Miss Austen and Miss Ferrier
Contrast and comparison
’T is sixty years since the author of Waverley died, and only the year before, with the practical kindness which is not always an accompaniment of genius, he had found time out of the grief and toil that were killing him to make good terms with Cadell for the publication of his friend Miss Ferrier’s last novel. Destiny, for such is the title of this work, is just now come from the press, together with Marriage and The Inheritance, Miss Ferrier’s other two novels, in a beautiful new edition, which contains also a short biographical sketch of the author, and accounts of visits to Ashestiel and Abbotsford which remained in manuscript until 1874. As happens with most writers who do not at first give their names to the public, Miss Ferrier has paid the price of anonymity by being twice unknown: for a long time she was not found out, even the friendly wizard himself being suspected of the deed by not a few persons; and now for many years she has been forgotten. It has been my lot, and doubtless others have had the same experience, to find any mention of The Inheritance, or even of Marriage, received with a blank look, followed by the eager inquiry of who wrote it, and at last by the civil subsidence of interest which commonly greets a reference to old novels.
Now, however, that the newspapers are advertising these books, — which North described to Tickler in the Noctes as “the works of a very clever woman, sir,” — and the writer’s fine Scotch name as well, there can be no more ignorance of the fact that Marriage, The Inheritance, and Destiny, were written by Susan Edmonstone Ferrier. But sooth (and sad) to say, investigation is forced to go one step further, and ask who and what that very clever woman was. The whirligig of time does indeed bring in a revenge or two along with the rest of its cargo, for Susan Ferrier, although during the greater portion of her life she was one of the most brilliant Edinburgh figures, has long been an extinct phenomenon, while the laurels of Jane Austen are each year taking on a brighter shade of green. But poor Miss Austen had no laurels to wear while she was alive, — perhaps that is the reason why she put on caps at an extraordinarily early age; and it is therefore to be hoped that her piquant shade is finding a truly Positivist satisfaction in the immortality of thick-coming editions, memoirs, criticisms, and discussions. An édition de luxe ten years ago was soon followed by the publication of above two hundred household letters, in which the proudest aspiration towards celebrity breathes humorously through the characteristic statement that the writer would like to be Mrs. Crabbe; three memoirs, with the promise of a fourth, have been given to the world within the last two years; and at this moment England and America are vying with each other in new editions, that embrace tentative and fragmentary pieces as well as the six novels known to fame.
Miss Ferrier, although so much the vogue when her stories were first published, has to set over against all this posthumous glory of Miss Austen’s only the Bentley edition of 1882, — which called forth the only considerable modern criticism of what Temple Bar had well called these “three clever, satirical, and most amusing novels,” in the form of an appreciative article contributed to the Fortnightly Review by Mr. Saintsbury, — and the present American issue, uniform with the same publishers’1 edition of Jane Austen. Yet Ferrier is a kenn’d name. A great deal of The Inheritance, moreover, of Destiny, and still more of Marriage, can be accurately derived from Miss Ferrier’s forbears and relationships, and from the manner and circumstances of her life, just as there is little in the bright perfections of Jane Austen that might not have been seen within or without the walls of a well-connected Hampshire parsonage a hundred years ago. Yet these causes are far more directly operative in the one case than in the other, for Jane Austen was no copyist, but Miss Ferrier avowedly made thumb-nail sketches, — as is proved in one of the few surviving letters to or from her, — out of which grew the merciless caricatures that created her fame. Thus Lady M’Laughlan was Lady Frederick Campbell, and Miss Ferrier and the friend who began (but did not continue) as a collaborator with her in Marriage were a good deal afraid of being found out, in spite of many changes in circumstances, personality, place, and what not. Sir Sampson M’Laughlan, on the other hand, who is thus named, apparently, for the reason that his servant may be punningly called Philistine, has no recorded correspondent in real life. But Miss Ferrier did not always need a grotesque model to feed her habit of exaggeration, and the puny Sir Sampson was a sort of half-anticipation of Grandfather Smallweed, just as the ever spoken of but never seen Anthony Whyte (of Whyte Hall) prevented and came before Mrs. Harris, although Miss Ferrier allowed no skeptical Prig to arise and express to the Pratt her disbelief in any sich a person.
