One of our library volunteers, Judith Hepper, writes about one of our rare books she discovers in the reading room …
Climb up the high ladder to a top shelf in the Lower Reading Room and you will find a small book by Amelia Opie titled Detraction Displayed. Intriguingly, the title page bears an inscription in Opie’s neat handwriting, following the printed author’s name with “and from her to C.S. Edgeworth, Norwich . . 1834.”
Charles Edgeworth, a lawyer and author, was the half-brother of Maria Edgeworth: his magnum opus was a biography of his cousin, the Abbe de Firmont, chaplain to Louis XV1. .
The Bodleian Library holds letters to him from Opie, written after a visit he paid when she was sixty-five, widowed after the death of John Opie the portrait-painter, and he a younger married man. The handwriting is instantly recognisable, as is her lively style. They had not met for twenty-four years, and it seems clear that, planning time in Norwich, he had written to her, suggesting that he might pay her a call. She looked forward to their meeting excitedly, although: “I feel great doubts as to the reality of the pleasant expectation”. Writing in her ardent way, her sentences enlivened by clusters of exclamation marks and snatches of French, and her script decorated with flourishes, she arranges that Charles should stay at the Norfolk Hotel, which “has an excellent warm bath”, plans the coach routes and sets up an energetic programme to places of interest.
He came! Fortunately the letters following his visit, written in her conversational style, suggest that he fully appreciated her generous hospitality and that the visit was a great success, although she chides herself for sights unseen and local characters unvisited. She pleads for a return visit: “Anything like neglect is to me agonising”.
Excitingly, Opie refers to our volume, suggesting teasingly, but one suspects, anxiously, that, although she pressed the book on him, he was not actually “impatient to read” ‘Detractions’.
Although Detractions Displayed is often dismissed as belonging to Amelia Opie’s late, ‘didactic’ period, there is nothing sententious about it. Her tone is serious but not solemn. She is amused at people’s follies (“our darling sins”) but realistic about “everyday nature”. She defines ‘detractors’ as those who indulge in “backbiting conversations” in which they mock the frailties of their friends. She lists, for example, time-killing gossips, nicknamers, scorners, sneerers and eye-inflictors, and draws amusing pen-portraits of detractors at work, while identifying the effect of their “lowering remarks” on their victims. “The fangs of scandal-mongers” are pernicious elements in Society.
Ultimately, Opie maintains that “detracting” is a waste of energy. She advises intelligent women not to indulge in this “mischievous pleasantry”, but to turn aside to develop positive and constructive conversations. She sees detractors as without imaginative sympathy and maintains that their words are always calculated “to compare their own superior sensibility”. But “Heighho! What charming things would sublime theories be, if one could make one’s practice keep up with them.”
So there she sits on our shelves, appropriately next to authors who were her friends, the social reformers Elizabeth Fry and Thomas Fowell Buxton. All we have to hope is that Charles Edgeworth did find time to visit her again, and that he was duly appreciative of Detraction Displayed.