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Politics, Poetics and Propriety: Reviewing Amelia Opie

  • Shelley King

…plus d’informations

  • Shelley King
    Queen's University (Kingston)

Corps de l’article

In the current recovery and re-evaluation of the works of women writers of the early nineteenth century, the poetry of Amelia Opie has lagged a little behind her tales and novels in gaining critical recognition. Critics in the 1980s recognized in the Romantic novel a lost tradition of prose fiction ripe for recovery and placed Opie’s fictional works among those of Inchbald, Hays, and Wollstonecraft as significant contributions to our understanding of the literary culture of late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century Britain. In the wholesale recovery of the novels and tales of the period, Opie’s prose works fared well: Adeline Mowbray, for example, was reprinted by Garland with an introduction by Gina Luria as early as 1974, and by Pandora with an introduction by Jeanette Winterson in 1986. Dale Spender included Opie in her Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen, and Gary Kelly gave her writing substantial praise in English Fiction of the Romantic Period: 1789-1830. The case is somewhat different for her poetry: in late 20th-century vision of Romanticism predicated on the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Blake, the poems of Amelia Opie seemed to fit uneasily, if at all. In the late1970s Garland Press included four volumes of Opie’s poetry in its facsimile series “Romantic Context: Poetry / Significant Minor Poetry 1789-1830.” Yet though editor Donald Reiman does argue in his introduction to these texts for the recognition of literary value in a few of Opie’s poems, his comments for the most part reinscribe the aesthetic evaluation of earlier decades: “Most of Opie’s poetry, when assayed, would be cast into the scrap heap” (Poems, viii). Critical regard for poetry derived from a sentimental aesthetic has been slow to develop. As McGann notes in his introduction to The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style, “The scholastic success of this [modernist] critique [of the sentimental tradition] not only disappeared a large corpus of vital and important poetry, it obscured the conventions that supported such poetry. The twentieth-century reader’s access to this kind of writing was short-circuited from the start” (1). The recent project of recovering and valuing the specific works of female writers in this tradition is more fully explored in Linkin and Behrendt’s collection of essays, Romanticism and Women Poets. Opening the Doors of Reception, which contains one of the first substantial essays devoted solely to the study of Opie’s poetry, Roxanne Eberle’s elegant and persuasive “‘Tales of Truth?’: Amelia Opie’s Antislavery Poetics.” Isobel Armstrong has also brought serious critical attention to bear on Opie’s work in two important essays–“The Gush of the Feminine” and “Msrepresentation: Codes of Affect and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Poetry”–in which she explores the connections between politics, desire, and affective poetry, and suggests that Opie occupies an important position in this literary mode. Finally, Anne K. Mellor, in “The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women’s Poetry, 1780-1830,” distinguishes between the tradition of the poetess, who focussed on domestic and private experience, and the female poet, whose work occupies a specifically political and public sphere, placing Opie in her list of representative female poets. Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Amelia Opie’s literary reputation is returning to the stature it held in her own time.

A review of contemporary responses to Opie’s works reveals that the complex interrelations of politics, poetics and gender adduced by Armstrong were also at the heart of Opie’s initial reputation, though in a slightly different form. My reading of the reception history of her poetry suggests that Opie came to public attention at a critical moment in the history of sensibility, when the idea was undergoing significant revision in the cultural anxiety attendant upon the revolutionary politics of the 1790s. The affective poetics of sensibility which Opie had absorbed as a young woman in the 1780s offered what might be seen as a universalized human–rather than specifically gendered–response based on sentiment, and traces of that universal sensibility remained through the following decade. But by the turn of the century, when Opie first received wide publication, some reviewers had begun to question the political implications of sensibility and to suggest that affective verse might too easily be brought into the service of revolution. As Opie’s friend Kitty Gurney wrote concerning her own earlier radical sympathies, “The foundations of truth and duty, such as had existed for us before, were shaken, and we were led astray in conduct. Our opinions, which began in sentiment, had advanced into infidelity...” (Menzies-Wilson and Lloyd 28). The responses to Opie’s poetry in the first decade of the nineteenth century demonstrate the tendency of reviewers to “feminize” sensibility and to focus its power on socially acceptable themes suitable for female authors. Many reviewers further delimited the poetics associated with such verse in increasingly gendered terms. Thus responses to Opie’s early publications mix praise for the affective power of her verse with anxiety concerning her sympathetic representations of class and racial suffering. By 1808, with the publication of The Warrior’s Return and Other Poems, her second volume of collected poems, reviewer attention has shifted to evaluation of gender appropriate subject matter and poetic technique: within a decade Opie moved from being an eighteenth-century poet of sensibility to a proto-Victorian poetess as the politics of gender, mediated through a gendered poetics, displaced the politics of class and revolution as critical concerns in responses to her work.