These originals, however, as Smollett would have called them, are, one suspects, more often than not done from models and sur le vif. The three old Miss Edmonstones, for a — good example, old family friends for one of whom Miss Ferrier herself was named, — furnished more than a broad hint for Miss Jacky, Miss Nicky, and Miss Grizzy. Their conversation caused the beautiful Lady Charlotte Bury, then Lady Charlotte Campbell, to “screech with laughing;” and Miss Clavering (the collaborator before mentioned), who had read the whole of Marriage in manuscript to Lady Charlotte, recommended the speedy publication of the book, lest one of “the aunties” should die and haunt the keen delineator. A gentle, honest ghost would have been that of Molly Macauley, the faithful housekeeper of Glenroy in Destiny, as may be seen by a letter to Miss Ferrier from her sister, Mrs. Kinloch: “Molly Macauley is charming; her niece, Miss Cumming, is an old acquaintance of mine, and told me the character was drawn to the life. The old lady is still alive, in her ninety-first year, at Inverary, and Miss C., who is a very clever, pleasing person, seems delighted with the truth and spirit of the whole character of her aunty.” The duke who was so much like Lord Courtland in The Inheritance may have been a clever, but could scarcely have been a pleasing person, and we find no testimony to delight on his part at the truth and spirit with which his character was rendered. Of some of these sharp strokes of Miss Ferrier’s it would not be easy to say, without some external prompting, whether they were coin or copy; but the droll and vigorous rendering of Mrs. MacShake, the old oddity whom Mary Douglas and her uncle called upon in Edinburgh, would be suspected as copy even if it were not known to be such. Mrs. M’Gowk, Mrs. Bluemits, and Mrs. Pullens, — all three, like Mrs. MacShake, minor characters in Marriage, — are probably original as well as originals. But Mrs. Pullens is not above suspicion. There is less of the type, more of the individual, in her than in the slatternly hostess and the precious person whose name is evidently an easy transition from Bluestocking; and some especially shrewd lines devoted to Mrs. Pullens seem bitten in from personal experience. “The great branch of science,” says Miss Ferrier, “on which Mrs. Pullens mainly relied for fame was her unrivaled art in keeping things long beyond the date assigned by nature; and one of her master strokes was, in the middle of summer, to surprise a whole company with gooseberry tarts made of gooseberries of the preceding year; and her triumph was complete when any of them were so polite as to assert that they might have passed upon them for the fruits of the present season. Another art in which she flattered herself she was unrivaled was that of making things pass for what they were not; thus she gave pork for lamb, common fowls for turkey poults, currant wine for champagne, whiskey with peach leaves for noyau. … Many were the wonderful morsels with which poor Mr. Pullens was regaled, but he had now ceased to be surprised at anything that appeared on his own table; and he had so often beard the merit of his wife’s housekeeping extolled by herself that, contrary to his natural conviction, he now began to think it must be true.” One seems to see here the true colors of some managing housewife in real life, but heightened, deepened, and arranged, in Miss Ferrer’s own most lively manner.
There is no injustice to the lady in thus enumerating instances of her method, but rather justice pressed down and running over, for portrait satire was the very base of her success, and upon it rests her reputation. It would indeed be grossly unfair to Jane Austen to insist upon Darcy, or Mr. Collins, or the moving idea of Northanger Abbey, for these are among the very few exceptions to the beautiful temperance of her method. Whatever she meant to do, — and can one doubt that hers was mens sonscia artis? — Miss Austen represented life: whatever Miss Ferrier meant to do, — and there is good reason to believe that she thought she was giving a true picture of contemporary manners, — she too often succeeded only in misrepresenting it. Miss Austen, as might be proved by evidence both from within and without, was the best sort of realist before realism was yet a christom child. She had the extremely rare gift of tracing faithfully through transparent pages the outlines of her world, and these were filled in with an artistic discretion far enough removed from the photographic process which is scarcely more satisfactory when it succeeds than when it fails. The Miss Austen of Scotland, on the other hand, — for so readers and critics were wont to name her, without apparent perception of the cardinal distinction between the two, — practiced in this regard a very different style. Humorous distortion was of the essence of her talent, and, with the notable exception of Miss Pratt, her most extravagant flights were her most characteristic ones. Miss Pratt, Adam Ramsay, Mrs. Major, Lady M’Laughlan, and Mr. M’Dowd, perhaps the five master works of Miss Ferrier, may well be left until we reach a more particular discussion of the books in which they figure; but this is the page for one or two more brief illustrations of her gift of caricature. The whole of Dr. Redgill’s lines may safely be commended to lovers of polished farce, and they have also value in fixing a vanished type; Mary Douglas’s three “aunties” have made and will make many persons, almost as clever as Lady Charlotte Bury, “screech with laughing;” and “a few more of the broth” is always a by-word in Ferrier-reading households. Hardly less familiar in their mouths are the Ribleys and “Kitty, my dear;” and joys forever are Lilly Black, her letter from the lake country, and the postscript by Mrs. Major which is understood to have had the distinguished approval of Lord Jeffrey.
Eminent among Miss Ferrier’s countless minor sketches is that of Mrs. Fairbairn, the maternal Mrs. Fairbairn. This is of the perplexing order already referred to: one does not quite know whether the study is imagined or appropriated. The long and highly diverting scene with the Fairbairn children (compare, however, the not less humorous but more credible performances of the young Prices in Mansfield Park) can scarce have been without the rancor of experience; but the mother is more generic, and the paragraph consecrated to her matches for satire anything to be found in the three novels. Viewed merely as prose, too, it is—with an opening exception—admirable. The balanced phrases click in time, and the whole passage bristles with “points” in the high eighteenth-century fashion: —
“Mrs. Fairbairn was one of those ladies who, from the time she became a mother, ceased to be anything else. All the duties, pleasures, charities, and decencies of life were henceforth concentrated in that one grand characteristic; every object in life was henceforth viewed through that single medium. Her own mother was no longer her mother, she was the grandmamma of her dear infants; her brothers and sisters were mere uncles and aunts, and even her husband ceased to he thought of as her husband from the time he became a father. He was no longer the being who had claims on her time, her thoughts, her talents, her affections; he was simply Mr. Fairbairn, the noun masculine of Mrs. Fairbairn, and the father of her children. Happily for Mr. Fairbairn, he was not a person of very nice feelings or refined taste; and although at first he did feel a little unpleasant when he saw how much his children were preferred to himself, yet in time he became accustomed to it, then came to look upon Mrs. Fairbairn as the most exemplary of mothers, and finally resolved himself into the father of a very fine family, of which Mrs. Fairbairn was the mother.” Miss Becky Duguid is almost as good in a less pretending way. This poor old maid, who had thought, by remaining single, to lead a life of leisure and escape the probable grief and the certain perplexities of the married state, is overwhelmed with the responsibilities of others, which they unload upon her. “She was expected to attend all accouchernents, christenings, deaths, chestings, and burials, but she was seldom asked to a marriage, and never to any party of pleasure.” Miss Ferrier’s fatal habit of exaggeration, however, led her to undo the character by overdoing it; and the specimen letter entrusting Miss Becky with commissions is a monument of literary unrestraint. The letters of Mary Musgrove, of Lady Bertram (on the occasion of Tom’s illness), and even Mr. Collins’s letter of condolence to the Bennet’s, come immediately to mind as examples of Miss Austen’s way of doing that sort of thing. They are as well within discretion as this letter to Miss Ferrier’s excellent old maid, and, it may be added, the epistles of Miss Jacky and Miss Grizzy, are beyond its bounds. Finally, the author of Marriage probably reached the top of her bent in caricature by committing the offense of which Dickens was guilty in his Mr. Micawber, for, writes Sir Walter to himself January 20, 1829, “Honest old Mr. Ferrier is dead, at extreme old age. I confess I should not wish to live so long. He was a man with strong passions and strong prejudices, but with generous and manly sentiments at the same time. We used to call him Uncle Adam, after that character in his gifted daughters novel of the Heiress [Inheritance].” In the gifted daughters novel we learn that Uncle Adam was “cross as two sticks,” but his character as a whole is not unattractive, not unamiable; and, though Miss Ferrier the novelist may have been slightly unfilial, Miss Ferrier the daughter was irreproachably filial.
Here again comes in the inevitable comparison with Miss Austen, comparison which is often found to be a contrast. It has been said that the author of Emma did not found her work upon thumb-nail suggestions, and most unlikely would she have been to take these from relations or friends. William Price, to be sure, and the frequent examples of sisterly affection in Miss Austen have often been thought to owe much to the fact that she had sailor brothers, and to the strong attachment between her and an older sister. The cross that William Price brought to his sister at Mansfield Park, and the topaz crosses, bought with a part of “the produce” of his share of a privateer, that Charles Austen gave Jane and Cassandra, are triumphantly cited, along with the adoption of one of the brothers, much as Frank Churchill was adopted by his uncle, to show that real persons were transferred from life to print by Jane Austen. Suggestions not a few, she doubtless took from the little life about her. She would not have been the cleverest novelist of her time if she had not thus drawn upon the most trustworthy material within a writer’s reach. But the sisters of the novels are never strikingly like the sisters of Steventon and Chawton, the young sailors find their counterparts only after the most general fashion in those of the family circle, where one may be sure Lieutenant Price had no counterpart at all, and the two adoptions show all the difference between the rancorous Mrs. Churchill and the amiable and harmonious Knights and Austens. If Miss Austen had been in any degree a copyist, the trick would have shown itself in Mrs. Norris, Mr. Collins, the Eltons, or even in Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates, though this the critics seem not to have thought of, rather than in Elinor Dashwood, or Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, or the good William Price, or the good-looking Frank Churchill. For surely it is the loud and salient (not to say the ridiculous) traits of the people of this world that tempt the thumb-nailer; yet no ill-natured cousin of Mrs. Norris has arisen in all these years to prove by neighborhood documents that her kinswoman was foully caricatured, no brother parson has come forward to say who was meant by Mr. Collins, no lady with an objection to entails has put in a claim to be Mrs. Bennet. The Eltons have not shown up, nor has Jane Fairfax deposed that it was a slander against her aunt, a calumny unworthy of a clergyman’s daughter, to make poor Miss Bates as little able to decide as l’âne de Buridan between Mr. Woodhouse’s pork and Mr. Elton’s marriage. For the apparently personal note in Persuasion, Mr. Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt (the second edition) implies that there may have been a personal reason. There may have been, there may not; but much at least of the subdued tone, the half-lights, in a word the charm of Anne Elliot, must have come simply from the autumn, the twilight, and the evening bell, in the writer’s own life. However this may be, there is nothing in the most keenly etched characters of Miss Austen, and less than nothing in that most gentle and beautiful personage, Anne Elliot, to show that her author owed anything more than suggestion to the individual (as distinguished from the general) realities that are beneath the poet’s “painted veil.” All the evidence, indeed, from within Miss Austen’s art, bears toward the truth that she permitted herself only suggestion, selection, and combination—if the formula be not too bald—to aid imagination, to fortify and direct the inventive faculty.
Some weary one may say that all these words might have been spared, might have been condensed and expressed in the single word that Miss Austen is an artist, and that her Caledonian rival—this pen has been dipped in Miss Ferrier’s ink—belongs to the larger band of non-artists. Yet such a condemnation would have been hasty, such a classification rigid, for Miss Ferrier is often an artist, and an admirable one surely, by scenes and bits. And in The Inheritance, still more, it may be, in Destiny, there are many considerable periods in which the writer’s besetting sin ceases to beset her. She can relent, too, from the sharpness it breeds (Molly Macauley and Uncle Adam are witnesses), and let Sir Walter come into the court to declare that her own life was gentle. He writes of Miss Ferrier in the Gurnal, that greatest monument of all to his fame, on the title page of which should be set the Colonna motto, “Though sad, I am strong:” — “A gifted personage, having, besides her great talents, conversation the least exigeante of any author—female, at least, whom I have ever seen among the long list I have encountered; simple, full of humor, and exceedingly ready at repartee, and all this without the least affectation of the bluestocking.” He would have liked to hear that other gifted and humorous personage say, as she did in one of her letters, apropos of Waverley, that Walter Scott had no business to take the bread out of other people’s mouths by writing novels. And his heart must have been touched, could he have known what Lockhart knew about Miss Ferrier’s last visit at Abbotsford, — the visit that called forth the praise of her just quoted from Scott. This reminiscence of the year 1831, which was gleaned for Temple Bar, together with most else of the little existing record of the author of The Inheritance, commemorates one of the most touching offices of friendship to be found in books. Says Lockhart in the Life: —
