Saturday, July 20, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 29 - O for Amelia Opie

Octagon Unitarian Chapel, Norwich
Amelia Alderson was born in 1769 in Norwich, the only child of John Alderson, a successful doctor and Unitarian who attended the Octagon chapel in the city. When her mother died in 1784 Amelia was fifteen and took charge of her father's household. She entered enthusiastically into local society among other dissenter families such as the Martineaus and the Gurneys and was very popular. The good-looking and high-spirited girl sang ballads of her own composition, gave dramatic recitations and published poems.

Silhouette of Amelia in 1790s
Amelia's political interests were stimulated by the French Revolution and her father's interest in the Norwich reform movement. In September 1794 Amelia contributed fifteen poems to The Cabinet, a periodical begun by that movement. Also in 1794 Amelia visited London where she discovered the excitement of attending the law courts, the spectacle and drama of which remained a compelling interest throughout her life. She widened her acquaintance in theatrical and radical circles, meeting the Kembles, Mrs Siddons and Mary Wollstonecraft, whom she particularly admired. She declared that everything she saw for the first time disappointed her except for Mary Wollstonecraft and the Cumberland lakes!

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie
It was in London too that she met the self-taught Cornish artist John Opie who was eight years older than herself. After a brief courtship she became his second wife in 1798. To support their household John gave up his prestigious historical and mythological painting for the more lucrative portraiture. He was more conventional that Amelia and, coming from a working-class background, was not always comfortable with her love of society but he encouraged her to write. Her novel Father and Daughter, about misled virtue and family reconciliation, which appeared in 1801, was a great success and Sir Walter Scott himself was moved to tears by it. Encouraged by Mary Wollstonecraft, Amelia followed this in 1804 with Adeline Mowbray, an exploration of the relationship between a mother and daughter.

Amelia Opie painted by her husband
Unfortunately Amelia's life in London came to a tragic end when her husband died in 1807 aged forty six of a fever probably made worse by overwork. Having no children she returned to live in her father's house and participate in Norwich society. She continued with her writing but also renewed her early friendship with the wealthy Quaker Gurney family, especially with Joseph John Gurney, the leading evangelical Friend. Although nearly twenty years younger than Amelia, he was a great influence on her.

She began attending Quaker meetings in 1814 and gradually became convinced that here, rather than in the Unitarianism of her upbringing, was the vital religion that she sought. In 1820 her father fell ill and she nursed him until his death five years later. Throughout this time the Gurneys were a great support to them and Dr Alderson fully approved Amelia's application for membership which was accepted two months before his death, so much so that he was himself buried in the Quaker burial ground at Gildencroft.

There were certain changes that Amelia undertook when she became a Quaker at the age of fifty six. The chief of these was that she gave up novel writing and afterwards wrote only upon serious, factual and moral subjects. She also adopted the Quaker plain speech and plain dress, but with a style of her own. Emma Marshall remembers that her Quaker bonnet was small and perched somewhat coquettishly on her head, and the train of her silk gown made a 'swish' upon the matting as she came into meeting.

Amelia Opie in Quaker dress
Amelia now spent much of her time in works of charity. Influenced by her friend Joseph John Gurney's sister, Elizabeth Gurney Fry, she visited prisons, hospitals and workhouses. She also gave unobtrusive material assistance to her friends and especially to fellow writers such as Mary Russell Mitford. She was much concerned with the Bible Society and the Anti-slavery Society and in 1840 attended the Anti-slavery Convention in London.

Amelia was financially comfortable and able to travel widely, always delighting in the company of others from whatever level of society they came. She was an inveterate correspondent, often writing more than six letters a day. Every year she came to London to attend the Yearly Meeting. As she said in 1843, 'Yearly Meeting has engrossed me much as usual, for I never missed one sitting since I obtained the great privilege of belonging to it '. This record remained unbroken for nearly thirty years until ill-health prevented her attendance.

Amelia Opie's house on Castle Meadow, Norwich
Until almost the end of her life she retained her love of fun, her merry laugh and ready repartee. At the age of eighty-two, confined by rheumatism to a wheelchair, she visited the Great Exhibition and meeting there her friend Miss Berry, similarly transported, playfully proposed that they should have chair race. The last years of Amelia's life were spent in a house on Castle Meadow in Norwich on the corner of a small alley now known as Opie Street. She died at the age of 84 in December 1853 and was buried next to her father in Gildencroft.

Amelia Opie's life was full of contrasts and she sometimes appeared a rather worldly Friend, but coming to Quakerism at a later age she valued the Society highly and tried her best to live up to its standards. Perhaps her friend the poet Robert Southey put it best when he said that she embraced Quakerism 'not losing in the change her warmth of heart and cheerfulness of spirit, nor gaining by it any increase of sincerity and frankness, for with these nature had endued her and society, even of the great, had not corrupted them.'

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