potrait of Amelia

Our Library Project volunteers have discovered a letter (and a poem) from the now-forgotten poet and novelist Amelia Opie (1769-1853) to Lord Houghton's aunt Frances Jane Monckton. The personal and tender letter was tucked into a biography of Opie by Cecilia Brightwell, published in 1854.

This Tale from the Library is another one that reveals the remarkable lives and achievements of 18th and 19th century women. Lead volunteer Hilary Ely tells us more:




My dear friend

F: J: M: on bidding her farewel (sic) –


We part – and if to meet on Earth no more,

This changing scene of pleasure, and of pain,

Oh! may we meet on that delightful shore

Where friends once met can never part again.



                           _     Amelia Opie


Keswick Hall

10th Mo 21st 1842 [21st October 1842]


 About Amelia

Amelia Opie was a poet, novelist, radical, abolitionist, composer and singer. She was immensely popular in her day, and an article in the 1830 Edinburgh Review linked her with Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen as one of the finest female novelists of the age. Compared with the other two, she is now a forgotten writer.  Later in life she became a Quaker and writer of moral tales, and this may have caused her earlier non-religious writing to fade from view. She was throughout her life a vibrant and multi-talented personality, well-travelled, politically engaged, and with a wide circle of friends.  

letter from amelia to francesShe was born Amelia Alderson in Norwich, the daughter of Amelia (née Briggs), and John Alderson, a physician.  Her mother died when she was 15, and she became housekeeper and hostess for her father who moved in liberal dissenting circles in the city. At an early age she showed talent in music, writing and languages. Norwich had a strong radical community, and when a new liberal journal, The Cabinet, was established in 1794, she contributed 15 poems to the first issues.  In the same year, writers associated with The Cabinet were put on trial with a number of other alleged English Jacobins, but were acquitted.   Amelia became close to radical figures such as William Godwin, Mary Wollestonecraft, Anna Laeitia Barbauld and others.  She rose to fame as a writer of poems, ‘Tales’ (shorter fiction) and of full length novels in the early 1800s. Her novel Adeline Mowbray (1804) fictionalises the unmarried relationship of Godwin and Wollestonecraft.  In 1798 she married the painter and portraitist John Opie, a happy marriage cut short by his early death in 1807.  John Opie did not go out in society but encouraged Amelia in her friendships and her writing and publishing. On the death of her husband she returned to Norwich and her father’s household. She moved away from the Unitarian tradition in which she had been brought up towards the Society of Friends, becoming a Quaker in 1825, the year her father died.  She spent the rest of her life campaigning for reform of prisons and workhouses and the abolition of slavery, writing, travelling and making friends.  More than once she visited France at a crucial political juncture, and was engaged by its revolutionary moments, from the Napoleonic era to the revolution of 1830.  She died in 1853, and her long and varied life formed the subject of this book compiled by Cecilia Lucy Brightwell, a close family friend.

Picture of the bookAbout her Biographer Cecilia Brightwell

There is less to say about Cecilia Brightwell (1811-1875), except that she was another multi-talented woman from a Norwich family.  Her father, Thomas Brightwell, was a dissenting minister, a friend and the literary executor of Amelia Opie.   As well as writing over 20 books, Cecilia Brightwell was a highly skilled etcher, studying with John Sell Cotman.  Only a few of her etchings were published, but there is a record of more unpublished, and of the high opinion in which her work was held.  Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie (1854) was her first literary work, published the year after Opie’s death.  Other works were Christian biographies, written for children many published by the Religious Tract Society.  She campaigned for a lifeboat for Blakeney on the Norfolk coast, and made the considerable gift of £180 towards it.

About Frances Monckton

The Hon. Frances Jane Monckton (1786-1854), the recipient of the letter, was a daughter of the 4th Viscount Galway, and the aunt of Richard Monckton Milnes (founder of our library), whose mother was her sister Henrietta Maria (née Monckton).  I have been able to find out very little about her, except that she was one of four daughters of the 4th Viscount Galway, only one of whom married (Henrietta Maria, RMM’s mother).  Her niece, Henrietta Eliza, RMM’s sister, married her nephew the 6th Viscount Galway – the Monckton and Milnes families were even more closely intertwined, as Frances Jane’s stepmother was also a Milnes, and RMM’s distant cousin as well as step-grandmother. Papers including correspondence to and from Frances Jane are listed in the National Archives website, the archive held in Nottingham University Library, Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections.