Forgotten women writers: Jane Austen's Scottish sisters

Illustration of Susan Ferrier
Susan Ferrier (1782-1854).

'Why should Austen survive when so many of her bestselling contemporaries have faded into obscurity? Who reads Susan Ferrier … today?'
Amanda Vickery, 'The Observer', December 2011

Enduring popularity of Jane Austen

Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' was first published in 1813 and, 200 years later, remains one of the most celebrated and best-loved novels across the world. Austen's novels have been adapted for television and the big screen, her work and life are the focus of academic study, and numerous societies and internet forums exist to celebrate her fictional world.

But what of her Scottish contemporaries who are now largely forgotten by readers, critics, and academics? On these pages, we will be exploring the work of four Scottish novelists who were writing at around the same time as Jane Austen:

Forgotten writers

Like Austen, all of these authors wrote best-selling novels exploring domestic and romantic themes. At the time, they sold more books than their English contemporary. Mary Brunton and Elizabeth Hamilton were far better known than Austen for the art of novel writing. So, why is it difficult to find modern editions of their works, and why are they so seldom read today?

These pages will hopefully encourage you to search out their books in libraries and on the internet, and to come to your own conclusions.

Watch National Library of Scotland Senior Rare Books Curator Helen Vincent introduce and share her enthusiasm for the writing of these four forgotten authors.

You can also read a transcript of this video.

Exploring themes and further reading

This resource will explore themes relating to:

  • Women and the business of publishing fiction in the early 19th century — Why did most of these women choose to publish anonymously? Was it more difficult for a woman to establish herself as a writer at this time?
  • The moral and religious aspects in some of the novels
  • Readership and audience — exploring different editions of one novel, 'The cottagers of Glenburnie'
  • Ways in which these writers depicted Scotland in terms of landscape, language, and character
  • Comparing the four authors with Jane Austen to explore why their popularity has waned, and whether this is justified or not.

Each author page has suggested discussion points which can be used in the classroom, with your adult learning group, or for individual learning.

There are also short summaries of the books and some contain links to online editions.

Discussion points

  • Consider why some novels and authors become celebrated and stand the test of time, while others are forgotten or overlooked. Is it just a matter of fashion and changing taste, or do some works of art have qualities which help them endure over time?
  • Which contemporary authors do you think will stand the test of time, and why?


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