Friday, November 27, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Opera and other music

Janet Cardiff, The Forty-Part Motet, SFMOMA at Fort Mason Center (Photo: SFMOMA)
It's time once again for my post-Thanksgiving roundup of favorite music, books, movies and television shows first encountered (although not necessarily first released) over the past year.

Live performances

The Forty-Part Motet, a sound installation by Janet Cardiff of Thomas Tallis's "Spem in alium," performed by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, SFMOMA at Fort Mason Center; seen November 12.

It's a bit of a stretch to call this a live performance, but I think it belongs in this category because it's experienced in public in the presence of others. Cardiff's installation involves 40 speakers placed in a circular array in a large, nearly empty room. The speakers play, on a continuous loop, a recorded performance of Tallis's motet, with one vocal part per speaker. The distribution of the speakers in eight groups of five highlights the work's contrapuntal and antiphonal qualities.

When I first heard about it, I thought Cardiff's idea wasn't particularly transformative; in 1999, for example, we saw the SF Bach Choir under the direction of David P. Babbitt perform Tallis's motet with the choir surrounding the audience, precisely to enhance the spatial aspects of the music. The chief difference from a live performance is that at Cardiff's installation you can walk around the speakers to hear different groupings of vocalists at different times, stand by one speaker to hear one part emphasized, or sit in the center and let the massive sound wash over you. So while Cardiff's conception is not especially original, the actual experience of the piece is both meditative and exhilarating. "The Forty Part Motet" can be visited for free at Fort Mason's Gallery 308 in Building A until January 18, 2016; if you will be in the Bay Area between now and then, I strongly recommend that you not miss it.

Even in mere stereo, "Spem in alium" is overwhelming. This is my favorite recording, by the Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel, director, from the album Utopia Triumphans:

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens (The Trojans, 1858), SF Opera, seen June 7.

Susan Graham (Didon) and Bryan Hymel (Enée) in Les Troyens (Photo: Weaver/SF Opera)
In my post on Les Troyens I wrote that the production, the first at SF Opera in nearly half a century, was "superbly sung" by Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Bryan Hymel as Enée, and Susan Graham as Didon. "Highlights included every moment the fierce Antonacci was onstage, Enée's anguished realization that he must betray Didon, 'Intuile regrets' (Futile regrets), and Didon's final lament, 'Je vais mourir' (I am going to die). The exquisite love duet between Enée and Didon, 'Nuit d'ivresse,' simply stopped time." The previous post includes performances of "Nuit d'vresse" and "Je vais mourir."

The Monteverdi Trilogy, Boston Early Music Festival, seen June 12-14.

David Hansen (Nerone) and Amanda Forsythe (Poppea) in L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Photo: BEMF)
At the Boston Early Music Festival we saw the staging of all of Monteverdi's extant operas: L'Orfeo, (Orpheus, 1607), Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1640), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642). The musical and vocal performances were exceptional, and the stagings ranged from good (Orfeo, Ulisse) to excellent (Poppea); for details, including the names of the wonderful BEMF singers and music from each opera, please see my original posts. It was a privilege to be able to see these three masterpieces performed on successive days.

W. A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), SF Opera, seen July 5.

Nadine Sierra (the Countess) in Le nozze di Figaro (Photo: SF Opera)
In the original post on this production I wrote that "despite the miscommunication between pit and stage and the directorial and design misjudgments, this Figaro was rescued by its brilliant young cast," which included rising baritone Philippe Sly as the wily Figaro, Lisette Oropesa as his spirited fiancée Susanna, Luca Pisaroni as the lustful Count, Nadine Sierra as his long-suffering Countess, and Angela Brower as the love-struck page Cherubino. "Ultimately this production mirrored Figaro's schemes to thwart the Count: constantly threatening to slip into disaster, but in the end, a triumph." For a video of the great Lucia Popp singing Susanna's lovely aria "Deh vieni," please see my guide to Le Nozze di Figaro.