I want to begin with a review of Southey’s Annual Anthology, the first forum featuring Opie’s verse to meet with significant commentary. The volume as a whole received a cutting response in the conservative Anti-Jacobin Review, a response predicated on the Anthology’s perceived radical political affiliation: the reviewer writes “That the Anthology (as it is called) is not a little tinctured with Jacobinism, we scarcely need observe, after mentioning the names of these authors: we hold their politics and their poetry, in equal contempt” (Anti-Jacobin Review 6: 216). Response to the second Annual Review was even more emphatic:

these Poets are still at work; they still endeavour to show that the present state of morals and feelings are the result of prejudice, and to debauch the passions of the lower and middle orders of the people. Such poets can contemplate the downfall of an empire, the destruction of a nobility, and all the horrors which a revolution may produce, with philosophical tranquillity; but the sight of a beggar, the fall of a leaf, and even the decay of an old tree, awaken in their tender bosoms the most exquisite emotions of sympathy.

Anti-Jacobin Review 7: 412

In the context of this polemical onslaught, the poems contributed by Amelia Opie were singled out for favourable response. The reviewer refers to them as “the flowers of the Anthology ... wasting their fragrance among weeds” and prides himself on having “remove[d] them to a more genial spot” (Anti-Jacobin Review 6: 216) in the pages of his journal. Indeed, the two poems quoted at length offer arguably conservative subjects: “To Mr. Opie, on his having painted for me the picture of Mrs. Twiss” presents the poet’s homage to her husband’s artistic talent in representing her female friend, concluding “Thus pride and friendship war with equal strife, / And now the FRIEND exults, and now the WIFE” ( ll. 15-16), while “Song” [“Think not, while gayer swains invite”] offers a portrait of masculine romantic devotion which concludes

Then, thoughtless of my own distress,
 I’ll haste thy comforter to prove;
And Laura shall my friendship bless,
 Altho’, alas! She scorns my love.

ll. 17-20

Thus the reviewer points to Opie’s contributions as examples of “poetic merit” untainted by radical political affiliation. The same two poems were extracted in The British Critic, which also pointed, though more indulgently, to the radical tendencies of the volume: “We are not surprised nor much offended at meeting, in the performances of young authors, high-flown notions of liberty, or extravagant effusions of wire-drawn sensibility. We therefore are contented to smile, without censure, at different passages to be found in this volume; which we do not think it worth while to specify” (The British Critic 14: 482). Thus Opie’s poems for the Annual Review are praised precisely because they are perceived as untinctured by Jacobin sympathies. Some irony exists in this, given that other works published by Opie during this period represent sympathetically precisely those “beggars” and “lower and middle orders of the people” objected to by the Anti-Jacobin Review–indeed, these works reflect more accurately Opie’s own political sympathies in the 1790s, when she was close friends with Godwin, and Horne Tooke, and Wollstonecraft, and when Amelia Alderson was first published anonymously in the notoriously radical Norwich Cabinet. Many poems, such as the song lyrics “Fatherless Fanny,” and “Song of a Hindustani Girl,” published with music by Edward Smith Biggs, and the “The Orphan Boy’s Tale” which appeared first in the Ladies Monthly Museum in 1799, specifically articulate both the innate virtue and acute distress of socially marginalized figures.

