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

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