Most of us will be familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published 200 years ago, but few will have read similar novels by two Scottish contemporaries. Perhaps, writes Stuart Kelly, it is time to bring them to light
In 1826, Sir Walter Scott wrote in his private journal: “READ again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”
This year is the 200th anniversary of Austen’s novel – originally called First Impressions and whose later title was taken from one of her great predecessors, Fanny Burney – and pages are already filling with encomia to her genius. That Walter Scott was amongst the very first is a tribute to his critical generosity as much as to her genius: it would be difficult to imagine today a writer like Martin Amis re-reading a writer like Penelope Fitzgerald and frankly admitting his inadequacies. Indeed, Scott’s enthusiasm for Austen stands in stark contrast to Austen’s peeved opinion of Scott. When, the year after Pride And Prejudice was published, Scott (anonymously) published Waverley, or ’Tis Sixty Years Since, Austen wrote: “Walter Scott has no business writing novels, especially good ones – it is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.”
That Scott’s fame irked Austen is not in doubt: when she wrote to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, for permission to dedicate Emma to the future George IV, she received a few “helpful hints” from the bureaucrat, which would not sound out of tune from today’s Creative Scotland. Clarke wrote “The Prince Regent has just left us for London; and having been pleased to appoint me Chaplain and private English Secretary to the Prince of Cobourg, I remain here with His Serene Highness & a select Party until the Marriage. Perhaps when you again appear in print you may chuse to dedicate your volumes to Prince Leopold: any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.” Austen’s response is wonderful: “You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem.
“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way.”
But if Austen would not write like Scott, Scott – and others – would try to write like Austen. One of Scott’s sadly least-read novels is Saint Ronan’s Well. It is his only novel written in the present day, and set in a down-at-heel spa. The plot – half-brothers, illegitimacy, duels and a bed-trick – had to be rewritten since his publishers found the idea of a girl of class having relations before marriage unacceptable.
“You would never have quarrelled with it had the thing happened to a girl in gingham”, Scott supposedly said, “the silk petticoat can make little difference.” Scott did include characters like Meg Dods, the local, ironic landlady and the returned-home, gossipy old nabob Mr Touchwood, that show him (ineptly) trying to catch an Austen-ish tone, but melodrama – to which Austen was allergic – wins out.
Scott tipped a wink, in 1819 (two years after Austen’s death), to a female novelist who has been called the Scottish Jane Austen. At the end of Tales of my Landlord Volume III, which included The Bride of Lammermoor, Scott “signed off”: “I retire from the field, conscious that there remains behind not only a large harvest, but labourers capable of gathering it in. More than one writer has of late displayed talents of this description; and 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 a very lively work, entitled “Marriage”.”
The writer in question was Susan Edmonstone Ferrier, who was born in 1782. Like Scott, Ferrier was born in the Old Town of Edinburgh and moved as a child to the then New Town. Her social circle included the aged novelist Henry Mackenzie, whose only prose narrative, The Man Of Feeling, influenced both Scott and Austen. Scott left this account of her company, after she visited Abbotsford: “This gifted personage besides having great talents has conversation the least exigeant of any author, female at least … simple, full of humour, and exceedingly ready at repartee, and all this without the least affectation of the blue stocking”.
Ferrier wrote three novels: Marriage, by far her best book, was started in 1810 and was co-written in part by her friend Charlotte Clavering. It was published in 1818, and followed by The Inheritance in 1824 and Destiny in 1831, which commanded impressive advances of £1000 and £1700.
Ferrier very gently undermines Scott’s romanticism: her contemporary Highlands have “dingy turnip fields” and asthmatic, pompous lairds. Although her reputation sank in the 20th century she has latterly been more favourably appreciated.
Mary Brunton lacked the automatic entry into literary circles afforded to Ferrier. Born as Mary Balfour in 1778 on Burray, Orkney, at the age of 20 she fell in love with the Rev Alexander Brunton. Her mother did not approve of her attachment, and the minister gallantly rowed to the island of Gairsay to “rescue” and then elope with her. Brunton had a formidable career in the church, and encouraged his wife to educate herself. She wrote two novels before her untimely death in 1818: Self-Control in 1810 and Discipline in 1814. Compared to Austen, Brunton is far more morally didactic: Fay Weldon has said “Improving the Brunton novels may be, but what fun they are to read, rich in invention, ripe with incident, shrewd in comment, and erotic in intention and fact.”
Austen – never particularly keen to admit to a rival – was less impressed by Self-Control referring to as “excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it”.
At the time of her death Brunton was writing a new work – Emmeline, which was posthumously published – as well as learning Gaelic: remarkably, she not only learned Gaelic but in Discipline suggested that it was in some respects a finer language than English. Brunton, like Austen, Scott and Ferrier, took the novel seriously. Writing to a friend she said “Why should an epic or a tragedy be supposed to hold such an exalted place in composition, while a novel is almost a nickname for a book? Does not a novel admit of as noble sentiments – as lively descriptions – as natural character – as perfect unity of action – and a moral as irresistible as either of them? I protest, I think a fiction containing a just representation of human beings and of their actions – a connected, interesting and probable story, conducting to a useful and impressive moral lesson – might be one of the greatest efforts of human genius.”
Pride and Prejudice certainly fits that description, and while, this year, we re-read Austen’s immortal work, perhaps some time could be taken to acquaint ourselves with her overlooked Scottish contemporaries.