(18031811), child diarist
, was born on 15 January 1803 in Kirkcaldy, Fife, the third child of James Fleming (d
.1840), accountant and magistrate, and Isabella Rae (d
. 1850). Her mother was distantly connected to Walter Scott through her sister Marianne Rae who married William Keith, first cousin to Anne Rutherford, Scott's mother. In summer 1808, aged five, Marjory paid an extended visit to her Keith relatives at 1 North Charlotte Street, Edinburgh. Here she remained for three years, until the summer of 1811, under the irregular tutelage of her much loved teenage cousin Isabella (Isa) Keith. In July 1811 Marjory returned to her family home in Kirkcaldy, where she died on 19 December, just a month short of her ninth birthday, probably of meningitis following on from measles. She was buried in Abbotshall kirkyard.
Marjory Fleming's reputation as a child prodigy is based upon three manuscript journals, probably written between April 1810 and April 1811, in Edinburgh and on holidays at nearby Ravelston, the Keith family seat. A jumbled and colourful mix of copybook moralisms (extending to observations on sexuality, sin, and her own bad temper), childish enthusiasms about favourite animals and dolls, and quirkily humorous exercises in poetry, they were supervised and their wilder misspellings corrected by her cousin Isa. Almost fifty years after Marjory's death the journals, preserved by her sister Elizabeth Fleming, came to the attention of H. B. Farnie, who published in 1858 sentimentally embellished portions from them, coined the name Pet Marjorie, and began the mawkish Victorian construction of the child genius. The extracts were extended and the portrait further heightened by John Brown, reviewing Farnie in 1863. With no substantial evidence, Brown spun an account of a friendship between Marjory and the adult Walter Scott. Brown's full transcript of the journals eventually formed the basis of Lachlan Macbean's edition of 1904, and it was Brown's fictitious account of the ScottMarjory connection, a distasteful mixture of gush and coquetry, that authorized Leslie Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography
entry of 1889 (in which he misnames her Margaret), and which fuelled the general turn-of-the-century fascination with Marjory, as references to her by R. L. Stevenson and Algernon Swinburne and a surprisingly hagiographic essay by the usually unsentimental Mark Twain attest.
Marjory Fleming's precocity is apparent in her inconsequential (to the adult mind) yoking of juvenile and maturer topics, and in her appetite for books (she records enjoying the poems of Pope and Gray, the Arabian Nights
, Ann Radcliffe's misteris [sic
] of udolpho, the Newgate calendar, and tails by Maria Edgeworth and Hannah More). Her fragmentary prose style is vivid: and it was the very same Divel that tempted Job that tempted me I am sure but he resisted satan though he had boils and many many other misfortunes which I have escaped (Fleming
, ed. Sidgwick, 46); her poems deal with turkeys, a pet monkey known as pug:
O lovely O most charming pug
Thy gracefull air & heavenly mu[g],
the pleasure of sleeping at the foot of Isa Keith's bed:
Oft I embrace her feet of lillys
But she has goton all the pillies,
and an ambitious 205 lines on the imprisonment of Mary, queen of Scots, who in Edinburgh
was lodged in the castle
Which was as bad near as the bastile. (Fleming, ed. Sidgwick, 148, 23, 141)
The manuscripts, published in facsimile (by A. Esdaile) and as transcripts (by F. Sidgwick), both in 1934, were in 1930 deposited in the National Library of Scotland. A fictional biography, Marjory Fleming
(1946), by Oriel Malet (pseudonym of Lady Auriel Rosemary Vaughan) prints extracts but is largely devoted to extending the legend. The general revaluation of juvenile and adult perceptions of childhood has led in the 1990s to a new consideration of Marjory as a socially situated early nineteenth-century child and Victorian mythic appropriation. Her status seems assured.
The complete Marjory Fleming: her journals, letters and verses, ed. F. Sidgwick (1934) · The journals, letters and verses of Marjory Fleming, ed. A. Esdaile (1934) · J. Brown, Marjorie Fleming, a sketch: being the paper entitled Pet Marjorie, a story of child life fifty years ago (1884) [first appeared in the North British Review, 1863] · H. B. Farnie, Pet Marjorie: a story of child-life fifty years ago, 2nd edn (1864) [first appeared in the Fife Herald, 1858] · M. Twain [S. L. Clemens], Marjorie Fleming, the wonder child, Europe and elsewhere (1923) [repr. from Harper's Bazaar, 1909] · M. Myers, The erotics of pedagogy, Children's Literature, 23 (1995), 130 · DNB
NL Scot., diaries, corresp., and poems, MSS 10961100
I. Keith, watercolour sketch, NL Scot. [see illus.]