THE influence of female writers on modern manners and literature is, we are inclined to think, more important than philosophers and critics seem generally disposed to allow. With a few splendid exceptions, indeed, their efforts have, in our own times, been almost exclusively confined to one of the most humble departments of fictitious composition. But in this they have created a new era. They have given to the light and popular novel a degree of importance, considered as a means of moral function, which it never before possessed, and which Rousseau and Richardson in vain attempted to confer upon it. They have refined our perceptions of moral beauty, -- exhibited a finer tact in the observation of manners and character, -- opened new and rich veins of natural and pathetic eloquence, --and, moreover, purified the kind of writing which they adopted from much ridiculous pedantry, and more offensive grossness. We are not so chivalrous as to deny, that, in the progress of these achievements, our female novelists have oppressed their indulgent readers with a deluge of silly and pestiferous publications; and we will even go so far as to admit, that if the greater proportion of the half-bound duodecimos, romantic and sentimental, which still encumber our circulating libraries, were committed to the flames, the world would suffer no great detriment. We would not, if a wish could do it, rescue a greater number of them from the pile than was saved from the conflagration of Don Quixotte’s library. Yet, if the production of all this trash was a necessary evil in the intellectual progress of the sex, we do not see that we have any right to complain of it more bitterly than of many other literary nuisances. It has been at length amply atoned for. Miss Burney, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs. Hamilton, and Mrs. Opie, would alone have been sufficient to dispel, by the beautiful and beneficent blaze of their genius, all the noisome fogs which in this country overclouded the dawn of female literature. Like the beautiful songs of Burns, their works have, in fact, already almost superseded, in the hands of the rising generation, whatever was despicable or noxious in former productions of a similar kind; and they have, accordingly, taken their station in the literature of their country, along with the moralists and poets of the age, -- inferior to these in rank, but to none inferior in the power of conveying at once pleasure and instruction.
The author of the work has long been advantageously known to the public. Her early poetical attempts, if not possessed of that striking originality of thought or richness of fancy, which have distinguished the higher poets of our times, at least merit the praise of great delicacy of feeling, and sweetness of expression, and have, we believe, been very generally admired for these qualities. Her former numerous tales and novels are familiar to every reader. In some of these productions, Mrs. Opie exhibits great mastery over the pathetic; and perhaps the consciousness of possessing this powerful weapon, has led her more frequently than could be wished, to an overstrained and injudicious use of it. In the present work, this propensity has been better restrained and modified; yet she still deals more with the hearts than the heads of her readers. This is, indeed a marked characteristic of Mrs. Opie’s genius. She cannot vie with some of her distinguished contemporaries in the development of striking and diversified character, or in dramatic vivacity, or in the humorous delineation of folly, affectation, or vulgarity, or in the graphic painting of national peculiarities, but she excels all of them, perhaps, in the natural and impressive delineation of female affection, displayed in its best and most endearing forms. It is not merely in the romantic devotedness of youthful love, (though she has also described this passion with much tenderness and truth,) but still more in the intimate relations of daughter, sister, and mother, that she has admirably portrayed the character of her sex, -- and that with such feeling and fidelity, and with such a knowledge of all its strength, and all its weakness, that no heart, we can think, can fail to be both softened and improved by the perusal. Her exhibitions of the fondness, the fidelity, and frailty of the female character, must awaken at once all the kindness, and all the caution, of her youthful readers; and her delightful pictures of filial piety, and parental affection, must ever irresistibly call forth the most sacred and estimable sympathies of our nature.
The volumes now before us possess most of the author’s peculiar characteristics; but with an air of more restrained feeling, and well regulated judgment, and with fewer hazardous experiments in the terrible workings of passion, than are to be found in most of her former productions. If not the most powerful of her writings, they will be esteemed, we apprehend, as among the most attractive and permanently pleasing. We account it no trifling improvement in the present instance, that she has more generally aimed at producing a practical effect, or inculcating some moral lesson, than exciting violent interest, or agitating the feelings. She has here, also, laid bare the human bosom in some of its most intricate recesses, and shewn, particularly in the “Confessions of an Odd Tempered Man,” how the base leaven of selfishness and wayward pride, when admitted into a heart even originally good, is enough to neutralize every virtue, and poison the happiness of all with whom it comes in contact.
Though we can afford but little room for extracts, we shall give, as specimen of Mrs Opie’s style, a single scene from this edifying and impressive portraiture. The unfortunate and unamiable man, whose “odd temper” forms the moral of the piece, after many alterations of bliss and bitterness, at length, by a course of studied neglect, and affected coldness, breaks the affectionate heart of a being who only too tenderly loves him, and whom he all the while ardently and passionately loves. He is informed by a letter, while absent on a journey, that she is dying, and, stung with anguish and remorse, he hurries home.
[quotes from “The Confessions of an Odd Tempered Man”]
The following short passage is in a different manner, and from a different tale. We select it as exhibiting at once the author’s propriety of expression and right feeling in regard to a fashionable amusement of foreign extraction, -- against which we have no objection that the Alient Bill should operate in all its severity, and without even reserving the right to confer upon it a private naturalization in Scotland. A young man of high spirit and principle is attending two young ladies, in whom he takes a deep interest, to a private assembly:
[quotes from New Tales]
It would be equally difficult, and unprofitable, to attempt any analysis of the various tales of which these volumes are composed; nor would we willingly anticipate, in any degree, the curiosity of our readers by too particularly characterizing them. The tale entitled “White Lies” is one of our greatest favourites. As its title imports, it is a detail of the embarrassments and unexpected mischiefs occasioned by a habit of equivocation, and a heedless disregard for truth; -- it exposes, in a series of natural and well imagined scenes, the fallacy of the too general possibility of an innocent deception, or a harmless falsehood; -- it demonstrates the equal criminality of an ambiguity, and a lie, and places in its most amiable and attractive light, the virtue of sincerity. Of the others, we rather prefer “Mrs. Arlington,” “The Quaker,” and the “Welcome Home.” The “Tale of Trials,” and the “Ruffian Boy,” though they display, perhaps, more powerful writing, are in a style we less cordially admire. But we can most conscientiously testify of all of them, (in terms which have already expressed as the unanimous opinion of mothers, wives, and daughters,) “that they inculcate nothing but what is pure and good; they amuse, while they instruct, and plant the scions of sound principles together with the flowers of fancy; -- their interest is sufficient to excite mature attention, and their morality eminently calculated to improve youth.”