Inquiring readers, frequent contributor, Tony Grant from London Calling, has written an interesting article for this blog about Mary Brunton.
In 1814 Jane Austen wrote a letter to her beloved niece Anna Lefroy.
To Anna Lefroy
Thursday 24th November 1814
“……Mrs Creed’s opinion is gone down on my list; but fortunately I may excuse myself from entering Mr……as my paper only relates to Mansfield Park. I will redeem my credit with him, by writing a close imitation of, “Self Control” as soon as I can;- I will improve upon it; my heroine shall not merely be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself, she shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, and never stop until she reaches Gravesent.-“
From this extract it appears that Jane was sensitive to criticism about her novels. Mr, (the name on the original letter is missing) is critical, and it seems, not in a positive way, about Jane’s work. She senses that he is the sort that would enjoy more melodramatic novels such as the one she refers to, “Self Control.” There does seem to be an element of cynicism towards, “Self Control,” in Jane’s comment. At the time it was published, 1811, the same year Sense and Sensibility was published, it was popular. It went to a number of editions. It had very strong moral overtones. Fay Weldon, the English author and feminist has stated that she likes it. There are definitively feminist overtones.The main character, Laura Montreville, partakes in rugged and manly exploits. In some ways it was a rival of Sense and Sensibility and Mary Brunton herself, was a rival of Jane Austen. They were competing for the same market. In 1813 Jane had mentioned Mary Brunton’s novel before and in slightly more flattering terms. It also appears that she read it more than once.
“I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does. – Jane Austen (1813)
Here is the part of, “Self Control,” near the end of the story, that Jane mentions in both quotes. It’s obviously the part of Mary Brunton’s story that struck her the most.
“…………she beheld close by her an Indian canoe. With suddenness that mocks the speed of light, hope flashed on the darkened soul; and, stretching her arms in wild ecstasy, ‘Help, help,’ cried Laura, and sprung towards the boat. ………………………………………………………………………………..
Each object hastened on with fearful rapidity, and the murmuring sound was now a deafening roar.
Fear supplying super-human strength, Laura strove to turn the course of her vessel. She strained every nerve; she used the force of desperation. Half-hoping that the struggle might save her, half-fearing to note her dreadful progress, she toiled on till the oar was torn from her powerless grasp, and hurried along with the tide.
The fear of death alone had not the power to overwhelm the soul of Laura. Somewhat might yet be done perhaps to avert her fate, at least to prepare for it. Feeble as was the chance of life, it was not to be rejected. Fixing her cloak more firmly about her, Laura bound it to the slender frame of the canoe. Then commending herself to heaven with the fervour of a last prayer, she, in dread stillness, awaited her doom………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
With terrible speed the vessel hurried on. It was whirled round by the torrent—tossed fearfully—and hurried on again. It shot over a smoothness more dreadful than the eddying whirl. It rose upon its prow. Laura clung to it in the convulsion of terror. A moment she trembled on the giddy verge. The next, all was darkness!
Can you imagine Jane Austen writing like this? I can’t. Jane’s writing appeals to us through the generations and touches the human condition. This extract, I can understand how Mr…. would enjoy this sort of writing, is a pot boiler, an airport, W H Smiths offering to keep the executive employed on a long haul flight. It’s the sort of plot that combines outward bound pursuits with feminine whiles. Something revolutionary in scope for the time.
Jane was kind about it and saw its appeal, “my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.” but she notices too, it doesn’t address the real human condition.
So what of Mary Brunton ?
Mary Brunton and Jane Austen were the same age and both died nearly at the same age.
Mary Brunton , born Mary Balfour, was born on the 1st November 1778 in Burray in the Orkney islands. Mary was the daughter of Colonel Thomas Balfour of Elwick and Francis Ligonier. Like many girls of the period, her education was limited but her mother thought it proper for her to learn music, Italian and French. In about 1798 she met and fell in love with the Reverend Alexander Brunton, a minister of the Church of Scotland. She eloped with Brunton on the 4th December 1798. He took her from the Isle of Gairsay in a rowing boat. Her penchant for dramatic situations obviously helped her later in her writing career. The excitement of this rowing adventure spilled over into her novel writing. Her excitement for action was something Jane Austen did not adhere to. Jane explored the subtle interactions between human beings. Mary often explored the dramatic interactions with her environment.
