British Fiction, 18001829

OPIE, Amelia Alderson. Father and Daughter, The (1801)

Contemporary Reviews

Critical Review, 2nd ser. 35 (May 1802): 114–17.

We are by no means surprised that this work should have passed through the first edition before we had an opportunity of stating our opinion of its merits. The public have, by the extensiveness of its circulation, given a decisive verdict in its favour; and though we would not lay it down as a universal rule that the public voice is the voice of just taste, yet we must observe, that the general approbation bestowed upon a story like that under our consideration, ‘simple in its construction and humble in its pretensions,’ affords strong presumptive evidence that it is calculated strongly to arrest the attention and to interest the feelings. This conclusion, which we drew from the circumstances in which it was submitted to our notice, was amply confirmed by its perusal. Seldom have we met with any combination of incidents, real or imaginary, which possessed more of the deeply pathetic. The moral inculcated by this tale is seriously impressive. It exhibits in the most affecting point of view the [114/115] misery consequent upon the illicit indulgence of the passions; and the effect of the awful lesson which it teaches is not impaired by any intermixture of levity of dialogue or pruriency of description. The style of the authoress is elegant and correct, free from ambitious ornament, and never degenerating into colloquial negligence. We will not, by analysing the story of the Father and Daughter, diminish the pleasure of such of our readers as may be induced to read the work itself; but, as a specimen of Mrs. Opie’s skill in composition, we shall make an interesting extract, only premising that the heroine, Agnes Fitzhenry, after having been tempted by the wiles of Clifford to quit her indulgent father, and, after the lapse of a considerable space of time, being convinced of the villainy of her seducer, is represented as returning in the dreariness of a winter’s night to the house of her parent.

‘Agnes was now arrived at the beginning of a forest, about two miles in length, and within three of her native place. Even in her happiest days she never entered its solemn shade without feeling a sensation of fearful awe; but now that she entered it, leafless as it was, a wandering wretched outcast, a mother without the sacred name of wife, and bearing in her arms the pledge of her infamy, her knees smote each other, and, shuddering as if danger were before her, she audibly implored the protection of Heaven.

‘At this instant she heard a noise, and, casting a startled glance into the obscurity before her, she thought she saw something like a human form running across the road. For a few moments she was motionless with terror; but, judging from the swiftness with which the object disappeared that she had inspired as much terror as she felt, she ventured to pursue her course: she had not gone far when she again beheld the cause of her fear; but hearing, as it moved, a noise like the clanking of a chain, she concluded that it was some poor animal which had been turned out to graze.

‘Still, as she gained on the object before her, she was convinced it was a man that she beheld; and, as she heard the noise no longer, she concluded that it had been the result of fancy only; but that, with every other idea, was wholly absorbed in terror when she saw the figure standing still, as if waiting for her approach.—“Yet why should I fear?” she inwardly observed: “it may be a poor wanderer like myself, who is desirous of a companion;—if so, I shall rejoice in such a rencontre.”

‘As this reflexion passed her mind, she hastened towards the stranger, when she saw him look hastily round him, start, as if he beheld at a distance some object that alarmed him, and then, without taking any notice of her, run on as fast as before. But what can express the horror of Agnes when she again heard the clanking of the chain, and discovered that it hung to the ankle of the stranger!—“Surely he must be a felon,” murmured Agnes:—“O! my poor boy! perhaps we shall both be murdered!—This suspense is not to be borne; I will follow him, and meet my fate at once.”—Then, summoning all her remaining strength, she followed the alarming fugitive.

‘After she had walked nearly a mile further, and, as she did not [115/116] overtake him, had flattered herself that he had gone in a contrary direction, she saw him seated on the ground, and, as before, turning his head back with a sort of convulsive quickness; but as it was turned from her, she was convinced that she was not the object which he was seeking. Of her he took no notice; and her resolution of accosting him failing when she approached, she walked hastily past, in hopes that she might escape him entirely.

‘As she passed she heard him talking and laughing to himself, and thence concluded he was not a felon, but a lunatic escaped from confinement. Horrible as this idea was, her fear was so far overcome by pity, that she had a wish to return, and offer him some of the refreshment which she had procured for herself and child, when she heard him following her very fast, and was convinced by the sound, the dreadful sound of his chain, that he was coming up to her.

‘The clanking of a fetter, when one knows that it is fastened round the limbs of a fellow-creature, always calls forth in the soul of sensibility a sensation of horror; what then, at this moment, must have been its effect on Agnes, who was trembling for her life, for that of her child, and looking in vain for a protector round the still, solemn waste! Breathless with apprehension she stopped as the maniac gained upon her, and, motionless and speechless, awaited the consequence of his approach.

‘ “Woman!” said he, in a hoarse, hollow tone—“Woman! do you see them? Do you see them?”—“Sir! pray what did you say, sir?” cried Agnes, in a tone of respect, and curtsying as she spoke—for what is so respectful as fear?—“I can’t see them,” resumed he, not attending to her, “I have escaped them! Rascals! cowards! I have escaped them!” and then he jumped and clapped his hands for joy.

‘Agnes, relieved in some measure from her fears, and eager to gain the poor wretch’s favour, told him that she rejoiced at his escape from the rascals, and hoped that they would not overtake him: but while she spoke he seemed wholly inattentive, and, jumping as he walked, made his fetter clank in horrid exultation.

‘The noise at length awoke the child, who, seeing a strange and indistinct object before him, and hearing a sound so unusual, screamed violently, and hid his face in his mother’s bosom.