In 1801 Opie published The Father and Daughter, a slim volume consisting of the brief tale supplemented by a number of poems. Its success was such that the following year she published Poems, reissuing the poems from The Father and Daughter and adding both new compositions and poetry written in the previous decade. Critical response to this volume was largely positive. Opie was widely praised for the emotional power of her verse: her lines “have a truth of tenderness which will be acknowledged and loved by the rudest, as well as by the most cultivated apprehension” (Edinburgh Review 1:116); “Pathos” was “deem[ed] one of her peculiar excellencies”(Monthly Review 39: 434); and we are told “Her poems cannot fail of giving pleasure to every reader of taste. They are ... characterized throughout by elegance, tenderness, and simplicity” (Poetical Register 2: 430). Still, some reviewers expressed reservations based on class politics concerning certain of her themes, for Poems included many of her earlier, more overtly political lyrics. Thus while the Critical Review points out that a number of poems featuring marginalized characters “deserve to be mentioned with praise for the feeling as well as the genius they discover” (Critical Review 36: 416), it also critiques specific poems for their mode of representation. Of “The Negro Boy’s Tale,” an anti-slavery poem written in dialect, the reviewer comments “when the language is thus dramatically preserved, the thoughts also should be in character. Zambo is too poetical” (416) and later adds “In ‘Fatherless Fanny,’ and other pieces of the same class, there is a want of dramatic truth. Their characters speak with a refinement of feeling which cannot belong to them” (418). Indeed, this review makes clear the tension between admiration for Opie’s use of a poetics of sentiment appropriate to the female writer and criticism of the potential political danger such sentiment posed when linked to certain subjects such as slavery and lower class suffering. For this reviewer, the Negro boy Zambo by his very nature cannot be “poetical,” nor can Fanny, a working-class girl who feels the pain of the loss of family even more than the sting of poverty, speak with “refinement of feeling.” The uneasy balance of praise for the “moral import” of these verses, “the feeling as well as the genius they discover,” and censure of the inappropriate assignment of that sentiment to slaves and paupers points to the issues that compromised Opie’s popularity even at the moment of her initial triumph. Sensibility and the sentimental verse it inspired were coming under review, precisely because of their political implications.

Opie’s work was read through an increasingly gendered poetics that went beyond subject material to address style. While the writer for the Anti-Jacobin Review might announce in 1800 “we hasten to confer the wreath on Mrs. Opie, not from any feeling for the fair sex, nor any sentiment of politeness; but as the impartial judges of poetical merit” (Anti-Jacobin Review 6: 215), other reviewers were openly engaged in the question of gender and poetics. The Edinburgh Review, in a substantial article in its inaugural issue, offers a detailed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Opie’s verse, predominantly framed in terms of masculine and feminine poetics:

The regular heroic couplet she has also attempted; but a line of ten syllables is too large for the grasp of her delicate fingers; and she spans her way along, with an awkward and feeble weariness, whenever she lays aside the smaller verse. It is in the smaller verse of eight syllables, which requires no pomp of sound, and in the simple tenderness, or simple grief, to which the artlessness of such numbers is best suited, that the power of Mrs. Opie’s poetry consists: And, unsparing as our friendly criticism may have appeared, in its censure of the trials which it deemed injudicious, we are happy that she has enabled us to make atonement, by our just praise of those pieces which accord better with the character of her imagination. The verses of feeling on which she must rely for the establishment of her fame, are certainly among the best in our opuscular [i.e., small or trivial] poetry.

Edinburgh Review 1:115-116

The review concludes by directing Opie to focus on such “smaller verse”: “in correcting the misapplication of Mrs Opie’s powers, we looked forward to the enjoyment which they must afford us, whenever they are exerted on their proper objects” (121-22), with the emphasis on propriety of both subject and form.

