On 28th December, Virago publish Marriage by Susan Ferrier. First published in 1818, this sharply observed, comic novel is ripe for rediscovery. Bestselling author Val McDermid is a great advocate and has written an exclusive foreword for the new edition. Here she shares five Scottish women writers she believes everyone should read, including both Susan Ferrier and Muriel Spark, whose centenary Virago will also be celebrating throughout 2018.
200 years ago, Susan Ferrier’s debut novel, Marriage, was published. It was an immediate success – the first edition sold out in a matter of months and she was hailed as the Scottish equivalent of England’s Jane Austen and Ireland’s Maria Edgeworth. Marriage covers two generations of families whose histories become intertwined. The good do not always end well, but the bad generally pay the price of their sins. The book is equally unsparing in its portrayal of Highland privations and London indulgences and there is a definite twinkle in Susan Ferrier’s eye as she describes her cast of characters. Reading it now, the wit still hits the mark and it certainly deserves to be rediscovered.
2018 will be the year of Muriel Spark’s restoration as a novelist whose work is as fresh and challenging as it was when it was first published. This is her centenary, and she is being celebrated throughout Scotland and beyond. It’s said of Spark that she’s under-read rather than under-appreciated, a sentiment I agree with entirely. To read her novels is to embark on a remarkable journey where nothing turns out quite as we expect it to. The questions we think we should be asking are not always the ones that are answered, and the ground continually shifts under our feet. But her characters are always intriguing, her prose is invariably clear and direct and her playful experiments with form have influenced many of her successors.
Elizabeth MacKintosh lived several lives. In Inverness, she was her father’s demure housekeeper; as Gordon Daviot, she was a playwright with successes in the West End, on Broadway and in Hollywood; and as Josephine Tey she wrote eight crime novels, one of which, The Daughter of Time, was once voted the best ever in a poll of crime writers. Tey’s novels deal intriguingly with questions of identity and gender, probing the psychology of her characters in ways that we have now become familiar with but which were unprecendented in the detective fiction of the Goldan Age. She’s a writer I often revisit, always with pleasure.
This is a personal guilty pleasure. Jane Shaw was a prolific children’s author in the 1950s and 60s, and her series of Susan books were one of the delights of my childhood. They chronicle the adventures of Susan Lyle, her three cousins Bill, Charlotte and Midge and they’re written with great humour and brio. Susan is incapable of minding her own business, which leads her and her family into all sorts of scrapes. But there are other dimensions than the purely comic. I was given Susan Interferes as a Sunday School prize, and I fell in love with the book, not least because at its heart there is a sombre element that gives unexpected weight to it. And twenty years later, it inspired me to visit the book’s settings in and around Lucerne. The mark of a really good children’s book.
Naomi’s brilliant life was almost exactly coeval with the 20th century – 1897-1999 and the variety of writing she embraced reflected a constant passionate engagement with the world around her. She wrote everything – mountains of journalism, travelogues, memoir, poetry, but best of all, fiction. The Corn King and the Spring Queen is probably her finest novel, its themes of war, loss and enslavement in ancient Scythia and Sparta as painful, poignant and relevant today as it was in the 1930s. And let’s not forget Memoirs of a Spacewoman, a science fiction novel more concerned with future and alien biologies than space opera.
Marriage by Susan Ferrier is available in paperback from 28th December 2017. Want more advice from Val? Watch her talk about why Edinburgh is such a great inspiration for stories, and her top writing tips, in this video: