The Amelia Alderson Opie Archive
1820 Tales of the Heart
 
Monthly Review, ns, 92 (1820): 375-87.

 

It is the fate of our craft to be frequently assailed by feelings that interfere with the cool and deliberate exercise of our judgment; and this is a predicament which happens chiefly when a female writer is before us. We cannot speak harshly, or judge austerely, of authors in muslin and sarsenet: gallantry, or sometimes a tenderer sentiment, interposes, and blots out an ungracious criticism or an uncourtly sentence; [376] and the female errors that fall to her share are instantly forgotten, as our fancy calls up to us the face or the figure of the fair poet, or novelist, who has condescended to amuse us.

We make these confessions that justice may be done to us, when we are absolutely impelled to pronounce an unfavourable opinion on the productions of that amiable sex. In the present instance, such an opinion is given not only with reluctance but with regret. The tale of 'The Father and Daughter' was so tender and affecting that it drew tears, and those not of iron, down our cheeks; and while we were reading the stories now under examination, those prepossessions in favour of their author, which the remembrance of that little work naturally called into action, maintained rather a strong conflict with our taste and our reason. Still we must deal out impartial justice, and, referring neither to the sex nor to the reputation of the writer, tell our readers fairly and honestly what we think of her performance.

This duty is the more rigidly exacted from us, because the customers of the Circulating Library have voracious and undistinguishing appetites; and it is of the utmost importance, therefore, that articles of such general consumption should be accurately inspected, and their weights and measures superintended by a vigilant police, especially, when previous reputation may give a sort of sanction to the things that are vended. Above all, we are bound in conscience to see whether the goods offered to the public are manufactured merely for sale; and whether the author, more intent on profit than ambitious of fame, has any other solicitude than

- nummum in loculos demittere; post hoc

 Securus, cadat, an recto stet fabula talo. (HOR.)

We cannot put down, nor confine within any assignable limits, this species of writing: we can only see that it is composed of wholesome ingredients, and bears some proportion in value to the price which is asked for it.

As a writer of this class, Mrs. Opie has a peculiarity which is honourable to her. She does not deal in that diseased sentiment which some authors have imagined to be love, and have taught so many boarding-school misses and milliner's apprentices to imagine to be love also. Her pages do not abound with those exaggerations of passion which leave nature and common sense behind them. Her ladies and gentlemen are neither immoderately good nor immoderately bad; they talk the language of every-day life; and sometimes, we [377] are compelled to say, they are as heavy and dull as people in every-day life are frequently found to be. The interest which she excites is drawn from ordinary and not from artificial sources. She does not soar into the regions of fancy, nor revel in the wilds of romance. She does not wing her flight like the lark into clouds. She keeps on the ground; and her humble and unaspiring occupation is that of drawing from the world as it is, and from manners as they are, those incidents which, though of rare occurrence in real life, have sufficient probability to fascinate and amuse us. When all this is skilfully done, we are well recompensed for the absence of those splendid impossibilities, and that glare of sentiment, which in so many of our modern novels are revolting to the moral as well as the literary taste of sensible and discerning readers.

Still it is evident that, though this task may seem to be easy, it is attended by great difficulty. When a writer forms his groupes [sic] and combines his events from common life, he has much to do before he can make them pleasing. Exactness of copy is not of itself sufficient in any of the imitative arts. The figure of the sculptor must have a superadded grace, and adventitious beauty: - the landscape must not be a tame imitation, like those of Paul Brill, but must have clumps and shades and tints imparted to it by the genius of the painter. Of common life, also, the imitations must be select; its coarse realities must be avoided; great skill and judgment must be displayed in the choice of character and the management of dialogue; and the utmost caution should be employed in keeping clear of those insipidities, both of character and dialogue, which make us yawn in real society. Powers, in short, of no ordinary kind, are required to blend the charms of fiction with the imitation of nature; to divest a tale of romance, and yet to preserve interest.

