In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Susan Ferrier

  • Introduction
  • Contextual Studies
  • Critical Studies
  • Autobiography and Biographies
  • Editions
  • Scottish Literature
  • 19th-Century Reviews
  • Gendered Approaches
  • Inheritance and Money

British and Irish Literature Susan Ferrier
Ainsley McIntosh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0023


Susan Edmonstone Ferrier (b. 1782–d. 1854) is a notable figure in the history of Scottish women’s writing. Despite a relatively slender output, she stands alongside Mary Brunton and Christian Isobel Johnstone in having made a significant contribution to Scotland’s literary heritage by playing a key part in the development of a feminine tradition of national domestic fiction in post-Enlightenment Scotland. Ferrier wrote three novels, Marriage (1818), The Inheritance (1824), and Destiny (1831), all of which were published anonymously and enjoyed critical and commercial success. Fragments of a later unfinished novel, Maplehurst Manor, have also survived. Ferrier’s novels have been criticized for their weak plots but celebrated for their acute social satire, broad humor, witty characterization, and deft depiction of Scottish manners and Scots vernacular. They are typified by their moral-didactic tone and thematic preoccupation with marriage, money, inheritance, and female education; and for these reasons, readers have long drawn comparison between Ferrier’s work and that of contemporary female writers of the novel of manners and of sentiment, including Hannah More, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen. However, she is closer to Maria Edgeworth in her construction of narratives that explore issues of regional and national identity and to Tobias Smollett, John Galt, and Walter Scott in her depiction of Scottish character types and dialect. Skillful characterization marks the apogee of Ferrier’s artistic abilities; her fictional characters are richly executed and represent an interesting spectrum of competing social classes and cultures. Many of her creations were likely drawn directly from her own experiences and observations of the fashionable, aristocratic world that her father had access to as law-agent to the fifth Duke of Argyll. Ferrier and her father were frequent visitors to the Duke’s home at Inverary Castle, and these visits provided her with much of the material for both Marriage and her later novels. Arguably, her family’s close connections to leading luminaries of Edinburgh literary society, including Henry MacKenzie, Robert Burns, and John Wilson, and her long-standing friendship with Walter Scott, further influenced the development of Ferrier’s fictional preoccupations. Like these writers, her novels reveal a keen engagement with contemporary political debates over issues of national identity, and it is this aspect of her work that has generated the greatest scholarly interest in her writing and contributed to a modest degree of critical rehabilitation for Ferrier in recent years.

Contextual Studies

The modest recovery of Ferrier’s critical currency during the late 20th century can be traced by her inclusion or otherwise in literary histories of the English novel, and the scope of consideration that such studies give to her work. For example, Allen 1970 contains a brief but significant reference to Ferrier, whereas the original 1954 version of this study makes no mention of her at all. Therefore, despite a tendency toward commentary over critical analysis, Saintsbury 1923 and Millar 1903 are rare examples of late Victorian criticism that highlight Ferrier’s merits and are significant for attempting to situate her within the broader field of English rather than Scottish literature. Elton 1965 is noteworthy for both its contextualization of and astute engagement with Ferrier’s work. In discussing Ferrier as a writer of national tales (see also National Tale) rather than in the context of the novel of social manners, Elton’s critical stance is closer to that of more recent times than to his own. Ferrier has appeared with much greater frequency in recent reconsiderations of Romantic period literature. Matthews 1998, a recuperative bibliographical study of English literature during this period, highlights criticism devoted to a number of “non-canonical” or “minor” novelists of the early 19th century, and makes several references to Ferrier within this context. Jones 1986 discusses eight authors writing in the early 19th century who were highly regarded in their own time but who have been largely overlooked since. Ferrier is not dealt with extensively because her novels were published in the period immediately following the historical focus of this study but is cited twice in an appendix that highlights her inclusion in 19th century studies of the novel, suggesting her greater significance at this time. Jones 1986 makes this point overtly, stating that by 1899, besides Jane Austen, the only female novelists considered worthy of discussion were Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Susan Ferrier. Garside, et al. 2000, an impressive bibliographical tool, again facilitates appreciation of Ferrier’s literary achievement and allows readers to reliably date the publication of her novels. Such studies enhance appreciation of the initial impact that Ferrier’s fiction made, both within and outside of Scotland, and the extent to which her reputation has subsequently suffered. Charting the generic innovations of the English novel between 1789−1830, Kelly 1989 offers students a broader contextual basis from which to understand Ferrier’s fictional mode, as does Jack 1963.

  • Allen, Walter. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. London: Penguin, 1970.

    This classic study of the development of the English novel from the 18th to the 20th centuries contains a brief entry on Ferrier in its third chapter. It is significant because of its inclusion of Ferrier within the context of noteworthy novelists of the early 19th century. Originally published in 1954.

  • Elton, Oliver. A Survey of English Literature, 1780–1830. Vol. 1. London: Edward Arnold, 1965.

    Elton offers an interesting overview of Ferrier’s fiction in chapter 12 of this study. He treats Ferrier as a successor of Scott and as a writer of Scottish national manners. Originally published in 1912.

  • Garside, Peter, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling, eds. The English Novel, 1770–1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    A valuable scholarly resource that maps the development of the novel form in the 18th and 19th centuries and reliably dates the publication of Ferrier’s novels.

  • Jack, Ian. English Literature, 1815–1832. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963.

    A short entry on Ferrier in chapter 8 of this study deals mainly with Marriage, provides brief commentary on The Inheritance, and makes mention of Destiny. It is of value in asserting Ferrier’s position as one of the most accomplished fiction writers of her day and for contextualizing her achievement.

  • Jones, Ann H. Ideas and Innovations: Best Sellers of Jane Austen’s Age. New York: AMS Press, 1986.

    Discusses eight early-19th-century novelists who are now largely unread but who were highly regarded in their time. Does not showcase Ferrier but provides a useful context for her writing. Significantly, she is referred to twice in an appendix of authors considered noteworthy by 19th-century literary commentators.

  • Kelly, Gary. English Fiction of the Romantic Period 1789–1830. London: Longman, 1989.

    Charts the development of the novel in Great Britain between 1789 and 1830. This study does not specifically discuss Ferrier’s fiction, but her works are cited in an appendix of novels published during this period and a second appendix on “individual authors” contains a short biographical entry about her.

  • Matthews, Susan. “Fiction of the Romantic Period (Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Bage, Edgeworth, Burney, Inchbald, Hays, and Others).” In Literature of the Romantic Period: A Bibliographical Guide. Edited by Michael O’Neill, 298–314. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

    The chapter alludes only briefly to Ferrier, but it is pertinent for situating her alongside the contemporary Romantic writers named in the chapter’s title, and for citing two key critical works from the 1990s that engage with her novels.

  • Millar, John. A Literary History of Scotland. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903.

    Admires the accuracy of Ferrier’s satirical aim, although finds it sharp to the point of cruelty and vindictiveness in the depiction of “the affectations of the would-be genteel.” Highlights several such of her characters. Finds Ferrier more brilliant than Edgeworth, with a command of detail akin to Smollett or Dickens.

  • Saintsbury, George. “Miss Ferrier.” In Vol. 1, Collected Essays and Papers. By George Saintsbury, 302–329. London: J. M. Dent, 1923.

    Compares Ferrier to Austen and Edgeworth, while offering a detailed overview of Ferrier’s works. Highlights her humor and, significantly, seeks to place Ferrier’s work within the English literary tradition (rather than the more localized context of the novel in Scotland). Originally published as an introductory essay to the 1882 Bentley edition of Ferrier’s novels.

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