The '˜Scottish Jane Austen': Susan Ferrier, Scotland's forgotten literary star

Susan Ferrier was praised by Sir Walter Scott and outsold Jane Austen, so why don't we know more about her? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Susan Ferrier was praised by Sir Walter Scott and outsold Jane Austen, so why don't we know more about her? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dubbed the 'Scottish Jane Austen', novelist Susan Edmonstone Ferrier had, until recently, all but disappeared from the public’s consciousness.

After penning a trio of feverishly read novels, she was inexplicably consigned to obscurity.

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But this could all be about to change, if Scottish crime author Val McDermid has anything to do with it it.

This year, 200 years on from the publication of Ferrier’s first novel, Marriage, McDermid is hoping to rehabilitate her memory and draw the eyes of a new generation of readers to her works.

Featuring in McDermid’s Edinburgh-wide art installation, Messages from the Sky, Susan Ferrier is perhaps on the brink of wider recognition. So, who was she?

Friendship with Sir Walter Scott

Born in 1782 in Lady Stair’s Close in Edinburgh’s Old Town, Ferrier was one of the 10 surviving children of James Ferrier - a Writer to the Signet (a society of Scottish solicitors) and a principal clerk at the Court of Session - and his wife, Helen.

One of Ferrier's father’s colleagues in court was none other than literary giant Sir Walter Scott, who would become a close personal friend of hers, and instrumental in her career as a writer.

The front cover of Susan Ferrier's debut novel, Marriage, which was first published in 1818, and is now due to be re-published 200 years later

Recounting spending time in Ferrier's company after a visit to his Melrose home Abbotsford, Scott once wrote of her:

“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.”

Scott was a great admirer of Ferrier's work. Indeed, his esteem for her seems to have been mutual, with Ferrier going on to dedicate her third novel to him.

In more recent appraisals, her writing has been put an equal footing with Scott’s, something he himself alluded to 1819 when recommending her debut novel, Marriage.

Anonymity

As was the fashion at the time, Ferrier published her novels anonymously, as Jane Austen and many of her Scottish contemporaries (such as Mary Brunton) had also done.

This was not merely because of a fragile ego - it was out of necessity.

Having an involvement in finances or business dealings (like having published work go on sale) was not considered appropriate for women at the time, nor was having a visible presence in the public sphere in their own right.

Ferrier would likely have wanted to remain anonymous, as many of the fictional characters in her books were based on her acquaintances in Edinburgh’s high society.

While she publicly denied writing her first two novels, by the time her third novel, Destiny, was published in 1831, her identity was widely known, or at the very least guessed.

It wasn’t until 1851 that Ferrier allowed her name to be attributed to new editions of her written works, just three years before she died, aged 72.

Her works

The obvious parallels drawn between Ferrier and Austen’s novels are understandable.

Both provided a satirical, often amusing critique on high society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

This is perhaps true of Marriage, the story of a young English heiress who elopes to the Highlands with a penniless son of a Scottish laird.

Ferrier lived at East Morningside House in Edinburgh for some of her life, and wrote most of her second novel, The Inheritance, here (Photo: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons)

But in later novels, The Inheritance and Destiny, it could be argued that Ferrier has more in common with Charles Dickens.

In Destiny, for example, the impact of the collapse of the clan system and the face of capitalism is put under the microscope through the story of the Laird of Conroy, whose refusal to modernise has dire consequences for his estate and his daughter’s prospects.

Recognition

Ferrier reaped huge financial gains from the publication of her manuscripts, commanding higher advances from her publishers, and outselling Jane Austen’s novels.

In 1818, Edinburgh publisher William Blackwood paid her £150 for Marriage, which sold out of its initial print run of 1,500 copies within six months.

For her 1824 novel, The Inheritance, Ferrier was paid £1,000.

Her final novel, Destiny earned her an advance of £1,700 - a huge sum for 1831.

“In her lifetime, her novels were wildly popular, earning her significantly more substantial publisher’s advances than Jane Austen,” explained McDermid in a recent interview.

“And yet now almost nobody knows her name.”

As her first novel is re-published 200 years on from when it first graced the printing presses, it remains to be seen whether Susan Ferrier will ever receive the recognition her English peer Jane Austen has enjoyed.

But as McDermid herself points out, “Susan Ferrier deserves better than this.”