The title-page, 'Tales of the Heart,' misled us in the first instance; and we began to anticipate from the perusal of them a series of incidents calculated to awaken the sentiments, and stir up the emotions, which flutter in that part of our organization. On proceeding, however, we found that region wholly undisturbed; and, though some of the stories interested us, scarcely an incident, or a character, or an expression, reached the precincts of the heart. The handkerchief, which we usually deposit ready on our table when we have a work of feeling or pathos to peruse, was quietly returned to its more usual place, and we journeyed along from tale to tale without the slightest occasion to recall it. How has this happened? Mrs. Opie must pardon us, but we [378] think that we can account for it. The fault lies in the structure, in the conduct, and in the sketching of her stories. Her personages not only do not talk well, but positively talk ill. The author endeavours to make them interesting by their benevolence, and other amiable qualities; and they give away their money (those, at least, who have money to dispense) freely and liberally: - but, when they open their lips, they speak so much common-place, and in so bad a taste, that we feel downright fatigue in their company. Elegant nothings, polished trifling, graceful badinage, all this we can endure, and not unfrequently relish: but, when insipidity is inelegant, and that which is trivial is next to vulgar, we become unquiet in our chairs. Even the fiction ceases to carry us along: we take a turn or two across the room: but this will not do; we vainly endeavour to resume the book, and at length throw it by in despair. We do not require these assertions to be gratuitously admitted, for we will give a specimen of a conversation or two in fashionable life, and then take our leave of so unpleasant a part of the subject. We select a discussion after a ball:

The young Baronet, who was by no means a man of words, and from a sort of mauvaise honte, only too common to Englishmen, was never quite at ease with strangers, only bowed in return for his host's civility; and the party sat down to supper.

It was now increased by the presence of a lady whom Miss Wallington had graciously gone to summon, and now as graciously supported on her arm into the room; for youth and beauty appeared, she well knew, to great advantage while lending their aid to infirmity.

This lady, on being introduced to Sir William by the name of Mrs. Norman, took care to call his attention to this trifling piece of benevolence, by observing,

'My sweet young friend's angelic attention makes me not feel my lameness;' while the sweet young friend seated her by herself, and, patting her on the shoulder, insisted on her making a good supper, as she had been so foolish as to sit up on purpose to hear all about the ball.

'Well, but you have told me nothing yet.'

'No, nor can, till I have supped. Sir William, be so good as to help me to a leg of that chicken.'

He obeyed. In the mean while the lame lady was still questioning Miss Wallington, and [asking (BC reviewer's addition)] whether she and her sister had made any new conquests.

'Nonsense!' cried both the young ladies at once; but Mrs. Norman, who knew such questions were usually welcome, had not tact enough to feel that they might be ill-timed in the presence of a stranger; and she still went on with,

'Well! and was the handsome young baronet Sir William Dormer there?'

[379] 'No, he was not,' petulantly returned Miss Wallington while the handsome young baronet who was present looked up with a strong expression of astonishment; but he said nothing, and Miss Wallington feared that he was shocked at the petulance with which she had replied.

'Well, my lady, and how did you like the ball?' resumed the impracticable Mrs. Norman. 'But no doubt you liked it, and as usual, felt yourself the most favoured of mothers?'

Lady Wallington smiled complacently, and said, 'Yes, I felt that I was a fortunate mother; but there were others as much so. The Miss Selvyns looked lovely to-night, only they were comme de coutume, over-dressed. Their mother, though she has long been a private gentleman's wife, can't forget she was once on the stage; and she loads them and herself with such trumpery finery!'

'Aye, she does indeed; but you are too candid; the Selvyns can't look lovely.'

'Oh! Mamma quite patronizes their beauty, you know, Mrs. Norman; and I am sure it needs patronage. To-night these lovely creatures looked as red as red-cabbage, and red-cabbage dipped in oil too.'

'O you clever creature! That was so like you!'

Miss Wallington, gratified by this praise of her wit, and fancying it would add to the piquancy of her beauty, went on with her observations.

'Yes, Mamma is so over-candid. - There was Mrs. O'Connor sprawling about her large limbs in a quadrille, and Mamma looking on and asking me if I did not think the handsome widow improved in her dancing!'

'Well, indeed, I thought she was,' said Caroline Wallington with a timid manner and a blushing check.

'Aye, and so did I,' said Miss Laura.

'There, Anne; it is three to one against you,' observed Lady Wallington.

