Revealed: Austen's 'Scottish Sisters'

Article excerpt

THEY were best-selling female novelists whose eloquent tomes - often set in Edinburgh society - outsold Jane Austen during her lifetime.Now, the world famous author's forgotten "Scottish sisters" - Mary Brunton, Elizabeth Hamilton, Susan Ferrier and Catherine Sinclair - are to be introduced to a new generation of readers with a touch of tartan pride and prejudice.The National Library of Scotland will next month host an event about the quartet who were as popular as Austen in their day, but whose reputations have not survived despite being serious rivals to the English author in the early 19th century.Some of their works are also being published online to a new audience of e-readers. Helen Vincent, senior curator at NLS, said: "Jane Austen was such a dominating figure that a lot of other novelists, particularly women, from that period have been forgotten."Meanwhile, Sir Walter Scott was such a dominating force that other Scottish writers of the time have also been forgotten. So if you were a Scottish writer of that era and a woman, you were doubly forced into the background."But, she added: "I think they are due for a resurgence. Many of their books are witty and funny and incredibly enoyable to read, as well as giving a Scottish perspective on the world Austen wrote about."Austen only achieved modest success in her lifetime. Yet her most famous novel, Pride And Prejudice, this year celebrates its 200th anniversary with over a dozen books about her hitting the shelves, as well as a US TV adaptation and a film which premiered at the Sundance Festival this month.But when Austen first sold the book to her publisher in 1812 - a year before it was published - she was given only GBP110. In comparison Ferrier's first novel, Marriage, a witty, and at first anonymous expos of New Town Edinburgh society written in 1810, was sold for GBP150 and was such a success that, for the follow-up, The Inheritance, she was paid GBP1,500 - then an enormous sum."It shows you that her publisher clearly thought she was commerically very successful in order to offer that sort of money," said Vincent. "She really was very popular."Brunton, an Edinburgh-based author though born in Orkney, was writing in the same period as Austen and was viewed as more famous than her English rival. Indeed, in 1811 Austen wrote about being unable to get hold of a copy of Brunton's first novel, Self-Control, such was its popularity, and worrying about the influence it might have on Pride And Prejudice, which she was then writing."We have tried to get Self-control, but in vain," she wrote, and added: "[I] am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever-& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled. …