambition, John Opie, the painter, was among the tin mines in Cornwall, sketching with ochre on barn-doors, like Lawrence, and manifesting the ability which made Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) bring him up to London, and prophesy his turning out one of the greatest painters the world ever saw. It takes more, however, to make a great painter than Dr. Wolcot supposed, or than the generality of persons could imagine before the continental world of Art was opened to us; and before that happened Opie was dead. After the few first of his pictures, painted in London, there appears in almost all of them a remarkable female face — singular in profile, and, as a front face, so waggish that when used for tragic purposes it moves more mirth than sympathy in the observer — a face with merry twinkling eyes, and a mouth either saucily laughing or obstinately resolute against a laugh. This is Amelia Alderson, presently become Mrs. Opie. During their few years of union, she was at her husband's elbow at his easel, or sitting for some of his historical personages, or, no doubt, obviating by her own knowledge some of the mischief arising from his defective education. We see, by some of his pictures, how much this was wanted; as, for instance, in the "Jephthah's Daughter," where the sacrifice is actually supposed to be performed by the High Priest, who stands there in full official array, as if human sacrifices were permitted by the Jewish law!

And now came the time when Amelia Opie was herself to achieve fame by her tale of the Father and Daughter. The edition on our table (the second) bears date 1801, and is illustrated by a most woeful frontispiece, designed by her husband. Her Poems appeared the next year, adorned in like manner. The most celebrated of them — and it was very celebrated at the time — is The Felon's Address to his Child; one cannot but wonder why, in regard to the poems and the tale alike; and especially when we see that the motto in the title-page is taken from Mrs. Barbauld, whose fame would have been, we imagine, considered at the time inferior to that of her young friend Amelia. Time has long rectified the judgment — determining that Mrs. Opie was a jejune Mrs. Inchbald, while Mrs. Barbauld wrote the little she did write out of a full and glowing mind, trained to a noble mode of expression by a sound classical education. Mrs. Opie had other accomplishments, however, than any manifested by her pen. She sang finely — ballads sung with heartfelt impulse and pathos, and without accompaniment. Those who, as children, heard her sing Lord Ullin's Daughter, will never forget it. They cannot now read the "Come back" of that ballad, without feeling again the anguish conveyed in those heart-rending tones. The Prince Regent heard them. He went to a supper somewhere to hear Mrs. Opie sing — not long before the change which stopped her singing everywhere but beside her old father's chair. When she began to grow elderly, Amelia Opie became "devote." Her life had been one of strong excitements; and dearly she loved excitement; and there was a promise of a long course of stimulation in becoming a Quaker, which probably impelled her unconsciously to take the decided step which astonished all her world. During Mr. Opie's life, excitements abounded! After his death, and when her mourning was over, she wrote little novels, read them to admiring friends in Norwich, who cried their eyes out at the pathetic scenes, read in her dramatic manner, and then she carried them to London, got considerable sums by them, enjoyed the homage they brought to her feet, sang at supper-tables, dressed splendidly, did not scruple being present at Lady Cork's and others' Sunday concerts, and was very nearly marrying a younger brother of Lord Bute. Lord Herbert Stewart's carriage appeared, and made a great clatter in the narrow streets of Norwich and the old gentleman was watched into Dr. Alderson's house; and the hours were counted which he spent, it was supposed, at Mrs. Opie's feet. But it came to nothing. For a while she continued her London visits; and her proud father went about reading her letters about her honors. But she suddenly discovered that all is vanity she took to gray silks and muslin, and the "thee" and "thou," quoted Habakkuk and Micah with gusto, and set her heart upon preaching. That, however, was not allowed. Her Quaker friends could never be sufficiently sure how much was "imagination," and how much the instigation of "the inward witness;" and the privileged gallery in the chapel was closed against her, and her utterance was confined to loud sighs in the body of the Meeting. She tended her father unremittingly in his decline; she improved greatly in balance of mind and evenness of spirits during her long and close intimacy with the Gurneys; and there never was any doubt about her beneficent disposition, shown by her family devotedness, no less than by her bounty to the poor. Her majestic form moved through the narrowest streets of the ancient city; and her bright face was seen lighting up the most wretched abodes. The face never lost its brightness, nor the heart its youthfulness and gayety. She was a merry laugher in her old age; and even, if the truth be spoken, still a bit of a romp — ready for bo-peep and hide-and-seek, in the midst of a morning call, or at the end of a grave conversation. She enjoyed showing prim young Quaker girls her ornaments, plumes, and satins, and telling when she wore them: and, when in Paris, she ingenuously exhibited in her letters to her Quaker friends the conflict in her feelings when Louis Philippe, attended by his staff, stopped to converse with her in the streets of Paris, and when the Queen of the French requested her to appoint an evening for a party at the Tuileries. She made a pleasant joke of the staring of the Parisians at her little gray bonnet; and sighed and prayed that she might not be puffed up by all the rest. She was not really spoilable; and her later years were full of grace and kindliness. She suffered much from rheumatic lameness; but with great cheerfulness, on the whole — almost merrily. She was cordially respected, and will be vividly remembered for life by many who have long forgotten her early fame, or perhaps had scarcely heard of it. She was a striking picture in the childhood of some who are now elderly, when her stately form was seen, half a century ago, among the old elms in her father's garden; and she will ever be a picture in the minds of such young people as saw her seated, as upright as ever, but with her crutches behind her, at her sofa-table in her cheerful room in the Castle Meadow, any time within the last few years. The Taylors, the Sayerses, the Smiths, the Enfields — the old glories of the provincial Athens — have long been gone; and now, with Amelia Opie, dies the last claim of the humbled city to the literary prominence which was so dear to it in the last century. The period of such provincial glory seems itself to be passing away. A lady, yet more aged than Mrs. Opie, one who had for nearly a century scarcely left the old city, was of opinion that the depravity of the age was owing to gaslights and macadamisation. It does not require her years to show some of us that railways, free trade, and cheap publications have much to do with the extinction of the celebrity of ancient Norwich, in regard both to its material and intellectual productions. Its bombazine manufacture has gone to Yorkshire, and its literary fame to the four winds.