Emmeline. With Some Other Pieces.


Mary Brunton

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Immediately after Mrs Brunton's death, various eloquent tributes were paid to her memory in the newspapers of Edinburgh. Her literary friends, however, have expressed a wish, that some more detailed Memoir of her life should be prepared; exhibiting chiefly the history of her mind, and her habits of composition. With that wish I have willingly complied. It has been for twenty years my happiness to watch the workings of that noble mind--my chief usefulness to aid its progress, however feebly. Nothing is more soothing to me now, than to dwell on the remembrance of her--nothing more dear, than to diffuse the benefit of her example.

I know, that I shall perform the task very inadequately. Were I better qualified than I am for its discharge, the relation which I bore to her makes it needful for me to repress feelings, upon which any other biographer would have dwelt with delight. But if I can make her memory useful to one of her fellow creatures, this is the only consideration which her sainted spirit would prize.


Mary Balfour was the only daughter of Colonel Thomas Balfour of Elwick, a cadet of one of the most respectable families in the county of Orkney. Her mother was Frances Ligonier, only daughter of Colonel Ligonier of the 13th Dragoons.

Mary was born in the Island of Burra in Orkney, 1st of November, 1778. Her early education was not conducted on any regular plan. Her father, himself a man of extraordinary talents and acquirements, had little leisure for superintending it, and was very often necessarily absent from his family. Her mother had early been left an orphan to the care of her uncle, Field-Marshal the Earl of Ligonier; and had been trained rather to the accomplishments which adorn a court, than to those which are useful in domestic life. She was, however, a person of great natural acuteness, and of very lively wit; and her conversation, original though desultory, had no doubt considerable influence in rousing her daughter's mind. She was assiduous, too, in conveying the accomplishments which she herself retained; and Mary became, under her mother's care, a considerable proficient in music, and an excellent French and Italian scholar. From these languages she was much accustomed to translate; and there is no other habit of her early life which tends, in any degree, to account for the great facility and correctness with which her subsequent compositions were written.

When she passed the bounds of mere childhood, the defects, under which her early education must otherwise have laboured, were remedied partly by a short residence at school in Edinburgh, and, still more, by the affectionate care of her father's sisters; of whose kindness she entertained, through life, the most grateful recollection. But as a great part of her training was still left to herself, her love for reading spent itself on poetry and fiction. They helped to people for her that world of her own, which the day-dreams of youth called up in her solitude.

At a very early age, the charge of her father's household devolved upon her; and the details of housekeeping in Orkney are of so exhausting a kind, that, from her sixteenth to her twentieth year, she could have had very little leisure for self-improvement.

About this time, Viscountess Wentworth, (who had formerly been the wife of Mrs Balfour's brother, the second Earl Ligonier,) proposed that Mary, her god-daughter, should reside with her in London. What influence this alteration might have had on her after life, is left to be matter of conjecture. She preferred the quiet and privacy of a Scotch parsonage. We were married in her twentieth year; and went to reside at Bolton, near Haddington.

Her time was now much more at her own command. Her taste for reading returned in all its strength, and received rather a more methodical direction. Some hours of every forenoon were devoted by her to this employment; and, in the evening, I was in the habit of reading aloud to her, books chiefly of criticism and Belles Lettres. Among other subjects of her attention, the philosophy of the human mind became a favourite study with her, and she read Dr Reid's works with uncommon pleasure. She renewed her acquaintance with our best historians. Her ear was peculiarly gratified with the music of Dr Robertson's style; and she used often to say, that she looked upon his account of the first voyage of Columbus, as the most attractive and finished narrative which she had ever perused.

She added a little German to her acquisitions in language.

She repeatedly began, but as often relinquished, the study of mathematics. Where the address to the intellect was direct and pure, she was interested and successful. But a single demonstration by means of the reductio ad absurdum, or of applying one figure to another in order to show their identity, never failed to estrange her for a long time from the subject.

Her reading was useful to her, rather as strengthening her general habits of attention, than as leading to marked proficiency in any one branch of study. Her memory, not having been systematically cultivated in early life, was less powerful than her other faculties. She retained the substance of what she read, less by remembering the words of the author, than by thinking over the subject for herself, with the aid of the new lights which he had opened to her mind.

I do not know that, during her residence in East Lothian, she wrote anything beyond an ordinary letter. Even her letters at this period were few. Indeed her correspondents were always very limited in number. To letter-writing, as either an employment in itself, or as a recreation, she had an utter dislike.

East Lothian, in general, is not distinguished for landscape beauty. But the situation of the Manse of Bolton is pretty, and there is some fine scenery on the banks of the stream which washes it. These close and wooded banks formed a singular contrast to the bare flats, and the magnificent sea-prospects of Orkney;--a contrast which deepened the impression of both, and helped to form that habit of observing the varieties and beauties of nature, which afterwards became so marked a feature of her mind. She now taught herself to draw; sufficiently, at least, to sketch with facility and truth any object or scene which peculiarly pleased her.

Her various employments were never allowed to interfere with each other. An arrangement of her time was made; to which, as far as is possible for the mistress of a family, she strictly adhered.

Two East Indian wards of mine became inmates of the family while we resided in East Lothian. Her care of them was truly maternal. She took a deep interest especially in their religious education; and, in instilling into them the principles of their belief, she was led very carefully to re-examine her own. For this important work she had greater facilities now, than she had enjoyed at any former period; and she applied herself to it with all her characteristic ardour. Through the grace of God, it gradually led her both to the "knowledge and to the love of the truth as it is in Christ;" to that "anchor of the soul sure and stedfast," on which her hope leaned through life, and was nobly sustained in the near prospect of dissolution. The Shorter Catechism of our Church was the form on which she grounded her instructions to her young pupils; and while, with anxious and successful assiduity, she accommodated its language to their capacity, she never failed to speak in warm admiration, of the vigour and condensation of thought by which it is very peculiarly distinguished.

Both in her own mind, and in the minds of her pupils, she was anxious to make religion an active principle, to carry its influence habitually into life. It mingled now with all her own pursuits. She sought knowledge, not merely for the sake of the pleasure which it bestowed, but from a strong sense of duty. She loved nature, not for its own beauty alone, but for the traces with which it abounds of the wisdom and the love of the Creator. Her religion was not a religion of gloom. It shed brightness and peace around her. It gladdened the heart which it purified and exalted.

After six years, tranquilly and happily spent in East Lothian, she accompanied me to Edinburgh in Autumn 1803. In the earliest letter of hers which has come into my possession, I find her thus regretting her removal. The letter is addressed to her mother.

OCT. 6, 1802.

I heartily regret the loss of my little quiet residence, which many nameless circumstances have endeared to me. But when I think that Mr B., without any object in view, might sink into indolence,--live neglected,--and die forgotten,--I am in part reconciled to a removal, which will make my wants far more numerous, and my income (all things considered) more scanty. And though I shall never cease to regret Bolton,--though I must want many things which I here enjoy;--and, what is worst of all, though I can no longer expect that Mr B. will continue so much to be, as you truly call him, my companion and instructor; I think I could endure any thing rather than see him, to please me, consign himself with regret to solitude and inaction. He is pleased with a change that gives him something to hope for, (which here he never could have had,) and I think I can reconcile myself to any thing that gives him pleasure. * * *

I am engaged just now in reading a very large book, which entertains me more than any thing I ever read before; it is Froissart's Chronicle. The simplicity of the narrative, its minuteness, its dramatic effect if I may use the expression, make it more interesting than most true histories, and more amusing than most works of fiction. It places before one the speakers and the actors,--living men and women;--and their antique costume gives them an air half-droll, half-pleasing. If the price of the book did not place it beyond the reach of ordinary purses, I should have besought you to buy it.


Hitherto she does not seem to have been at all aware of the strength of her own mind. Our circle of acquaintance was small. She appeared among them scarcely in any other light than as an active and prudent young housewife; who submitted, with the most cheerful good-humour, to the inconveniences of a narrow income; but who contrived, by method and taste, to join comfort with some share of elegance in the whole of her management. Few literary people were within our reach. It was chiefly with me that she talked of what she had read; and, as some of the subjects were new to her, she contracted, far more than enough, the habit of speaking as a pupil.

It was otherwise in Edinburgh. Our circle widened. She mingled more with those whose talents and acquirements she had respected at a distance. She found herself able to take her share in their conversation; and, though nothing could be farther from the tone of her mind than either pedantry or dogmatism, she came by degrees, instead of receiving opinions implicitly, to examine those of others, and to defend her own. There was a freshness and originality in her way of managing these little friendly controversies--a playfulness in her wit--a richness in her illustrations--and an acuteness in her arguments, which made her conversation attractive to the ablest. If they were not convinced by her reasoning, they were gratified by her ingenuity, and by her unpretending openness.

But the circumstance which, more than any other beyond the range of her own domestic intercourse, tended both to develope her intellect, and to establish her character, was an intimacy which she formed, soon after her removal to Edinburgh, with a lady in her immediate neighbourhood. They were indeed so near, that it was easy for them to be much together. They read together--worked together--and talked over, with confidential freedom, their opinions, from minuter points to the most important of all. In their leading views of human life and human duty, they were fully agreed. But whether they agreed, or whether they differed, they benefited each other essentially--either mutually confirming each other in the truth, or mutually leading each other towards it.

This intercourse continued for about six years, when it was interrupted by Mrs Izett's removal from Edinburgh. But it was not, and could not be suspended altogether; so far as letters could prolong it, it was continued to the last, by the only close and confidential correspondence, beyond the bounds of her own family, in which Mary ever engaged.