‘ “Take it away! take it away!” exclaimed the maniac—“I do not like children.”—And Agnes, terrified at the thought of what might happen, tried to sooth the trembling boy to rest, but in vain; the child still screamed, and the angry agitation of the maniac increased.—“Strangle it! strangle it!” he cried—“do it this moment, or—”

‘Agnes, almost frantic with terror, conjured the unconscious boy, if he valued his life, to cease his cries; and then the next moment she conjured the wretched man to spare her child; but, alas! she spoke to those incapable of understanding her—a child and a madman!—The terrified boy still shrieked, the lunatic still threatened, and, clenching his fist, seized the left arm of Agnes, who with the other attempted to defend her infant from his fury, when, at the very moment that his fate seemed inevitable, a sudden gale of wind shook the leafless branches of the surrounding trees, and the mad-[116/117]man, fancying the noise proceeded from his pursuers, ran off with his former rapidity.

‘Immediately the child, relieved from the sight and the sound which alarmed it, and exhausted by the violence of its cries, sunk into a sound sleep on the throbbing bosom of its mother.—But, alas! Agnes knew this was but a temporary escape;—the maniac might return, and again the child might wake in terrors; and scarcely had the thought passed her mind, when she saw him coming back; but, as he walked slowly, the noise was not so great as before.

‘ “I hate to hear children cry,” said he, as he approached.— “Mine is quiet now,” replied Agnes; then, recollecting she had some food in her pocket, she offered some to the stranger in order to divert his attention from the child. He snatched it from her hand instantly, and devoured it with terrible voraciousness: but again he exclaimed, “I do not like children; if you trust them they will betray you:” and Agnes offered him food again, as if to bribe him to spare her helpless boy.—“I had a child once—but she is dead, poor soul!” continued he, taking Agnes by the arm, and leading her gently forward.—“And you loved her very tenderly, I suppose?” said Agnes, thinking the loss of his child had occasioned his malady; but, instead of answering her, he went on:—“They said she ran away from me with a lover—but I knew they lied—she was good, and would not have deserted the father who doted on her—Besides, I saw her funeral myself—Liars, rascals, as they are!—do not tell any one, I got away from them last night, and am now going to visit her grave.”

‘A death-like sickness, an apprehension so horrible as to deprive her almost of sense, took possession of the soul of Agnes. She eagerly tried to obtain a sight of the stranger’s face, the features of which the darkness had hitherto prevented her from distinguishing; she however tried in vain; as his hat was pulled over his forehead, and his chin rested on his bosom. But as they had now nearly gained the end of the forest, and day was just breaking, Agnes, as soon as they entered the open plain, seized the arm of the madman to force him to look towards her—for speak to him she could not. He felt, and perhaps resented the importunate pressure of her hand—for he turned hastily round—when, dreadful confirmation of her fears, Agnes beheld her father!!!’ P. 59.

Notes: Listed under ‘Monthly Catalogue: Novels’. 2nd edn. Format: 8vo; price 4s. 6d. Publisher: Longman & Rees.

Flowers of Literature (1801–02): 451.

This is a short, pathetic tale, related in a plain, but very impressive manner.

Notes: No price or format given.

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 35 (June 1801): 163–66.

The pleasures of melancholy are suited only to minds of uncommon susceptibility,—to those persons who may be said to have a sympathetic taste for distress; and from readers of this class, the tale of woe now before us will meet with peculiar acceptance. For ourselves, we own that we have been truly affected by the perusal of it, since it is replete with interest, and possesses pathos enough to affect the heart of the most callous of critical readers. Our only consolation, under the first impression of our feelings, arose from the hope and persuasion is not founded on Fact, though the tragic part and the catastrophe may be too often exemplified in the consequences attending the profligacy of our young men of fortune and fashion.

Mrs. Opie speaks thus modestly of her production:

‘It is not without considerable apprehension that I offer myself as an avowed Author at the bar of public opinion,—and that apprehension is heightened by its being the general custom to given indiscriminately the name of NOVEL to every thing in Prose that comes in the shape of a Story, however simple it be in its construction, and humble in its pretensions.

‘By this means, the following Publication is in danger of being tried by a standard according to which it was never intended to be made, and to be criticised for wanting those merits which it was never meant to possess.

‘I therefore beg leave to say, in justice to myself, that I know “THE FATHER AND DAUGHTER” is wholly devoid of those attempts at strong character, comic situation, bustle, and variety of incident, which constitute a NOVEL, and that its highest pretensions are, to be a SIMPLE, MORAL, TALE.’

As this narrative is not well adapted for either abridgment or detail, we shall only add our brief commendation of its moral [163/164] tendency, and proceed to take some notice of the poetical pieces which the ingenious authoress has added to the prose part of this publication. The first and most considerable of these small but pleasing productions is ‘An Epistle supposed to be addressed by Eudora, the Maid of Corinth, to her Lover, Philomen, informing him of her having traced his shadow on the wall, while he was sleeping, the night before his departure to a foreign country; together with the joyful consequences of this action.’ The ARGUMENT is thus given:

‘Dibutades, a Potter, of Sicyon, first formed likenesses in clay, at Corinth, but was indebted to his daughter for the invention. The girl being in love with a young man who was soon going from her into some remote country, traced out the lines of his face from his shadow on the wall by candle-light. Her father, filling up the lines with his clay, formed a bust, and hardened it in the fire with the rest of his earthen ware.’

This accidental discovery, according to the Epistle, brought Dibutades into great fame and fortune. We shall copy a part of Eudora’s address, as a sufficient specimen of Mrs. Opie’s poetical compositions: [pp. 164–66 quotes Eudora to Philomen, lines beginning ‘Yes, I must write’ and ending ‘the grandeur of his swelling brow.’]

This is not the first time that we have introduced the Muse of Mrs. Opie to the approbation of our readers: see M.R. vol. xxxi. N.S. p. 356.

Notes: Format: 12mo. pp. 250; price 4s. 6d. Boards. Publisher: Longman.

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