August, 2019. Postdoctoral Fellow Kim Simpson writes the first of a new monthly blog series

I’ve spent the last three days on a single paragraph, reading and re-reading, trying to pick out the words from a barbed wire fence of crossed lines, to follow the loops and flourishes of the ink to their meaning. It’s the most frustrating, fury-inducing work I’ve done in ages, and this includes trying to get a ten-month old to sleep when all she wants to do is practice blowing raspberries, but it’s also extremely compelling, addictive even. I stay awake too late looking at it, and return to it first thing in the morning, hoping that fresh eyes will tell me what that word is.

This morning I stood in the Great Hall at Chawton House and gazed upon the portrait of the woman who was provoking these feelings. Amelia Alderson Opie stared back at me – dark eyes framed by black brows, a turquoise headband, and soft, powdered hair. The portrait is one of ten depictions of her by the famous portrait artist John Opie, who she married in 1798.[1] This portrait has no date, but is likely later than his more recognizable 1798 portrait, held at the National Portrait Gallery, or the unusual double portrait he also painted in the early years of their marriage.

The face is a little masculine, an aquiline nose over a hint of a smile, eyes intelligent, knowing, perhaps defiant. She reminds me of Opie’s second portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790, striking a similar pose, cutting a similar figure. And indeed, Wollstonecraft was a friend of Amelia Opie’s in her early life. The two women met in 1796 and enjoyed a correspondence thereafter. 14 surviving letters from Opie to Wollstonecraft and Godwin are kept in the Bodleian (an attractive prospect for a future research trip), and the couple were an important influence in Opie’s life. She even reimagined their unconventional relationship in her 1804 novel Adeline Mowbray, which we are discussing at the first meeting of the Chawton House reading group in September.

I look at this woman and try to match her to the hand, sometimes elegant and neat, sometimes furiously scrawled, or crossed to illegibility. I try to match her to the novelist, the poetess, the socialite, the radical, the Quaker, the abolitionist, to the shadowy Amelia Opies that I have come across through reading and teaching other women writers of the long eighteenth century. Gary Kelly notes that Opie was considered ‘second only to Edgeworth among new fiction writers who wrote something more than “the trash of the circulating libraries” […] her tales contain brilliant touches of dialogue, characterization, and incident, equal at times to Austen and very similar in character.’[2] But as with many of Austen’s contemporaries, Opie remains virtually unknown outside of academic circles. I’d been teaching Burney and Edgeworth as important precursors to Austen, but never Opie. Likewise, I’d introduced students to the anti-slavery poetry of Hannah More, Ann Yearsley and Anna Letitia Barbauld, but not Opie, despite her involvement in the abolition movement, and her noteworthy appearance as one of the only women in Benjamin Robert Haydon’s painting of the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention.

The work of moving her from the margins to the spotlight is meaty, and starts with biography.

Early Life & Writing

 Amelia Alderson was born 12 November 1769 in Norwich to James Alderson (a physician) and his wife, also Amelia. An only child, she lost her mother at 15, and took over care of the house. Throughout her life, she moved in circles that, as the Amelia Opie archives website declares, formed ‘a veritable who’s who of political and social life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.’ Her early connections included the Gurney family – she grew up with John Joseph, who became a leading Quaker, and Elizabeth Gurney (later Fry), who advocated for prison reform, and became the second woman to grace English currency in 2002. She also knew Dr Aiken and his sister and literary partner Anna Letitia (later Barbauld). Opie wrote from an early age – her first production was a five-act play, Adelaide in 1786, which was performed privately in a Norwich theatre in January 1791, with Amelia playing a principal role. Her first novel, The Dangers of Coquetry, was published anonymously in 1790 by Minerva Press, notorious for publishing sentimental and Gothic works, often by women, and often poorly reviewed. Opie’s debut, a tragic tale involving a flawed but sympathetic married heroine, a fatal duel, and a stillbirth, was celebrated as a ‘sensible and moral novel’ and ‘a solemn warning to the fair sex’ against coquetry in the Monthly Catalogue, whilst the London Review took a less conservative view: ‘while [the novel] attributes the most mischievous and dreadful consequences to a little innocent coquetry in the character of a wife, it [shows] them to have proceeded from an idle, ridiculous, and unfounded jealousy on part of her husband.’

