Transcript of Rare Books Curator Helen Vincent's filmed talk about forgotten women writers at the National Library of Scotland.
Hi, I'm Helen Vincent, I'm a senior rare books curator at the National Library of Scotland. Today I'm going to talk to you about some women writers who were Scottish, were contemporaries of Jane Austen but today are not so well-known as her. And what I'm going to do is tell you about who they were and why they're just as interesting and why they're worth reading.
You've probably heard of Sir Walter Scott. He's certainly the big name of that period but before Scott was writing there were several women who were best-sellers, who influenced him and who he admired a great deal.
I'm going to start by talking about one of them, Elizabeth Hamilton. Like a lot of the women I'm going to talk about, she was not just a writer but she was also interested in good works, in philanthropy — in helping the people in the society around her.
Elizabeth Hamilton was born in 1758. Hamilton had a very brief education and left school when she was a teenager but she became a great reader. She was fascinated by moral and educational philosophy. Of course Scotland, during the Enlightenment period was absolutely the place to be, to be interested in those subjects.
She read all the great thinkers of the day and she became an expert and enthusiast on the subject of education in particular. She wrote several other books about contemporary society but in 1808 she wrote the novel that she's best known for and which was most successful. It's called 'The cottagers of Glenburnie'. 'The cottagers of Glenburnie' is a story about Mrs Mason who has spent a lot of time living away from Scotland and she's come back to stay with her relatives, the MacClarty family in a little Scottish village.
The MacClarty family and Mrs Mason are absolute opposites. Mrs Mason is very well-organised. She likes things to be clean and tidy and neat. The MacClarty family, their catch-phrase is 'I cou'd na be fashed'. In other words 'I can't be bothered'. When 'The cottagers of Glenburnie' was published, the MacClarty family became instantly famous throughout Scotland. This catchphrase of 'I cou'd na be fashed' was on everybody's lips, everyone was saying it.
Glenburnie is far from a model village. It’s dirty and it's run down. When people are faced with trying to improve it, they all have this attitude of 'I can't be bothered, what's the point? Nothing's going to change around here'. Mrs Mason is determined she's going to change the situation and make it tidy and organised.
This is where today I think it's worth noting that she thinks the villages in England where she's been living are all tidy and organised and she wants to make Scotland more like that. And we have some contemporary visitors to Scotland from that period who came and said 'Oh it's just like "The cottagers of Glenburnie".' And then they came back a couple of years later and said 'This book has really revolutionised the way people behave, all of these cottagers have read this book and now they're all clean and neat and tidy, they've improved themselves.'
So 'The cottagers of Glenburnie' is a very influential novel. Not just read by the Edinburgh elite — but it's also read throughout Scotland. Editions were prepared specially to be sold to cottagers themselves which is quite unusual for a novel at that time.
The next author I'm going to talk about had a very different life to the very independent Elizabeth Hamilton. Mary Brunton was that rare thing among novelists. She was a happily married woman who wrote books. There are very few of them in the history of English literature but she was one.
She was born Mary Balfour in Orkney in 1778, the daughter of distinguished military family. When she was 20 she eloped with a clergyman, Alexander Brunton. He went on to have a successful career. Happily married, she became a good minister's wife. She, like Elizabeth Hamilton, was concerned for people around her. She was concerned with her parishioners. She also began to write at first for personal amusement, but after a conversation with a friend who said 'you must publish!' she finally said: 'Well, I'll be serious about this'. She produced 'Self-control' which was her first novel.
Published in 1811 it was an immediate hit and went through four editions in its first year of publication alone. So it was hugely successful by the standards of the time. Mary Brunton said that she wrote 'Self-control' and — this is a quotation — 'to show the power of the religious principle in bestowing self-command'. That sounds like a very moral and worthy tale but the book is a fascinating story of female character. Laura, her heroine starts off as an innocent girl in a remote Scottish village who thinks she's engaged to the perfect man and discovers that he's anything but the perfect man. So she has to leave this Scottish village and embark on this long journey which takes you to Edinburgh, takes you to London and finally takes you to Canada. She has to learn how to be independent, she has to learn who she can trust.
After 'Self-control' Mary Brunton wrote a novel called 'Discipline' so it's another sternly moral title. Again, it's got another strong female heroine, Ellen. Unlike any of Jane Austen's heroines, when these women are short of money they think about how they can earn. And so Laura has a job in London, Ellen has a job in Edinburgh.
My third novelist is Susan Ferrier and if you've heard of any of these women, she's probably the one you're most likely to have heard of. She's sometimes called the Scottish Jane Austen because she writes about exactly the same class of society, the gentry. And she's very very very funny, very satirical, very witty.
Susan Ferrier was born just around the corner from the National Library in a house in Lady Stair's Close before she moved to George Street in the New Town. She was the daughter of a prominent lawyer. She never married, she kept house for her father from the age of 22.
She was well acquainted with Walter Scott. He knew her, he knew that she wrote books and he commented very favourably on her as she conformed to his picture of the ideal authoress because she wasn't, as he said, 'a bluestocking'.