Marin Marais, Sémélé (1709), American Bach Soloists and Academy, seen August 14.

Rebecca Myers Hoke (Sémélé) and Sara LeMesh (Junon) in Sémélé (Photo: Gas Lamp Productions)
This "splendid performance" of Marais' long-neglected opera was especially notable for its rich score (which contains a vivid earthquake scene); in my original post on Sémélé I wrote that "the 30-strong American Bach Choir and the 50-odd members of the ABS Academy Orchestra created a huge and beautifully intricate sound in the relatively intimate confines of the San Francisco Conservatory's Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. The vocal soloists, all drawn from Academy participants, were uniformly excellent; special mention should be made of Rebecca Myers Hoke as Sémélé, Sara LeMesh as Junon, and Christopher Besch as Jupiter, who handled their virtuosic roles beautifully."


Agostino Steffani: Niobe, Regina di Tebe. Karina Gauvin, Philippe Jaroussky, and other vocal soloists. Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Erato.

The spectacular operatic centerpiece of the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival has been issued in a beautifully produced CD box. While I had my reservations about the dramatic and theatrical dimensions of Steffani's opera, the music—especially for Jaroussky's Anfione—is frequently gorgeous. Gauvin and Jaroussky are international stars, but there isn't a weak link in the cast. Secondary roles are taken by singers who frequently perform leading roles in other BEMF productions: Amanda Forsythe (2015's Poppea), Aaron Sheehan (2015's Orfeo), and Colin Balzer (2015's Ulisse). Niobe richly deserves the accolades it has already received, including the Diapason d'Or, the ECHO Klassik World Premiere Recording of the Year, and a Gramophone magazine Recording of the Month and nomination for a Baroque Vocal Award. Here is a sample of the music for Anfione taken from the 2011 staging:

Steffani, a composer from the generation before Handel, is unjustly overlooked, and with luck projects like this and like Cecilia Bartoli's Mission (one of my Favorites of 2012) will remedy this neglect.

Franco Fagioli: Porpora Il Maestro. Academia Montis Regalis, Alessandro de Marchi, conductor; Naïve.

This is the second recital disc by Fagioli to make my annual list; in my Favorites of 2013 it was his Arias for Caffarelli. In the earlier post I compared his voice to "an Islay single malt scotch for its smoky, dusky quality in the lower range," a comparison that still holds. And like Islay scotch, Fagioli's voice won't be to everyone's taste. Here is a sample: "Alto Giove," from the opera Polifemo:

For us, Fagioli's recordings are compelling because of his remarkable voice, his unusual selection of repertory, and his astute choice of collaborators.

Nathalie Stutzmann: Handel: Heroes from the Shadows. Philippe Jaroussky, guest artist. Orfeo 55, Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor; Erato.

On Heroes from the Shadows Stutzmann offers a range of Handel's arias for alto and mezzo-soprano, many of which are for male characters. Handel frequently cast women in male roles—"inventing the so-called 'trouser role,'" as I wrote in my guide to his great opera Alcina, "a convention that went on to be used by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Offenbach, and both Johann and Richard Strauss." This album is included not for the uptempo arias of rage or vengeance, which do not always display Stutzmann's voice to best advantage, but for the arias of longing, sorrow, and loss, which are powerful and deeply moving. Here is part of "Son nata a lagrimar" (I was born to weep), a duet  between the just-widowed Cornelia (Stutzmann) and her bereaved son Sesto (Jaroussky), from Giulio Cesare:

Interestingly, while in most of the arias on this recording Stutzmann is singing male roles written for women, in this aria it is the male countertenor Jaroussky who is doing so: Sesto was originally written for soprano Margherita Durastanti. Heroes from the Shadows is not only full of wonderful music, it raises questions about our gendered expectations about vocal types and leading roles—questions also explored this year by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in her thoughtful article "My Life As A Man" (The Guardian, 13 May 2015). 