Social Circles

Indeed, Opie was no stranger to radical thought. In 1794, she met proto-anarchist William Godwin, and two years later she met Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). After she married John Opie in May 1798, her friendship circle further expanded to include fashionable women like Lady Caroline Lamb, artists like Joshua Reynolds, and writers like Elizabeth Inchbald. She was well-travelled, visiting Europe several times in her life, especially Paris. In Paris in 1802, Opie met Maria Edgeworth, JMW Turner and Helen Maria Williams. John Opie passed away at just 46 in 1807, leading to a period of retirement, but as his biographer Ada Earland notes, ‘so pleasure-loving and vivacious a temperament could not be long kept under and in the spring of 1810 Amelia found her way back to the gay world.’ This world included the famed Madame de Staël, who Opie met in 1810. She corresponded with William Hayley from 1812, and met Walter Scott in 1816. A Unitarian in early life, in 1814 Opie started to attend Quaker services, and finally became a member of the Society of Friends on August 11, 1825, after the death of her father. After this point, she turned her mind to charitable pursuits, developing friendships with a new circle, and becoming deeply involved in the abolition movement, led by the Quakers.

Publications

Opie enjoyed a prolific publishing career. After her debut novel in 1790, in 1795, she published 15 poems in the radical Norwich periodical, The Cabinet, and she had four poems published in the Annual Anthology of 1799. Many more publications, including novels, poetry, children’s books, memoirs, and didactic works, followed:[3]

  • The Father and Daughter (1801)
  • Poems (1802)
  • Adeline Mowbray, or, The Mother and Daughter (1805)
  • Simple Tales (1806)
  • The Warrior’s Return and Other Poems (1807)
  • Temper; or, Domestic Scenes: A Tale (1812)
  • Tales of Real Life (1813)
  • Valentine’s Eve (1816)
  • New Tales (1818)
  • Tales of the Heart (1820)
  • Madeline: A Tale (1822) – her final novel
  • Lying in all its Branches (1825)
  • Tales of the Pemberton Family (1825)
  • The Black Man’s Lament (1826)
  • Detraction Displayed (1828)
  • Lays for the Dead (1834)

Chawton holds several first editions of Opie’s work, and these volumes mostly sit in the corner of the Lower Reading Room, keeping company with hundreds of other women writers (pictured above).

Amelia Opie died on 2 December 1853, aged 84, in Norwich, and is buried in the Friend’s Cemetery there.[4]

The next stage in getting to know Opie is the bibliography, a work in progress.

Much has been written on Opie already, from the early biography written by Lucy Brightwell: Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie, Selected and Arranged From Her Letters, Diaries, and Other Manuscripts in 1854, or an entry in Ellen Clayton’s 1875 Celebrated Women to 1980s and 90s literary criticism by scholars such as Roxanne Eberle, Gary Kelly and Carol Howard. Some modern editions of her works remain in print, including the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Adeline Mowbray (1999), the Broadview edition of The Father and Daughter with The Dangers of Coquetry (2003), and the Oxford University Press edition of Collected Poems (2009), all edited by Shelley King and John B. Pierce. Ann Farrant has written the first biography of Opie since 1937: Amelia Opie: The Quaker Celebrity (JJG Publishing, 2014).

There is also a wealth of information online too, a benefit of the fact that Opie has only recently received the attention she deserves. The excellent Amelia Opie archive complied by Shelley King and John B Pierce was established in 2007, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Sections on Opie’s life, portraits, works, letters, music and bibliography provide a comprehensive view of Opie, and also link to other important projects. These include Roxanne Eberle’s recent and ongoing project to digitize Opie’s letters: The Correspondence of Amelia Alderson Opie: A Digital Archive. Closer to home, you can read about research completed last year by one of Chawton House’s own library volunteers, Judith Hepper, who elucidates the links between Opie and Charles Edgeworth (novelist Maria Edgeworth’s half-brother).