Susan Ferrier's father was legal agent to the Duke of Argyll and it was through visits to the Duke's estate at Inverary that she gained the knowledge of the highland life and landscape that would fill her books.
Susan Ferrier began to write almost as a joke with her best friend Charlotte Clavering. Charlotte soon stopped writing but Ferrier continued and what she was writing became her first book and her funniest book, 'Marriage'.
'Marriage' was published anonymously. One of the reasons for that was because people at the time thought young ladies shouldn't necessarily be authoresses. Women shouldn't have a role in public life. But one of the other reasons was that some of her characters were instantly recognisable as portraits of real people in the society of the day. And in the drawing rooms of Edinburgh when 'Marriage' was first published, the talk about which character was which real-life person was all the rage.
The most Jane Austen-ish part of Susan Ferrier's writing is the opening of 'Marriage'. It describes the spoilt English heiress, Lady Juliana who's brought up to do nothing but look beautiful and play with her pug dogs. She elopes with impoverished Scottish younger son Henry Douglas and is shocked to find she has to go and live in what she sees is an utterly decrepit Highland castle, remote from civilisation.
So 'Marriage' is an interesting novel because it begins where novels usually end — with a marriage — and it goes on to say well happily ever after in real life doesn't happen very often.
Susan Ferrier published two other novels. 'The inheritance' and 'Destiny'. They're less well-known than 'Marriage' and I think they're further away than Jane Austen's kind of writing. If anything, I see Susan Ferrier as a pre-cursor to Charles Dickens. She writes the same kind of long, complicated novels. There's a secret in the background, there's a complicated family history, there are lots of characters who are really eccentric, funny, very well drawn. The dialogue is brilliant.
The last novelist I'm going to talk about is somewhat later than Jane Austen, but I've snuck her in here because she's my own personal favourite of these writers. Her name was Catherine Sinclair. If you've heard of her at all, you've heard of her children's book 'Holiday house' which was one of the first children's novels to show children as being noisy and dirty.
She was quite moral, but in the stories she tells, the children get up to all sorts of mischief. They go to Arthur's Seat and have a picnic and fall all the way down to the bottom. They break furniture, they're always getting into trouble. Catherine Sinclair also wrote novels aimed at grown-ups. Two of them in particular deal with the education of young women and their arrival in society.
'Modern accomplishments' asks the question 'what does it mean to be an accomplished woman?'
Is it somebody who is well educated? Is it somebody who's clever? Is it somebody who can make a good show in society?
And along the way as she tries to answer this question, of course her answer is that it is somebody who is very moral and upright and a decent person. She creates this gallery of really fascinating characters and has them interact in all kinds of engaging ways.
She was very philanthropic. She was interested in schools, she was interested in girls' education and other charities. When she died in 1864, a monument was erected to her by popular subscription. I think it's kind of symbolic fate of these novelists that where Sir Walter Scott's monument is in Prince's Street 400 feet high in splendid isolation, a national landmark, Sinclair's 60 foot memorial is forgotten and overshadowed by trees.
One of the questions people often ask is 'well, if these women are worth reading, why have they been forgotten? Why have I never heard of them if they're so good?' And my answer to that is there are a couple of reasons. The first is I think people tend to see the canon — the set of works that are seen as encompassing great English literature — as only having room for a certain number of authors. We have a woman author from the beginning of the 19th-century, Jane Austen. So it's very hard to make room in the canon for other women writers of that period. We also have a Scottish novelist from that period, Walter Scott. And of course he was a huge figure, whose influence ranged over Europe. It's impossible to underestimate how big a name Walter Scott was in the culture of the day.
So because we have a woman novelist and we have a Scottish novelist, it's very hard to make space in the discussions about literature for Scottish women novelists of that period.
I also think they said some uncomfortable things about Scotland.
Susan Ferrier and Elizabeth Hamilton made no secret of the aspects of Scottish life that they thought were worthy of criticising. They thought Scottish villagers could do more to improve their lot. They thought that the feudal system that was still sputtering in existence in the Highlands needed reform.
The third reason why I think these women fell into obscurity was because they are all explicitly religious. They have a strong Christian faith which does come through in their novels and some people find that hard to take but I think it's possible to see it in the historical context. I think it's possible to read through it. It's possible to skip, I have to say, long passages of religious discussion or moral discussion or long passages of description which are not to our taste although they were very fashionable at the time they were writing.
I want to finish by saying I hope you really go on to read some of these novels. As I said, I think they're all funny, they all create memorable characters, they all have a way with words. I think they're all good with dialogue. They're also very different.
Today the easiest way to find these books is online. If you like stories about independent women who have adventures then you need to read Mary Brunton.
If you're interested in a detailed portrayal of different aspects of Scottish life at the beginning of the 19th century then read Elizabeth Hamilton. If you want a Scottish take on Jane Austen — a Scottish take, I think, on Charles Dickens as well — then pick up Susan Ferrier.
And finally Catherine Sinclair. I think she's probably the most readable of these novelists. She's the most modern in her style — and if you like 'Downton Abbey', you'll like Catherine Sinclair.