Dagmar Krause: Supply and Demand: Songs by Brecht/Weill & Eisler; Hannibal.

This album was initially issued in the mid-1980s and contained English-language versions of songs composed in the 1920s and 30s by Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. I bought this on vinyl when it came out, and thought it was great. What I didn't realize at the time was that there was an even better German-language version. Not that I speak German very fluently, but in her native consonant-rich language Krause can give these songs even more bite.

A dear friend sent me a copy of the CD re-release of Supply and Demand, which combines tracks from the two versions of the album, and I must confess that it's the German-language songs that I return to again and again. Here is the title song, "Song Von Der Ware (Angebot & Nachfrage) [Song of the Commodities: Supply and Demand]":

Supply and Demand's dark, bitter cabaret and theater music seems as fitting for our tumultuous times as for those in which it was written.

Other Favorites of 2015:
Classic and contemporary Bollywood
Hollywood and other movies

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Suggested reading: Stop the robot apocalypse

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

Metropolis (dir: Fritz Lang, 1927)
1. Stop the robot apocalypse

There's a branch of moral philosophy called "effective altruism." William MacAskill is one of its founders, and he's written a book called Doing Good Better (Gotham, 2015), recently reviewed by Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books (24 September 2015).

MacAskill's basic argument is that you can do more good in the world by becoming rich and philanthropic than by making (in his view) pointless self-sacrificing gestures like becoming a schoolteacher in the inner city, a doctor in rural Kenya, or a librarian anywhere.

His calculation depends on two main arguments. First, the idea of impact: the greatest good we can do for others is that which will make the biggest improvement in the lives of the largest number of people. Second, the replacement theory: if you don't become a teacher, someone else will, who will be almost as good at it as you are. But if you don't become an investment banker, someone else will, who may not use their wealth for as much good as you would. In other words, philanthropy—paying other people to do good on your behalf—is better than doing good yourself.

That's not the only strange conclusion these arguments lead to. Taking the replacement theory first, it would seem to justify doing harm in one's daily life, as long as you compensate with sufficient charitable giving. By this logic, in a disaster Bill Gates should trample the rest of us to death to escape (and we should let him) because his survival will have so much more of a charitable impact than ours. The comparison that occurs to me is carbon offsets: charitable giving is like a moral offset. And as with, say, donating to the Nature Conservancy because you drive a gas-guzzling carbon emitter, it can be difficult to determine whether the good done by the charitable gift actually outweighs the harm of the daily activity.

But the idea of impact gets really odd: if doing the greatest good means having the biggest impact on the lives of the largest number of people, then working on ameliorating or preventing future species-threatening catastrophes--a large asteroid impact, say--is more important than helping individuals who are alive right now. And the greatest existential threat to humanity, in the eyes of many people in the tech industry? Robot apocalypse.

A robot Björk in "All is full of love"
2. Superintelligence and human insignificance

In his recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (Oxford, 2014), NIck Bostrom speculates on a posthuman future in which superintelligent machines colonize the universe. Sure, superintelligent robots might enslave or destroy us, but in Bostrom's view they also might ensure the essential immortality of human consciousness.

But this scenario actually makes the effective altruism paradox worse. As Raffi Khatchadourian writes in the New Yorker,
Imagining one of his utopian scenarios—trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos—he reasons that, if there is even a one-per-cent chance of this happening, the expected value of reducing an existential threat by a billionth of a billionth of one per cent would be worth a hundred billion times the value of a billion present-day lives.
That's a lot of "billions," but the message is clear: the future, especially the remote future, is vastly more important than the present.

There are a few things to say about this idea. First, robots colonizing the universe is only a "utopian scenario" in the most hopeful view. Second, it looks to me like the probability of humans eliminating ourselves through environmental destruction, nuclear conflagration, or bioengineered plague is higher than the likelihood that we will create "trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos." Thirdly, before they become repositories for our consciousnesses, intelligent machines are likely to put us out of work, creating a mass unemployment crisis that may itself have catastrophic consequences. Finally, the "billionth of a billionth of one per cent" standard for action against an existential threat seems laughably low—I think you might reach it when you take out the recycling.

