I very much enjoyed reading Amelia Opie’s 1804 novel Adeline Mowbray; if you are interested in reading novels from the time period, something beyond Austen, Scott, or Burney, you might consider this one — it’s a very interesting take on the institution of marriage, dealing with it in a way that might surprise contemporary readers.
Adeline is a young woman who was raised by a mother foolishly obsessed with philosophy — I say foolishly because while she prides herself on her intellect, she has no practical skills whatsoever, and is the type of mother who composes a treatise on the education of children all the while neglecting her daughter. Adeline herself is fortunate to be raised by her grandmother as well as her mother; she inherits her mother’s philosophical bent but also learns usefulness and practical skills from her grandmother.
What she does not learn, however, is how harsh and unforgiving the social world of her time can be, and so when she reads a book arguing that marriage is an outmoded, unnecessary institution, she has no idea how shocking this is. She finds the arguments set forth perfectly logical and makes up her mind never to marry.
Meeting and falling in love with the man who wrote the anti-marriage book doesn’t change her mind in the least; instead, she decides she would like to live with him in a relationship that is as stable and steady as marriage but without actually undergoing the ceremony. This man, Glenmurray, now finds himself in a dilemma. On the one hand, he believes in the validity of his own anti-marriage arguments, but he knows that Adeline would pay a high price for choosing cohabitation. He decides he is willing to bend to the dictates of society and get married. On the other hand, he can’t back down from his beliefs without disappointing Adeline and losing her respect. She believes it is a matter of honor that he stick to his beliefs, and she is determined she will not allow him to compromise for her sake.
A chain of events eventually leads to their cohabitation, and here things get interesting, for Adeline finally must learn just how high a price she will pay for her radicalism. And what a price she pays. From here on out, everything goes wrong — she loses all her friends, for no respectable woman would associate with a “kept” mistress. She is subject to attacks by men — practically every man she runs into — because each one assumes she is sexually available. When Glenmurray becomes ill, she realizes she will be penniless if he dies. She becomes pregnant but the distress of her life leads to a miscarriage. She is estranged from her mother, the only one who could protect her were Glenmurray to die. She spends the rest of the novel stumbling from one disaster to the next, never able to recover from her initial “mistake,” if you choose to see it that way.
It’s possible to read this as a pro-marriage, anti-radical novel, which is the way the Victorians saw it. And there may be some truth to this reading, as by the end of the novel Adeline is so thoroughly demoralized and so convinced that her anti-marriage stance was a huge mistake, that the novel seems to argue against doing anything that deviates from tradition and social expectations.
And yet it seems to me that this is less a pro-marriage novel than it is a critique of an oppressive society that allows women absolutely no room for error whatsoever. All the awful things that happen to Adeline — her isolation, her vulnerability, her economic distress, her sexual danger — seem way too high a price to pay for her youthful beliefs, especially since she had no idea just how dangerous they would be. Whether her anti-marriage arguments have any validity at all seems almost beside the point; what matters is that her “mistake” was entirely innocent and she was not allowed to recover. There are a few people along the way who help Adeline out, but the vast majority of people, especially men but also women, mock her, take advantage of her, and shun her. Even a sympathetic man, one who is attracted to her and considers marrying her, decides he cannot because she is “damaged goods.”
Adeline so clearly does not deserve this treatment; she is a much stronger, much smarter, much more honorable, and much more honest person than anyone else in the novel. The novel leads us to sympathize with her and wonder just what it is about a strong woman that society cannot handle. When she finally changes her mind about marriage and comes to believe in it as a necessary institution, she claims that she changed her mind because of logical reasoning, and yet it’s hard not to feel that it was the battering, the non-stop abuse that led to the change. No one could have withstood it.
Adding another layer of interest to the novel is that fact that it was loosely (very loosely) modeled on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a radical woman who fell in love with an anti-marriage philosopher, William Godwin, and then wound up marrying him. Amelia Opie moved in radical circles herself, at least in the earlier parts of her life before she became a Quaker, and was known to admire Wollstonecraft, a fact that bolsters more subversive interpretations of the novel.
This can be a painful read at times, as the above description probably makes clear, and yet it’s fascinating to watch an 18/19C woman grappling with an issue that seems to us to be so very contemporary. We are certainly not the first ones to wonder if cohabitation makes more sense than marriage and also to lament that women so often have to pay a high price for acting on an unpopular belief.