Amelia Opie, née Alderson (1769-1853), the Norwich-born novelist and poet, is probably best known for her friendships with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. But her creative milieu included many other writers, as well as thespians, musicians, politicians, judges, and artists.
In 1798 Amelia married the portrait artist John Opie (1761-1807), who painted nine portraits of his attractive wife. One of the most intriguing is this double portrait (reproduced by kind permission of the Lander Gallery, Truro). Amelia is shown full face on the left and in profile on the right. The date is not known, but Amelia’s black dress and hairband suggest she may have been in mourning, possibly for Opie’s mother who died in 1805.
Opie’s decision to portray Amelia holding a harp lute is significant, for she was an accomplished musician and had a fine singing voice. Harriet Martineau wrote in her obituary of Amelia Opie that those who heard her sing Thomas Campbell’s Ballad of Lord Ullin’s Daughter would never forget it. Amelia also enjoyed writing lyrics for well-known airs, and many of her published poems were set to music by Edward Biggs.
The gregarious Amelia Opie was the daughter of James Alderson, a physician who gave his services free to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, which was set up for ‘the deserving poor’. He and his wife Amelia, née Briggs, encouraged their only child to respect others and introduced her to the anti-slavery movement. Her campaigning included writing poems for children; The Negro Boy’s Tale, written in 1790, was published in her first volume of poems.
After her mother’s death in 1784, Amelia Alderson took charge of her father’s household. James Alderson was active in Norwich reform movements, and he and his daughter attended the Octagon Presbyterian Chapel, where the congregation included many Unitarians. As well as hosting her father’s radical friends, including the Norfolk-born William Godwin, Amelia was a regular contributor to The Cabinet, a periodical begun in Norwich in 1794 by a group of reformers calling themselves ‘A Society of Gentlemen’.
Amelia Alderson and John Opie met some time after Amelia started to spend time in London in the early 1790s. Here Godwin introduced her to his circle of literary and political friends, including Thomas Holcroft, Elizabeth Inchbald, and, later, Mary Wollstonecraft.
In London she attended the 1794 treason trials, in which the government tried to suppress the reform movement. A rumour persisted that when her friend John Horne Tooke was acquitted, Amelia scrambled over benches and seats to give him a kiss. Outraged to read this anecdote in William Beloe’s The Sexagenarian (1817), she wrote to Archibald Constable, publisher of the Edinburgh Review, asking that this ‘positive falsehood’ might be refuted, should the magazine review the Beloe memoir.
When Opie and Amelia first became acquainted, he was in the process of divorcing his first wife, who had eloped with another man. Amelia appreciated Opie’s portraits of her friends, including Wollstonecraft (whom he painted twice), but she was indifferent to his personal qualities at first. Opie persisted and she succumbed.
The marriage worked well. The couple visited Paris in 1802, and met leading literary and political figures including Helen Maria Williams, Charles James Fox, and the Polish war hero Thaddeus Kościuszko, who asked Amelia to write some verses for him. Opie encouraged his wife’s literary ambitions. Her first novel as Mrs Opie, The Father and Daughter (1801), was an immediate bestseller, and was followed by Poems (1802), which was well received. Then came Adeline Mowbray (1805), a fictionalised treatment of the ideas of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, and Simple Tales (1806).
Amelia was a popular guest at soirées, balls, and breakfast parties, while her husband got on with his work. She also had a passion for the theatre: one of her ambitions was to become a playwright. In 1791 her tragedy ‘Adelaide’ was staged at Norwich in a private theatre, with herself playing the leading role. She offered drafts of other plays to Godwin for his opinion. None were staged, but L’Agnese, an opera based on an Italian adaptation of The Father and Daughter, was performed at the King’s Theatre in London in 1817.
Amelia was a friend of the actress Sarah Siddons, née Kemble, who was painted by Opie and whose sister Fanny was married to the theatre critic Francis Twiss. His parents were both from Norwich; he and Fanny, another friend of Amelia’s, lived for some time in Norfolk. Opie’s portrait of Fanny inspired a poem by Amelia, published in the Monthly Review (1800), paying tribute to the artist and the sitter: ‘Thus pride and friendship war with equal strife, / And now the friend exults, and now the wife.’
Amelia sought commissions for her husband and welcomed sitters to their London house in Berners Street. Mary Russell Mitford, then aged twelve, accompanied her father when he went to sit to Opie. Years later, in a letter to Cecilia Lucy Brightwell, she recalled Amelia Opie as having been ‘kind and charming to the poor little schoolgirl’. Opie’s marriage brought him many commissions from the great and good in Norfolk.
When John Opie died in 1807 Amelia left London and made her home with her widowed father. Although she often wrote of her soul-searching about religion, her long widowhood was far from being a plain life. She continued writing novels, short stories, and poetry and travelled extensively both at home and abroad. She took her cousin Henry Perronet Briggs under her wing and helped to promote his career as an artist.
Dr Alderson’s Norwich clients included the Gurneys, a prominent Quaker banking family, who became Amelia’s longstanding friends. Her decision to become a member of the Society of Friends in 1825 was encouraged by Joseph John Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer. Thereafter Amelia undertook much philanthropic work, and in 1840 she attended the first world Anti-Slavery Convention in London.
Amelia returned to Paris on her own in 1829 and 1830; here she was befriended by Lafayette, the veteran soldier and statesman of the American and French Revolutions. The sculptor and medallist David d’Angers admired her writing and wanted to meet her. They became instant friends; he made a medallion of her and later created a bust of her in marble.
Amelia Opie never lost her zest for life. At the age of eighty-one, she took her last trip to London, where, in a wheelchair, she visited the Great Exhibition. Confined to her house during her final months, she received a stream of visitors and, almost to the end, continued to write witty, informative, and entertaining letters to her friends.