For this trimester’s publishing project, we were given a list of Scottish out-of-copyright authors to choose from. I was quickly drawn to Jane Helen Findlater, as upon researching her I was astonished at how little information was available online on the life and work of a woman who was apparently, along with her sister, quite commercially successful in her time. I thought she’d be neglected long enough, and thus I took on the challenge of working from a 1906 scanned American copy of The Ladder to the Stars – there was no alternative option (so hard to hunt down this book!) and I was really set on doing this book although I expected it would be a devil to edit. (And I was right.) So who was Jane Findlater?
The youngest of three daughters, she was born in 1866, a year and a half after her sister Mary. Their mother herself an avid storyteller as well as a translator, the girls grew up to love words, and soon enough they started writing their own stories. Growing up in rural Lochearnhead was quite restrictive, and there was little else to do other than play and read. There was a third, older sister named Sarah (who went by Mora, the Gaelic version of the name) but their bond with her was incomparable to the bond they shared with each other. Mary described them as ‘halves of one whole’: Jane’s gentle, compassionate nature was quite complementary to her sister’s, who was much more impatient and fiery.
After their father’s death in 1886, the family moved to Prestonpans, which would be the place where the authoresses were to write their first novels. Financial hurdles made it hard to even afford the materials to write with, but the girls persisted; Jane’s manuscript for her breakout novel, The Green Graves of Balgowrie, was written on used sheets of paper from the local grocer. Luckily, in 1895 a London-based publisher named Methuen agreed to publish her book, which marked the start of a successful literary career in the UK as well as the US for her and Mary. They were soon welcomed into the literary circles of the day, and soon found fans amongst distinguished names like Henry James, Ellen Terry, and Virginia Woolf. But their readership was wide, spanning all social classes. In 1904, prompted by their American publishers McClure Phillips & Co., they even went on an American tour.
Between them, they produced twenty-three books in total, three of which were collaborative works: Crossriggs (1908) – by general consensus their best novel –, Penny Moneypenny (1911), and Beneath the Visiting Moon (1923). They never married but managed to live independently off the proceeds of their books, even building their own house in Rye. By the mid-1920s, they had fallen out of the limelight, perhaps because their tone and style seemed rather ‘old school’ for the changing times. They nonetheless never seemed to grow bitter about this, and, in their ever open-minded manner, they would say that ‘the present age must make its own books.’
The Findlaters’ heroines long to find love, but they long to find themselves first. I chose The Ladder to the Stars out of Jane’s novels, because I was especially drawn to her protagonist Miriam, a free-spirited girl in love with books and passionate about educating herself. Miriam is so different from her own family and her rural community that she is rejected and rejects them in return. At once intellectual and emotional, the author doesn’t punish her for either: she lives and through hurdles she learns, about life, love, and, essentially, herself. Facing the natural limitations of her (lower middle) class, but gifted with unlimited imagination and a high intellect, Miriam gains financial independence in the end, along with a purpose in life. The ‘ladder to the stars’ has to be climbed: and that is her happy ending. The hint of a possible romance towards the end is not her ultimate reward but rather complements the contentedness she has fought hard to achieve; this seems to be a pattern throughout the Findlaters’ writing, and perhaps their unconventional approach to marriage is what differentiates them from some of their contemporaries (Nichols 286-7).
Mackenzie, Eileen. The Findlater Sisters: Literature and Friendship. Eileen Mackenzie. J. Murray, 1964.
Nichols, Jeanne M. “Rediscovering the Novels of Mary and Jane Findlater.” English
Literature in Transition, 1880- 1920, vol. 37, no. 3, 1994, pp. 286-7.