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ROXANNE EBERLE Amelia andJohn Opie: Conjugal Sociability and Romanticism’s Professional Arts t('T'O-7-HAT DIFFERENCE DOES GENDER MAKE TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF W British literary Romanticism?”1 In posing that question, Anne Mellor added her voice to other feminist scholars interested in exploring not only the work of women writers but also the significance of gender to Romanticism’s long-standing characterizations of the imagination, literary endeavor, and the natural world. Twenty years later, Mellor prompts us to go further, asking, “So what comes next?” She calls for “editions of letters and journals, as well as modern editions, densely annotated. . . . We also need full-scale biographies [and] good single-author studies of the entire literary careers of almost all the leading women writers of the Romantic period.”2 The question for biographers working within the field, and one I pose here, rephrases Mellor’s query to: “What difference did gender make to the ways in which authors lived their lives and constructed their careers during the British Romantic period?” My work contributes to sociability studies by detailing an important aspect of Romanticism that is urban, public, and deliberately engaged with the marketplace.3 In the essay that follows, I ex­ plore Amelia and John Opie’s negotiation of courtship and married life during the vexed mid 1790s, when it still seemed possible to imagine alter­ native social conventions in literature and to enact them within the public 1. Romanticism & Gender, i. 2. “Romanticism, History, Historicism: A Conversation,” 156. See also Roxanne Eberle, ed., “Interview with Anne Mellor,” Romantic Circles: Praxis Series, January 2014, http://www .rc.umd.edu/praxis/mcllor_mterview/index.html. 3. See Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) and Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite, eds. Romantic Sociability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). SiR, 53 (Fall 2014) 319 320 ROXANNE EBERLE and private spaces ofLondon. Although historical hindsight has led scholars and historians to chart the falling fortunes of progressive politics after the beginning of hostilities with France in 1793 and the Treason Trials of 1794, the rest of the decade saw the publication of texts willing to challenge both social and narrative conventions, including William Godwin’s PoliticalJus­ tice (1793) and Caleb Williams (1794), Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), and Mary Hays’s Memoirs oj Emma Courtney (1796). A poet, novelist, and essayist, Amelia Alderson Opie was born in 1769 and lived long enough to visit the Crystal Palace when she was in her eighties.4 Throughout that long life, she consistently sought out the most exciting conversations of her day. Her childhood and young adulthood was spent in Norwich, among rational dissenters, Warrington Academy tu­ tors, and political radicals. Amelia began corresponding with Godwin in 1794, and whenever in London she was an active member of progressive sociable circles. In 1796 Godwin introduced her to Hays and Wollstonecraft and she cultivated a friendship with the latter, who quite possibly in­ troduced her to the portrait painter John Opie. John had first painted Wollstonecraft in 1790/91, and quickly become one of Godwin’s friends in the mid 1790s. Any consideration of the courtship and marriage of the Opies necessarily engages with these intersecting circles of professional arts sociability, encompassing the Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle, the theater world of Thomas Holcroft, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sarah Siddons, and the Royal Academy Exhibition Halls frequented by John. In marrying John, Amelia found new opportunities within London’s professional arts community, even as many of her former associates strug­ gled to sustain careers, and their marriage has sometimes been characterized as symptomatic of the failure of 1790s political idealism.5 6 Kenneth Johnston invites biographers to reconsider the narrative of progressive retreat so dominant in Romantic studies, which for a long time led to an exclusive focus on those writers who successfully negotiated literary careers despite harboring radical sympathies in the 1790s, William Wordsworth and Sam­ uel Taylor Coleridge most notably/’ Johnston redirects attention to the “almost famous,” including Amelia. But she was actually quite “famous” 4. Throughout the rest ofthe essay I refer to Amelia andjohn Opie by their first names in order to avoid...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 319-341
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-19
Open Access
No
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