(7 September 1782 - 5 November 1854)
BOOKS: Marriage, A Novel. Edinburgh: Blackwood's, 1818; edited with an introduction by Herbert Foltinek, London: Oxford, 1971 (Oxford English Texts).
The Inheritance. Edinburgh: Blackwood's, 1824.
Destiny, or The Chief's Daughter. Edinburgh: Cadell, 1831.
Susan Ferrier was a significant nineteenth-century novelist of Scottish social mores; her work formed part of a Renaissance of Edinburgh letters which occurred shortly before and after the turn of the century, and remained popular throughout the century for their remarkable caricatures, reflective wit, and careful reproduction of folkways and Scottish dialect speech. Her idiosyncratic blend of strong satire, Christian piety, and preoccupation with the social customs of British and Scottish gentlewomen has seemed incongruous to some readers, but feminist critics have praised her shrewd assessments of the contemporary sanctions which curtailed female behavior. Her first two novels present galleries of strong-minded eccentrics, and provide sensitive accounts of the friendships and psychological adjustments which enabled women to free themselves of misguided parental authority, and negotiate an honorable path through an emulative world of upper-class convention.
Susan Edmonstone Ferrier was the youngest of ten children born to the Edinburgh lawyer James Ferrier and his wife Helen Coutts, daughter of a Montrose farm couple. Her good-tempered and affectionate mother died when she was fourteen, and after the marriage of her eldest sister Jane she assumed the role of her father's caretaker and companion for the next twenty-five years. James Ferrier was noted for his rectitude, independence of judgment, and diligence, and Susan Ferrier eulogized him in a memoir, and (it was widely believed), in her fiction as the sometimes crochety but basically good-hearted Uncle Adam Ramsay of her second novel, The Inheritance. The Ferrier family's wide circle of acquaintances and friends included Robert Burns, Henry Mackenzie, and Walter Scott. The latter became her close friend a few years before his death, helped arrange a substantial increase in royalties for her third and final novel, and lauded her in a valedictory epilogue to The Legend of Montrose in the following terms: "I retire from the [literary] field, conscious that there remains behind not only a large harvest, but labourers capable of gathering it in. . . . if the present author, himself a phantom, may be permitted to distinguish a brother, or perhaps a sister shadow, he would mention in particular, the author of the very lively work entitled Marriage" [Ferrier's first novel].
Even more directly beneficial to Ferrier's literary work was her friendship with Charlotte Clavering, granddaughter of John, 5th Duke of Argyll, and her aunt, the novelist Lady Charlotte Campbell, later Bury. Ferrier's visits to their home at Inveraray Castle on Loch Fyne provided the basis for many Highland settings and characters in her novels, and her lively and self-revelatory letters to Clavering blend caustic parody with solicitous affection in ways which suggest the authorial voice of Ferrier's novels, especially the sharp-witted Lady Eliza of Marriage. Ferrier began Marriage, in fact, as a cooperative venture with Charlotte Campbell, and the latter's 1817 marriage to Miles Fletcher deprived Ferrier of the company of the person whose sensibility she most shared.
Ferrier described the book's donnee as follows, in an 1809 letter to Clavering: "I do not recollect ever to have seen the sudden transition of a high-bred English beauty, who thinks she can sacrifice all for love, to an uncomfortable solitary Highland dwelling among tall red-haired sisters and grim-faced aunts," and added that "I think, where there is much tribulation, 'tis fitter it should be the consequence, rather than the cause of misconduct or fraility."
Marriage's "English beauty" is the selfish and frivolous Lady Juliana, daughter of the Earl of Courtland, and she has eloped to Scotland with Henry Douglas, military officer and heir to the Highland Laird of Glenfern. When the Earl disinherits Lady Juliana, she and Henry are dependent on the hospitality of Henry's family, and live on a meager, unimproved farm bequeathed to him by his imperious father. Ferrier juxtaposes Lady Juliana's "high-bred" demands and expectations with the exigencies of the Highland landscape and eccentricities of several local personages: the vain Laird of Glenfern; his three irrepressibly intrusive sisters Grizzy, Jacky, and Nicky and his five good-natured but ignorant daughters; and the Douglas' favorite neighbors, the caustic but redoubtable Lady Maclaughlan and her invalid husband, Sir Sampson. Lady Juliana is disgusted and repelled when she gives birth to twin daughters, Adelaide and Mary; she gives Adelaide to a wet-nurse, but neglects Mary, who is rescued and raised by her loving and sensible aunt, Henry's sister Alicia Malcolm Douglas. Thoughtful, affectionate, and clear-sighted, Alicia Douglas is the intellectual and moral center of the novel's first volume, a role which shifts in the final two volumes to her equally reflective and self-controlled foster-daughter Mary.
