Amelia Opie to Susannah Taylor

May 17, 18021

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My dear Friend,

Your most kind and gratifying letter so wholly undeserved on my part, and (considering your many avocations) so generous on your’s, demanded an earlier acknowledgment but it is one of the charms of our intimacy that it is proof against neglects like mine — I know you will not cease to love me, nor think that I have ceased to love you, tho’ even months pass without my assuring you of my unaltered regard — But at last I sit down to write to you, and you might suppose I take up my pen conscience-urged — no such matter. — I write to crave your advice on a subject that weighs heavy on my mind, and one on which at present I cannot consult my husband — a difficult affair to act properly in — as I want to reconcile pity and Justice — you must know that after having for some time past had some reason to suspect the strict honesty in trifles of my maid Anne, I had last Friday the mournful certainty of detecting her in a course of most flagrant iniquity — and what is worse, when I brought my charge against her, she was most firm in denial, and accused me of the grossest cruelty, and injustice in accusing her; while a series of ready lies tho’ abounding in contradictions, which left no doubt of her guilt on my mind, sunk her still lower in my opinion. — — We parted mutually displeased, but I, which she did not foresee, went in search of positive evidence against her — and on my return, a word brought her on her knees, and to the most abject petitioning — The fact is this —— She has been for months, and months in the habit of washing my white gowns herself with my soap, and charging me for them telling me they were washed by such a person in the neighbourhood — by this means making my washing come dear indeed to me, besides defrauding me of her time for other things, and betraying my confidence [and] putting pounds and pounds in her pocket — The more I think of this transaction, the more depraved it makes her appear. — and in the midst of all her distress, and my lectures she intreated me not to wait to turn her away (if she must go) till we left Town, because that was so unfavourable a time of the year for getting a place!! — How selfish and heartless! — Her great terror was that I should tell her master, because I told her I knew he would turn her out that night — and to say the truth, I was easily prevailed on to keep the affair a secret from him for a short time, in order to avoid an éclat, which would blast the poor wretch's character for ever — Yet how my dear friend, can I any way act as I ought, without doing this? Her cry is, "give me a character for God's sake?" But how can I? Even if I keep her till August, can I then, however correct her future conduct, say "yes," to an enquiry concerning her honesty? She swears she never otherwise wronged me, but I am sure, she has in many ways, tho’ I have not found it out — Such systematic cheating proves an emphatic absence of principle. Sometimes I think of advising her not to think of service any more but take in washing, and plain work — Keep her myself I can not indeed I know Mr. Opie will not suffer it, and that it will require all my influence, and persuasion when I tell him the story to prevent her being turned out directly, as he never liked her, and always said shewas a cursed liar he was sure and not to be confided in — If she had a heart, (but I am certain she has not,) I would keep her, and conceal her fault, (for while reputation is safe, there is hope of amendment) but of her I have no hope. She seems already to speak with her usual flippancy, because she sees that I hesitate to pronounce my final sentence, and have not exposed her to her master — I think tho’ I have not done it that I ought to insist on her washing my gowns for nothing now I find she has time enough to do it for pray what think you? Now do my dear friend, tell me how I can stand between her and the punishment of her guilt, with honor, and justice to myself — A young maid servant turned out, without the chance of a character, is in so exposed and desperate a situation, that I shudder to think of the consequences, and as my too great confidence, and my carelessness may have laid temptation in her way, I feel a degree of responsibility for her faults which distresses me exceedingly — This I know — The footman shall go too for he must willfully have shut his eyes — I protest that I wander along in folly troubling you on this subject, as my [way] is I doubt too clear, and the object I think to save only too unworthy, still, if any loophole for me should strike your better judgment, I would willingly [go by] it — Little pilferings I have long suspected her of but I could not prove them on her, tho’ they made me watch her narrowly — I detected her by going to both the washwomen who, she said, had always washed gowns for me for the last months — and they were astonished at my supposing it —2 I really should feel it incumbent on me to make an apology for worrying your brains with my domestic concerns, did I not know it is the honest pride of your life to be useful — and that you are always glad of an opportunity of serving me — The string that pulls me towards Norwich begins to grow tight — To Cornwall, or even to France, we cannot afford to go — at least so Mr. Opie thinks — and that is the same thing—

My next letter, (and I shall certainly answer your answer) shall contain more amusing stuff — At present I have only time to say, Kemble was arrested for a debt, kindness had made him incur, (for 200£) as he came out of the Theatre on Saturday last — He is not yet in limbo, but to jail he is resolved to go on Wednesday, unless Mr. Sheridan pays the money — and never will he play again till it is paid — Sheridan, swears and protests, that he will pay the debt — and that he knew not of the transaction — Whereas it is certain Sheridan went to the Bailiff, and for fear of a riot prevailed on him to put off the arrest till the play was over — We think Sheridan dares not let him go to jail — and go he will. — 3 Adieu! Anxiously hoping to hear from you, I remain, yrs most affectionately A: Opie —


1. The Huntington Library holds the manuscript letter for this letter (OP64) and it is reproduced in Brightwell’s Memorials with significant editorial excisions (93-94). Although the body of the letter is undated and without a salutation, the postmark is legible and it is addressed to “Mrs. John Taylor, St. George’s Colegate, Norwich.” Rather inexplicably, the phrase “Nisi Prius,” which refers to civil cases tried before judges of the King’s Bench, is written on the right side of the address fold, in line with the text of the letter, rather than in line with the address. Topics: Anecdotes of the Famous; France; Friendship; On servants; Theater.

2. In her clash with the maid, Opie’s radical Godwinian faith in the possibility of “amendment” for even the most criminal of individuals comes into conflict with her pragmatic appreciation of money, as well as her awareness of a female servant's social and sexual vulnerability once deprived of her “character.” In the nineteenth century, a woman’s “character” referred both to her public reputation and the letter of recommendation that she would use as a reference for future employment. In the manuscript “contradictions” is underlined twice; throughout this section of the letter, it looks like Opie wrote both quickly and passionately.

3. I have not been able to identify the nature of Kemble’s debt on this particular occasion. It is the case that Kemble and Sheridan were at odds due to creative differences and financial difficulties towards the end of the 1801-1802 season. Kemble left Drury Lane Theatre in June, just prior to his departure for France; upon his return he purchased shares in Covent Garden Theatre.