05 August 2012

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

I mainly read this because I'm working on a paper about cross-cultural marriage in some early 19th century Irish fiction, so I was curious how this somewhat well-known Scottish novel handled the issue. It was an entertaining read, though rather too long, with chunks that were pretty unnecessary. The pacing is weird, suddenly rocketing ahead in time, or briskly dispensing with plot segments you'd expect it to linger over. But it's an entertaining enough read, if you like 19th century novels.

The book surprised me in several ways. As far as cross-cultural relationships go, it's actually kind of fudging the issue, because there are no clear-cut cases of a Scottish person marrying a British person. Or rather, the differences between the nationalities are not as explicitly marked as in the Irish fiction of the time, where they really are seen as being wildly different and highly incompatible. Here, you have some extreme cases of whack-a-doodle Scottish relatives, or random eccentrics, but at one point a character explicitly tells another one that these weirdos shouldn't be seen as representative. In fact, thinking back on it, there's a lot of material in there on the question of representation; with people having varying preconceived notions about what Scotland is like, and the nation itself turning about to be (surprise surprise) pretty diverse. Though there was a lot of emphasis on the landscape in certain parts being breathtakingly gorgeous, there wasn't a strong unified message in regards to other factors, nor were there lengthy disquisitions on the history or culture.

What really surprised me though, was that there were so many characters in the book who were extremely unlikeable. I would even venture to say - most of them. It's been awhile, I think, since I read a novel in which so many people were portrayed as vile without being villainous. Petty, selfish, unpleasant - but without that having much effect, really, on the story. One of the main characters in particular is pretty thoroughly despicable, and everyone basically seems in agreement on how awful she is - but it really doesn't matter that much. Despite being in many ways central, she is also kind of irrelevant. It's sort of fascinating. Likewise, the eccentric Scottish family, who would, in Irish novels of this kind, generally be portrayed as weird yet lovable, are here rather explicitly depicted as kind of lovable but also actually pretty unbearable - even as they're milked for comic effect. At one point, a character is forced to acknowledge that it's nostalgia that makes her think of them with fondness, because in person they're almost intolerable. Quite surprising, and seemed rather harsh.

I don't know how interesting this book would be to someone who isn't reading it for academic reasons, but if you're a fan of 18/19th century lit, you could certainly do worse.

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