'No matter: I may be out-voted, but not convinced. All I can own is, that Mrs. O'Connor's foot has now a plan to pursue, since she took lessons in town; and before it was "a mighty maze, and quite without a plan;" and as this foot kicked in all directions, she ought in common humanity to have cried out to those nearest her, "Gare toes, gare toes!"' This lively sally, which she thought witty, drew forth smiles from Lady Wallington and her complaisant friend. But Miss Laura said, 'You are always so severe, Anne!' and Caroline looked very grave, while she observed, 'How handsome Mrs. O'Connor is, even now!'

'She would not thank you for that compliment, with the "even now" tacked to it; but you think every body handsome, Caroline. I really do believe, - don't blush, - that you think yourself so.'

'No indeed, cousin Anne, that I do not,' replied the poor girl, covered with the most becoming blushes; 'and I am sure you do not think I ever did; and you only say it to -'

[380] 'To what?' cried Anne, rising and hiding her anger at the unuttered word under a smile, while she threw her beautiful arms gracefully round her agitated cousin, and kissed her cheek with seeming affection, 'What did I do it for, dear Cary?'

Caroline had not courage now to say, 'To tease me:' and while Sir William gazed on the exquisite form and graceful attitude of Miss Wallington, and saw her caressing manner towards her cousin, he forgot (as she thought he would) the unkind raillery which had produced it.

Miss Wallington returned to her seat, agreeably conscious that the Baronet's eyes followed her with admiration.

'Well,' now observed the curious Mrs. Norman; 'well, and so Sir William Dormer, to the disappointment of all the young ladies, was not there after all!'

'Not to my disappointment, I assure you,' cried Miss Wallington scornfully; 'for I have been told he is very proud, reserved, and conceited, and not very good-looking.'

'Dear me, Anne,' cried her sister, 'how changeable you are! It was only to-day that you said you would give any thing to know if be would be at the ball, and whether he liked fair or brown women.'

'Nonsense! No such thing,' replied Anne, blushing with anger at hearing her real sentiments thus exposed before Sir William Maberley; but Laura provokingly went on to say, 'Yes, it is true, sister; and you know what you said about Miss Dormer's ball, and about opening it with her brother.'

Miss Wallington's reply was now prevented by Sir William's rising suddenly, and saying that it grew late, and he must go. But it was in vain that he made the attempt; Anne, with an air and a manner which she had often found irresistible, playfully set her back against the door, and looked up in his face with a fascinating smile; and while Sir William muttered a few unintelligible words, he suffered himself to be persuaded back to his seat: but it was evident that he was not at ease, and that though he resumed his chair he did not resume his composure.

'It is very strange,' said Caroline, 'that not one of us has yet mentioned the great novelty of the evening, the young heiress, Miss Dormer.'

'The less that is said of her the better, perhaps,' observed Anne, 'though it is wrong to judge of any one at first sight. I own I was terribly disappointed in her.'

'Indeed!' replied Caroline: 'I am sure she quite equalled my expectations, high-raised as they were.'

'High-raised! And pray, child,' said Lady Wallington, 'what could you know of Miss Dormer?'

'Oh! I know an intimate friend, a school-fellow of hers; and she described her as all that was amiable, and indeed she looks so. Why, is it possible, cousin Anne, that you do not think her face and countenance beautiful?'

'Beautiful! she is deformed.'

[381] 'Her face is not; and the defect in her shape I should never have found out, if it had not been pointed out to me.'

'No! - Why, her wretched style of dress called one's attention to it; it was so showy, and so unbecoming!'

'I must own it was too rich and splendid to suit my taste,' said Caroline.

'Or your pocket either, my dear,' said Lady Wallington: 'and Miss Dormer could have no eye, no taste, to adopt it.'

'I dare say, dear aunt,' replied Caroline, 'Miss Dormer did not choose her own dress: I suspect that sweet-looking old lady with her chose it for her.'

'And why?'

'Because she seemed so pleased with her appearance, and surveyed her and it with so much delight; and then she stroked it down with such complacence just before Miss Dormer began to dance; and looking so affectionately and so like a mother at her, I really could not help envying Miss Dormer a friend so like a parent; and I am told she lives with her, and is quite a mother to her. How delightful!'

