Opie, Amelia Entries

Adeline Mowbray


I set out to read Amelia Opie's novel Adeline Mowbray more from sociological than literary interest: an 1804 treatment of voluntary cohabitation outside marriage couldn't fail to grab my interest, especially since this is a topic treated surprisingly seldom even by modern authors. Opie was, then, politically ahead of her time, but she surprised me by also writing an engaging book, if one at times infuriating to a contemporary sensibility. Despite some standard-issue melodrama and creaky plot devices of the type often found in eighteenth-century "novels of sensibility," the pages flew by whenever I picked up Adeline Mowbray, and the author's sneakily satirical wit kept me guessing to some extent about exactly who she was condemning and for what cause. (I also couldn't avoid a gossipy curiosity about how the novel's models, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, took to their friend Amelia's representations of them.) Of course, my level of engagement was increased by the fact that I was constantly arguing with Opie, which I believe to be exactly the reader response she intended. Even if she was not speaking to the gender politics of twenty-first century America, she was undoubtedly writing to provoke, and it's pretty remarkable that she still manages so well after two hundred years, albeit not exactly in the ways she might have foreseen.

The plot of Adeline Mowbray begins with its title character's unorthodox education. Raised by a self-declared genius of a mother who is fond of spouting off about leftist treatises in company, Adeline is encouraged to imbibe "dangerous" tomes of philosophy and political science, with no male oversight for her delicate female brain. The more practical aspects of her upbringing are neglected, and she would hardly have learned housewifery at all had not her grandmother taken her in hand. Unlike her mother, Adeline makes the scandalous mistake of actually wanting to live by the ideals she has come to believe in, including the abolition of the marriage institution. Upon meeting and falling in love with Glenmurray, one of the philosophers she so admires, she therefore enthusiastically declares that she will never subject him to that ignominious state, but will live with him outside wedlock in a free and voluntary relationship. Despite his protestations—the man has not the courage of his convictions, having lived in the world more than his lover—she will not budge, and refuses to become his wife. Throw in a sleazy would-be-rapist of a stepfather and the ill-health of her well-meaning philosopher-lover, and things quickly proceed to get very tragic for poor Adeline.

It so happened, also, that something was said by one of the party which led to the subject of marriage, and Adeline was resolved not to let so good an opportunity pass of proving to Glenmurray how sincerely she approved his doctrine on that subject. Immediately, with an unreserve which nothing but her ignorance of the world, and the strange education which she had received, could at all excuse, she began to declaim against marriage, as an institution at once absurd, unjust, and immoral, and to declare that she would never submit to so contemptible a form, or profane the sacred ties of love by so odious and unnecessary a ceremony.
        This extraordinary speech, though worded elegantly and delivered gracefully, was not received by any of her hearers, except sir Patrick, with any thing like admiration.

There is very definitely a political case at the heart of Opie's novel—an argument against what she saw as the pie-in-the-sky idealism of William Godwin and others like him who dared to preach against the "accumulated wisdom of ages." Disaster thus falls thick and fast onto Adeline from the moment she announces her anti-marriage stance: otherwise respectable men feel free to molest her; libertines assume she's one of them; even the men who acknowledge her intelligence and virtue refuse to introduce her to their wives and sisters, who, in any case, actively work for her downfall because they see her as a rival and a threat to their own security; she and Glenmurray live in isolation. Then there are the results she anticipates for her children: they will be ostracized as a bastard by their schoolfellows; they will hate and reject their parents because of this; they will grow up lonely because their mother will be shunned. So too, when Glenmurray dies Adeline will be left in poverty because she can't inherit (or at least, she doesn't inherit because her husband, despite ostensibly being tortured by the idea of leaving her destitute, doesn't change his will). And later on, even if Adeline manages to find a man who falls in love with her and "makes her an honest woman," her scandalous past will mean he is ashamed to admit to his friends and acquaintances that he is married at all, and even professionals like lawyers and merchants will fail to take her seriously, thinking she is still a kept woman. Meanwhile, female acquaintances she has made along the way may be led into vice by her example, and she will have to live with the guilt of having ruined others as well as herself.