Lady Juliana proves unable to adjust to Highland life in any form, and torments her husband until he returns with her to London. Her refusal to live within their income there finally forces Henry to seek a military post abroad, where he dies many years later, a stranger both to his two daughters and to Edmund Douglas, his third child and heir. When the adult Mary leaves Scotland to return to her mother and sister in London, the former's callous egotism and the latter's snide indifference severely test her idealism and emotional endurance. She finds friendship and support with Mrs. Lennox, an unfashionable invalid who becomes a kind of alternate mother, and her sardonic cousin Lady Emily, who shares her hatred for the dictates of high fashion and not-so-petty tyrannies of domestic existence, and expresses her contempt with remarkably blunt hostility seldom seen in the annals of "good" fictional women. Emily's impassioned quarrels with Lady Juliana inspire some of the novel's most comic scenes, and her full-hearted defense of the beleaguered Mary and analytical dissections of upper-class vice and hypocrisy clearly reflect the author's own judgments.
Some readers have considered Mary, by contrast, too restrained and reticent, but she also has a sharp eye for duplicity and cant, and implacably resists all attempts at dictation on moral issues. In praising her at one point, Emily exclaims, "I now see, there may be much more real greatness of mind displayed in the quiet tenor of a woman's life than in the most brilliant exploits that ever were performed by man. Methinks, I myself could help to storm a city; but to rule my own spirit, is a task beyond me." The novel ends when Mary is able to marry the son of her now-dead friend Mrs. Lennox, a Scottish colonel who later receives an unexpected inheritance at Lochmarlie. There "the extensive influence which generally attends upon virtue joined to prosperity, was used by them for its best purposes. It was not confined either to rich or poor, to cast or sect. . . And the poor, the sick, and the desolate, united in blessing what heaven had already blessed--this happy Marriage."
The literary antecedents of Marriage (which appeared in the same year as Scott's The Heart of Midlothian), clearly included the episodic satires of Smollett and Fielding; Scott's portrayals of Scottish landscape and character; Elizabeth Hamilton's 1808 tale of Scottish peasant life, The Cottagers of Glenburnie; and finally, of course, Fanny Burney and Jane Austen's studies of middle-and-upper-class female education and manners. Ferrier modulated these antecedents to include the novel's fond descriptions of beautiful Highland landscapes, portrayal of the fervent love between foster-mother and daughter, careful observations on the raising of children and extended-family adoption, and striking portrait of Mary's lively cousin Lady Emily. All Ferrier's principal characters are genteel, of course, but Ferrier judges them in part by their social consciences or lack thereof, and shows glints of pained realism in her attempts to describe the poverty which occasionally appears at the narrative's edge. Also noteworthy is the unmitigated villainy of the novel's blackguards: the willful egotism of the Earl of Courtland, Laird of Glenfern, Lady Audley (Alicia Malcolm's guardian), and Lady Juliana distort quite effectively the lives of their spouses, wards, and children. To these pernicious influences, the novel opposes a world of female friendship, in which kindred sensibilities enable women to endure and resist the open malice of obtuse relations and petty social tyrants.
Marriage was a success in both Scotland and England, and six years later, Ferrier published a second and even more acclaimed novel, The Inheritance (1824), considered by most of her contemporaries to be her best work. The Inheritance adds to a counterpart of Marriage's satire and gallery of Scottish types an elaborate inheritance plot and a finely coordinated network of subplots which balance and complement it in effective ways. When one considers that The Inheritance appeared fifteen years before Our Mutual Friend and nineteen years before Middlemarch, the originality of this now little-read work's allegorically synchronized narrative becomes undeniably clear. The Inheritance centers on the maturation of Gertrude St. Clair, who believes herself to be the daughter of the late Thomas St. Clair, youngest son of the former Earl of Rossville and heir to the estate. After many years of residence in France, Gertrude has recently returned to Scotland with her ostensible mother Sarah St. Clair, and encounters a gallery of relatives and neighbors at the ancestral manor.