Now, strange as it may seem, we have occasionally descended from our garrets, and have had opportunities of observing the manners and hearing the discourse of what is called good society; and we positively affirm that the language, which Mrs. Opie has put into the mouths of these ladies, would scarcely have been used by their maids. Much nonsense is talked, no doubt, and much malice felt, by the elegant class of people: but in the house of what family of any condition, much less of distinction, would this stuff have been uttered? Where has Mrs. Opie observed, among persons of rank and education, the low female spite vented by these sisters against each other, in the presence too of a young baronet who was a perfect stranger, and at whom they were setting their caps? We are aware how ill-bred it is to compare one lady with another; and it is not for the purpose of comparison, therefore, that we venture to remind our readers of the skill and consistency with which the author of Evelina and Cecilia adapted the style of her dialogue to the rank and condition of her characters. Flippant volubility in her hands contrived to rattle out something that had a point, a tournure: but the most voluble and chattering female of her varied and animated groupes would have hesitated, at least, in giving utterance to the vulgar joke, as it is called by courtesy, of gare-toes.

Another specimen of her conversations will be sufficient to shew how Mrs. Opie manages the dramatic part of her narrative, and will give at the same time some idea of her skill in quotation. An afflicted widowed lady is under the care [382] of one of her relations: who, while administering to her a nervous medicine, (qu. a strong dose?) could not help exclaiming;

'Poor dear! what will all the physic in the world do for you, cousin Helen? as the man says in the play,

What can minister to a mind diseased?

And

Give physic to the dogs.'

Here my mother with a pathetic look motioned her to be silent, but in vain.

'Nay, my dear Julia,' said she, 'I must speak; my dear cousin Helen will not know else how I have cried and lain awake all night with thinking of her miseries.'

'She does not doubt your kind sympathy, dear aunt, she does not, indeed.'

'But she cannot be sure of it, Mrs. Charles, unless I tell her of it; and tell her

    I cannot. But remember, such folks were,

 And were most dear to all.

Oh! he had

an eye like Mars!

and that is quite appropriate, you know, as he died in battle. I mean your poor husband, poor George Pendarves; not your brother, I never saw him.'

My mother looked aghast. Since the death of George Pendarves no one had ever ventured to name him to Lady Helen:

But fools rush in where angels dare not tread.

And Lady Helen hid her face in agonizing surprise on my mother's shoulder.

'Ah! one may see by your eyes that you have shed many tears. Why, they tell me you never knew what had happened till you saw the poor dear love lying dead and bleeding. There was a shock! Oh! how I pity you, dearest soul! I have often thought it was a mercy that you did not fall over the banisters, and break your neck.'

'It broke my heart,' screamed out Lady Helen in the voice of phrensy, unable to support any longer the horrible picture thus coarsely brought before her; and in another moment the house resounded with her hysterical cries; while Mrs. Pendarves added, she could not but think Lady Helen was very bad still, as she could not bear to be pitied; though pity was said to be very soothing - and though she,

    like pity on one side,

 Her grief-subduing voice applied.