To contrast with all these dire circumstances, Opie refuses to present the original objections that motivate her character Glenmurray (or motivated her friend William Godwin) to write against the marriage institution in the first place1. I found this a bit frustrating, as if I were listening to one side of a violent telephone conversation. But the reason for Opie's omission is built right into her text: ideas like those of Glenmurray were believed dangerous, irresponsible even to discuss lest some idealistic young woman like Adeline pick up one's novel and be led astray.

I mention "the wisdom of the ages" above, and indeed the idea is a real touchstone for Opie; the phrase is repeated some eight or nine times throughout the novel as different characters, and eventually Adeline herself, bemoan her foolishness in attempting to fly in the face of convention. Which brings up the whole question of progressiveness versus conservatism in different eras. To this modern reader, Opie's reluctance to even consider the possibility of challenging the status quo, merely on the argument that many previous generations have accepted it, seems strikingly conservative. Still, as Nymeth pointed out in a recent post on Wilkie Collins, a more nuanced view is necessary: in 1804, the mere act of writing a novel in which a sympathetic heroine decided to live with a lover outside marriage was a radical act. Although Adeline is punished (and punished, and punished some more) for her non-conformity, Opie never makes her the villain, and she more or less respects Adeline's ability to make a rational decision herself, rather than making her the victim of a scheming rake. What's more, although she chides Adeline for giving in to her youthful exuberance rather than respecting the wisdom of her elders, such an attitude is not gender-based; she takes the same line with Glenmurray, who published his offensive tract at the young age of nineteen. In some ways, then, Opie is quite subversive: she presents an intelligent, sympathetic woman who makes a hasty decision for all the right reasons, with a minimum of condemnation.

So too, she points out the ways in which it is possible to stray from virtue even when married: one character uses marriage as a cover to maintain her respectability while still carrying on affairs; another is so jealous of her husband's attentions that she intrigues against any female under the age of eighty. The back-cover material of my copy of Adeline Mowbray claims that the novel contrasts "the world as it is" with "the world as it should be," and that's a tempting way to reconcile Opie's seemingly conflicting messages: in an ideal world, she could be saying, there would be less vicious prejudice; but in the world as it is, we need the marriage institution to guard women against its cruelty. I think, on one level, Opie is saying that, although it fails to sort her text very neatly. Her own depiction of women who have decided to live outside wedlock for reasons other than virtuous philosophy, for example, is fairly vicious. Adeline, Opie says approvingly, would be the first to shun some acquaintances of Glenmurray's if she knew their true character (their primary faults are those of promiscuity)—implying that she herself is invested in the shame-based social structure, even if she wishes it would not shame Adeline. Still, Opie's work is a fascinating glimpse at the mindset of a former era's progressive fringe.


1Out of curiosity, I looked up the portion of Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice that concerns the abolition of marriage. His position is one of extreme individualism, and he objects to anything that irrevocably binds one human to another and prevents him from pursuing his own individual development. That, combined with the very small degree to which the typical 18th-century couple were allowed to know each other before marriage, persuaded him against the institution. Whereas my own reservations about state-sponsored marriage are explicitly feminist—its long history as a means of legally reducing women to the status of property, including revoking their own property rights and failing to penalize rape within marriage; its equally long history of being used as a tool to deny civil rights to groups of people who diverge from the status quo, such as same-sex, mixed-race, mixed-religion, or slave couples; its attempts to codify in secular law a vision of morality with which I disagree, i.e., that any child could lack "legitimacy" or that sexuality not sanctioned by a priest/rabbi/shaman/justice of the peace is debased or destructive—Godwin's, as presented in Enquiry, were not. He was more concerned that every person got enough autonomy, enough time away from the crowd and from pressing familial obligations, to develop and pursue their own thoughts. Which is neither here nor there; I was just curious about the half of the conversation that Opie left out.


Adeline Mowbray was my sixth book for the Women Unbound Challenge, which ends this month. Eep!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography