BEFORE these tales came into our hands, we accidentally heard a lady in conversation criticising them. They were, in her opinion, very common place things. They contained nothing sublime, nothing striking, nothing wonderful, but consisted of every day transactions which every one knew and every body might write. She gave Mrs. Opie no credit for invention, and concluded that she would make a very bad romance writer. We instantly recollected Partridge’s remarks on Garrick, and could not but consider the lady’s observations as an unintentional eulogium on the composition whose value she endeavoured to depreciate. The consequence was that we began the perusal of the Simple Tales with some degree of partiality in their favour.
The criticism above mentioned, was to a certain extent correct. The Simple Tales, it must be owned, contain little that is wonderful, and for the most part, detail only such transactions as might very naturally have occurred. If this had not been the case we should have said the epithet “simple” was rather ill-applied, any thing in the fair one’s criticism to the contrary not withstanding. Mrs Opie, however, is reduced to a dilemma between us. One thinks that tales are nothing without something to confound and astonish, another prefers simplicity, and Mrs. Opie is left to console herself with the old remark that there is no pleasing every body.
At any rate Mrs. Opie agrees with us that simple tales ought to be simple, and that it is much better to afford a correct picture of the real manners of life than to fill volumes with extravagance and absurdity. When fiction is employed to represent human nature, as it is to give an accurate view of characters and manners, to trace the means by which they have been formed, and the consequences naturally resulting from them to point out the real causes by which virtue and vice are generated and fostered, and consequently to enlighten mankind with respect to the proper mode of cherishing the one and avoiding the other, then a simple tale may justly be considered as an apt and pleasing illustration of the soundest philosophical reasoning. But to construct tales of this sort requires no ordinary share of judgment, discrimination, and accurate knowledge of human nature, and therefore it is, that so few have succeeded in this way. In the tales before us we meet with many things which serve to shew that Mrs. Opie does not possess the proper requisites to the extent that might be wished, but at the same time they in general furnish ample proof that she possesses them in a much higher degree than the ordinary writers of fiction.
Without attempting to analyse the tales, we shall briefly notice a few of them, from which a tolerably correct judgment may be formed of the nature and tendency of the whole. The first is founded on a triumph of benevolence over personal vanity in particular circumstances. Julia Beresford was the only daughter of a purse-proud merchant who had retired from business. She delighted in acts of benevolence; though from the sordid disposition of her father, she had not the means of gratifying her inclinations in this way to their full extent. Beresford was eager to have his daughter married to a young baronet of the neighbourhood, who had just returned from his travels; and have her twelve guineas to buy a new pelisse, that she might appear to advantage. Julia, on her way to effect her purchase, happened to observe a case of such a distressing nature that she gave away her twelve guineas, and was consequently forced to appear at an entertainment given by a neighbouring gentleman on the baronet’s account, in her old shabby pelisse. Her father was enraged at the result, as it is briefly stated, and as it furnishes a specimen of the style and manner of the tales, may be given in Mrs. Opie’s own words:
[quotes from Simple Tales]
The second tale, called “The Death Bed,” paints the consequences attending the frailty of a wife and a mother, in deep but true colours. It contains the following reflection, which is just and well expressed.
[quotes from “The Death Bed”]
The next tale called “The Fashionable Wife and Unfashionable Husband,” is an excellent one, and forms a clear and just illustration of the influence of bad habits, the difficulty of eradicating them, and the mischievous consequences with which they are attended. The story turns upon the unthinking extravagance and rambling disposition of a wife, who though herself a woman of strong understanding, and married to a man particularly eminent for his virtues and talents whom she adored, yet rendered her own and her husband’s life miserable by these pernicious habits, which she had contracted in her early years owing to the foolish indulgence of her parents. The bad effects of such injudicious indulgence are still more strongly displayed in the tale called “Murder Will Out.” “The Soldier’s Return,” is a good illustration of the mischievous tendency of female vanity in low life, and “The Brother and Sister” displays in vivid colours the progress and consequences of seduction. But the most important and interesting of the whole is the tale entitled “Love and Duty.” It is founded on a celebrated trial which took place in France, or rather is, with some additions and alterations in the mode of description, an account of the trial itself. The Count de Montgomery, and Monsieur D’Anglade occupied different apartments in the same house in Paris, with their families. The Count being about to visit one of his country seats, invited D’Anglande and his family to his residence, but the invitation was refused. When the Count returned to town he found that his house had been robbed of money and jewels. The apartments of the D’Anglades were searched, and things found of a similar description with those that had been lost. They were therefore taken up on suspicion, and D’Anglade was several times put to the torture to force him to confess but without effect. The circumstantial evidence was however so strong, that he was condemned to the galleys, but he had suffered so severely by the rack that he died before he reached them. Madame D’Anglade died in prison after her misfortunes had caused her to miscarry, and one daughter was alone left of the family of the unfortunate D’Anglades. In some years after, the real robbers, who were servants of the Count de Montgomery were discovered, and confessed to the crime at the place of execution, and the innocence of the D’Anglades was fully established beyond the possibility of a doubt. The daughter was afterwards married to a counsellor of parliament; but what most forcibly strikes us on the perusal of this remarkable story is the danger of depending entirely on circumstantial evidence in the trial of an accused person. On this account it is of the greatest importance, and cannot be too much known or too highly valued.