“To assist them in amusing him in the hours which he spent out of his study, and especially that he might make these hours more frequent, his daughter had invited his friend the authoress of Marriage to come out to Abbotsford, and her coming was serviceable. For she knew and loved him well, and she had seen enough of affliction akin to his to be well skilled in dealing with it. She could not be an hour in his company without observing what filled his children with more sorrow than all the rest of the case. He would begin a story as gayly as ever, and go on, in spite of the hesitation of his speech, to tell it with highly picturesque effect, but before he reached the point it would seem as if some internal spring had given away. He paused and gazed round him with the blank anxiety of look that a blind man has when he has dropped his staff. Unthinking friends sometimes gave him the catchword abruptly. I noticed the delicacy of Miss Ferrier on such occasions. Her sight was bad, and she took care not to use her glasses when he was speaking, and she affected also to be troubled with deafness, and would say, ‘Well, I am getting as dull as a post; I have not heard a word since you said so and so,’ being sure to mention a circumstance behind that at which he had really halted. He then took up the thread with his habitual smile of courtesy, as if forgetting his case entirely in the consideration of the lady’s infirmity.”
To go back again from life to literature, a comparison between a novel of Miss Austen and a novel of Miss Ferrier is likely to show us each writer in the light of the other better than any amount of unfortified comment on the works of either. It will be fair to each to take her best book, and this, in the case of Miss Ferrier, is by common consent The Inheritance. If we set over against it Emma, the partisans of Pride and Prejudice, and even of Persuasion, though these are more subtle and more difficult, will perhaps let the choice pass for the sake of argument. Now in The Inheritance the reader is met almost on the threshold by Miss Pratt, for whom I have a profound respect as by far Miss Ferrier’s best achievement in character. The masterly, hard brightness of the pages that introduce this feminine Paul Pry is kept up through all her “scenes.” With such eyes, such ears, and such a tongue, it is not to be wondered at that she is commonly to be found where she is not wanted. Miss Pratt humiliates the proud and outrages the dignified. She interrupts lovers’ confidences, and listens to political news not meant for her; and finally precipitates the end of Lord Rossville by alighting at his door from a hearse, — the omnibus of death being the only vehicle she could find to speed her on the way through a heavy snowstorm. Thus does the vivacious busybody shuttle in and out through the complications of The Inheritance. But the word is misleading, since Miss Pratt has far less to do with the web than a shuttle, and will rather be remembered as a brilliant strand, — of a shade that fights with all the other colors, — which appears, vanishes, and reappears, without apparent premeditation and with little influence on the pattern. Miss Pratt is never in greater form than when she talks about her invisible nephew, Anthony Whyte, — a stroke of genius, and the anticipation of a stroke of genius in an author with whom Miss Ferrier has much in common; and were it not for the too constant repetition of his name and for the farcical monstrosity of the hearse, this triumphant invention would run some of Miss Austen’s best characters hard. The management of this best personage of her triad is, by the way, a curious and valuable illustration of Miss Ferrier’s lax method, for, with all the traits of a marplot, Miss Pratt, except in the instance of the Earl’s incredible taking-off, is let neither to make nor to mar the plot of The Inheritance, from which we stay too long. A chapter of accidents precedes the first chapter of the book, and by these Mrs. St. Clair finds herself bringing her beautiful daughter Gertrude to the halls of Rossville Castle. The castle is the inheritance, to which Gertrude, as the only child of a younger son of Lord Rossville, is heiress presumptive. But she has the misfortune to fall in love with the wrong nephew of that nobleman, who, when she refuses to convey her affections to the right nephew, threatens to disinherit her. All this time a villainous stranger