Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Story of the Pineapple": Sentimental Abolitionism and Moral Motherhood in Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Story of the Pineapple": Sentimental Abolitionism and Moral Motherhood in Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray

Article excerpt

Although a conversion to Quakerism in the 1820s curbed her writing career, Amelia Alderson Opie (1769-1853) was throughout her life celebrated as an author of poetry and of numerous popular "tales" ranging in length from a few pages to multiple volumes.(1) The daughter of James Alderson, an eminent Norwich physician and practicing Unitarian, Opie was long and famously active in artistic and intellectual circles of Norwich and London, especially those circles associated toward the end of the eighteenth century with rational Dissent. Thanks to her connections to Dissent, in general, but especially to the Society of Friends (her closest attachment was to the Gurneys, a large and wealthy Quaker family in Norwich), she became passionately involved in reform movements, notably the antislavery movement and prison and asylum reform.

In a curious episode of Opie's 1805 three-volume novel of unconventional domestic life, Adeline Mowbray; or, the Mother and Daughter, the young heroine's dying lover, a radical philosopher named Frederic Glenmurray, develops an obsessive desire to eat an entire pineapple and refuses to be subdued by Adeline's offer of a mere bunch of grapes. Since Adeline is determined, despite a financial crisis, "to procure Glenmurray every thing that his capricious appetite required,"(2) she gathers together her small savings and ventures to market to purchase the expensive fruit. During her journey, Adeline chances upon a scene in which a distressed woman, described by the narrator as "mulatto," is attempting unsuccessfully to protect her impoverished husband, who is being taken to debtor's prison. Their "mulatto" son, known as "the Tawny Boy," stands by weeping. After some deliberation, Adeline discharges the debts with the money she had intended for the purchase of the pineapple and returns home empty-handed to the disappointed Glenmurray. Later, the mixed-race woman, a fugitive Jamaican slave named Savanna, arrives on Adeline's doorstep and, from an overwhelming sense of gratitude, determines to devote her life to serving Adeline. Shortly thereafter, Glenmurray succumbs to his illness, and Adeline, who sustains philosophical objections to the institution of marriage, bows to convention and propriety by contracting a miserable marriage with Glenmurray's first cousin, Charles Berrendale.

Early reviewers, modern critics, and Opie's several biographers(3) have read Adeline Mowbray for its ambiguous views on marriage and as a fictional version of the lives of Opie's friends William Godwin (Glenmurray) and Mary Wollstonecraft (Adeline).(4) The novel is read variously as a vindication of and a condemnation of the two political philosophers, who wed each other in 1797, despite their well-known earlier practical and theoretical rejection of marriage.(5) Without losing sight of the theme of marriage, I wish to shift attention to another set of concerns that are central to Opie's novel and that are worth examining closely, since they are equally central to the social, political, and literary climate of turn-of-the-century England.

Opie provides a telling instance of the intersection of two popular discourses of the period: sentimental abolitionism (as opposed to philosophical or rational abolitionism) and "moral motherhood" or "the cult of motherhood" (in which, to put it briefly, motherhood replaces wifehood as the idealized principal occupation of women(6)). Through a reading of pivotal moments in Adeline Mowbray, with a focus on the pineapple episode, I intend to show how these two discourses manifest themselves separately, but ultimately converge, and how they do so in relation to Opie's representation of race, her condemnation of luxury, and her endorsement of philanthropy. I argue that as Opie's novel begins to unite sentimental abolitionism and moral motherhood, it establishes an idealized and nostalgic relationship of what might best be called fealty between two women--the black domestic servant, Savanna, and her white mistress, Adeline Mowbray--that provides a melioristic, rather than revolutionary, solution both to the "problem" of slavery and the problems of marriage. …

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