Mar­jory Flem­ing was a lit­er­ary prodigy – and could have been so much more…

The Scots Magazine - - Focus On… Dundee - By LAURA BROWN

FIFE girl Mar­jory Flem­ing wrote her life’s work – a bounty of lit­er­ary de­lights that came to be ad­mired by the likes of Robert Louis Steven­son and Mark Twain – be­fore her ninth birth­day.

Born in Kirk­caldy in 1803, Mar­jory was taught by her mother be­fore mov­ing to Ed­in­burgh aged six to be tu­tored by her cousin Is­abella Keith. A vo­ra­cious reader, she en­joyed the works of Alexan­der Pope, Ann Rad­cliffe and Sir Wal­ter Scott – a fam­ily friend or even a dis­tant rel­a­tive, de­pend­ing on which ac­count you be­lieve.

Mar­jory be­gan writ­ing po­ems, let­ters and a jour­nal while be­ing taught by Is­abella – a charm­ing, witty snap­shot of a mid­dle-class Scot­tish child­hood. En­cour­aged by her cousin, it be­came clear this was a girl with in­cred­i­ble tal­ent. But hers was, sadly, a very short writ­ing ca­reer.

Mar­jory re­turned home to Kirk­caldy, aged eight, and she missed Is­abella ter­ri­bly. Writ­ing to her cousin in Septem­ber 1811, she told her, “We are sur­rounded with measles at present on ev­ery side.”

In Novem­ber, she suc­cumbed to the dis­ease. She seemed to re­cover but, in De­cem­ber, a month be­fore turn­ing nine, she died of menin­gi­tis.

The jour­nal she kept in the last 18 months of her life re­mained un­pub­lished for 50 years, un­til a jour­nal­ist printed ex­cerpts in The Fife Her­ald. Th­ese vivid, de­light­ful snip­pets, along with the ac­count of her short but bril­liant life, cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion and she was widely read in Vic­to­rian times.

Many early edi­tions of her work were, in parts, heav­ily rewrit­ten as

“A clever, en­dear­ing and some­times naughty girl

ed­i­tors thought some of the lan­guage Mar­jory used was in­ap­pro­pri­ate for an eight-year-old girl. She ac­quired a nickname, Pet Mar­jory, which stuck and is still used to­day.

In a 1934 edi­tion, Robert Louis Steven­son is quoted on the dust jacket, “Mar­jory Flem­ing was pos­si­bly – no, I take back pos­si­bly – she was one of the no­blest works of God.” Mark Twain de­scribed her as be­ing “made out of thun­der­storms and sun­shine”, and Vir­ginia Woolf’s fa­ther Les­lie Stephen, in 1898’s Dic­tionary Of Na­tional Bi­og­ra­phy, claimed that “no more fas­ci­nat­ing in­fan­tile au­thor has ever ap­peared”.

Mar­jory’s manuscripts in the Na­tional Li­brary Of Scot­land are a cap­ti­vat­ing but bit­ter­sweet por­trait of an ex­traor­di­nar­ily clever, en­dear­ing and some­times quite naughty girl, des­tined for great things had her life not been cut so cru­elly short.

Mar­jory dur­ing her ill­ness

Her manuscripts are much-loved

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