has hovered about. He has some mysterious hold on Mrs. St. Clair, who makes her daughter and the reader equally unhappy with her melodramatic schemes and lamentations; and Gertrude is assisted, at a moment when the hovering becomes acute, by her mother’s old Uncle Adam, an excellent study in portrait exaggeration. But, before things can be brought to a crisis by disinheritance, Lord Rossville dies intestate, and the new Lady Rossville, now her own mistress, goes away to London, companioned by the wrong nephew and Mrs. St. Clair. She drinks deep of the turbid spring of London gayety, which makes her sick of the metropolis and all its works. Miss Ferrier, who, when she is not a caricaturist, is very apt to be a moralist, has her opinion of London and of fashionable life; and in each of her three novels, it is to be observed that any truly good person soon wearies of the world and its ways. But worse things than London are in store for poor Gertrude. She no sooner returns to Rossville than Lewiston—the villainous stranger, and an American—not only hovers about the castle, but actually swoops down upon it and enters its doors. It now appears through Lewiston that Gertrude is not what we took her for, that she is not of the St. Clair blood at all, and that Mrs. St. Clair introduced her to Lord Rossville as his granddaughter, not only to grasp the Inheritance, if so she might, but also to avenge the slights which in the past had been put upon her own inferior birth. The wrong nephew now proves himself very wrong indeed by deserting his love and marrying the Duchess of St. Ives, but the sky soon clears, for the good Mr. Lyndsay, a third nephew, not yet mentioned, inherits the kingdom by the death of the heir. He has long loved Gertrude, and so, by a bouleversement with which Lord Tennyson’s ballad has made the world familiar, she no sooner steps down with a single rose in her hair than Mr. Lyndsay comes forward as Lord Ronald, and Gertrude is still the Lady Clare.
The humors of the novel are well attended to, as, in addition to Miss Pratt and Uncle Adam Ramsay, there are to make us laugh the immortal Mrs. Major, who is always talking about “my situation,” the scarcely less immortal Lilly Black (whose Augustus, by the way, although droll enough, is as conventional as the London ’Arry whom he is a good deal like), the Major himself, and the Blacks in general, Mrs. St. Clair’s vulgar relations, — not to speak of the Major’s too-maternal sister, Mrs. Fairbairn, and Miss Becky Duguid, who have already been spoken of. Scenery less abounds than in Destiny, where the influence of Wordsworth’s poetry is unmistakably felt, or even in Marriage; but wherever it occurs, Miss Ferrier shows her unusually good powers of description. The story is on the whole well managed, — The Inheritance and Destiny differ chiefly from Marriage in having a story—and the persons of the drama revolve fairly well, in the old-fashioned way, about a young woman who is much less trying than Miss Ferrier’s other two heroines. Edith Glenroy and Mary Douglas have an afflicting amount of sensibility, and Mary, as readers of Marriage may remember, is one who would “sink lifeless” on her mother’s bosom at the least provocation. The English of this novelist, barring will or shall, and a few other Scotticisms, is always good and often excellent, but quite too conscious of itself to be of the best service in dialogue. Her French is as often bad as her English is excellent, and a lady who is capable of writing esprit forte should be charier of that language than is Miss Ferrier. There are, however, evidences on every page, far too many evidences, indeed, for fiction, that the author is uncommonly well read in both English and French; Cicero, Montaigne, La Bruyère, Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More, and everybody else, are made to stand sponsors for the chapters in The Inheritance as in Marriage; and Mr. Lyndsay, the virtuous hero of the former work, is so apt at quotation that he sometimes narrowly escapes the absurdity of the precious ladies who enliven Mrs. Bluemit’s salon. As for Lewiston, one knows not whether he is queerer in his capacity of American or of a villain who gives away the circumstances of Gertrude’s birth, and thus spoils his only chance of getting any more money. All for all, then, The Inheritance, in spite of an enormous expense of talent on the part of an indubitably “clever woman, sir,” is a rather grotesque blend of modern manners with the old-fashioned romantic novel, the whole conducted in the presence, amid with the occasional aid of a group of those Smollett-like originals who make Miss Ferrier’s novels worth reading. So that we of to-day read with unfeigned surprise what the Shepherd said in November, 1826. He had been speaking of The Inheritance, which was published two years before, and added: “which I aye thought had been written by Sir Walter, as weel’s Marriage, till it spunked out that it was written by a leddy.”