In the literary pursuits which they carried on together, there were occasional blanks, caused by the avocations of either. It was chiefly for the employment of accidental intervals of leisure, occasioned by the more numerous engagements of her friend, that Mrs Brunton began the writing of Self-Control. At first its author had no design that it should meet the eye of the public. But as her manuscript swelled, this design, half unconsciously, began to mingle with her labours. Perhaps, too, a circumstance which I remember to have happened about this time, might have had more weight than she was aware of in prompting the attempt. She had often urged me to undertake some literary work; and once she appealed to an intimate friend who was present, whether he would not be my publisher. He consented readily; but added, that he would, at least as willingly, publish a book of her own writing. This seemed, at the time, to strike her as something the possibility of which had never occurred to her before; and she asked more than once, whether he was in earnest.

A considerable part of the first volume of Self-Control was written before I knew any thing of its existence. When she brought it to me, my pleasure was certainly mingled with surprise. The beauty and correctness of the style--the acuteness of observation--and the loftiness of sentiment--were, each of them in its way, beyond what even I was prepared to expect from her. Any encouragement which my approbation could give her, (and she valued it at far more than it was worth,) she received in the fullest measure.

From this time forward she tasked herself to write a certain quantity every day. The rule, of course, was often broken; but habit had taught her that a rule was useful. Every evening she read to me what had been written in the course of the day; and when larger portions were completed, she brought the manuscript to me for more accurate examination. I then made, in writing, such remarks as occurred to me; and left it to herself to decide upon them. Any little alteration on what had been recently written she was always willing to receive, if she thought it an improvement. But some changes which were suggested to her upon the earlier parts of the story, she declined adopting. She had what appeared to me an undue apprehension of the trouble which it might have cost her to assimilate the alterations to the remainder of the narrative. But she had little hope, from the first, of the story being very happily combined; and she was only the more unwilling to aggravate, by any sudden changes, the harshness of its construction. To its moral usefulness she uniformly paid much more regard than to its literary character. In the autumn of 1809 the state of her health made it desirable that we should visit Harrogate. Her letters to her relations in Orkney give a lively picture of this little tour.



Nov. 21, 1809.

From Carlisle we took a different route to the Lakes from that by which I formerly went with you. We drove, through a country as flat as the floor, to a little village called Wigton; and from thence to Keswick by a tremendous road; but leading at last through the vale of Bassenthwaite, one of the sweetest of all prairies riantes.

The day which we spent at Keswick was the finest possible--not a breath of wind, and scarcely a cloud on the sky. We sailed and wandered about till it was quite dark. Great was my desire to take up our rest there for a fortnight; for in "the Grange," the sweet little hamlet at the mouth of Borodale, there were a parlour and bed-chamber to be let furnished!--Dread Lowdore is the most picturesque waterfall I ever saw; but no more to be compared with Moness in magnificence, than a little coquette, tricked out in gauze and gumflowers, with the simple majesty of Milton's Eve.

We went, as formerly, by Ambleside to Kendal. The Lakes are truly lovely, though not quite so unparalleled as when last I saw them; for I have since seen Loch Lomond; nor do I think they can once be compared in sublimity with the approach to Loch Katrine.

Did you ever see Kirkby Lonsdale? It is the most rural, pretty, interesting place imaginable. It is a true English village--English in its neatness--English in the handsomeness of its houses, (Scotch handsome houses are seldom built in villages)--and English, above all, in its church-yard--smooth as velvet--green as emeralds--clean, even to the exclusion of a fallen leaf from one of the tall trees that surround it! From this church-yard, situate on a high bank overhanging the river Loen, you command a fine view of Lonsdale, rising here and there into gentle swells--gay with woods and villas. The river is not very English; for it is a rapid, lively, transparent stream--not creeping sluggishly through rich meadows, but dancing gaily to the sun, or dashing against tiny rocks into Lilliputian waves. * * *

Nous voila at Harrogate; and I believe there is no place in Britain to which you would not sooner accompany us. One hundred and forty people dine with us daily--all dressed as fine as Punch's wife in the puppet-show. Do but imagine the noise of so many tongues--the bouncing, banging, and driving of eighty waiting-men--the smell of meat sufficient, and more than sufficient, for a hundred and forty cormorants--and all this in the dog days!!! * * *

Harrogate itself is a straggling village, built on an ugly sandy common, surrounded with stunted black Scotch firs--the only thing in shape of tree or shrub that never can be an ornament to any possible place. From a hill above Harrogate, there is a view of prodigious extent, over the richest and largest plain which I have ever seen.--York, which is 22 miles distant, seems nearer than the middle of the landscape. Mrs I., who is an Englishwoman, was in extacies. For my part, I must confess, that I think a little rising ground, or even a mountain, no bad feature in a landscape. A scene without a hill seems to me to be about as interesting as a face without a nose!

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This presentation of Emmeline. With Some Other Pieces., by Mary Brunton is Copyright 2003 by P.J. LaBrocca. It may not be copied, duplicated, stored or transmitted in any form without written permission. The text is in the public domain.