Most pertinent to my own research are the letters. Opie was an inexhaustible letter writer, and many of these still exist, held in libraries all over the world. In 2002, Clive Jones compiled an Annotated register of letters of Amelia Opie, which is available at Friend’s House Library in London – another future research visit.

In a box in front of me are over one hundred more letters, dating from 1825 to 1852. These letters are from the private collection of Charles Beresford. At his beautiful Cambridge home, he holds some truly exquisite items of Quaker history, including diaries of his female relatives who meticulously-documented their experiences of living through times of great upheaval, including the First World War. These diaries formed the basis of my Grandmother’s research before she died.[5] Beresford is a descendent of the addressee of Opie’s letters, Thomas Richardson of Sunderland. Richardson (1800-1872) was a young batchelor who Opie, 31 years his senior, affectionately referred to as her ‘grandson’. In 1827, his younger brother Edward (1810-1866) edited a collection of her poetry and collated some ‘Interesting Anecdotes’, a transcript of which remains in Charles’ collection, and it is via Edward that the letters came to be in Charles’ collection.[6]

I’ve yet to order the letters by date, put each in a plastic conservation sleeve, and scan them so as to preserve the originals, but also to enable me to digitally manipulate some of the images to make them easier to read. My plan is to transcribe each one – they will no doubt cast new light on the mature Opie – and this project will form the basis of monthly blogposts. My perverse streak of course demanded that I start with one of the most difficult. In 1800, Opie writes Thomas Richardson from France. She had travelled to Paris in August due to civil unrest so I know this letter is likely to contain much of political interest. But presumably the lack of available paper has caused her to take space-saving precautions that have left the letter almost illegible. I wonder whether our poor Thomas was able to decode it. Familiarity with her hand no doubt helped, and will, I hope, help me too in the future. So far, I have the following tantalizing glimpse:

Hotel de la Paix

Rue de la Paix – (what a proper abode for a friend! N’est ce pas?) 12th Mo 23rd 1830

Evening

My dear, kind friend,

Ever since I received thy most welcome but unexpected letter etc. I have felt towards thee a debt of affect? gratitude which thou mayest be tempted to think, I have been a long time in acknowledging and I own that I must have appeared neglectful but the truth is, I have hoped from day to day to be able to send thee satistfactory information relating to the things dearest to thy heart and I trust I may say to mine also, but, my hopes have been in a measure? disappointed.

Allow me before I proceed to go back to the time when I received thy letter & [unreadable] – I had been for weeks, nay months, projecting a grand visit? to Paris – but, as I am often distrustful of my own notions, I was undergoing great conflicts, such as even threatened my health…

I’ve stalled on these lines, and will return to this letter further down the line. If anyone with a skilled eye at reading handwriting wants to hazard a guess though, or offer corrections, answers on a postcard please!

My next post will recap the reading group, thinking about Opie’s Adeline Mowbray.

[1] See Ada Earland, John Opie and his Circle (1911), pp. 303-4. My thanks to Charles Beresford for this reference.

[2] Quoted in Shelley King and John B. Pierce’s introduction to Adeline Mowbray (Oxford World’s Classics, 1999)

[3] This is not an exhaustive list.

[4] Biographical information is sourced from ‘A Chronology of Amelia Alderson Opie’ in Adeline Mowbray, ed. King & Pierce.

[5] See Pamela Richardson, Two Quaker Ladies: A Family Story (Moorcroft Press, 2009).

[6] Edward Richardson and his wife had a daughter, Gulielma Maria Richardson, who married Charles Alfred Fox in 1874. Charles Reginald (known as Rex) was their eldest son, and Charles Beresford is his eldest grandson. The addressee of Amelia Opie’s letters, Thomas Richardson, is Beresford’s great, great grandfather’s brother or his great great great Uncle.