Adeline Mowbray

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.

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

17 responses to “Adeline Mowbray

  1. This is very interesting. Thanks for writing it up. What is the prose like?

    By the way, have you tried Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Funny, not at all didactic, less than 100 pages. A surprising book to find in 1800.

  2. As I was reading your post I was thinking exactly of Mary Wollstonecraft and wondered if this author had read her writing. This does sound like a fascinating read. Some subjects seem to be as fresh today as they were a couple hundred years ago. Some things just don’t change I guess. You write about it wonderfully–another one I need to add to my list…

  3. By the way, reading your post really puts me in the mood to pull out the Slaves next book and start reading. I think I’m in the mood now for something 18th C. (well, this is early 19th–but close anyway).

  4. I’ve been reading Georgette Heyer’s A Lady of Quality and her main character goes on about wanting a life of her own and not marrying which of course everyone thinks is just crazy. The Heyer book of sounds much more lighthearted than this one you’ve read but nevertheless it’s interesting to hear women voice these thoughts and the reactions they get. I’d never heard of this book but it’s going on my list! I really enjoyed your review.

  5. Jenny

    This sounds absolutely fascinating. I wonder if it could go on my list of “women ruined by reading,” like Emma Bovary? Is that a theme at all?

  6. Rob

    I rarely stray into this period, but it sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the review!

  7. This does sound like it’s right up my alley. I’m always up for a 19th-century fallen women novel. When reading your review, I couldn’t help but wonder if Dorothy Sayers knew this book–it sounds remarkably like Harriet Vane’s situation in Strong Poison.

  8. This sounds like a fascinating novel (or at least in your hands it is). I was thinking about Mary Wollstonecraft as I read through, funnily enough. I keep meaning to get hold of the book in which she writes about her travels as a single mother with a small child. I read somewhere (if only I could recall where) an interesting analysis of these kind of ‘punishing the woman’ books, in which the thesis was that to defy the social limitations of the time was just as dangerous for the author, who could only put forth progressive role models by punishing them excessively in subsequent pages. But of course, the idea of other possibilities for women and for social organisation are mooted by such a means, even if the central character has to pay for them. Just goes to show that publishers were the same back in the 18th century as they are now!

  9. I have two of Wollstonecraft’s books on my shelf, the one Litlove is talking about above, called “A Short Residence in Sweden”, as well as “The Rights of Woman”–maybe I ought to read those and this back-to-back. Sounds like such an interesting period in the lives of women. Thanks for the review–this is definitely going onto my list!

  10. I’ve not heard of this book before but it sounds so good. You find the most interesting books Dorothy!

  11. Oh, I’m always looking for 18th/19th C British texts beyond the usual so I’m pleased to see you write about this one. Will definitely be on the look out for it!

  12. This does sound good. It makes me think of The Mill on the Floss — not exactly the same type of thing, but it does deal with the terrible decisions women had to make and the ways in which they were often treated.

  13. One of the things I love about imprints like Oxford World Classics is that they bring to light books you would simply never have otherwise discovered. I was wondering all along as I read your review what the background of the writer was because that was clearly going to be central in terms of how the books should be read. Did she write anything else? It would be interesting to know what other themes she took and whether they throw any light on her real views.

  14. Amateur Reader — I haven’t read that particular Edgeworth novel, but I have read and enjoyed her novel Belinda. Must get to her other ones! As for Opie’s prose — it’s serviceable, I’d say. She’s no master stylist, but her writing doesn’t detract from the interest of her ideas.

    Danielle — I certainly would like to know more about Opie’s life and her relationship to/ideas about Wollstonecraft. I wonder if there is a book that discusses this? I’m looking forward to Ruth Hall too — but don’t forget it’s not due until the end of September!

    Iliana — I enjoy Heyer because of her great heroines — although they are more wish fulfillment than realistic, I think! But it is wonderful to read about strong women of the time — who don’t get punished for their strength.

    Jenny — oh, yes, this book would fit right in with that theme — and what an interesting list that would be! I’d add The Female Quixote too, if you’re not familiar with that one.

    Rob — thank you! The period is worth straying into now and then :)

    Teresa — well, I shall have to read that Sayers novel, then. I have no idea what Sayers read, but it would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it?

    Litlove — I’ve written (in an academic manner, I mean) about the Wollstonecraft book you mention — it’s a great book, although she doesn’t actually say much about her daughter (which is interesting in and of itself). There are a few mentions here and there, but most of her deeper analysis is reserved for commentary on the Scandinavians. That idea about punishing the progressive role model is interesting, and it’s definitely going on in this book — and the excessive punishment makes its own point, I think.

    Gentle Reader — now that would make an interesting study! Reading the Wollstonecraft texts together is fascinating in and of itself, because you see such different sides of her — her travelogue persona is much softer and less certain and dogmatic than her philosophical treatise self.

    Stefanie — I’ve studied this time period enough to get to know some of the lesser-known stuff — a nice advantage of specializing in something, which I actually rarely do!

    Imani — oh, good! I’d love to know what you think of this one!

    Lisa — now The Mill on the Floss is one I’d like to reread; I’m a huge Eliot fan, but haven’t read that one since I was in high school. These might make a good pairing!

    Ann — oh, yes, I love to look for Oxfords and Penguins and other series that reissue old books when I’m browsing in bookstores. Opie wrote quite a lot — novels, stories, and poetry — but I don’t think anything else is in print. This is the first book of hers I’ve read. I do know that she became a Quaker later in life, which changed her views on many subjects.

  15. Right. Proceed to Goodreads and immediately add this one to the “To-Read” shelf.

  16. Interesting commentary. You always have special ways of looking at the material. A thought that came across my mind is that it also reminds us that radical action will, by its very nature, bring grief from society. I think many people today want to push for radical change, but expect that the mainstream should not push against them. If we want to shift the bulk of society we have to be prepared to face resistance.

  17. Thanks for the great review! This is going straight to my TO READ LIST for next year’s 18th-19th Century Women Writers challenge. Right now there’s quite a lot of Austen and Burney on it, hahah!

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