Marriage by Susan Ferrier

The Scottish Jane Austen…?

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Lady Juliana is ordered by her father to marry a Duke she doesn’t love for money and social advantage, the girl refuses. Spoilt and with her head full of romantic ideas, instead she elopes with her young lover, Henry Douglas – a handsome but penurious Scotsman. Henry has relied on his guardian to keep him in style, but the guardian is furious about his marriage and cuts him off. Soon, the shallow and vain Juliana realises that living on love is not nearly as much fun as living in luxury. As their funds dwindle to nothing, they are forced to beg shelter from Henry’s father, a rather insignificant and uncouth laird in the Highlands. Their marriage continues to worsen, but Juliana bears twin daughters, one healthy, one sickly. When Juliana gets a chance to return to London, she promptly takes it, taking the healthy daughter, Adelaide, with her and leaving the other, Mary, in the hands of her sister-in-law. The story carries us through Juliana’s marriage and on to the lives of her two daughters, showing how their different upbringings determine their personalities.

Apparently when this book was originally published in 1818, it was hugely popular, outselling even Jane Austen. Now, on its recent re-publication, Ferrier is being touted as “the Scottish Jane Austen”. I fear not. While Austen’s books sparkle with wit and intelligence, this one, though often humorous, has nothing like the lightness of touch nor the true insight into society of Austen’s work. It’s grossly overlong and has large stretches of pure sentimentality that would make even Dickens cringe.

Part of the problem is that, in conjunction with so many Scottish authors following the Union, Ferrier was probably writing with an English audience in mind, and I assume that’s why she felt it necessary to drag all her characters down to London for the largest section of the book. While the Scottish sections are fun and give a believable if deliberately caricatured picture of Highland life and Edinburgh society, once she reaches London there is no sense of place and the society she describes feels considerably less authentic, more as if it’s based on books Ferrier has read than on a lifestyle she has lived and observed.

Book 33 of 90

The other major flaw is one common to many writers of that era – the drooping perfection of her main female character, the good sister Mary. Often, these drearily angelic women are surrounded by quirky or dastardly characters who liven the story up, and there are some of these in this book, too. But for my taste we spend far too much time with the saintly Mary and hear far too much about her religious scruples – about her religion in general, in fact. Regular readers of my reviews will know by now that Scotland has an unhealthy relationship with religion due to the misogynistic old killjoy Knox and his buddy Calvin. And, goodness! Mary has been well trained by her pious foster-mother to see anything the least bit fun as the temptation of the Devil.

Adelaide, on the other hand, never comes to life as a character at all. There primarily to provide a contrast to Mary, her purpose is to show what happens to girls brought up by shallow mothers to consider wealth and status all-important. I felt she could either have been made hissably unlikeable (like Lady Catherine de Bourgh) or perhaps have caused the reader to pity her (like Mrs Collins) or even allowed us to laugh at her (like Mrs Bennet). But in fact I never felt I had got to know her at all, and therefore felt nothing for her.

Fortunately, the book has some redeeming qualities that make it reasonably enjoyable despite its weaknesses. Juliana’s reaction to the rough, unsophisticated life of Henry’s Highland family gives room for a lot of humour in the first section, as does Ferrier’s description of the Highland landscape as a bare, harsh, barren place of rain and mud. More realistic than the prettified, shortbread box version of the Highlands that was beginning to be created by those of a Romantic inclination at that time. As Mary travels south years later to visit her mother and sister, she stops off in Edinburgh, and Ferrier creates some excellently caricatured characters there, almost in the vein of Dickens.

Susan Ferrier

The best bit for me, though, is the character of Mary’s English cousin, Lady Emily. Sarcastic and independent, Emily relentlessly mocks the aristocratic society of which she’s a part and supports droopy Mary through all her trials. One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her. If there is any resemblance to Austen, it’s in the character of Emily, and it was she, not Mary, who kept me turning pages.

Overall, I enjoyed parts of the book a lot but felt that I had to trudge through too much moralistic sentimentality along the way. I’m not a great enthusiast for the women-writing-about-women-for-women type of book in general, and think this would probably work better for people who do enjoy that. It’s certainly good enough that it doesn’t deserve to have been “forgotten”, but to compare it to Austen does it a disservice by setting up expectations it doesn’t meet. As entertainment, this one has much to recommend it in parts, but neither the quality of the writing nor the depth of insight it provides take it into the true literary fiction category.

