An Altered Book of Amelia Opie's Poems
Norwich has long been known as a city of dissenters and of having a forward thinking and progressive attitude. This was reflected in the nineteenth century by its willingness to be the first city to establish a public library. Books are powerful - the control of knowledge and its dissemination through the printed page has facilitated enlightened thinking, contributing to individuals who challenge prevailing establishments.
One such resident was Amelia Opie (1769 -1834) - novelist, poet, radical and philanthropist. Opie’s philanthropic work included visiting workhouses, hospitals, prisons, and the poor. She promoted a refuge for reformed prostitutes and supported the Norwich branches of the Anti-Slavery Society. A successful writer, who published 13 works of prose and five books of verse, whose work was extremely popular in the early 1800’s and, at the time, considered as “moving and truthful”
Her book of poems may now seem out dated by todays standards but, seen in the context of her time, it took courage to speak about these subjects. Her work is now largely overlooked but this work seeks to bring her back into the spotlight.
I have deconstructed her book of poems. Some words have been erased by fire allowing different thoughts to surface. I have tried to stay open to what presents itself relying largely on intuition with regard to what stays and what is discarded. Stories travelling over time as new text emerges; a selection of words that resonate in the here and now.
The initial idea came after talking to Bridewell curator, Bethan Holdridge, who explained she had recently discovered a box of partially-burnt documents while sorting through the museums cupboards. In an interview with the BBC about the finds she stated “The harsh realities of loss sit side by side with chance discoveries” which I felt aptly describes the process of making this work. During this process of redaction, I was made aware how attitudes and perspectives shift and slide through time. The pages become a visual poem as new sentences emerge formed from Opie's words, thus creating a conversation in the here and now.
While working on these pages I found myself wondering: Who is now the author? Whose voice is now speaking? Is it Amelia? Is it mine? I wonder is history not a continual process of redaction? Of loss and gain, of recording and rewriting experiences?
I was also aware of a dilemma regarding the use of original pages printed in 1811. It provoked an uncomfortable reaction in altering a book which was published during Amelia Opie’s lifetime. The book arrived with its spine broken, but otherwise in reasonable condition given its age. However because the pages contain such history, - worn by travelling through two hundred years, there is an authenticity and life which you would not have if I used a modern printed copy. Each page contains its own history - in the yellowing and stains on the page, and the imprint left by the letterpress type. Even the paper has a different quality having a higher rag content than modern paper.
In Areopagitica (1644) the poet John Milton declared that
“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are”.
Milton believed books are more than just inert containers for the words that they contain. He drew attention to the life (and potential death) embodied in the physical document that is a book. It is a reminder of how things are constantly repurposed, written over - a palimpsest of fragmented lives. I found my connection to Amelia Opie by editing her words, paring back sentences that resonate within me, and, through the process, discovered the beauty of her poetry. I hope others will be curious to rediscover this remarkable woman. I like to think of this work as a visual conversation between two women living two hundred years apart. I have brought a selection of her words back into focus allowing their presence to shine loud and clear.
"We are surrounded by voices, by remembering"
Edmund De Vaal.
Threads will be woven These redacted pages are to be displayed across a medieval wall, which survived a fire which destroyed the rest of the building, suspended on nails leftover from the remains of a Victorian shoe makers workshop. Threads will be woven from nail to nail, fine lines recalling a mind map connecting 'voices"
I am also part of Bookscapes Collective.
Bookscapes is a group of six artists that have developed a group practice specialising in site specific interventions and exhibitions.