MISS FERRIER'S FIRST NOVEL.*
Miss FEaarra's work in fiction is already in some external re- spects so thoroughly "old-fashioned," and has been so generally though so nndeservedly neglected by novel-readers of this generation, that it is difficult to realise the fact that she was living thirty years ago, her death not taking place until the 'close of 1854. Perhaps the fact that her three novels—which were enthusiastically admired by such competent contemporary judges as Sir Walter Scott, Sir James Macintosh, and Professor Wilson, to say nothing of the general public of the time—have of late been so thoroughly ignored, is the misfortune rather than the fault of present-day readers. For some mysterious reason, all editions of these books subsequent to the first have suffered serious curtailment, and as the volumes now being pub- lished by Messrs. Bentley are the first reprint from the unmuti- lated originals, and, therefore, the only perfect accessible edition, it is clear that Miss Ferrier's reputation has been heavily handi- capped by adverse circumstances. No one can be blamed for shrinking from that literary abomination,—a condensed novel.
So little being generally known of Miss Ferrier's books, it is not surprising that still less is known of their author, and the biographical sketch prefixed to this reissue of 3fa4-riage will have for most readers the interest which attaches to fresh in- formation. Susan Edmonstone Ferrier was the fourth and youngest daughter of James Ferrier, writer to the signet, and was born in Edinburgh, September 7th, 1782. In addition to a 'valuable and extensive business, Mr. Ferrier was entrusted with the management of the Argyll estates, and found not only a patron, but a friend, in John, the fifth Duke. Among the re- sults of this friendship were frequent visits paid by Miss Ferrier and her father to Inveraray Castle, during which the former doubt- less made many studies of the fashionable life of the time, which she was destined to turn to good account. When Miss Ferrier first turned her mind to literature, it was not her intention to work alone, but in conjunction with her friend Miss Clavering, a niece of the late Duke of Argyll, to whom at an early age she had become warmly attached. If we may judge from a lively letter of Miss Ferrier's, it would_ seem that to Miss Clavering
• Marriage : a Novel. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley and Sen.
was due not only the suggestion of an association in authorship, but the first plan of the projected work. She writes :—
" Your proposals flatter and delight me, hat how, in the name of Postage, are we to transport our brains to and fro l I suppose we'd be pawning our flannel petticoats to bring about our heroine's marriage, and lying on straw to give her Christian burial. Part of your plot I like much, some not quite so well,—for example, it wants a mora2,—your principal characters are good and interesting, and they are tormented, and persecuted, and punished, from no fault of their own, and for no possible purpose. Now, I don't think, like all penny-book manufacturers, that 'tis absolutely necessary that the good boys and girls should be rewarded and the naughty ones pun- ished. Yet I think, where there is much tribulation, 'tie fitter it should be the consequence rather than the cause of misconduct or frailty. You'll say that rule is absurd, inasmuch as it is not observed in human life; that I allow, but we know the inflictions of Providence are for wise purposes, therefore our reason willingly submits to them. But as the only good purpose of a book is to inculcate morality and cavey some lesson of instruction, as well as delight, I do not see that what is called a good moral can be dispensed with, in a work of fiction."
Miss Ferrier lived before the proclamation of the "Art for Art" gospel, and her phraseology is certainly out of date ; but
there is a core of strong common-sense in her view of the ethics of fiction, and her practice shows that she did not carry her conviction of the necessity for a "good moral" to any inartistic extreme. Fiction is a reflection of life, but of life as it presents itself to the eye which sees it steadily and sees it whole ; and thus seen, it is enduringly ethical. In detail, it may appear unmoral, or even immoral ; but when surveyed in the mass, the confusion falls into order, just as features which are separately plain and wanting in relation to each other, gain harmony, and even beauty, from a commandingly attractive expression ; and the only defect of Miss Ferrier's view, or rather of her way of putting it, is that she seems to regard " the moral" as a thing to be attained by a skilful manipulation of the facts of life, rather than by an honest and fearless representation of them. A good many years ago, a vigorous essayist pointed out the fact that feminine novelists have, as a body, been characterised by a tendency to dwell upon the painful and inexplicable aspects of human existence, and Miss Clavering seems not to have been free from this weakness. Her sketch for a novel, besides the unpleasantnesses alluded to above, comprised a suicide and other horrors, which Miss Ferrier instinctively felt were alien to the spirit of her genius, and she accordingly suggested as an alternative the lighter and more novel motive of "the sudden transition of a high-bred English beauty, who thinks she can sacrifice all for love, to an uncomfortable, solitary, Highland dwelling, among tall, red-haired sisters and grim-faced aunts." This idea was approved by Miss Clavering, but she appeared to feel that Miss Ferrier would embody her own conceptions more adequately if left to herself; and the originator of the scheme of literary partnership abandoned the role of a co-worker for that of a confidante, adviser, and critic. The earliest chapters of Marriage were written as early as the year 1810, but it progressed slowly, and was not published until 1818, when its author had reached the comparatively mature age of thirty-six. Miss Ferrier's name did not appear upon the title-page, and the anonymous novel received at once the high compliment of being generally attributed to Sir Walter Scott, who, as the equally unknown author of the Waverley Novels, was then in the zenith of his fame. Scott probably heard of the rumour, and that it did not displease him is evident from the concluding sentence of the Tales of my Landlord, in which he says :—
"There remains behind not only a large harvest, but labourers capable of gathering it in ; more than one writer has of late dis- played 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 the very lively work entitled Marriage."
