Forgotten Best-Sellers: Susan Ferrier’s The Inheritance (1824)

In 1824, Edinburgh-born Scottish novelist Susan Ferrier published her second of three novels, titled The Inheritance. The Inheritance was preceded by Marriage, published in 1818, and followed by Destiny, which was published in 1831.

Ronnie Young describes The Inheritance as ‘the most critically successful of [Ferrier’s] works’,[1] and indeed, on 11 June 1824, Ferrier’s publisher, William Blackwood, wrote to her approvingly, saying: ‘It is, I think, a more elaborate work than “Marriage,” better told, with greater variety, and displaying improved powers’.[2]

Page from Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier 1782–1854 showing Blackwood’s praise of The Inheritance in a letter to Ferrier.

In spite of the novel’s initial commercial success and favourable reception, however, its popularity subsequently faded to the extent that, in 1935, the following excerpt appeared in The Scotsman:

Miss Ferrier’s novels! Who reads them to-day? Marriage (1810), Inheritance (1824), Destiny (1831) – you may see their names, now and then, in that mine of romance, a second-hand bookseller’s catalogue; but that is all. Even the dustiest library shelves do not always hold them.[3]

In response to this dismissive appraisal (in which, I might add, the author fails to provide the correct publication date for Marriage), I am very happy to introduce The Inheritance as the next title in our ‘Forgotten Best-Sellers’ series. I am also happy to confirm that, during the early nineteenth century at least, the library shelves of libraries across both rural and metropolitan Scotland (dusty or not) did hold Ferrier’s novels.[4]

Like Mary Brunton’s Self-Control  (1811; another ‘Forgotten Best-Seller’), The Inheritance falls into the second category of forgotten best-sellers, outlined by Katie, appearing ‘frequently across a large number of different libraries’ under investigation in the Books and Borrowing  project. To date, these libraries include the Chambers’ Circulating Library (in Edinburgh), St Andrews University Library, and Wigtown Subscription Library.

What’s interesting about this particular selection of libraries is that each one represents a different category of library – indicated in their names – revealing that Ferrier clearly appealed to a variety of (implied) readers, ranging from the borrowers of local, often rural, subscription libraries to the borrowers of larger, more metropolitan, institutional libraries.

In each of these libraries, The Inheritance appears alongside Marriage, though the editions listed in the catalogues are often different. Whilst St Andrews, for example, holds first editions of both novels, Wigtown’s catalogue features slightly later editions, by which time readers of The Inheritance already knew of Ferrier as ‘The Author of Marriage’, and vice versa, indicating her popularity at the time.[5]

These references to her as an authorial figure immediately call to mind Walter Scott’s own enduring title of ‘The Author of Waverley’. Fittingly, Scott was famously very admiring of Ferrier’s works, going as far as to refer to her as his ‘sister shadow’ at the end of A Legend of Montrose (1819), whilst Ferrier subsequently dedicated Destiny to Scott in 1831.[6]

Portrait of Ferrier in Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier 1782–1854. The caption reads: ‘From a miniature by R. Thorburn painted in 1836.’

Ferrier has often been described as Scotland’s version of Jane Austen, and indeed, one cannot avoid being reminded of Austen upon reading the opening line of The Inheritance: ‘It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that there is no possession so deeply rooted in human nature as that of pride’.[7] The fact that it is pride to which Ferrier refers seems to me of little coincidence, and in keeping with her often tongue-in-cheek manner; her novel is, unironically, one about pride and prejudice.[8]

The Inheritance tells the story of Gertrude St Clair, the ostensible heiress to the Rossville estate. The start of the novel sees her travel, accompanied by her widowed mother, from ‘the gay vineyards and bright suns of France’ to her ancestral home in ‘the bleak hills and frowning skies of Scotland’.[9] Once there, she lives under the guardianship of her uncle, Lord Rossville, alongside her Aunt Betty – an avid but forgetful novel reader – and Miss Pratt – ‘a consummate gossip’, who ultimately proves more knowing than she at first appears.[10] It soon becomes apparent that Lord Rossville intends for Gertrude to marry his nephew, Mr. Delmour – ‘a weak, formal parliamentary drudge’.[11] Naturally, then, Gertrude falls for the dashing – and thoroughly rakish – Colonel Delmour, ‘a fashionable, unprincipled gamester’.[12]

Following the death of her uncle, Gertrude assumes the title the Countess of Rossville and, under the influence of Delmour, travels to London where she is ‘soon in the vortex of elegant dissipation…[b]orne like a feather on the tide of fashionable celebrity’.[13] Predictably, this culminates in a depleted bank account and a troubled conscience for Gertrude, and she returns to Scotland at the end of the season with ‘tears of contrition’ dropping from her eyes’,[14] as she witnesses the neglect that her ‘boundless extravagance’ has had upon her estate responsibilities.[15]

