The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Mary Brunton: Orcadian novelist

Mary Brunton: Orcadian novelist

Guest post by Katherine Wright

Mary Brunton, evangelical novelist and author of the literary sensation of 1811, was born in Orkney in 1778. She published two novels, Self Control (1811) and Discipline (1814). Emmeline, her unfinished novel, was published posthumously in 1819.

Brunton’s fiction is difficult to categorise: it is realist, romantic and didactic. Her novels are filled with elopements; abductions; duels, and masquerades. Her heroines are self-reliant and resourceful, like Laura who flees captivity by canoeing down a river. She tackled issues such as the slave trade and aimed to instil moral principles through characters whose actions were linked to their piety.

Mary’s heritage was as eclectic as her fiction. Her father, Thomas Balfour, was the son of the 2nd Laird of Trenaby. One of her Balfour ancestors is mentioned in Scott’s Tales of my Landord: Mary tells her brother: ‘The last, the longest, and by very far the best, is a story of the days of the Covenanters, in which, by and by, our ancestor Balfour of Burleigh makes a very scurvy figure.’ Her father’s predecessors fought for the Jacobite cause. Her mother, Frances, was descended from the Huguenot Ligoners who fled to England to escape persecution in France. Her great uncle fought on the Hanovarian side of the Jacobite uprising and was created Earl Ligonier.

Her education was patchy but it introduced her to her future husband. Frances taught her daughter music, French and Italian at home before sending her to boarding school in Edinburgh. Mary loved reading poetry and romance but her childhood was lonely. Her husband records, in the memoir he published following her death, that her reading ‘helped to people for her that world of her own, which the day-dreams of youth called up in solitude.’ Her brothers were taught by a theology graduate from the University of Edinburgh, Alexander Brunton. On her return from boarding school, where her mother suspected she had continued to meet Alexander, Mary took on the onerous responsibility of housekeeper.

Just before her twentieth birthday, Mary was sent to live with her aunt on Gairsay, a small isle accessible only by sea, as a means to sever her link with Alexander. She was then invited to London by her godmother but Mary refused to go. She ‘preferred the quiet and privacy of a Scotch parsonage’ and, in an elopement that lends authenticity to the plots of her novels, Alexander secretly rowed over to Gairsay and they fled to Edinburgh.

The Bruntons settled in East Lothian where her husband believed the contrast in scenery from Orkney encouraged her taste for the sublime. Her novels reverberate with images of Scotland and of Scottish customs and her second novel, Discipline, is set partly in the Highlands. Her third book was to be a compilation of stories beginning with ‘The Runaway’ to be set in Orkney. She wrote to her sister-in-law for anecdotes and ‘while she waited to renew the recollections which were fading after so long an absence from her native county’ she began Emmeline. But her Orkney story was never written and Mary died in childbirth. She is buried in Canongate Kirkyard in Edinburgh, with her husband and near to her uncle, David Balfour. She chose her final resting place to link her life in Edinburgh with her home and family in Orkney.

Katherine Wright is a Ph D student at the University of Edinburgh

A new, fully annotated edition of Self-Control, edited by Anthony Mandal, will  be published in early 2014 by Pickering & Chatto.


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