A local business and an adjacent apartment building catch fire Sunday morning
3. Kicked to the curb by altruism

So if present-day humans are insignificant, and if getting rich so that you can make larger effective charitable donations is an imperative, then it is only logical for those who own property to forcibly remove lower-income residents in order to raise real-estate values and increase their own wealth—a process I see happening all around me. (And in a nicely closed feedback loop, evictions create the need for more altruism, which creates the need for greater wealth, ad infinitum.)

As Neil Smith points out in The New Urban Frontier (Routledge, 1996), it is in the interest of those who own property to raise rents. In Alex Pareene's Bookforum review of DW Gibson's oral history of gentrification, The Edge Becomes the Center (Overlook Press, 2015)—a sequel of sorts to Smith's book—he writes that landlords and developers:
  • would rather leave a building empty than rent to the poor,
  • deliberately thin housing stock by converting multi-unit buildings into single-household dwellings,
  • destroy the earning power of middle-class renters by pushing city planning departments to rezone manufacturing areas as residential, because manufacturers put their capital into expanding their businesses rather than using it to raise the value of their real estate,
  • displace lower-income renters (you and me) in favor of the global rich who can pay what the market will bear—even as that increases radically from year to year.
More market-rate development doesn't redress these issues, it just creates more "ultraluxurious pieds-à-terre." Pareene writes,
The pro-development crowd also likes to remind us that “people don’t have the right to live wherever they want”—and that if certain of them can’t afford “hip” neighborhoods anymore, that hardly rises to the level of a tragedy worthy of government intervention. Of course, it’s always been the case in America that certain people have the right to live wherever they want—that’s the right that allowed the republic to stretch from sea to shining sea—but let’s concede the point. Once you’re there, though, and once you’ve established yourself in a community, it seems profoundly antithetical to any intelligible notion of liberty that you should be forced to leave merely because someone else shows up with a briefcase full of more cash than you can put together on short notice.


4. The inevitability of climate change

If combatting gentrification is almost impossible because it is in the interest of rich property owners and the city governments which regulate them, combatting increasing carbon emissions is almost impossible because they are in the interest of all of us—at least, in the short term. Increased carbon emissions directly correlate with economic growth, something that all nations seek to ensure. If the arguments of "effective altruism" lead to the radical discounting of the present in favor of the future, failure to act on carbon emissions radically discounts the future in favor of the present.

The United Nations climate change conference will take place in Paris in late November and early December, and many journalists are writing hopefully about its possible outcomes. Unlike most journalists, though, David Campbell has actually read the documents being submitted as a basis for a potential agreement at the conference. And as he writes in the LRB, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change enshrined a distinction between developed and developing countries which will doom any attempt to reduce global carbon emissions for at least the next several decades.

Currently the major industrializing countries—including China and India—are classified as developing countries. And as a matter of "climate justice" (rather, economic justice), the burden of reducing emissions has been placed on developed countries. It is impossible to argue with the culpability of the developed world for getting us into this mess—and the US Congress has famously never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for developed nations to reduce their emissions. US emissions fell slightly between 2007 and 2012, but that was due to the Great Recession, and they have begun to climb again. And the per capita carbon emissions of the US are more than twice those of China, and about ten times those of India.

However, China is now the largest absolute carbon emitter by a factor of nearly two. (The US is in second place, followed by India, Russia, and Japan.) China has submitted to the conference its 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions' (INDC) document, which declares that it will continue to increase its annual emissions until at least 2030. India's INDC does not even mention a future target year for peak emissions.

India's Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, said in a recent interview:
We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us. That carbon space demand is climate justice. It’s our right as a nation. It’s our right as people of India, and we want that carbon space.
Only, there is no "carbon space." In 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time since about 15 million years ago, when seas were at least 80 feet higher than they are now. We are in uncharted territory.

