If a person suffers for making unconventional choices, is it the fault of the suffering person for making those choices or the fault of the society that condemns the person for making them? Or is it the fault of the ones who put the unconventional ideas in the person’s head? Adeline Mowbray, the title character in Amelia Alderson Opie’s 1804 novel, has made the unconventional choice to eschew marriage, calling it “an institution at once absurd, unjust, and immoral” and declaring “that she would never submit to so contemptible a form, or profane the sacred ties of love by so odious and unnecessary a ceremony.”
Adeline came to these opinions by following her mother’s example in reading extensively the works of radical thinkers like Frederic Glenmurray (a character modeled on William Godwin). So when Adeline makes her declaration in the presence of her mother and Glenmurray himself, their reaction is somewhat surprising:
Mrs. Mowbray, though she could not help admiring the eloquence of her daughter,—eloquence which she attributed to her example,—was shocked at hearing Adeline declare that her practice should be consonant to her theory; while Glenmurray, though Adeline had only expressed his sentiments, and his reason approved what she had uttered, felt his delicacy and his feelings wounded by so open and decided an avowal of her opinions, and intended consequence of them.
Despite being conversant in all the latest thinking, Adeline has learned little about the way the world works. Her mother, having spent more time thinking about how best to educate Adeline than in actually educating her, has failed to provide any sort of practical education. And Glenmurray fears what choosing to follow his recommended course of action will mean for an innocent like Adeline; his fear increases when he sees so-called gentlemen like Sir Patrick O’Carrol look upon Adeline as an object of lust for whom purity and commitment are meaningless.
Despite the reservations of her mother and of Glenmurray himself, Adeline stays true to her convictions and soon begins what she calls a “life of honour” with Glenmurray. Her mother casts her off, and Adeline and Glenmurray are alone in the world. Potential friends abandon them, one after the other, as soon as they realize that the couple are not married. Glenmurray urges Adeline to marry him so that she can regain some respectability, but she refuses, and when he is on his deathbed, Glenmurray fears for what will happen to Adeline when he is gone. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Adeline faces many more misfortunes at the hands of men and women alike.
The introduction to the edition of Adeline Mowbray that I read, part of a double volume that also includes the Memoirs of Emma Courtney, states that Adeline Mowbray has commonly been viewed as a critique of the philosophies of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Adeline’s doom, after all, comes from following such teachings. However, I tend to agree with volume editor Mirriam L. Wallace that the novel takes a more ambiguous view of both marriage and the choice to avoid it.
Adeline’s problems are not rooted in her rejection of marriage but in people’s reaction to her rejection. If her mother had not cast her off, she would have an inheritance to count on. If potential friends did not spurn her, she would have people to turn to in times of crisis. If lustful men did not feel justified in pursuing her despite her protestations of disinterest, she would not feel a need to escape. The problem is not with what she’s done, it’s with how others respond.
What’s more, the novel does not present an entirely positive view of marriage. Adeline’s life of honour with Glenmurray is not perfect, but it’s far better than many of the marriages we see in the novel. Bigamy, chronic unfaithfulness, selfishness, jealousy, and chauvinism plague the marriages that appear in the novel.
Eventually, Adeline comes to regret her choices, but it’s not clear whether she regrets the choices themselves or the results of those choices. She’s so beaten down by life that it’s no wonder she would see the benefits of a different course and wish for a more conventional (and thus easier) path for her daughter. If Adeline Mowbray is a cautionary tale, is it cautioning against the rejection of marriage or simply against swimming against the tides?