Sir Walter did not write much like the leddy who wrote The Inheritance—pace the Shepherd—and still less did she write like the lady whose crowning glory is Emma. Consider for a well-spent moment the plot of that delightsome narrative. It may without exaggeration be said to consist of perfectly commonplace people in perfectly commonplace circumstances, to whom happen perfectly commonplace things. It is so very probable that once or twice it verges on improbability, just as vaulting ambition o’erleaps itself, or as a very straight person is prone to bend backward. “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” She is at the head of her father’s house, everybody knows, her mother being dead and her sister married. The Woodhouses are people of consideration, and Emma, with a particular propensity to match-making, takes great pains for the advantage of a silly, pretty friend of hers in a humbler way of life. Much of the interest results from these attempts and what becomes of them. Emma is forced, in the long run, to let the girl to whom she is attached marry the very man whom at first she kept her from marrying. She unexpectedly finds herself (or her consequence and money) beloved by a man whom she wished to love her friend; she herself almost falls in love with a man who cares for some one else; and ends by marrying the very man whom it would most have astonished her to think of marrying six months before. The various shifts by which all this is brought about have the verity and detail of life, and the onlooker cries bravissima to a writer who, with the help of no unusual character, except perhaps the slightly heightened comic mask of Mr. Woodhouse, can tease us out of thought as does Jane Austen. She has invested the commonplace with enduring charm. She can be quiet without being humdrum. In a word, Miss Austen chronicles the smallest of beer, and makes it sparkle like Mumm’s extra dry. Yet Emma—and (with qualifications) ex Emma Jane Austen—has as many dramatic complications as The Inheritance, if indeed it has not more. But how infinitely quieter are the tone and accent of the play! And the stage, how infinitely small! It is a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory,” and the scenery is painted with the finest of brushes, as to which Miss Austen made only one mistake, namely, that it “produces little effect after much labor.”
What the pseudo-Austen of Scotland would have done with the materials of Emma is awesome to conjecture, but useful also as a means of critical comparison. She would, I am sure, have taken away what little sense Miss Bates ever had, and bestowed considerable sensibility upon Emma. Mr. Woodhouse would have had some droll disease peculiar to valetudinarians, and there might not improbably have been a Scotch cousin to recommend a few of the gruel. Wicked fashionables would have come down from London—vide Marriage, vide The Inheritance, vide Destiny—to flaunt their follies and vices before the morality of Hartfield and the rural ingenuousness of Highbury. Or else the reader would have been taken up to town with Frank Churchill when he went to have his hair cut, or with the John Knightleys—though not to Brunswick Square—and folly and fashion would have been shown in all the insolence of their native heath. It is easy to imagine a Ferrierized Miss Bates, vastly funny, we may be assured, but speaking two pages to her present one, and burlesqueing the Elton-pork scene out of all recognition. Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightley would be triple prigs; and Knightley would be even more tiresome than he is in reality. The little group of old women round Mr. Woodhouse would be funny incredibilities, there would be a long rigmarole and mystery about Harriet Smith’s father, and the harmless Fairfax-Dixon dealings might, it is to be feared, be an intrigue of the deepest dye. But there is too much Ferrier in this mode of criticism. Let us hasten to be good-natured and add that, although a great part of this new, monstrous Emma would be grossly tedious and most of it improbable, another considerable portion could not fail—to go back to Miss Clavering’s word—of being screechingly laughable. Yet we should not care a button, when all was over, how long Mr. Woodhouse lived after the end of the book to keep Emma and Mr. Knightley out of Donwell, or what the word was that Frank Churchill placed before Jane Fairfax and she indignantly swept away unread. We do care very much in the real Emma, and Jane used to tell those who asked her, if they were worthy of confidence, that Mr. Woodhouse lived two years after his daughter’s marriage, and that the rejected word was p-a-r-d-o-n. There may be, by the way, discreet and uninformed ones who would like to know that Miss Steele did secure the doctor at last, and that “the considerable sum” given by Mrs. Norris to William Price was—one pound. It is grievous to think that Miss Austen could not have been there at Lyme on the day when the Laureate, having been very carefully shown where the Duke of Monmouth landed, made answer that he should far rather be conducted to the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell. Miss Ferrier’s people and places have no such hold upon us.
