Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferrier, Susan Edmonstone

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FERRIER, SUSAN EDMONSTONE (1782–1854), novelist, born at Edinburgh 7 Sept. 1782, was the youngest of ten children (six sons and four daughters) of James Ferrier, writer to the signet, by his wife, Helen (Coutts), daughter of a farmer in Kincardineshire. James Ferrier (b. 1744) managed various great estates, especially those of the Argyll family. He became a friend of John, fifth duke of Argyll, through whose influence he was appointed a principal clerk of session. Scott was one of his colleagues in this office, and he knew all the leaders of the literary society of Edinburgh. His daughter came to know the same circle as she grew up, and frequent visits with her father to Inverary Castle enabled her to see something of the fashionable world. She was a good French scholar, and her favourite French author was La Bruyère. She undertook a novel, ultimately called ‘Marriage,’ in co-operation with her friend Miss Clavering, a niece of the Duke of Argyll, whom she had met at Inverary. Miss Clavering only contributed a few pages (the ‘History of Mrs. Douglas’) to the story, which was written as early as 1810, and read with admiration by many friends. Miss Ferrier was not persuaded to publish it until 1818, nor would she then give her name. Blackwood paid her 150l. for it. The appreciation of her private audience was no doubt quickened by the portraits of known persons. Lady MacLaughlan represents in dress Mrs. Seymour Damer [q. v.], and in manners Lady Frederick Campbell, widow of the Lord Ferrers who was hanged in 1760. Mrs. Marslake was a Mrs. Davidson, sister of the notorious Lord Braxfield. The three spinster aunts were the Misses Edmonstone, and Mrs. Fox was Mary, lady Clerk, a well-known Edinburgh character. The novel succeeded, and was translated into French. Miss Ferrier's next story, ‘The Inheritance,’ appeared in 1824. Blackwood, encouraged no doubt by the success of ‘Marriage,’ gave her 1,000l. ‘Uncle Adam’ in this novel represents her father. The originals of characters are doubtful. The last novel, ‘Destiny,’ appeared in 1831. It was dedicated to Scott, who recommended it to Cadell, and in consequence of his judicious bargaining Miss Ferrier received 1,700l.

Miss Ferrier's mother died in 1797. Her three sisters married, and she kept house for her father, who died in January 1829. She led a quiet life between Morningside House and Edinburgh, with occasional visits to her sisters. She visited Scott at Ashestiel in 1811 and at Abbotsford in 1829 and 1831. Lockhart describes the delicacy with which she helped him over the gaps in talk caused by his failing memory, without apparent consciousness of the cause. A description by herself of these visits appeared in the ‘Temple Bar Magazine’ for February 1874, and is republished in her ‘Works’ (1881, i. 39–51). Brougham is said to have been an ‘old schoolfellow,’ and received her courteously when he made a tour in Scotland as lord chancellor in 1834. Among other admirers were Joanna Baillie, Sydney Smith, Macaulay, and Sir James Mackintosh. Leyden addressed verses to her in her early life, and Curran, known to her at the same period, civilly apologised for the backwardness of his muse on a similar occasion. She remarks that ‘none but a pen of fire could tell his [Curran's] character, or record the charms of his conversation. … I'll certainly live seven years longer for having seen him.’ Scott complimented her in the notice appended to the ‘Tales of my Landlord,’ and Wilson in the ‘Noctes.’ In his diary Scott calls her ‘simple, full of humour, and exceedingly ready at repartee, and all this without the least affectation of the blue-stocking.’ She had been intimate from early life with Lady Charlotte Bury [q. v.], daughter of the Duke of Argyll, who consulted her in various literary matters. She made a final visit to London in 1830, when she consulted an oculist, without much advantage. Her eyesight failed, and she had to pass most of her time in a darkened room, receiving a few friends at tea in the evening, but leading a very retired life. She sold the copyright of her novels to Bentley, who brought out an edition, corrected by herself, in 1841. He pressed her to write another story so late as 1850. She declined, and always shrank from the publicity of acknowledged authorship. She allowed her name to be prefixed to an edition in 1850. The last edition was published in 1881. She died at Edinburgh 5 Nov. 1854, at the house of her brother, Mr. Walter Ferrier, and was buried in St. Cuthbert's churchyard. Her modesty had made her insist upon the destruction of a correspondence with a sister which contained much biographical matter, and few records of her quiet life have been preserved. A miniature of Miss Ferrier was painted by Mr. Thorburn, who when a lad of seventeen studied art in Edinburgh, and became known to her. She had a very high opinion of his talents and helped him in his career. A marble bust was taken after death. Miss Ferrier's novels show keen powers of observation, and are brightly and clearly written. They are chiefly satirical sketches of character in the upper classes of Scottish society. They belong to the same school as Miss Edgeworth's stories, and are marked by the same rather stiff didacticism. The favourable reception of the last edition shows that in spite of their old-fashioned character they still have attraction due to genuine wit and vivacity.

[Information from John Ferrier, esq.; Life (by the same) prefixed to the edition of 1881, and previously in Temple Bar for November 1878.]

L. S.