Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Return of the Prodigal Daughter: Finding the Family in Amelia Opie's Novels

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Return of the Prodigal Daughter: Finding the Family in Amelia Opie's Novels

Article excerpt

Even as Amelia Opie becomes a better appreciated and more established writer in "novel studies," it is important to remember that Opie herself eschewed the novelistic label for her works. In her address "To the Reader" that precedes The Father and Daughter, Opie states that because it is "the general custom to give indiscriminately the name of NOVEL to every thing in Prose that comes in the shape of a Story," her work may be "tried by a standard according to which it was never intended to be made," even though its "highest pretensions" are to be a "SIMPLE, MORAL TALE" (v-vi). Yet the "'tale" was a powerful critical and commercial rival to the "novel," as Opie discovered. In a letter written near the end of her literary career to her lifelong friend Susannah Taylor (24 July 1834), she mused, "I have, on reflection, seen how much my fame as an author must have been injured by my little works having been left out of the Standard Novels-Perhaps 'Temper' is my only novel the rest are tales-but the Father & Daughter, though only a tale, has been more known, more translated & more acted than most modern things" (qtd. in MacGregor 119).

Opie's authorial pose of modesty, sustained even in a document written years later, masks the fact that her original choice of the generic classification of the "tale" was hardly an arbitrary one, but enabled her to lay claim to a higher status for her work. Like Maria Edgeworth, (1) Opie sought to avoid the novel's associations with frivolous, romantic, and even morally corrupting reading. To write "simple, moral tales" was not merely a move of aesthetic deference, but as Gary Kelly notes, "constituted a polemical act of political and cultural, as well as literary significance" ("Discharging Debts" 199).

While I, too, am concerned with the political and cultural dimensions of Opie's critique of the bourgeois family in two of her most popular and enduring tales, (2) The Father and Daughter (1801) and Adeline Mowbray, or The Mother and Daughter (1805), I seek to complicate available constructions of Opie's literary agenda. According to a schematic view of the phases of post-revolutionary literature, after the anti-Jacobin novels of the 1790's, Opie, among others, turned to writing sentimental novels that "represent[ed] the embourgeoisement of domestic and rural life as the basis for a national moral and cultural reconstruction in the Revolutionary aftermath" (Kelly, Women 278). Yet, I contend that Opie's two narratives written four years apart, disclose a consistent and profound lack of faith in the bourgeois family as a stable ground for national healing. She draws on the parable of the Prodigal Son to frame the stories of Agnes and Adeline, but shows that unlike their literary prototype, these two women cannot go home again. The central parentchild dynamic of each novel, characterized by patterns of either excessive attachment or neglect, haunts the women throughout their lives, contributing to their deaths and the orphaning of their children. While the presence of good social mothers mitigates to some degree the tragic outcomes of the tales, Opie hesitates to include correspondingly viable social fathers. She unsparingly deconstructs representative figures of male authority and power to suggest that they hold compromised positions in both the domestic and the public sphere.

Father-Daughter Families

Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have delineated common patterns in lather-daughter relationships from 1780-1850, arguing that in families where the mother was "dead, incapacitated, or absent," daughters might be substituted as "surrogate mothers or housekeepers" (347). In a family in which a daughter was an only child, it was likely that she would become a surrogate wife as well. The blurring of the boundaries between women's roles in a reduced family helps to explain why these relationships, as they are represented in the history and fiction of this period, take on erotic overtones. …

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