Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

1134997.gifSusan Ferrier’s novel Marriage, published in 1818, is a good read and interesting in a number of ways, one of which is its Scottishness. Ferrier lived her whole life in Edinburgh, and her novel deals with the ideas Scottish and English people have about each other and the complexity that existed behind stereotypes of the day. The critic who wrote the novel’s introduction noted the multiplicity of “mixed” marriages — between Scots and English — to argue that Ferrier rejects the kind of nationalism developing in her time period. She also shows complexity within Scotland, portraying different areas and different types of people within it, and therefore undermining any simple idea of a Scottish “character.” Ferrier’s best characters are capable of living happily in both places, and they tend to combine the best traits characteristic of both areas.

Ferrier does, however, have some fun portraying comic characters who fail at her kind of worldiness — she writes about loud, blustery Highland lairds and foolish maiden aunts and spoiled English girls who refuse to live within their incomes. Ferrier uses these stereotypes for comic effect, and then has her more sympathetic characters critique the foolish, stereotypical ones.

Another main interest in the book is education, particularly women’s education — a topic so many, many novels of the time took up. Ferrier treats this subject largely through contrasts. She has three main female characters, Lady Juliana and her twin daughters Mary and Adelaide. Lady Juliana’s own education was abysmal:

Educated for the sole purpose of forming a brilliant establishment, of catching the eye, and captivating the senses, the cultivation of her mind, or the correction of her temper, had formed no part of the system by which that aim was to be accomplished.

Her father is largely to blame for this:

[He] was too much engrossed by affairs of importance, to pay much attention to any thing so perfectly insignificant as the mind of his daughter. Her person he had predetermined should be entirely at his disposal …

Women’s bodies matter more than their minds, according to this view, but what the father has forgotten is that after marriage women become responsible for raising children and they need a certain amount of sense to do this successfully. This was a common concern of the time — women should be educated not so much because of its inherent worth, but because women needed a certain amount of training to run a family well.

Marriage spells out the consequences of poor education for women (education in morals as well as academic subjects); Lady Juliana is a terrible mother and raises her daughter Adelaide to be much like she is — vain, selfish, and foolish. Mary, however, Adelaide’s twin, is raised by another woman, Mrs. Douglas, who does a much better job and trains Mary to be everything that Adelaide is not — kind, thoughtful, knowledgeable. Through these twins we can see how much is at stake in a young person’s training and education, and how Lady Juliana is perpetuating the cycle of ignorance. How is she supposed to know how to raise a daughter when she never received any attention or training herself? No one was there to teach her how to be selfless and patient.

Many of the characters in this novel are either thoroughly good (Mary, Mrs. Douglas) or thoroughly bad (Lady Juliana, Adelaide), so it was a pleasure to come across Lady Emily who is neither. It’s in this sense that Marriage feels like an 18C novel to me — so many 18C novels have perfect heroines, annoyingly perfect ones, leaving the more minor characters to have some complexity. Lady Emily is flawed — according to the standards of the book — by being too critical, too
quick to speak her mind, too witty, too independent. Mary as heroine could never get away with displaying these traits; they are too unfeminine. But Emily is sympathetic too; she does her best to take care of Mary when she needs it, and she has a sense of her own flaws. Mary is drawn to Emily but worried about her future; she may be a little too wild for her own happiness. This uncertainty is left unresolved. Readers today are probably more likely to sympathize with Emily than with Mary, who can be a little insipid and annoyingly obedient. I’m not so sure what readers at the time would have thought.

This puts Austen’s novels in an interesting light — her heroines are not the perfect Mary types; they have flaws, such as Emma’s self-absorption and they make mistakes like Elizabeth Bennet’s too-quick judgments. It seems that other novelists were more likely to explore flaws, not in their heroines, but in other characters. The heroines remain saint-like.

I love reading novels from this time period; I think Marriage is an interesting one to look at for what it says about national identity and about women’s place in society, but it’s also a fun read — a good story with lots of comic touches.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

  1. This sounds like a fun book on many levels. I have never heard of Susan Ferrier before. Is there a reason she is not much known? Or is she well known and I just haven’t been paying attention?

  2. It really does sound fun. How could you do this to me, Dorothy? As if I don’t have enough books I want to read. (You made me buy that Sweeney novel, too!)

  3. This sounds such an interesting book, for its comparison with Jane Austen and also to see how the ideas Scottish and English people have about each other may or may not be the same today. I haven’t heard of Susan Ferrier before, either.

  4. I’m with Imani. You’re making me want to race out and get this book. Meanwhile, do you think maybe most heroines HAD to be saintlike in order to satisfy the requirements of the day, but that most authors got around that by introducing minor characters who were “secret heroines,” so to speak, the real women they wanted to write about but were afraid they wouldn’t get published if they did?

  5. hepzibah

    I liked what you had to say about women and education — very interesting! We can see that this book kind of draws a parallel to The Awakening, between two types of female, Madame Reiz and Madame Ratigionelle (i think I spelled that wrong)…but I think all women’s literature falls back on this point. Nice review!

  6. It seems like you’ve read several books like this this year that sound good (I’m thinking of Wives and Daughters in particular). I wonder if male authors take the same viewpoint or discuss the same subjects as female authors of the time? It would also be interesting to read this and compare it with Jane Austen’s work. I should really read more authors who actually wrote in this period (and not just contemporary authors writing historical fiction!).

  7. Stefanie — she isn’t well-known, and I’m not sure why, except that there are a lot of women novelists from the time period who aren’t well known. They get overshadowed by the poets from the time period, I think, and by Austen and Scott.

    So sorry Imani! :) (You’ve done the same thing to me a lot, you know …)

    BooksPlease, I did like thinking about how she compares to Austen — it makes the strengths of both of them clearer, I think.

    Emily, I suspect you’re right about the heroines; I think they were often meant to be models of proper conduct — partly to make the whole genre a little more acceptable — but they aren’t always a whole lot of fun; the fun was in the minor characters.

    Hepzibah, interesting comparison. I think you’re right that a lot of women’s literature is about education because it was so important and so difficult for women get a good one.

    Danilelle, I think male authors do take up these topics (Rousseau, for example, wrote novels about education), but with a different perspective. I think it was more pressing and more personal for women.

  8. This sounds really, really good. Thank you for such a thorough review.

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