I’ve been thinking about allusion; specifically, about how allusion may function satirically in verse and prose of the Romantic period. Consider the work of Susan Ferrier (1782-1854), a Scottish writer who anonymously published three comic novels with Blackwood. The first, Marriage (1818), shows promise, but The Inheritance (1824) shows greater narrative skill, while her final novel Destiny (1831) emphasizes the moralizing element present in all three. Although Leah Price discounts Ferrier’s allusivity, suggesting that the common literary culture her novels invoke leaves “no space for scholarly ingenuity,” Price’s interpretation of Ferrier’s allusivity fails to acknowledge how deftly these allusions are intertwined with Ferrier’s plot, themes, and characterization. However, Angela Esterhammer’s article “Susan Ferrier’s Allusions: Comedy, Morality, and the Presence of Milton” (2000) examines how Ferrier’s Miltonic allusions in Marriage combine comedy and morality through hyperbole. Esterhammer argues that the Miltonic allusions “augment the moral resonances of her plots, but also, and sometimes simultaneously, create comic hyperbole” through the irony generated by the juxtaposition of his elevated discourse and her description of rural Scottish manners.
While I find Esterhammer’s argument regarding the epigraphs in Marriage persuasive, I see Ferrier using allusion in several distinct ways throughout her fiction. Allusion is a stylistic feature shared by many women writers of the Romantic era, often used to enrich a passage or to support the writer’s credentials by referencing a shared literary history. However, several of these writers, including some of Ferrier’s most influential models, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, also use allusions to facilitate satire. Although Ferrier’s references range from Ann Radcliffe to James Thompson and Thomas Grey, she more commonly relies on such generally known authors as Shakespeare and Milton to carry her satiric commentary, since she must rely on her readers’ recognition of her allusions for her satire to succeed.
By alluding to canonical texts not only in a game of literary one-upsmanship but in a satiric mode as well, Ferrier and other women writers oppose the political opinions normally associated with various canonical authors. That is, these writers employ allusions for several satirical purposes; literary allusions are often used to ironize otherwise conventional characters and situations in their novels, but allusions can also be employed to satirically reinflect the language of the author being alluded to, as Ferrier’s epigraphs from Milton’s Paradise Lost do in Marriage. By satirically alluding to a canonical text, a writer can appropriate the text and subvert its customary message.
Usually Ferrier indicates the satire behind a character’s allusion through the narrator. In the following example, Lyndsay (our hero) deliberately uses an allusion to Milton to chastise Delmour (the false suitor) and instruct Gertrude, and Delmour extends the allusion in an attempt to negate Lyndsay’s didactic endeavor. Lyndsay’s use of Milton allows him to expose the faults of his target—Delmour—for the benefit of his audience—not only Gertrude, but Ferrier’s readers. In an attempt to interrupt an asinine discourse on lighting large spaces, Delmour begins the allusive conversation in which Lyndsay satirizes Delmour’s motives for courting Gertrude:
‘Yes, it is a sort of Pandaemonium light,’ said Colonel Delmour, scornfully.
‘The mind it its own palace, you know, Delmour,’ said Mr. Lyndsay; ‘and in itself—’ he
stopped and smiled.
‘Go on,’ cried Colonel Delmour, in a voice of suppressed anger; ‘pray, don’t be afraid to
finish your quotation.’
Mr. Lyndsay repeated,—‘can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’
Colonel Delmour seemed on the point of giving way to his passion; but he checked himself, and affected to laugh, while he said—‘A flattering compliment implied, no doubt, but if I am the Lucifer you insinuate, I can boast of possessing his best attributes also, for I too bear a mind unchanged by place or time, and in my creed, constancy still ranks as a virtue.’ He looked at Gertrude as he pronounced these words in an emphatic manner. (76)
Lyndsay, whose Christian morality is established by his admiration for Milton, does not unintentionally misquote him; the shift from Milton’s “The mind is its own place” (1:254), to Ferrier’s “palace” is a reference to Delmour’s previous allusion to Satan’s palace in hell, Pandemonium. Lyndsay hopes to warn Gertrude about his true character by comparing Delmour to the devil. Ferrier’s explicit reference to Milton allows her to borrow his cultural authority while clarifying the relationships among Lyndsay, Gertrude, and Delmour by comparing them to the relationships between Milton’s Adam, Eve, and Satan. This comparison between the devil and Colonel Delmour is exaggerated by Delmour’s own comments.
Delmour’s affronted anger reveals the aptness of Lyndsay’s hit, and when Delmour responds by claiming “I too bear a mind not to be changed by place or time,” he explicitly compares himself to Milton’s Satan, who said, “hail / Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell / Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings / A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time” (1:250-53). Like the devil, Delmour boasts consistency of character; he intends to turn Lyndsay’s comparison into a compliment to himself, but the similarity he admits reveals the hypocrisy he shares with the devil. Satan spoke those words to his fellow fallen angels, “Vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair” (1:126). The devil’s boast of consistency hid his despair over being banished from heaven, and Delmour’s boast is similarly intended to disguise from Gertrude that his only consistency is in deceit. Delmour attempts to negate the didactic impact of Lyndsay’s revelation on Gertrude with a significant glance, as the end of the passage notes, trying to persuade her to accept him as an authentic lover.
But the instructive intent of Lyndsay’s satire of Delmour is not wholly mitigated by Delmour’s recuperation of his relationship with Gertrude. Lyndsay, as model of Christian behavior, is also Ferrier’s moral arbiter and tool for instructing her readers. While her narrator is often caustic, it is also morally conservative and openly didactic. The moral lessons conveyed by the narrator are reinforced by Lyndsay’s language and behavior. And while Delmour might successfully re-deceive Gertrude as to his intentions, never after this conversation can he successfully deceive readers, most of whom would have been as familiar with Milton as are Gertrude’s suitors, and who could be depended upon to follow the implied comparisons. The conversation between Delmour and Lyndsay at the Rossville celebration demonstrates the effectiveness of allusion as a technique for conveying satire both within a fiction and for the instruction of an audience.
Though she is not as skillful a stylist as Edgeworth or Austen, whom she read, her use of allusion to convey and conceal her satire is quite sophisticated. Stephen Parrish describes satiric powers at work in Wordsworth’s poetry as “a chorus of satiric voices.” In Ferrier’s novels, that satiric chorus is provided not only through the voices of the narrator and various characters, but through the language of canonical male writers accessed through allusion, and it is the interaction of voices in this chorus which allows Ferrier to subtly produce an ironic, and often satiric, commentary on her society.
Tracing allusions, however, is often difficult or tedious work—and as may produce nothing more useful than a writer’s literary credentials. How might scholars revitalize such a task? What tools could be used to identify allusions to texts no longer in circulation? How might we as instructors teach our students to appreciate the literary connections and interaction taking place through allusion, when so many of them lack the background to recognize similar allusions?