Alexander Brunton was the minister at Bolton until 1797. He then moved with Mary to Edinburgh where he became the minister at two Edinburgh parishes, Greyfriars in 1803 and at the Tron Kirk in 1809. Both these churches are entwined strongly with Scottish and Edinburgh history.
In 1637, Scotland was in a state of turmoil. King Charles I and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, met with a reverse in their efforts to impose a new liturgy on the Scots. The Covenanters whose ideas later lead to Presbyterianism, formed their own covenant. In 1638 the New Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Church. After the English Civil war and Charles had been beheaded Cromwell persecuted the Covenanters and some were imprisoned in Greyfriars churchyard.
The Tron, situated prominently in The Royal Mile, near St Giles Cathedral, came about during this struggle of the Scottish Church against Charles and Archbishop Laud . They turned the High Kirk into St Giles Cathedral and in retaliation the Scottish Bishops built a new church near to St Giles called, The Tron Kirk which was begun in 1636. The Scottish nobility, The Lord High Chief Justice of Scotland and many more moved their worship to The Tron Kirk. Many famous Edinburgh people have been married there. Alexander Brunton was no ordinary minister, being the minister of these two key important churches, he was also the Professor of Oriental languages at the University of Edinburgh, a short distance from The Tron in South Bridge Road.
Guided by her husband, Mary Brunton began an interest in philosophy. She wrote to her sister while living in Edinburgh that she was in favour of women learning the ancient languages of Greek and Latin and that they should learn mathematics too. These studies were male preserves and it was revolutionary and unheard of that women should study them. Mary eventually became pregnant at the age of 40. She gave birth to a still born son and she died soon after on the 7th December 1818. Her novels did not keep their popularity and soon were no longer revered.
Edinburgh, Old Town, up to the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century was an unhealthy place to live. It was prone to diseases and infections. The town had been built along the ridge, that stretches like a tail down from the great rock, an ancient volcanic plug, on which Edinburgh Castle is built. This is a typical medieval town design. In a medieval town, the town spreads out like a tail from the castle along a main street that leads directly from the castle gate. This area would invariably be walled for protection and this was so with Edinburgh. From this long main street where shops, workshops and manufacturing would have been located, small alleyways lead off at right angles. These alleyways, known as courts, closes and wynds, were not much more than dark narrow paths about two or three metres wide. They were the location for the houses, called tenements, in which people lived. The tenements were built with granite and basalt rocks quarried from the surrounding terrain. The poor people lived on the ground floors, the wealthy lived above them. Some of these houses in Edinburgh were built up layer after layer over years and some might reach fourteen storeys. To get from one floor to the next, rickety wooden staircases were constructed against the walls of these buildings. These courts, closes and wynds had no sanitation. They sloped sharply down from the high street, nowadays known as The Royal Mile, to the left and the right of the volcanic ridge. Rubbish, human excrement, urine and all sorts of effluent flowed down these streets to lakes and marshland at the bottom of the slopes. To the north the marsh was called N’Or Loch.These marshes filled up with effluents. Edinburgh did not get the nick name,”Old Reekie,” for no reason.
Eventually in the late 1770’s a new town was begun across the valley on the other side of the N’Or Loch. A design competition was held in January 1766 to find a suitably modern layout for the new suburb. It was won by 26 year old James Craig. He drew up a grid pattern with parks and squares and circuses, similar to the circus at Bath. These were spacious new houses. All the wealthy people began to abandon Edinburgh Old Town and move to this new area. The lake was drained and Princes Gardens, still sometimes called N’Or Loch, was created with Princes Street running along one side with new town behind it.
Eventually the Old Town was virtually abandoned until it was allowed to expand beyond the old ancient city walls. The fact that all development of the old town had been restricted to the area within the old walls and that there was a growing population, the problems had only been exacerbated. Once the old town was allowed to expand it too developed into a habitable place once more.
In a way, it is no wonder Mary Brunton died, living in the unhealthy conditions of the Old Town.