(1 November 1778 – 7 December 1818)
Mary Brunton will feature in the March of Women on 7th March 2015, a procession of women from Glasgow and beyond spilling out of Glasgow Women’s Library onto the streets of Bridgeton to celebrate the achievements of women past and present.
Mary was the daughter of Colonel Thomas Balfour of Elwick, a British Army officer and Frances Ligonier, daughter of Colonel Francis Ligonier and sister of the second earl of Ligonier. She was born on 1 November 1778 on Burray in the Orkney Islands. Mary's early education was limited, though her mother did teach her music, Italian, and French.
Around 1798, Mary met and fell in love with the Reverend Alexander Brunton, a Church of Scotland minister, who later became a Professor of Oriental Languages in the University of Edinburgh. Although Mary's mother disapproved of the match, she eloped with Brunton on 4 December 1798, when her loved one rescued her from the island of Gairsay in a rowing boat.He was minister at Bolton, near Haddington until 1797, then at two successive Edinburgh parishes: at New Greyfriars from 1803 and Tron from 1809, becoming in the meantime professor of oriental languages at the university in 1813.
Their marriage was a happy, but childless one. Guided by her husband, she developed some interest in philosophy, and remarked in a letter to her sister-in-law that she was in favour of women learning ancient languages and mathematics, which was still a rare female accomplishment in that period. The couple made a tour to Harrogate and the English Lake District in 1809, although the former did not meet with her approval: "A scene without a hill seems to me to be about as interesting as a face without a nose!" Mary finally became pregnant, at the age of almost forty, and died on 7 December 1818 in Edinburgh after giving birth to a stillborn son.
Mary Brunton started to write her first novel, Self-Control in 1809 and it was published in 1811. One admirer was Charlotte Barrett (1786–1870), niece of the novelists Fanny Burney and Sarah Burney and mother of the writer Julia Maitland. Writing to Sarah on 17 May 1811, she commented, "I read Self-Countroul & like it extremely all except some vulgarity meant to be jocular which tired me to death, but I think the principal character charming & well supported & the book really gives good lessons.". Jane Austen had reservations, describing it in a letter as an "excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it." In contrasting self-control with sensibility, she was moving towards a redefinition of femininity. Self-Control was widely read and went into its third edition in 1812. A French translation (Laure Montreville, ou l’Empire sur soimême) appeared in Paris in 1829. The anonymous novels Things by their Right Names (1812) and Rhoda by Frances Jacson were initially ascribed to her as well.
The other novel that Mary Brunton completed was Discipline (1814). Like Walter Scott's Waverley, published in the same year, it had Highland scenes that were much appreciated. It went into three editions in two years. The Bruntons spent some time in London in 1815 and Mary began to learn Gaelic in the same year. She then planned a series of domestic stories, of which one, Emmeline, was far enough advanced when she died for her husband to include it in an 1819 memorial volume, along with a Memoir and extracts from her travel diary. The story described with a sympathy unusual in that period how a divorced woman's marriage is destroyed by her feelings of guilt and the ostracism she suffers.
The success of Brunton's novels seems to have lain in combining a strongly moral, religious stance with events that stretched or broke the rules of society. Although the presence of "pulsating sexuality" may be an exaggeration, it is certainly true that her heroines "experience destitution struggling to survive as women on their own and enter the dark night of the soul, but rise from the depths of despair through a growing religious strength." According to Fay Weldon, "Improving the Brunton novels may be, but what fun they are to read, rich in invention, ripe with incident, shrewd in comment, and erotic in intention and fact.'
The Works of Mary Brunton appeared in 1820 and further editions of her first two novels in 1832, 1837 and 1852. However, the popularity of her novels was immediate but somewhat short-lived: "They rose very fast into celebrity, and their popularity seems to have as quickly sunk away," as her husband put it in retrospect. Modern editions have appeared of Self-Control (London: Pandora, 1986), Discipline (London: Pandora, 1986; Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1987) and Emmeline (London: Routledge, 1992, facsimile of 1819 edition).
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