From the above sketch of the nature of these tales, it will be readily seen that they contain a fund of moral instruction; and this conveyed in that easy, simple style which must be pleasing to almost everyone, and cannot disgust even the most fastidious. Mrs. Opie’s works are indeed of that unexceptionable nature in point of morality, that they may be with perfect safety put into the hands of persons of any age or sex. They cannot do harm, and it is not Mrs. Opie’s fault if they are not attended with benefit to those who peruse them. This indeed is praise of the highest kind, but it is one seldom deserved that we ought to be eager to bestow it where it is due.
But there are points in which some of the tales are very exceptionable. That called “Murder will Out,” we must confess appeared to us not to correspond well with the epithet “simple.” We are aware how much we differ from the fair critic before mentioned, but etiquette must here yield to truth. Some idea may be formed of the story from a statement of the principle circumstances. Two Britons while in prison at Rouen were in the habit of gazing from the window of their cell at the nuns and boarders who walked in the gardens of a neighbouring convent. One of the prisoners, a Scotchman, named Dunbar, was particularly struck with the beauty of one of the boarders and became desperately in love. His companion, Apreece, a Welshman, also took notice of her. Both of them happening one day to look from the window earlier than usual, saw the fair incognita standing beside the dead body of a man. She stooped down and drew a dagger from his breast, and having filled the pockets with stones, she rolled the body into a pond which stood close by and watched it till it completely sunk. This spectacle excited a considerable degree of horror in the minds of the gentlemen, who conjectured that the lady had in a jealous fit murdered her lover. Dunbar, however, eager to preserve her, thought of persuading Apreece that he had been dreaming and was mad, and that therefore he ought to say nothing about the affair. Apreece, enraged at the imputation, became almost mad in reality, so that when the keeper appeared, his companion had no difficulty in convincing him of the alleged insanity. Thus the matter ended for the time. The prisoners were soon after liberated and came to Great Britain. Dunbar, however, having settled his affairs, resolved to return to Rouen, with a view to learn something of his incognita. She, in the mean time, had arrived at Brighthelmstone with her mother, and there Dunbar became acquainted with them. Unfortunately he met Apreece in his walks, and was obliged to have recourse to new stratagems to prevent his seeing the lady, against whom he was the more enraged on account of the charge of madness, which he had not forgotten. Dunbar accompanied the lady and her mother to Rouen, where he staid sometime; when, as he was one day walking out with them, who should again appear but the unlucky Apreece. He knew the lady immediately, and without ceremony accused her of murder. She was taken up, tried, and condemned to be executed. She was accordingly carried to the scaffold, but as she was bending her neck to the executioner, a man rushed through the crowd and stopped the execution by declaring that he himself was the murderer. This was the lady’s brother, who in fact had been the murderer. His sister had come to the spot just as he had committed it and prevailed on him to make his escape, and afterwards took the whole on herself and was resolved to die for him. The brother had been early initiated into vice owning to the indulgence of his foolish mother. He was assassinated in his prison, and the sister was married to Dunbar.
Now instead of “simple,” we think this story in the highest degree romantic and extravagant. Unless the reader should be convinced of this by the bare statement, it would be in vain to reason with him. The notion seems to have been borrowed from the story of Damon and Pythias, and the scene at the scaffold is a close imitation. There is a bare possibility that such things might be, but bare possibilities are not the proper materials for a “simple tale.”
Some of the tales are objectionable in another point of view. The practice of killing people in an abrupt way, for the obvious purpose of getting rid of a difficulty, is a common resource with the ordinary novel-writing herd, but is very unworthy of Mrs. Opie. Yet to this practice she has had recourse, and it detracts considerably from the natural and unaffected manner which is generally found to prevail in these tales. In the above tale of “Murder will Out,” for instance, Mrs. Opie contrives, in a way which is not very probable, to have the murderer assassinated in prison, glaringly for the purpose of preventing the disgrace of a public execution, which might be disagreeable to the feelings of his relatives. His death too would have been a sad mortification to his family had they not been before hand all swept away by a convenient fever. In “The Robber” too it was rather hard to make Mrs. Sedley die of vexation, merely because Theodore might have found it inconvenient to live in the same house with her, and to marry her husband’s daughter by a former wife. Yet Mrs. Opie has killed the poor woman with all the nonchalance of a common novel-scribbler, whose only object is to get on without considering whether what he writes be sense or nonsense.
The tales, however, are upon the whole, like Julia Beresford’s ballad mentioned in the first story, neither showy nor brilliant, but natural, simple and interesting. They contain a great deal of moral instruction, and in general are worthy of the reputation which Mrs. Opie has already deservedly acquired.