By the time Opie published The Warrior’s Return, and Other Poems in 1808, the shift in focus in the reviews from the politics of class to the poetics of gender was almost complete. Whether by chance or by design, the volume contains only two poems based on marginal figures, and those are realized quite differently from the earlier characters. The protagonist of “The Mad Wanderer” is introduced as “A stranger maid in tatters clad, / Whose eyes were wild, whose cheek was pale,” but the reader is quickly informed that “A look she had of better days”–though outcast, she nevertheless is recognizable as a middle-class woman driven mad by love or sexual betrayal rather than a member of the lower classes possessed of refined sensibility. Instead of the dialect speech of the “Negro Boy’s Tale” we find the elevated phrasing of “The Lucayan’s Song,” whose speaker refers to his “prattling boy” and “beauteous wife.” Indeed, the absence of the marginal is such that the reviewer for the Poetical Register can happily report “Still less ... does she imitate those persons who present to us an idiot in rags, as a specimen of native grace and proper decoration” (Poetical Register 6: 541), a lingering echo of the Anti-Jacobin’s dismissal of “the most exquisite emotions of sympathy” at “the sight of a beggar, or the fall of a leaf.” Critics were thus free to focus on Opie’s use of more suitable affective subjects and on the poetics of her verse.

The argument from a gendered poetics is most clearly seen in a lengthy review of The Warrior’s Return from Le Beau Monde; or, Literary and Fashionable Magazine, which features an extended discussion concerning the “comparative rank of the two sexes, in every branch of intellectual greatness” (Le Beau Monde 4: 364) and the proper spheres of male and female endeavour, including the proper subject and mode of poetic expression:

But we do not by these arguments desire to prove that there is no kind of direct distinction, and even superiority over the other sex, to which a woman may with propriety aspire. There are some walks of literature in which she seems particularly formed to excel. Perhaps it is necessary that an author, in order to afford perfect delight to the reader, shall have felt all that his work attempts to describe. Now certainly there are some kinds of feeling that women possess in a much more exquisite degree than men: almost all the feelings, for instance, of those passions which are properly called the affections. Love, in its tenderest and purest spirit, parental regard in its most genuine warmth, pity, in its sweetest sympathies, are all of them emotions in which the feeling of women is much more acute and accurate than that of men. In every work, therefore, where these affections are principally concerned, women are probably adequate writers....

Le Beau Monde 4: 366-67

Women writers may “with propriety aspire” to distinction in poetry dealing with the “affections,” though the best they can hope is to be “adequate writers”: thematic appropriateness enables only a certain level of mastery. Like the author of the earlier assessment of Poems in the Edinburgh Review, this writer gives praise to a feminine propensity for sentimental subject matter:

[Opie’s] poetry is almost always of that peculiar kind, for which, as we have before observed, we conceive the female genius to be peculiarly adapted. She expresses usually some feeling, connected with the gentler affections; and there certainly have been few writers, in any age, or in any country, more intimately acquainted with all the sympathies of the human heart, or, in other words, more thoroughly gifted with the faculty of interesting the reader.

367

The reviewer is not wholly averse to Opie’s broader experiments with poetic form, but confines the best praises to those which conform to appropriate feminine material:

We have said that though we think the tenderer kinds of writing to be the departments in which women are formed to excel the most, yet we are far from wishing to discourage their attempts at loftier poetry. Mrs. Opie in the lines on Constantinople ... has afforded us a proof that if the female mind be not endowed with vigour sufficiently enduring to uphold a flight of great extent, yet as long as its wing continues untired, it may rise to a great exaltation.

373

Still, the praise for efforts at “loftier” and more “masculine” forms is muted, and Opie’s reputation rests most securely on those more universally praised works describing chaste love in simple rhymes and metres.

Perhaps more telling, however, is decision of the reviewer for Le Beau Monde to link the choice of both subject and form to issues of the moral character of the woman writer. Opie is praised in contrast to “the pert affected sentimentalists, and the gravely ridiculous, pedantically petticoated philosophers”:

on the other hand we have a few fair writers, whose modest sensibility, and true discrimination in the most delicate refinements of nature, has procured for them an applause and a fame, which forward pretension does not deserve, and will not attain. Among the most gracefully conspicuous, among the most modestly admirable of these writers, is the authoress of whose poems we are now to speak.