Miss Ferrier's success did not tempt her to hasty and ill-con- sidered production, for six years passed before the appearance of her second novel, The Inheritance; and there was a similar interval between it and Destiny, her third and latest work. The writer of the introduction gives some interesting letters, which show how warmly these stories were received by some of the author's most distinguished contemporaries ; and it would be pleasant to quote, not only from them, but from the attractive account of Miss Ferrier's later years, and, most of all, from her vividly and pathetically recorded Recollections of Visits to Ashestiel and Abbotsford, which the editor has done well to publish. We must, however, forego all this, and devote what remains of our space to some
account of Marriage, the work by which her first fame was won, and by which, in this new edition, it can hardly fail to be revived and perpetuated. After the confession of Miss Ferrier's artistic faith given above, it is natural that our attention should be led to the ethical purport of the work, and we are reasonably both surprised and amused to find how provokingly this purport eludes our search. A. number of edifying lessons may be drawn from Marriage, but anything like a set "moral" is nowhere to be found. We are introduced to several married couples, well and ill matched, principally the latter; but it cannot be said that Miss Ferrier has any teaching more definite than that happiness in marriage depends largely or altogether on con- geniality of character and temperament, and this truth, though doubtless important, is not specially novel or illuminating. In matters of detail, we are inclined to think that Miss Ferrier is con- fusing, rather than helpful, to the diligent seeker after wise words. Lady Juliana marries for love, and makes a mess of it ; Adelaide Douglas marries without love, and makes a still greater mess of it. On the other hand, Alicia Malcolm also marries without love, at any rate without the highest love she is capable of feeling, and yet lives happily ever afterwards ; so that the balance of evidence would seem to be in favour of the astound- ing "moral" that love in marriage is a mistake, were it not that the union which is, of course, the most important in the book, that of the hero and heroine, is a love-match which per- fectly realises the approved ideal. As an instructive manual for presentation to "persons about to marry," Miss Ferrier's story must be pronounced a failure ; but, happily, instructive manuals for all sorts and conditions of men, women, and children are tolerably numerous, while novels as lively and amusing as Marriage are intolerably rare ; so, perhaps the emo- tion which, in the circumstances, has the best claim to be con- sidered well regulated is one of gratitude for the presence of the amusement, rather than of regret for the absence of the moral.
Sir Walter Scott hit upon what is, perhaps, the most descrip- tive single epithet that could be applied to Marriage, when he described it as a "lively work." We cannot but derive from it the impression that, daring its production, the author's high spirits never failed her, but that every sentence was the out- come, of genuine healthy enjoyment ; and as this is just the one impression which we fail to derive from most of the imaginative literature of our own day, the man or woman who now makes its acquaintance for the first time will probably get from it a keener, because a less familiar, pleasure than that enjoyed by its earliest readers. Miss Ferrier was too much of a carica- turist to be a great humonrist, and she fails in pathos as no great humourist has ever failed ; but her humour was of a high, though not of the highest order. Even in mentioning caricature as a characteristic of her method, injustice would be done if the mention were not accompanied by a statement of the limits within which the criticism is applicable. In the humour with which she delineates personages whom she has studied from life, there is nothing of what can be fairly called caricature,—nothing but that slight sharpening of the angles of personality which is essential to vivid. portraiture. The three aunts, Miss Jacky, Miss Grizzy, and Miss Nicky, are as far from being caricatures as are the Dodson sisters in the Mill on the Floss, whom we cannot help thinking of in connection with them. Another portrait, drawn with strictly-restrained veracity, is that of Lady Maclaughlan, the large-limbed, strong-minded, loud-voiced, plain-spoken, but good-natured wife and protector of the poor little, half-imbecile, wholly-invalided Sir Sampson, who, curiously enough, reminds us of another of George Eliot's personages, Mrs. Cadwallader, in Middlemarch. Lady Mac. laughlan is the most enjoyable character, in a book where enjoy- able characters are far from rare. The scenes at Glenfern Castle —just after that lonely dovecot has been fluttered by the arrival of that fine-plumaged bird, Lady Juliana—in which her lady- ship makes her first appearance, are irresistibly amusing ; and her reception, in her laboratory, of the coach-load of visitors who unexpectedly appear on Tuesday instead of on Thursday, the day named in the invitation, is an even finer triumph. Few writers have shown greater skill than Miss Ferrier in combining the abandon of burlesque with the restraint of realism ; in ap- proaching so near to the region of farce as to catch the inspira- tion of its riot-inspiring atmosphere, and yet never overstep- ping the boundaries of legitimate comedy. Perhaps her most farcically-conceived personage is Dr. Redgill, the gourmand physician, and her most farcical scene that in Mrs. Bluemits' drawing-room, where the assembled literary ladies indulge in copious quotations, interspersed with elegant remarks ; but hi the delineation of the character and the description of the in- tellectual assembly, she is a caricaturist rather than a pure humourist. She is strongest when she is most Scotch, and weakest when she is most English ; it is only when she is on her native heath that we see her at her best, but when we do thus see her, the sight is delightfully memorable. Her nature, hire that of many of her countrymen and countrywomen, was, essentially critical, and when she attempts to draw an ideal character, such as Mrs. Douglas or Colonel Lennox, she sinks. to a dead-level of unimpressive common-place. These lapses are, however, rare ; the general impression left by her work is one of joyous mastery ; and people who like to read a novel which they can not only admire, but really luxuriate in, will thank the publishers for this reprint of a story which is far too amusing to deserve the fate of remaining unknown to all but the few superior persons who know everything.