Marriage is a novel in two parts. The first contrasts the marriage of the foolish Lady Juliana with that of Mrs. Douglas. While Lady Juliana follows all her caprices and elopes for love, Mrs. Douglas follows instead the path of virtue. The second volume tells of the daughters of Lady Juliana, one taught to follow only her own inclinations and the other taught to find happiness in God alone.
I first picked up Susan Ferrier when I read an article naming her the “Scottish Jane Austen.” A contemporary of Sir Walter Scott and wildly popular in her own day, Ferrier has since seemingly all but disappeared in literary history. However, I was interested in a woman who was so acclaimed by her contemporaries that she received a larger advance for her novels than did Austen. Why doesn’t anyone talk about her today? Will her books still hold interest, as do Austen’s? There was only one way to find out.
Personally, I find Marriage to be closer to a blend of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë. In fact, it reminded me of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters as it contrasts, in both volumes, the characters of two women, one raised to value virtue and the other to value her own amusement; the virtuous one is, of course, rewarded with happiness in marriage and the other punished with scandal and discontent. It also has a bit of a flair for melodrama with its elopements and other little scandals–a taste, which seems more in like with Brontë than with Austen, who tends to make her scandals a little more subtle.
The comparison with Austen, however, is perhaps best seen in Ferrier’s penchant for describing foolish characters. We have three aunts who are remarkably ill-bred and ignorant, but convinced that they move in the best society and possess wisdom no one else does. There is also the woman who must contradict everyone, the woman who hosts a literary circle where the ladies do nothing but try to out-quote one another, and the woman of charity who gives none of her own money or time to the poor, but instead hits up all her guests for their money. These characters, I admit, did not amuse me. They drove me crazy and I was glad to be rid of them all (except the aunts, who must keep popping up).
The most vivid character is not one of the protagonists, but Lady Emily. She possesses a keen and sparkling wit, and loves to point out the foibles of the society around her. Of course, she has been raised in a haphazard manner and so lacks the virtue of her cousin Mary. She can’t conceive why Mary must go to church, even against her mother’s wishes, but won’t rebel against her mother to go to a ball. But she’s still far more interesting, far more lively than Mary. Mary is certainly admirable and everyone, I am sure, wishes her little romance to go well. But she does not sparkle.
Fans of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, or Charlotte Brontë will likely find this book of interest. Others who prefer more modern fare will probably not. It is not plot-driven, as is most of YA and much genre fiction. Rather, it focuses on the characters, depicting them for readers’ amusement or education. I enjoyed it, even when it was slow-paced, but I can imagine others will find Ferrier’s work to be an acquired taste.