367

Opie’s “modest sensibility” and “true discrimination” were connected to her subject matter and to her presentation of herself as a writer–even to her poetics. The character of the female poet could, it seems, be read through the mechanics of the poetic forms she chose. The Eclectic Review of The Warrior’s Return states bluntly of “Julia, or the convent of Ste. Claire,”

It is indolently written in stanzas of four eight-syllable lines, the first and third having blank terminations, the second and fourth only rhyming: a score of which, (as far as the mere mechanism of the verse goes) might be made by any of the poets of the Westmoreland lakes....

Eclectic Review 5: 275

The “indolently written stanzas” seem in this first instance to be associated with the political and poetical qualities of the Lake poets, but the reviewer follows this observation by asserting the specifically gendered risk such poetics pose to the woman writer: “We were vexed at this slovenliness in Mrs. Opie, because it is unworthy of her and of her sex; ladies’ verses, like their persons, should not only be attended with the Loves, but attired by the Graces” (Eclectic Review 5: 275). The physical text, its metre and its rhyme, are equated with the body of the writer herself, and thus a woman writer’s reputation is, even if only ironically, at stake in her poetic choices.

If the responses to The Warrior’s Return often highlight gendered poetics, they also raise questions of what we might call a temporal poetics as well. Perhaps the most unstable category that recurs in discussions of Opie’s 1808 volume is that of “modern writer.” To some she epitomizes the modern poet, as she had in 1799, when the reviewer for The British Critic included hers among the names “which are familiar to readers of modern poetry” (14: 478); to others she seems out of step with current trends. Thus the Gentleman’s Magazine includes “two short extracts which would do honour to the pens of our best modern Poets”(78:612), and Le Beau Monde finds some of her descriptions “almost without parallels in modern poetry” (4: 375). However, the Monthly Review chides “Though this lady can plead the example of Old Ballads, in justification of stanzas in which, out of four lines, two only rhime to each other, such negligence is not to be tolerated in the modern poet” (57: 437), and finds other reasons, too, to dismiss aspects of her work as dated:

On another point also, we would mildly remonstrate with Mrs. Opie. Her legendary passion and stage-effect pathos (if we may be allowed this expression,) appear to seduce her from the walk of true nature, and from that style of poetry which is adapted to the habits and feelings of men and women of the present day.

Monthly Review 57:437

The sensibility and power of affect for which she was originally praised have become the mark of a previous generation of poets, out of keeping with “modern” ideas of character. The reviewer goes on to criticize the medieval subject and setting in “The Warrior’s Return,” commenting “we do not so much object to its improbability as to the waste of feeling and sentiment on so remote a fiction, when a tale more appropriate to the circumstances of modern war might easily have been invented” (437). Although Isobel Armstrong recognizes “The Warrior’s Return” as politically resonant, arguing that though “There appears to be no contemporary reference in this tale,” the appearance of “the fifteen-year-old son … should alert us to the fifteen years of Revolutionary wars with France, which were receiving a new impulse in the peninsular War of 1808.... ‘The Warrior’s Return’ masks this relationship with contemporary history. But it is there” (Nineteenth-Century Women Poets xxxvii), Opie’s contemporaries seem less willing to recognize–or perhaps to articulate–this veiled connection. The emphasis in reviews of The Warrior’s Return on the question of Opie’s “modern” status points us to significant shifts in literary taste during the first decade of the nineteenth century; as Duncan Wu points out in Romantic Women Poets: an Anthology: “By 1808, when Amelia published The Warrior’s Return, and Other Poems, the tide was beginning to turn against the kind of sentimental verse in which she specialized” (348). Yet it is clear that the tide was not a monolithic force, but rather was filled with various eddies and cross-currents: in 1808 Opie’s poems were partly praised and partly censured, considered important enough to be widely reviewed, acknowledged as contributions to her literary fame, but already raising questions that would soon eclipse her reputation.

