Friday, November 28, 2014

The Life of Pet Marjory

by Catherine Curzon

Marjory Fleming (Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, 15th January 1803 – Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, 19th December 1811)

Marjory Fleming during her last illness possibly by Isabella Keith, 1811
Marjory Fleming, possibly by Isabella Keith, 1811
Earlier this year I wrote a short article for my own blog on Marjory Fleming (later known as Pet Marjory), a child poet of the Georgian era whom the Victorians took to their hearts. As I have read and written about other European child prodigies of the era, Fleming has always continued to fascinate me. Her story does not seem widely known, so it is my pleasure to share it with you today.

Marjory was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, the third child of James Fleming and his wife, Isabella Rae, known as Isa. An accountant, James was able to give his family a relatively comfortable life and was soon to realise that Marjory had a fierce intellect, one that easily surpassed her childish peers. Unlike some other prodigies of the era, Marjory's life at home was quite normal and she enjoyed a loving family environment, encouraged in her learning but not aggressively so. 

By the age of six, the Flemings decided that Marjory needed to broaden her horizons and satisfy her burning curiosity for the world in which she lived. They sent her to Edinburgh to live with her 18 year old cousin, Isabella Keith, who was happy to take over responsibility for the little girl's education.  Isabella had a passion for literature and in particular poetry; she introduced Marjory to the power of verse, and the child soon began to write poems of her own. When she wasn't writing, Marjory was reading, yet for all her intelligence, she remained a child. Playful and cheery, she took her learning in stride, seeing nothing unusual in her abilities and encouraged by Isabella to lead an utterly normal life. It was whilst in Edinburgh that she met and charmed Walter Scott, who became a regular visitor and one of her greatest literary champions.

Marjory kept her family informed of her experiences in the city by writing numerous letters to them. She further elaborated on life in Edinburgh in the diaries she kept in the final years of her short life where she discussed domestic life, the news of the day and her views on the lessons she undertook with her adored Isabella. Her poetry impressed none other than Walter Scott, a relation on her mother's side, but she was not particularly known during her life, though celebrity would follow later.

Marjory left Edinburgh and returned home to Kirkcaldy at the age of eight. That same year she contracted measles during an epidemic and, though she appeared to recover, she fell ill again and swiftly deteriorated. The official verdict on her death was that she had been killed by "water on the head", likely meningitis, and she was laid to rest in Abbotshall Kirkyard, Kirkcaldy.

Fascinated by the world around her, Marjory watched and absorbed all that she saw, and from a young age she proved to be a prolific letter writer. Her diary provides a fascinating insight into the life of a child in the era. Rumour has it Walter Scott was highly impressed by the poems of the little girl, but her writings were largely ignored for many years after her death.

The diary Marjory wrote in the last two years of her life remained unpublished for decades after her death until a journalist, HB Farnie, serialised them in a heavily edited version in the Fife Herald. Shocked at some of the forthright language used by the little girl, further edits followed before in 1868, the diaries were published as a book. This was the first of several works about Marjory and slowly but surely, six decades after her death, the child was famous.

These published diaries were a huge hit in the Victorian era, as readers were utterly beguiled by the tragic tale of this bright, brave little girl. Although Marjory's original journals had been substantially rewritten, it was for these that she eventually found fame. So popular were the diaries that they were reprinted on numerous occasions and each time, more and more celebrity admirers queued up to shower lavish praise on the child including Mark Twain, who wrote an essay on Marjory that popularised her works in America.

Marjory's works are now kept in the National Library of Scotland, and she has become recognised as a deservedly important figure in the history of Scottish literature. Her poems and writings reveal a child with a wit and intelligence that surpasses that of many adults; whilst it is tempting to speculate on what she might have achieved had she lived, the legacy she left behind cannot be underestimated.


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

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