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35 thoughts on “Marriage by Susan Ferrier

  1. This is a very good review, FF 🙂 It sounds like Ferrier has had a good stab at the Austen tropes but not quite managed to pull them off. The premise of the book is very good indeed, I reckon, and perhaps a good editor these days would have cut down on the dreary moralising, but it’s facing an uphill struggle being compared to Austen in the first place.

  2. What a thoughtful and interesting review, FictionFan. I agree with you about the ‘too perfect’ sort of character. For some reason, many writers of the era seemed to find it necessary to include a character like that. And I wonder, as I think about your post, whether Ferrier’s touch might have been a bit lighter and her pen more sure if she’d kept her novel more settled in Scotland. Interesting how writing for a particular audience impacts the way one writes. Hmmm….

    • Thanks, Margot! 😀 Yes, the perfect female definitely seems to be a feature of Victorian novels. I don’t mind if they’re only playing a small part, but I don’t want to spend hours in their company. Give me someone with at least a little wickedness! It’s a recurring issue with Scottish fiction that so much of it is geared towards the much bigger English market – still happens today sadly, with the majority of “Scottish” authors decamping to London at the first opportunity.

  3. Oh man. This is a disappointment. I was looking forward to reading a new author whose writing was Austen-like. I’m not a fan of perfect characters. (Like Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop.) How sad that the book devolves once the characters head to London.

    • Yes, Dickens perfect women drives me crazy too! I don’t mind if they’re only playing a small role, but not if they’re the main character. And I was disappointed that so much of this one was set in London – it makes me hard to accept it as a “Scottish” classic…

  4. I’ve heard this compared to Austen as well; sorry to hear it doesn’t live up to that description. I’ll probably still give this a try in the future, but I’ll keep my expectations in check!

    • I wasn’t aware of it either, till very recently. I think they’re trying to revive it for it’s 200th anniversary and it’s worth reading, for sure, but it’s not as good as they’re hyping it to be. Thank goodness for Emily! Perfect people are so dull… 😉

  5. Hum…..I thoroughly enjoyed your witty ripio. If I wasn’t vegetarian i would have particularly cheered the desire for a wet fish slap of what sounds like a far too prissy central character. Would a head of wilted lettuce, forgotten and going damp and slimy in the fridge work?

    I’m ALMOST tempted to read this thinking about a lot of the interesting points you raise about the baleful influence of Knox, Calvin etc, the difference you felt between her writing about a place she knew versus one she was perhaps ‘only third hand’ Poor Susan, maybe if she’d have had internet access…. But, with so many books siren calling that one HOPES will be great, I’ll probably accept your forewarning. Might have been more tempted when engaged in academic studies when reading for pleasure also included appetite for reading hard and analytically stuff not quite so good but part of that literary history journey. Great review.

    • Yes!!! Throwing wilted lettuces at Mary is exactly what the book needs! They should give away a fresh lettuce with each copy – by the time Mary gets to her droopy best it would have reached just the right stage of sliminess…

      You might enjoy it more than me, being better in general with books by women about women. But it’s not the best Scottish classic I’ve read, nor the one I think you’d like most. I shall be reviewing Imagined Corners soon, and I suspect it’s much more you-ish (and my review is even bitterer about my old friend Knox…). And of course, everyone should read The Gowk Storm… 😉

    • Yes, I think the comparison to Austen must purely be to do with the date of writing and the fact that it’s about girls looking for husbands. But otherwise there aren’t many points of similarity… it’s still worth reading though, if it takes your fancy… 🙂

  6. She left one of her daughters behind because she was sickly?!

    It seems very predictable that the two sisters ended up with the personalities that they did. Maybe Mary should have turned out ghastly while Adelaide turned out pure and caring. Mary sounds very dull indeed. Actually, they both do. Too bad… having a Scottish Jane Austen would have been fun!

    • Yeah, she wasn’t what you’d call Mother of the Year material! The whole thing was predictable, even up to how all the romances would turn out. I know in that era the romances were always obvious, but usually they at least had to overcome a hurdle or two. Thank goodness for Cousin Emily – I couldn’t have spent the whole time with the sisters!

  7. “hissably unlikable” hahaha

    Yes, this book sounds like too much of a slog for me. I’m usually pretty oblivious to today’s ‘preachy’ type of writing, but this sound overly obvious and annoying!

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