Susan 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.