The present Earl's three nephews are all of marriageable age. When Gertrude refuses to marry the eldest, Mr. Delmour (who cannot for reasons of entailment inherit the estate), the Earl tries to remove her from his will, but dies before he can carry his intention further. The irresponsible and extravagant Col. Delmour then charms the foolish Gertrude, now Countess of Rossville, into a secret engagement, and pushes her to incur exorbitant London expenses, in flagrant disregard of the needs of her relatives and tenants. Present in the wings is the ever-tactful and sagacious nephew, Edward Lyndsay, who offers good but unheeded advice and timely help in Gertrude's many crises.
A coarse American named Lewiston now appears and claims to be Gertrude's father; when Gertrude learns this, a residuum of basic honesty prompts her to reveal her parentage and renounce the estate. Edward Lyndsay is suspicious of the blackmailing Lewiston's claims to paternity, however, and learns that Gertrude's real mother was not Sarah St. Clair, but Marian La Motte, a distant relative of Adam Ramsay, Gertrude's ostensible uncle. Gertrude struggles at first to forgive Marian La Motte for her abandoment, then finally does so and accepts Edward's long-proferred hand. The profligate Col. Delmour dies at length in a duel, and after the death of Mr. Delmour Gertrude again becomes mistress of Rossville, this time as Edward's wife. Like Mary Douglas and Colonel Lennox in Marriage, the couple devote themselves henceforth to charitable stewardship of their land and responsibility to their tenants.
Ferrier's attempts in The Inheritance to chart the flaws and moral development of a basically sympathetic heroine anticipate some of the moral and psychological complexities of Emma and Daniel Deronda, and the narrative voice of The Inheritance is ampler and more skillful than that of Marriage; but it is also more didactic and less spontaneous, and the cauterizing clarity of Emily in Marriage is sorely missed. In some way, the cunning and manipulative Sarah St. Clair is also more hurtful to her "daughter" in The Inheritance than Lady Juliana to her real daughter in Marriage. She traps Gertrude again and again with agonizing appeals to conscience and affection, and Gertrude struggles almost daily to sort genuine from spurious claims to filial obligation. Some commentators also find Edward a prig, but he is kindly and tactful, and his social conscience is locally quite rare. In fact, Edward's unexciting virtues as a model husband foreshadow a wider problem which tended to plague novelists throughout the century; in Eliot's 1867 Felix Holt, for example, Esther's marriage to the enlightened Felix marks the apex both of her moral development and of many readers' interest in her fate.
Seven years after the appearance of The Inheritance, Ferrier published Destiny, or The Chief's Daughter in 1831, for which she earned the substantial sum of L1700 from her new publisher Cadell, and a further measure of acclaim. She wrote most of the novel shortly after her father's death, and modulated the mordant satire and family quarrels which enlivened her earlier novels with a somewhat different tone of upright sentiment and deferred hopes. The novel recounts the fate of Edith, only daughter of the proud misogynist Laird of Glenroy, who hopes to unite his estate with that of an older eccentric neighbor Inch Orran of Inch Orran [sic], and is disappointed when the latter wills his property to the eldest son of an upright local farm family, Ronald Malcolm, who is reported drowned at sea shortly thereafter. Separately, the Laird of Glenroy also disinherits Edith in favor of a nephew, Reginald, who has promised to marry her, but jilts her in favor of his frivolous and wealthy stepsister, Florinda, the daughter of the Laird's estranged second wife Lady Waldegreave. Edith is left alone to nurse her dying father, and accept the near-poverty to which he has consigned her.
At this point, rather unpleasant London mercantile relatives of her mother offer Edith temporary shelter, and an opportunity to witness the frivolities of London society for a time at closer range. In the capital, Lady Waldegreave, Florinda, and Reginald attempt to involve her in their family quarrels, which contrast sharply with the homelife of her hospitable and good-hearted London friends the Conroys, and their close associate Mr. Melcolme. Edith has already come to rely on Mr. Melcolme's affectionate presence, when with true novelistic serendipity he suddenly reveals that he is Ronald Malcolm, heir to Inch Orran, who has loved Edith from afar since their youth but waited until now to claim his estate. He and Edith return to courtship and married life in Inch Orran, where Ronald is reunited with his family and Edith with her beloved countryside.