Opie continued to contribute poems to periodicals and to annuals over the next two decades, many of which were brought together in her final volume of poetry, Lays for the Dead, in 1834. By this time Opie had become a Quaker, and thus given up the writing of fiction, though she continued to produce prose essays embellished with imaginative anecdotes. As the title suggests, the volume draws together a series of lyrics on the theme of death and loss. Reviews of Lays for the Dead make clear that for many readers Opie’s is now decidedly the voice of the past, not the present, of poetry in Britain–she is no longer a “modern” female poet. The Athenœum comments, “The forte of this once favourite authoress always lay rather in prose fiction than in verse ... we respect the feelings which have prompted the verses it contains–while we cannot think that it will add to, or perhaps, more properly speaking, revive, the writer’s popularity” (No. 354: 594). The Literary Gazette still praises her affective power: “It is ... descriptive of a series of thoughts and emotions which will find a response in every rightly constituted human heart”–but also asserts “The compositions are, therefore, to be more highly prized for the sentiments they embody than for their poetical excellence” (No. 909: 430). The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal is perhaps most moving in its evocation of the former pleasures and nostalgia for Opie’s works:

The name of Amelia Opie acts as a talisman upon our memory; it calls back the time when we read her “Simple Tales,” and wept over her “Father and Daughter,”–when we repeated her verses, and treasured her books under our pillows. Yet here she is tuning her harp to the sweetest melody, though to a mournful story–one to which there is a chord to respond in every heart; for who is there that cannot number amid the dead those whom long they loved? This alone, without Mrs. Opie’s name, would ensure popularity for this beautiful little volume.

New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal 41: 376

Opie is still the queen of pathos and affective response, but Lays for the Dead was seen by reviewers as a source of nostalgic sentiment, rather than as a serious volume of contemporary verse.

Responses later in the century confirm this decline in reputation. Of later discussions of her poetry, only Frederic Rowton, editor of The Female Poets of Great Britain Chronologically Arranged with copious selections and critical remarks (1848), points to Opie as a poet of lasting significance:

It is a fault of Female Poets of the last century that they expended their strength rather on sentiment than on feeling. This makes most of the verse which they produced, appear rather tame and unimpassioned; and it is a reason, perhaps the chief reason, why so many of their names have nearly passed into oblivion for sentiment is, in its very nature, evanescent and, even when painted in its brightest colours, lasts but a little while. It is a phosphorescent flame, flashing for a moment through the mental atmosphere, but giving neither warmth nor light; whilst true passion is a ray shot from the everlasting sun of the spiritual firmament, shedding a glow and brightness upon all time. Of this true sterling sort is the pathos of Mrs. Opie.

The Female Poets 281-82

In effect, Rowton recasts Opie as a modern female poet of the sort he admires, the equal of Felicia Hemans and L.E.L, but his project is specifically the recovery of the female poet, whose subjects and poetics are shaped by gender:

Mrs. Opie's poems bear fresh evidence to the truth of an assertion more than once made in this work, that woman's moral sentiments are generally in advance of man's. Those who doubt the fact will do well to remember how continually man's verse celebrates the infernal glories of war, the cruel excitements of the chase, or the selfish pleasures of bacchanalian enjoyment; and, on the other hand, how unceasingly woman's verse exposes the wickedness and folly of such pursuits.

283

Rowton celebrates the chaste morality of Opie’s verse and her Quaker pacifism, while maintaining a clear respect for her genuine poetic sentiment.

The emphasis on Opie’s status as “poetess” is made emphatically by Eric Robertson in English Poetesses: A Series of Critical Biographies, with Illustrative Extracts (1883). Robertson’s study opens with a clear gendering of poetic excellence:

It is a very old-fashioned doctrine this, that children are the best poems Providence meant women to produce, but it is not therefore any the worse …. The usual old argument about the domestic mission of women is not brought forth here as a proof of woman’s inferiority; far from it. But it is adduced as explanation of the fact that no woman has equalled man as a poet.

English Poetesses xiv-v

He goes on to catalogue exemplars of female inferiority, though his conclusive evidence may ring false to modern ears: “Did Katherine Philips rival Otway? Did Mrs. Hemans rival Wordsworth, or Landor, or Keats, or Shelley? Did Mrs. Browning rival any of these last-named poets, or has she rivalled Tennyson?” (xv). Nevertheless, he concludes that “Disparagement of women’s verse, however, must not go too far. Women, especially English women, have produced a great quantity of beautiful poetry that is worthy of a place in any rank but the very first” (xvi). With that evaluation firmly established, Robertson is free to offer his (faint) praises for Opie’s poetry: “Mrs. Opie’s poems still retain some hold upon public attention. Judged by our own canons of taste, she cannot be refused credit for real poetical feeling” (104). Still, his interest lies primarily in her life, in particular her married life, and the reader of Robertson’s account of Opie leaves with a strong sense of her “womanliness,” and little idea that she ever penned a line that could be considered political.

