Susan Edmonstone Ferrier

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Susan Ferrier from an engraving after the 1836 portrait by R. Thorburn
Susan Ferrier by John Gall 1850

Susan Edmonstone Ferrier (7 September 1782 – 5 November 1854) was a Scottish novelist. Her novels, giving vivid accounts of Scottish life and presenting sharp views on women's education, remained popular throughout the 19th century.


Susan Ferrier was the daughter of James Ferrier (1744–1829), writer to the signet and one of the principal clerks of the Court of Session, in which office he was the colleague of Sir Walter Scott, and his wife Helen (1741–1797), daughter of Robert Coutts, a farmer near Montrose. Her father came from Linlithgow. She was probably born at Lady Stair's Close, Edinburgh, as the ninth of ten surviving children, but the family moved in 1784 into 11 George Street in the New Town.

Ferrier was educated privately, but came to know through her family many notable Edinburgh people, including Scott and the novelist Henry Mackenzie. Her father first took her in 1797 to Inveraray, home of his client and patron John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll, where she became a friend of the family, especially of a granddaughter, Charlotte Clavering (died 1841), with whom she corresponded. Clavering was initially involved in the writing of Ferrier's first novel Marriage, although in the end her contribution to it was limited to the section entitled 'The History of Mrs Douglas'.[1] Some of the letters between Ferrier and Clavering can be found in the front matter of a six-volume edition of the novels.[2]

East Morningside House
Gatepost sign

Susan Ferrier kept house for her father after her mother died and three older sisters had got married. Her eldest brother, incidentally, married the sister of John Wilson, who wrote under the pseudonym Christopher North.[3] Like many well-to-do Edinburgh families, they took a house outside the city in the summer, East Morningside House, where The Inheritance was written. Although she still wished her work to appear anonymously, her identity was widely known by then. She visited Scott at Ashiestiel Farm and House on the banks of the River Tweed near Clovenfords, Scottish Borders, in 1811 and at his new house Abbotsford in 1829 and 1831. They enjoyed each other's company and he 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."[4] He mentioned her in the same sentence as Maria Edgeworth and Frances Burney in 1825.[5] Ferrier's account of the visits was eventually published posthumously in the magazine Temple Bar (1874).

Ferrier's own tastes in literature appear in her correspondence. She was an admirer of Jane Austen and of Scott (although she had reservations about some works of his), but scorned John Galt and John Gibson Lockhart.[6] The last of several visits to London was paid in 1830 to see an oculist, when she stayed for a few days at the villa of Lord Casilis in Isleworth, the model for the house known as Woodlands in Destiny.[7]

Brought up in the Church of Scotland, Ferrier joined the Free Church after the Disruption of 1843. She died on 5 November 1854 at a brother's house at 38 Albany Street, Edinburgh, and was buried in St Cuthbert's Churchyard.[8]

The novels[edit]

Ferrier wrote three novels. Marriage was written in 1810 but much revised and came out anonymously only in 1818, when the Edinburgh publisher William Blackwood paid £150 for it. Its success was remarkable, and it appeared in French in 1825. In 1824 Blackwood was prepared to pay £1000 for the second novel, The Inheritance. The third novel, Destiny, was dedicated to Scott, who found that Robert Cadell of Edinburgh was willing to pay £1700 in 1831. The author sold the copyrights in 1841 to Richard Bentley, who reissued them with authorial revisions in an illustrated edition. This was reprinted for the first time in Ferrier's name in 1851. The library edition of 1881 and 1882 included a Memoir.[9] A book-length memoir and correspondence appeared in 1898.[10] Modern critical appraisals have been sparse, but the National Library of Scotland produced a lengthy catalogue for an exhibition in 1982.[11]

The novels, which combine humour with vivid accounts of Scottish social life and sharp views on marriage and female education,[12] retained their popularity through the 19th century, but then it began to wane, although editions of Marriage have appeared sporadically since the Second World War.[13] According to an early 20th-century history of literature, "In the novels of Susan Edmonstone Ferrier there is something of the rough sarcasm of Smollett, mingled with a strong didactic flavour and with occasional displays of sentiment that may be due to Mackenzie. To her personal friend Scott, she may have owed something in her studies of Scottish life, but Maria Edgeworth was her principal model." The book criticizes her works for loose plotting and "coarse workmanship", but praises her vigour and calls it "fresh and interesting."[14] It has been argued recently that the three novels form a trilogy – an extended inquiry on the subjects of nation, history, and the evolution of female consciousness.[15]


  1. ^ Elspeth Yeo's ODNB entry: Retrieved 2 May 2012. Subscription required
  2. ^ R. Brimley Johnson (ed.): Marriage (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1894), Vol. I, pp. xxv–xlv.
  3. ^ R. Brimley Johnson... p. x.
  4. ^ Quoted by Elspeth Yeo.
  5. ^ Victoria Chance's dissertation: Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  6. ^ Elspeth Yeo.
  7. ^ R. Brimley Johnson... p. xii.
  8. ^ Elspeth Yeo.
  9. ^ R. Brimley Johnson..., p. vii.
  10. ^ Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier, 1782-1854... (London: J. Murray, 1898. rep. 1929).
  11. ^ Susan Ferrier 1782-1854 (Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1982). ISBN 0-902220-55-1.
  12. ^ Entry for Susan Ferrier in The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999), accessed through Credo: Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  13. ^ E. g. in the Oxford English Novels series in 1971 – ISBN 0-19-255349-6 – later reprinted as a World's Classics paperback. ISBN 0-19-282524-0.
  14. ^ The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (Cambridge UP/G. P. Putnam's Sons: Cambridge, UK/New York, 1907–21). Vol XII, Ch. XI, § 1. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  15. ^ Victoria Chance's dissertation.

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