In an 1844 reflective piece entitled “Reminiscences of Judges’ Courts” the author Amelia Opie asks herself ‘why it is that I, and many others, can sit from early morning till evening in a court of justice, with still increasing interest?’ The answer, she decides, is ‘that general and enduring passion, the love of excitement.’ The courts, she claims, are ‘epitomes of human life, and their walls, within their bounded space, contain beings full of the passions, infirmities, resentments, self-deceits, self-interests, fears, hopes, triumphs, and defeats, incident to our common nature, and the proofs and results of which are there painfully brought before us’ (Brightwell, 361). Throughout her life Opie was indeed a regular attendee at the twice-yearly assizes held in her home town of Norwich, and her letters and memoirs record her thrill at seeing the famous barristers plead their cases, and her determination to get the best seat in the courtroom, by the side of the judge. She also visited the London courts, and looked back on her experience of witnessing the treason trials of Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, Thomas Holcroft, John Thelwall and others at the Old Bailey in late 1794, when she was in her mid-twenties, as ‘the most interesting period of my long life.’
In this paper I will examine how Opie’s lifelong fascination with the courtroom is represented in her fiction. Many of her early nineteenth-century tales contain courtroom scenes, in which the passions of the barristers and plaintiffs take centre stage. The narrator too is often a participant in these highly-charged scenes; involved vicariously in the action much as Opie herself was from her vantage-point beside the judge in the Norwich assizes. At such moments the narrative perspective moves flexibly around the ‘bounded space’ of the courtroom, with an imaginative sympathy and dexterity which, I will argue, challenges traditional conceptions of the relationship between individual and group consciousness in literature. The bold experimentation of Opie’s courtroom representations also anticipates, I will claim, the great trial set-pieces of the later nineteenth-century novel.