By the end of the century, Opie, like other women writers of the early nineteenth century, was remembered primarily as a kind of odd literary celebrity, whose excellences were rooted in her charm and femininity. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, in her Book of Sibyls (1883), evokes this idea:

Who does not know the prim, sweet, amply frilled portraits of Mrs. Trimmer and Joanna Baillie? Only yesterday a friend showed me a sprightly, dark-eyed miniature of Felicia Hemans. Perhaps most beautiful among all her sister muses smiles the lovely head of Amelia Opie, as she was represented by her husband with luxuriant chestnut hair piled up Romney fashion in careless loops, with radiant yet dreaming eyes which are an inheritance for some members of her family.

The authoresses of that day had the pre-eminence in looks, in gracious dress and bearing; but they were rather literary women than anything else, and had but little in common with the noble and brilliant writers who were to follow them in our own more natural and outspoken times; whose wise, sweet, passionate voices are already passing away into the distance; of whom so few remain to us.

A Book of Sibyls 150-151

Though she had been hailed at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a female poet destined to attain a “just and durable celebrity” (Critical Review 36: 413), by the early twentieth century only her reputation as a literary lion remained, as appreciation of her poetic works, so strongly rooted in sentiment, had faded. Sufficient reputation remained to foster two biographies in the 1930s, but their authors were sceptical of assigning literary merit to her works. Margaret Macgregor, in her Introduction to Amelia Alderson Opie: Worldling and Friend, downplays perceived flaws as the result of the period in which she lived:

As a poet, too, Mrs. Opie shows not only her own personal limitations, but the limitations of her age.... Yet in her poetry as in her prose, Mrs. Opie is instructive as a reflection of the minor poetic feeling of her age. She was receptive to its moods and fashions; she saw the world through the eyes of one who looked admiringly upon sensibility, yet in whose nature there was little of that creative imagination which marks the romantic poet.

Amelia Alderson Opie xiv

Jacobine Menzies-Wilson and Helen Lloyd, in Amelia: The Tale of a Plain Friend, make little attempt to explain her popularity in terms of its historical context, preferring instead to attribute her success to her personal charm: “Amelia’s poetry had even less merit than her novels. Was it the vivid and attractive personality of the authoress that accounted for the amazing popularity of her writings?” (118). Almost twenty years later, Lucy Poate Stebbins in London Ladies: True Tales of the Eighteenth Century, is equally dismissive: “If a sense of rhyme and rhythm and an ear for music were the only essential qualities of a poet, we could award Amelia a posthumous medal as a British bard; all these were hers” (64). Opie’s contemporary fame made her an attractive subject for the recovery of female literary history to early twentieth-century female critics, but they struggled to find literary merit in her works.

The body of reviews from the nineteenth century evaluating Amelia Opie’s poetry thus demonstrates an intriguing disciplining of poetic expression for this woman writer. In tracing the critical reception of her poems, we can observe the gradual erosion of a reputation initially grounded in recognition of literary merit and the articulation of radical ideology, until by the end of the century Opie had become a mere persona from a literary past which had already been rendered “sentimental” and therefore trivial. By the end of the nineteenth century, then, the “sentiment” or “sentimentality” that had been feminized by earlier critics had become a watchword for “ephemeral,” “of historical interest only.” Despite Rowton's efforts to see in Opie's poetry something more important than historically specific or quaint feelings, steeped in the ideology of the time, her poetry becomes for later critics a mere historical curiosity. Opie's reception history thus provides another instance of the phenomenon documented so well by Yopie Prins, the substitution of the apolitical, “feminine” poetess for the politically potent female poet known to her contemporaries.

Parties annexes