I must not procrastinate

5. Procrastination

With individuals, as with nations, the ultimate consequences of procrastination tend to get worse with passing time. So why are most of us still prone to put off necessary action? Forget working to prevent climate change or robot apocalypse—I can't even clear off my desk.

The tendency to procrastinate is present in all of us to some degree. However, for some it is so powerful an impulse that it becomes impossible to hold a job or maintain a romantic relationship. Clearly procrastination has deep roots which can be difficult or impossible to overcome rationally. As Robert Hanks writes about his own almost crippling levels of procrastination in his heartrending essay "On putting things off" (LRB, 10 September 2015),
The broken promises, the unprofessionalism, the evasions and quasi-explanations you offer to others, the outright lies you tell yourself: better leave this till after the weekend; I’ll have it finished by the end of Tuesday; they won’t mind getting it on Wednesday...Reading as a way of putting off thinking; thinking as a way of putting off feeling.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Scottish Jane Austen: Susan Ferrier

Name a woman writer from the early 19th century:
  • whose novels were at first published anonymously;
  • who, though she herself never married, wrote novels about young women negotiating the pleasures and perils of courtship and matrimony;
  • whose first published novel was issued when she was 35;
  • whose second published novel begins, "It is a truth universally acknowledged…" 
Think you've got the answer? Here are some more clues:
  • her most famous work features an impetuous and frivolous young woman who unwisely elopes with a dashing but impecunious officer, and a more sensible heroine who sees the possibility of her own romantic happiness becoming ever more elusive;
  • another of her novels features a well-meaning but mistake-prone young woman who is given social, moral and romantic advice by a family friend—who, of course, is secretly in love with her himself;
  • one of her young heroines falls passionately in love with a man who seems to share her ardent sensibility, but who turns out to be a fortune-hunter who abandons her to marry an heiress. Deeply hurt, she falls into a crushing despondency. As she slowly recovers, she comes to appreciate and accept, if not, perhaps, entirely return, the calmer but more steadfast love of an older man.
The answer is given away in the title of this post: it's the Scottish writer Susan Edmonstone Ferrier. Ferrier obviously knew and admired the novels of Jane Austen, as the plot summaries above suggest; echoes of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Emma (1815) are especially apparent. But although she is indebted to Austen for elements of her plots, Ferrier is also a rewarding novelist in her own right.

Part of what is original in Ferrier is her setting: each of her three novels—Marriage (1818), Inheritance (1824), and Destiny (1831)—mainly takes place in the Scottish Highlands. Ferrier's young heroines don't exist in isolation, but are placed within interdependent communities, anticipating by several decades writers such as Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. She surrounds her lovers with interfering parents, crotchety old lairds, and gossipy maiden aunts; the aunts are Scottish (although less subtle) versions of the sorts of comic characters so memorably created decades later in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford. And the action takes place, not in tidy English villages, but in vividly described Highland landscapes of rugged beauty.

Ferrier is also notable for the degree of religiosity in her novels: the characters we are intended to think best, both men and women, have deep faith, while the shallow, selfish, and duplicitous ones are generally irreligious. The novels' moralism extends to their narrators, who sometimes pass explicit judgments on the characters. In her third and final novel, Destiny, for example, Reginald, up until now the hero of the book and betrothed to his gentle childhood sweetheart Edith, makes a secret declaration of love to the worldly, dazzling, but superficial Florinda:
And again he pressed her hand to his lips, and a long silence ensued ; each seemed as though they feared to break the spell which blinded their hearts and senses to the self-delusions, which all unregulated minds, and selfish spirits, so passionately love to indulge. [1]
A more subtle writer such as Austen might only imply, rather than state, her own attitude towards her creations in order to suggest, rather than dictate, the reader's. But occasional over-explicitness aside, Ferrier is full of insight into human nature, and excels at constructing both comic and dramatic situations for her characters.

