Sharp, witty and brilliantly observed, Susan Ferrier’s Marriage may be 200 years old, but it reads as surprisingly modern.
Susan Ferrier's 1818 novel, Marriage, jumps right into the action. The Earl of Courland calls in his daughter, Lady Juliana, for a serious talk. He has organised a marriage for the girl, to a rich old duke. Lady Juliana bristles at this and declares she will marry not for money, but only for love and romance. She soon elopes with Henry Douglas, a poor soldier. The couple flee to his native Scotland and are suddenly hit with a hard dose of reality. Lady Juliana's flighty and fanciful dreams of living in a kind of elegant poverty are dashed. When Henry inherits a run down farm, it seems the only life available is a hard one working the land.
In the meantime Lady Juliana has given birth to twins, Mary and Adelaide. Rather than work on the farm (a fate worse than death), Lady Juliana palms off one of her daughters, Mary, to her sister-in-law and then flees to London, taking Adelaide with her. Mary is brought up by the sensible Mrs Douglas and a band of mad, garrulous aunts: Miss Grizzy, Miss Jacky and Miss Nicky. The aunts are often crude and silly, but they are warmhearted and genuine. Mrs Douglas has a common sense approach to life, but is still influenced by rural Scottish ways. In London, Lady Juliana finds refuge living with her brother, who has now inherited his father's estate.
Sixteen years elapse and the sisters, Mary and Adelaide, find themselves in the marriage market. Mary moves to London to live with her English relatives, reuniting with her mother and sister. Despite being twins, the two sisters couldn't be further apart in temperament. Both contract very different marriages.
Comparisons with Jane Austen come naturally to mind when reading Susan Ferrier's Marriage. There are hints of Mansfield Park in orphan-like Mary's entrance into an unfamiliar London household and Pride and Prejudice in Mary's overhearing of some unfavourable words about herself by Colonel Lennox. While Marriage is not as tightly plotted, nor are the characters as expertly integrated into the story as in the novels of Jane Austen, Susan Ferrier has a genius for social observation and deft comedy. Some of the funniest characters, such as the formidable Lady Maclaughlan (a kind of kooky Lady Bracknell, if that's possible) and the scattershot Miss Grizzy, are works of genius. Another great aspect of the novel is how it vividly evokes the many levels – from the aristocratic to the working class – of London and Scottish society. We learn in a casual manner of 19th century British morals, tastes and fashions. Ferrier's minute descriptions of houses and their furnishings provide a living picture of domestic life.
Two hundred years on, Marriage reads as surprisingly modern in its familiar concerns about making the right choices when it comes to love. It's also very, very funny.
Marriage, by Susan Ferrier. Published by Virago Classics. ISBN: 9780349011219 RRP: $19.99
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