But this is not the end of it. [SPOILERS!] Soon after this, Gertrude and her mother are paid a visit by the mysterious Mr Lewiston, who appears earlier on in the novel and who is ultimately revealed to be Gertrude’s father. Lizzie Lundie (the childhood sweetheart of Gertrude’s miserly Uncle Ramsay) is subsequently revealed to be Gertrude’s (now deceased) mother – something that is foreshadowed earlier in the novel when Miss Pratt astutely notes the likeness between Gertrude and a portrait of Lizzie Lundie, titled ‘The Diana in the Yellow Turret’.[16]

Gertrude is disinherited from her Rossville title and promptly deserted by Delmour, but ends the novel happily as heiress to Uncle Ramsay, ‘the only being with whom she might claim kindred’, and his own substantial fortune.[17] She also finally marries her cousin, Edward Lyndsay, the quiet hero and moral compass of the novel. Unlike Delmour, and for a time Gertrude, Lyndsay has ‘learned to distinguish real from artificial happiness’ – something that both Gertrude and readers are encouraged to do over the course of the novel.[18]

The Inheritance is, then, a novel concerned with questions of morality and education, but also national identity, the differences between Scottish and English cultures, and the stereotypes within human nature that both divide and unite the two. It is also very funny, with Lord Rossville’s self-congratulatory manner and Miss Bell Black’s obsession with how she appears in ‘the eyes of the world’ providing, amongst many others, effective moments of farcical comedy. For me, one of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in the richness of its intertextuality, with Ferrier’s frequent references to Marvell, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth (to name but a few) making for an endlessly rewarding reading (and rereading) experience.

As already alluded to, readers at the time of its publication – and, indeed, the decades that immediately followed – were equally admiring of The Inheritance. In 1841, all three of Ferrier’s novels were selected for inclusion in Richard Bentley’s Standard Novels series – alongside Brunton’s aforementioned Self-Control and second novel, Discipline (1814) – indicating the scale of her reading audience. By 1893, however, Ferrier was ‘an extinct phenomenon’.[19]

Ronnie Young’s edition of The Inheritance, the only extant scholarly edition of the novel, published in 2009 by Kennedy & Boyd in Glasgow.

Today, Ferrier remains understudied, though work is being done to rectify this. My own PhD project analyses Ferrier’s novels alongside five other Scottish novelists during Scotland’s post-Enlightenment period. Ferrier’s private writings are, meanwhile, central to another SGSAH-funded PhD project, led by Kate Ferrier (Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh).

In 2020, a new critical edition of Marriage was published by the ASLS, edited by the late Dorothy McMillan, indicating the beginning of a renewed interest in Ferrier’s debut novel. There remains though, of course, much work yet to be done. As the author in The Scotsman so generously writes, Ferrier’s novels ‘are not…as dull as you might think’, and indeed I would, on a more serious note, encourage anyone who is currently reading this to go and read one – if not all – of her novels; I am confident you won’t regret it.


[1] Ronnie Young, “Introduction”, The Inheritance, ed. Ronnie Young (Glasgow: Kennedy & Boyd, 2009), p. v.

[2] William Blackwood to Susan Ferrier, 11 June 1824; in Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier 17821854, ed. John A. Doyle (London: John Murray, 1898), p. 176.

[3] “SUSAN FERRIER: ASPECTS OF HER WORK”.The Scotsman (19211950), Jul 31 1935, p. 10.

[4] Destiny was published in 1831 and therefore outwith the Books and Borrowing project timeframe; as such, it does not appear in our records. Its presence in the borrowing records is, however, something that I hope to be able to verify in my own doctoral thesis, which spans the period 1800–37.

[5] It should be noted that Ferrier’s first two novels were published anonymously, with readers initially believing them to be written by Walter Scott.

[6] Walter Scott, A Legend of the Wars of Montrose, ed. J. H. Alexander (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), p. 183.

[7] Susan Ferrier, The Inheritance, ed. Ronnie Young (Glasgow: Kennedy & Boyd, 2009), p. 1.

[8] Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was, for reference, published over a decade earlier, in 1813.

[9] Ferrier, The Inheritance, p. 4.

[10] Young, “Introduction”, p. xv.

[11] Ferrier, The Inheritance, p. 6.

[12] Ibid, p. 6.

[13] Ibid, p. 390.

[14] Ibid, p. 419.

[15] Ibid, p. 415.

[16] Ibid, p. 38.

[17] Ibid, p. 496.

[18] Ibid, p. 413.

[19] Charles Townsend Copeland, “Miss Austen and Miss Ferrier: Contrast and comparison”, The Atlantic, June 1893.