Amelia Opie's 'Adeline Mowbray': Diverting the Libertine Gaze; or, the Vindication of a Fallen Woman

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My father will have told you a great deal. He will have told you too how

much we are interested & agitated by the probable event of the approaching

trials ... we are resolved to emigrate if the event of the trial be fatal.(1)

In 1794, the treason trials of Home Tooke, Thomas Hardy, and Thomas Holcroft crystallized the philosophical differences between revolutionary sympathizers and a nervous British government. An ardent admirer of revolutionary principles, Amelia Alderson attended the trials and later "confessed" that they marked "the most interesting period of [her] long life."(2) In letters home, Alderson exults in radical "victories" and scorns governmental treachery. Her father was so disturbed by his daughter's outspoken objections to the trials that he destroyed many of her letters. In surviving letters written to Susannah Taylor, Alderson openly expresses her dissatisfaction with an increasingly reactionary government: "Hang these politics! how they haunt me. Would it not be better, think you, to hang the framers of them?"(3) In yet another letter dated 1794, Alderson writes: "I believe an hour to be approaching when salut and fraternite will be the watchwords for civil slaughter throughout Europe; and the meridian glory of the sun of Liberty, in France, will light us to courting the past dangers and horrors of the republic, in hopes of obtaining her present power and greatness. It will be an awful time; may I meet it with fortitude!"(4) I quote these letters at length to indicate Amelia Alderson's commitment to radical politics throughout the 1790s. As an enthusiastic member of the circle surrounding William Godwin, Holcroft, and Elizabeth Inchbald, and later Mary Wollstonecraft, Alderson participated in "Jacobin" politics and philosophy. Her ties to the group were, however, broken by marriage to John Opie, a painter and member of the Royal Academy, in 1798.

The year in which Amelia Alderson Opie became a respectable wife is also the year in which Godwin wrote and published his Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft. Recent literary scholarship tends to identify the publication and reception of the Memoirs as a watershed moment in the late eighteenth-century "backlash" against outspoken "philosophical women." Such women were a vocal and highly visible part of revolutionary discourse in both France and England and attempts to silence them resonate throughout conservative Regency publications. Yet too often literary criticism has erred in assuming that the eighteenth-century revolutionary woman immediately became the Victorian angel in the house. Modern critics often focus on conservative Regency voices because in retrospect they seem to have won the ideological battle waged over the construction of femininity.(5) Amelia Opie--her life and her works--provides an ideal opportunity to study the manifold subtleties implicit in the highly volatile discourse surrounding the British woman writer between 1798 and 1832. Because Opie forgoes overtly radical "philosophizing" after 1798 she has often been identified as a frightened reactionary, yet another Regency woman writer who abandoned revolutionary philosophy to protect her reputation.(6)

Godwin's revelations about Wollstonecraft's passion for Henry Fuseli, her love affair with Gilbert Imlay, and their own pre-marital relationship gave rise to slanderous attacks against Wollstonecraft in the conservative press. The Anti-Jacobin Review carried out an extensive campaign to discredit Wollstonecraft's political ideas by identifying her as a prostitute rather than as a writer and social critic. In a review of the Memoirs, the Anti-Jacobin makes the following judgment: "We must observe, that Maty's theory, that it is the right of women to indulge their inclinations with every man they like, is so far from being new, that it is as old as prostitution."(7) And as late as 1801, the magazine printed a poem which included the following lines about Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman:

Such license loose-tongued liberty adores,

Which adds to female speech exceeding graces;

Lucky the maid that on her volume pores,

A scripture, archly fram'd, for propagating w--s. …