From Marriage:
A dispute here ensued. Henry swore she should not steal into her father's house as long as she was his wife. The lady insisted that she should go to her brother's fête when she was invited; and the altercation ended as altercations commonly do, leaving both parties more wedded to their own opinion than at first. [2]
From Inheritance:
Mr Adam Ramsay was a man of a fair character and strong understanding, but particular temper and unpleasing manners—with a good deal of penetration, which (as is too often the case) served no other purpose than to disgust him with his own species. [3]
From Destiny:
Mr M'Dow's principal object in this world was self...He was no dissembler ; for a selfish dissembler is aware, that, in order to please, one must appear to think of others, and forget self. This fictitious politeness he had neither the tact to acquire, nor the cunning to feign. [4]
If Ferrier's keen observations are reminiscent of Austen, her contemporary, she also makes use of conventions from the 18th-century novel of sentiment as exemplified by writers such as Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson. Heroines faced with an emotional crisis are likely to fall into an insensible swoon; incognito heroes give voice to utterances such as "Think of me as one whom a single rash, imprudent, but I may add, guiltless act, has divested of home, friends, and country ; but believe me when I say, the time is not far distant when I may again claim them all." [5]

But it is Ferrier's dry wit and her vivid characters—some, at least according to her letters to her friend and collaborator Charlotte Clavering, based on real-life models—that will recommend her books to modern readers. Marriage is by common consensus Ferrier's best work, but the others are not greatly inferior to it. In my view, the books all have the same shortcomings and similar strengths, and the former are far outweighed by the latter.

Marriage: The beautiful but petulant Lady Juliana is intended by her father to marry the aged Duke of L—, and her father speaks with unusual frankness about the motives for the match:
'I'll suffer no daughter of mine to play the fool with her heart, indeed! She shall marry for the purpose for which matrimony was ordained amongst people of birth—that is, for the aggrandisement of her family, the extending of their political influence—for becoming, in short, the depository of their mutual interest. These are the only purposes for which persons of rank ever think of marriage.' [6]
Facing a forced marriage to a very wealthy but much older man, Lady Juliana elopes with her handsome but penniless lover Henry Douglas. They wind up at his family's rural Scottish estate, far from the refinements of London. Both regret the decision to marry almost immediately—but not before she conceives twin daughters, Adelaide and Mary. Lady Juliana separates from her husband and goes back to London with the infant Adelaide, who grows to young adulthood under her mother's influence. The neglected Mary is left behind with Henry's brother and his wife in Scotland, where she is taught by precept and example to be kind, thoughtful, selfless and devout. (This isn't just a simple contrast between the evil city and the virtuous countryside; we learn that Mary's foster mother, Alicia Douglas, spent many years in London, while a number of the Highland characters are shown to be frivolous, self-involved or otherwise difficult.)

Adelaide—beautiful, polite, but cold and vacant—faces the same fateful choice as her mother: marriage to a handsome but impoverished lover, or to an elderly but fabulously wealthy duke. Will she repeat her mother's mistake, or make her own?

Meanwhile, Mary loves, and is loved by, Colonel Lennox, a man of small fortune. But
both were aware, that wealth is a relative thing, and that the positively rich are not those who have the largest possessions, but those who have the fewest vain or selfish desires to gratify. From these they were happily exempt. Both possessed too many resources in their own minds to require the stimulus of spending money to rouse them into enjoyment, or give them additional importance in the eyes of the world... [7]
But her mother opposes her choice, and warns her against love-marriage. Will Mary be able to reconcile her mother to her choice and find happiness with the man she loves?