Like its predecessors, the novel offers in passing satiric portraits of minor figures such as the clerical busybody, Reverend M'Dow, and surrogate mother-figures in the good-natured Molly Macaulay and Mrs. Malcolm, Ronald's mother. The book's virtuous characters have an unfortunate tendency to speechify, however, and Edith's character is strangely inactive, in keeping with a novel which records as her "destiny" the reward of her passive suffering. Many critics have also noted the novel's tone of resigned religiosity, and its implicit shift from comic social commentary to moral examination. Several of the characters and plot elements seem to rework those of her earlier novels in a more plangent minor key.
Ferrier's ill-health, growing blindness, and role as attendant to her invalid father before his death (in 1829, when she was forty-seven) evidently narrowed her range of activity; at any rate, she wrote no more novels in the last 23 years of her life. Her works retained their popular audience for some time, and they also influenced elements of several well-known nineteenth-century plots: the endings of Tennyson's "Lady Clare" and "Enoch Arden," for example, echo those of The Inheritance and Destiny. Judgments of her three novels' relative merits have fluctuated since: The Inheritance was esteemed in the nineteenth century for its variety and elaborate plot, and Destiny for its piety, but twentieth-century critics have admired the more astringent social commentary and satiric vignettes of Marriage. Her editor John Doyle and the nineteenth-century Scottish critic George Saintsbury commented extensively on her work, and more recent critics such as Francis Hart and Mary Cullihan have noted her influence on the themes and characterizations of twentieth-century Scottish fiction.
The expressive constraints imposed on women authors in the early nineteenth century clearly confined the scope of Ferrier's sensibility, and her novel's internal tensions between their heroines' sharp observations and their inward resignation reflected an oppressive social milieu: one in which the novelist "Monk" Lewis, for example, on hearing that his friend Susan Ferrier might write a novel, wrote in troubled distress to Lady Charlotte Campbell that "I wish she would leave such nonsense alone, for . . . I have an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers." Her own father reportedly ordered her to read him nothing "written by a woman," before he learned that the author of the tale he was enjoying was his daughter. Even Walter Scott couched affectionate praise in terms which condescended to women in general: "This gifted personage, besides having great talents, has conversations the least exigeante of any author, female at least, whom I have ever seen among the long list I have encountered,--simple, full of humour, and exceedingly ready at repartee; and all this without the least affectation of the bluestocking." Like many other women authors of her day, Ferrier also published anonymously (her name first appeared in a collected edition published by Richard Bentley in 1841); like Jane Austen, moreover, she even strove to conceal evidence of her authorship before family and friends. Her satiric presentation in Marriage of the circle of "Mrs. Bluemit" probably reflected not only her genuine personal contempt for pretention, but also an ambivalent response to women whose literary observations reached beyond the "feminine" realm of her own fiction.
Still, Ferrier's best (and earliest) heroines stubbornly made of their circumstances everything their society would permit. Her portrayals of mothers, daughters, and friends are lively and authentic, her Scottish character types among the best of their genre, and her first novels compare favorably with major works of her contemporaries--Marriage with Sense and Sensibility or Martin Chuzzlewit, The Inheritance with Felix Holt. Together, these accomplishments entitle their author to a respected place among nineteenth century novelists of family attachment and social observation.
Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier: 1782-1854, edited by John A. Doyle, London:
Eveleigh Nash and Grayson, 1929.
Cullinan, Mary. Susan Ferrier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Douglas, Sir George. The 'Blackwood' Group. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897.
Hart, Francis Russell. The Scottish Novel From Smollett to Spark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Paxton, Nancy L. "Subversive Feminism: A Reassessment of Susan Ferrier's Marriage." Women and Literature 6, no. 1 (1976): 18-29.
Saintsbury, George. "Miss Ferrier," Collected Essays and Papers, Vol. I. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923, pp. 302-29.