Another reason may be assigned for Mrs. Opie's present failure. Little improbabilities are perpetually staring us in [383] the face, which disturb the air of vraisemblance that should pervade the main parts of the story. When the incidental and subordinate occurrences are absolutely out of the course of events, they tell us at once that the whole narrative must be artificial, and that the scenes which it pourtrays never did and never could take place. For instance, in her first story, which is much better delineated in Hogarth's prints of the idle and the industrious Apprentice, a Mr and Mrs Fullarton happen to arrive at a village, and are so instantaneously taken with a poor lad, (Ronald Douglas,) who had bravely rescued from suffocation in a vault three or four labouring men of the place, that they make him a present of - what - a writership in India! As the fact is related, it would seem that they carried the writership about with them. This is not all. The young writer proceeds with them to Calcutta, and is generally considered as a relative of his kind patrons. A ball is about to be given by a lady in the settlement: but, being apprehensive that her rooms will be too crowded, and that, if her cards are indiscriminately issued, the heads of families will bring with them their guests, (strangers being generally entertained on their first arrival in the houses to which they bring letters of introduction,) what does she do? She sends out her invitations to certain persons, 'and their relatives.' The consequence is that Ronald, construing the card au pied de la lettre, though a handsome young man, is too high-minded to go as a relative with Mr and Mrs Fullarton, and heroically stays away. Now we will venture to say that all this could never be, particularly in India. We believe that, when a lady projects her ball, her chief solicitude is to fill her rooms, and with those who are likely to dance. An invitation, however, to a family 'and its relatives' would merely bring to her house a few chaperone's [sic] and their husbands, who had in all probability left off dancing; while it would exclude all those who could give the slightest air of festivity to the scene, - all the young persons of both sexes: for in India there are not, as in European societies, knots and combinations of kindred. The gaiety of the ball-room, therefore, must be lighted up chiefly, if not solely, by the guests residing in the different families of the settlement, consisting principally of the new arrivals; that is, of nearly all the beauty and fashion of the place, whom this ingenious lady, with such admirable self-denial, took pains to exclude from her party. - Let us, however, proceed. Ronald remains, by great good luck, at Calcutta for seventeen years; during which, Mr. Fullarton having put him into the way of a profitable speculation or two, he makes a large fortune, comes home to England a bache-[384]lor, and, as soon as he arrives, instead of contenting himself with lodgings or an hotel, takes a handsome villa at Southgate. That these little things are impossible, we do not say: but there is a beaten track of usage, in which all writers who undertake to represent the occurrences of ordinary life must be contented to tread. We are led to suspect, from these instances, that Mrs. Opie has viewed life with a negligent or unskilful eye, or has had insufficient opportunities of regarding it.

Other incongruities occur which are equally palpable. In a story, the date of which is immediately after the Revolution, a young lady not only studies Tasso, and retains nearly all his poetry in her memory, but actually understands botany; - not the culling of simples [sic] which, in the reign of William III., constituted the whole of the science, but the classes of plants, lichens and mosses, &c. There should be a keeping in every picture of life; and the habits and pursuits of the personages should be modelled in conformity to the period to which they are assigned. Were Tasso and botany likely to be the familiar studies of a young lady at the age of sixteen in the middle of the seventeenth century? In another place, (vol. iv. p. 43.) the author's inattention makes her appear ignorant of the laws of nature, and she gives a young woman, aged thirty-three, a large family, of grandchildren!

An additional cause also has contributed to Mrs. Opie's failure in her present volumes. She does not always condescend to write English: a remark not implying simply that her diction is inelegant, but that it is vicious; such as is condemned by correct taste, and by universal convention banished from all tolerably good society. We must be permitted to remind the author of a few of these instances. A well-educated young lady cries out, 'Oh dear, yes! I hope so. Nay, I am sure so.' Vol. i. p. 21. - 'Instantly those speaking eyes lighted up with pleasure;' meaning, we presume, 'were lighted up.' P. 39. - A little farther on, we are treated with a pun. A nobleman, suspecting that his son's visit to the Isle of Wight had a matrimonial object, asks the young gentleman whether he had any particular views in his intended tour? whereupon, though living in the time of William III.-, nearly sixty years before the birth of Joe Miller, he thus facetiously replies: 'Yes, my Lord, I have: the views round Cowes in particular.'

A very strange mysterious gentleman, in the first story, when putting his guest to bed, gives him a peremptory injunction, - Should you hear aught unusual, do not be [385] alarmed, but turn and sleep again:' an injunction which implies, we think, somewhat too much faith in the power of volition. We also learn a point in ecclesiastical law which is quite new to us, that there are various degrees of legitimacy. 'I now, in order to legitimate my child as much as possible, procured a licence, and we were married.' Sometimes, Mrs, Opie's phrase is borrowed from very humble life: 'It was months before Madeleine held up her head.' 266: 'How worthy of love is that being who is fond of encouraging sources for thankfulness!' - 'To whom was he to address it (a letter). His heart said to Grace Fullarton; but his judgment, to her aunt; and the latter carried the day.' Vol. ii. p. 121. On one occasion, we are amused with a little confusion as to sex. At the end of a love-scene, 'Ronald could not desire a more explicit avowal,- and he left her the happiest of men.' Confusion of persons also occurs in vol. iv. p. 15., where we read: 'Suffice that during the next ten years Mrs. Evelyn became the mother of two daughters and a son; that Mr. Evelyn's parents died when they (who?) had been married nine years,' &c. In another place, our indignation against a negligent police is awakened by being told (vol. ii. p. 152.) that the road round Southgate is so much infested by robbers, 'that the chances of being attacked are very certain;' and in p. 167. we have a pretty little gallicism, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas bitterly lamenting 'the evasion of the wicked man;' meaning the escape of a robber.