Inheritance: Gertrude St Clair is the presumptive heir to the fortune of Lord Rossville. She is loved by two men: openly by the elegant but mercenary Colonel Delmour, and secretly by the kind, sensible Mr Lyndsay, whom she views as an older brother and looks to for guidance and protection.
Colonel Delmour certainly was in love—as much so as it was in his nature to be—but, as has been truly said, how many noxious ingredients enter into the composition of what is sometimes called love! Pride—vanity—ambition—self-interest, all these had their share in the admiration which Colonel Delmour accorded to the beauties and the graces of Miss St Clair. In any situation of life, his taste would have led him to admire her—but it was only as the heiress of Rossville his pride would have permitted him to have loved her. [8]
Each of Ferrier's novels features an example of a bad mother, but Gertrude's, the self-involved, self-dramatizing and emotionally manipulative Mrs St Clair, is possibly the worst of the lot. Not only is she a very difficult personality, she is harboring a secret that could destroy Gertrude's prospects. And when the threatening, mysterious Lewiston, believed drowned in a shipwreck, returns as if from the dead, Gertrude's future—both financial and romantic—is thrown into crisis.

What is the nature of Lewiston's hold over Gertrude's mother and herself? And will Gertrude recognize the true natures of the debonair but duplicitous Colonel Delmour and the reticent but sincere Mr Lyndsay in time?

Destiny is Ferrier's most elaborately plotted novel. As children in rural Scotland, Edith Malcom, her brother Norman, her stepsister Florinda, and their cousins Ronald and Reginald are inseparable playmates. As they grow older, though, fate divides them: Norman dies of a sudden illness, Florinda is taken to London by her mother, Ronald is lost at sea, and Reginald prepares to head out on the Grand Tour; only Edith will be left behind.

Reginald and Edith have been sweethearts since childhood, and on the eve of his departure he gives her a ring as a symbol of their betrothal. But while he's abroad he encounters Florinda, whom he hasn't seen for nearly a decade. She has become a flirtatious and worldly beauty, and Reginald becomes infatuated with her. When he returns to Scotland to fulfill his promise to Edith, Florinda follows, and Reginald is faced with a painful choice: he must betray the sweet-natured Edith or renounce the dazzling Florinda. To complicate matters, a handsome naval hero (shades of Persuasion), one Mr Melcombe, begins to pay marked attention to Edith—but his past is shrouded in secrecy.

Destiny was Ferrier's last novel, in part due perhaps to her failing eyesight, and in part because she made "'two attempts to write something else, but could not please herself, and would not publish anything.'" [9] She died in 1854.
'How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of the world,' is a feeling that must be more or less experienced by every one who has feeling enough to distinguish one sensation from another, and leisure enough for ennui. There are people, it is well known, who have no feelings, and there are others who have not the time to feel ; but, alas! there are many whose misfortune it is to have feeling and leisure, and who have time to be nervous—have time to be discontented—have time to be unhappy—have time to feel ill used by the world—have time to weary of pleasure in every shape—to weary of men, women, and children—to weary of books, grave and witty—to weary of authors, and even of authoresses... [10]
If you enjoy writers such as Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, you are not likely to weary of Susan Ferrier.

A note on the illustrations: With the exception of the portrait of Ferrier, which is a rendering of a miniature by Robert Thorburn, the illustrations in this post are by Nelly Erichsen. All are taken from the 1894 edition of Ferrier's novels published by J. M. Dent & Co., London, and were downloaded from the Open Library.


1. Susan Ferrier, Destiny, Dent, 1894, vol. II, ch. xlvii
2. —, Marriage, Oxford World's Classics, 1986, vol. I, ch. XXI
2. —, Inheritance, Dent, 1894, vol. I, ch. xvii
4. —, Destiny, vol. I, ch. v
5. —, Destiny, vol. II, ch. xci 
6. —, Marriage, vol. I, ch. I
7. —, Marriage, vol. III, ch. XX
8. —, Inheritance, vol. I, ch. xxxii
9. Quoted from an unnamed source in R. Brimley Johnson's introduction to Susan Ferrier, Marriage, Dent, 1894, p. xiv
10. Ferrier, Inheritance, vol. I, ch x