One curious point has been left unnoticed in this scant consideration, and that is the lack of a certain element in Miss Ferrier’s novels which was to be expected there. She shows so sensitively in many ways the effect of surrounding conditions, and her mental temper is so keenly satirical, that it is hard to account for the absence of any caricature of the Edinburgh society of her own day and generation. Where Scott, Wilson, Brougham, Jeffrey, Cockburn, and Chalmers—to name no more—raised the flag and led the van, there must have been many learned Thebans who made themselves supremely absurd in trying to keep up with the Athenian procession. We do not hear of them from Miss Ferrier. Didn’t she dare, or had she compunctious visitings from her better nature? There is no deponent to say, and Charon will not carry a subpœna. But possibly Edinburgh suggested the précieuses in Marriage, and Miss Ferrier thought it prudent to establish them at Bath. They are very droll, monstrous droll, in fact. Their talk is the very bravura of burlesque, but it does not wear so well as the discussions of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, or the flow of soul that mingles with Mr. Woodhouse’s friendly bowl of gruel, or as this wonderful little bit, taken almost at random: —
“’Well, Fanny, this has been a fine day for you, upon my word!’ said Mrs. Norris, as they drove through the park. ‘Nothing but pleasure from beginning to end! I am sure you ought to be very much obliged to your Aunt Bertram and me, for contriving to let you go. A pretty good day’s amusement you have had!’
“Maria was just discontented enough to say directly, ‘I think you have done pretty well yourself, ma’am. Your lap seems full of good things, and here is a basket of something between us, which has been knocking my elbow unmercifully.’
“’My dear, it is only a beautiful little heath, which that nice old gardener would make me take; but if it is in your way, I will have it in my lap directly. There, Fanny, you shall carry that parcel for me; take great care of it; do not let it fall; it is a cream cheese, just like the excellent one we had at dinner. Nothing would satisfy that good old Mrs. Whitaker, but my taking one of the cheeses. I stood out as long as I could, till the tears almost came into her eyes, and I knew it was just the sort that my sister would be delighted with. That Mrs. Whitaker is a treasure! She was quite shocked when I asked her whether wine was allowed at the second table, and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns. Take care of the cheese, Fanny. Now I can manage the other parcel and the basket very well.’
“’What else have you been spunging?’ said Maria, half pleased that Sotherton should be so complimented.
“’Spunging, my dear! It is nothing but four of those beautiful pheasants’ eggs which Mrs. Whitaker would quite force upon me; she would not take a denial. She said it must be such an amusement to me, as she understood I lived quite alone, to have a few living creatures of that sort; and so to be sure it will. I shall get the dairymaid to set them under the first spare hen, and if they come to good I can have them moved to my own house and borrow a coop; and it will be a great delight to me in my lonely hours to attend to them. And if I have good luck, your mother shall have some.’
“It was a beautiful evening, mild and still, and the drive was as pleasant as the serenity of nature could make it; but when Mrs. Norris ceased speaking it was altogether a silent drive to those within. Their spirits were in general exhausted; and to determine whether the day had afforded most pleasure or pain might occupy the meditations of almost all.”
Sixth and lastly, from whatever point of view Miss Austen and Miss Ferrier are looked at together, there is no escape for the eye of criticism from the dividing distinction which is none the less obvious because Mr. Saintsbury has seized upon it—none the less important because it is obvious. This distinction, and it has perhaps been tediously insisted upon already in our discussion, which so sharply divides the writers of prose fiction, one band of them from another, leaves on one side the practitioners of the normal and on the other the practitioners of the abnormal. Le Sage, Fielding, and Thackeray, are great names, yet not so great that Jane Austen, in these days of Girton and the Annex, may not be admitted licentiate of their college, if only because no one of them is so uniformly normal as she. Dickens and Smollett are great names, but not so great that Lady M’Laughlan, Miss Pratt, and Mr. M’Dow—who should have a page to himself—do not entitle Miss Ferrier to mention in their company. There must be no attempt here to pronounce on the merits of the rival classes, but thus much may be observed, namely, that the partisans of those who practise the abnormal, who misrepresent life humorously, are always striving to prove that they really belong to the numbers of those who practise the normal, who represent life humorously.
- Both Miss Austen’s and Miss Ferrier’s novels are published by Messrs. Roberts Brothers? Boston. ↩