The following sentence must surely be taken, word for word, from some of the little story-books which were formerly sold by Mr. Newberry: 'But when my father and mother were seated at the breakfast-table and gave me some of the nice things set before them, I became less averse to their caresses, and before the day was over I consented to have one papa and two mammas; while Seymour assured me he thought my papa, though ill, very handsome, and like his own poor papa.' Vol. ii. p. 230. - In vol. iv. p. 264., the carriage of Sir Edward is found to be inconvenient as a chariot, though at p. 121. it is blazoned forth as a 'costly coach;' and the first sentence of that volume is thus inelegantly worded: 'If we were to take from the catalogue of miseries those which are merely the result of our own diseased imaginations, and the distorted or mistaken view which we take of circumstances and persons,' &c. Many of these objections may perhaps be termed trifles, but they shew the want of care with which the approbation of the public has here been sought.

[386] In addition to these sources of ennui, we are not much pleased by having to undergo an introduction not only to the principal persons in the tales, but to their grandfathers and grandmothers, whose adventures and loves are tediously recited. It is too much to have two generations of the Seymour and Pendarves families let loose on us at once; and we cannot describe the yawn which escaped us when, by way of preamble to a long story, we read the following sentence: 'Introduction. My grandfather and the grandfather of Seymour Pendarves were brothers, and the younger sons,' &c. &c.

The task, however, which we are now reluctantly executing, must be closed. We have before observed how ill-bred it was to compare one lady with another; or we might have observed on the evident superiority of Miss Edgeworth's tales to those of Mrs. Opie. Miss E. pays a better compliment to the understandings of her friends who frequent the circulating libraries, than to write beneath them. Her diction is generally polished, always easy, and sometimes eloquent. She conforms to truth and nature; and, though we frequently meet with improbabilities, we find a perfect consistency in the manners of the persons by whose agency her story is conducted. Her delineation of character is skilful and accurate; in all their varieties of passion, of nation, and of disposition, they are true to themselves; - and, which [sic] is more, they all conduce to illustrate some useful principle, and inculcate some momentous lesson.

In making these remarks on Mrs. Opie's present production, our countenances, if she could discern them, would be seen to be more 'in sorrow than in anger.' We wish to admonish, not to wound: but, if our admonition inflicts a wound, we trust that it will be salutary; that it will urge her to set a higher value on a reputation so fairly acquired by many of her former writings; and that, in consequence, she will not put it again to hazard by stories so indigested in their plans, so incorrect in their execution, and so little calculated to awaken our sympathy. We know that she has talents; and we must therefore earnestly entreat that, in her next publication, she will not excite a suspicion that they are impaired and blunted. Let her remember that the pathetic tales, of The Father and Daughter and of Adeline Mowbray bear strong testimony to her powers: but that these will soon be forgotten, and with them the praise which was awarded to their author, if she perseveres in her contempt of public [387] judgment, by writing such stories as 'The Opposite Neighbour.'

We have not yet mentioned that various poetical effusions are interspersed in the volumes: but it is due to them to state their occurrence, and to remark that they are occasionally very pretty. We will do more, for we will quote one of them as a proof of their merit.

 Fairest, Sweetest, Dearest, A Song.

    'Say, by what name can I impart

 My sense, dear girl, of what thou art?     Nay, though to frown thou darest,

 I'll say thou art of girls the pride:

 And though that modest lip may chide,

     Mary! I'll call thee "FAIREST."

    'Yet no - that word can but express

 The soft and winning loveliness

     'In which the sight thou meetest.

 ut not thy heart, thy temper too,

 So good, so sweet - Ha! that will do!

 The soft and winning loveliness

     'Mary! I'll call thee "SWEETEST."

    'But "fairest, sweetest," vain would be

 To speak the love I feel for thee:

     'Why smilest thou as thou hearest?'

     ''Because,' she cried, "one little name

 Is all I wish from thee to claim -

     'That precious name is "DEAREST."'

 

 
   
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