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Marjory’s Book: The complete journals, letters and poems of a young girl, edited by Barbara McLean

Marjory Fleming, the child author of these collected writings, was born in Kirkcaldy in 1803. For part of her short life she lived with her aunt in Edinburgh’s New Town and her education was entrusted to her older cousin, Isabella. It was Isabella who encouraged Marjory to keep a journal to improve her handwriting, punctuation and spelling. These delightful journal entries, written from 1810 to 1811, tell us about the life and times of this lively and endearing child and record her observations on history, religion, fashion and family life. At the age of seven she was reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, Swift, Shakespeare and Alexander Pope – I can’t help contrasting this with my own granddaughter who at the same age was happily reading the Tom Gates series and Holly Webb. However today’s children are sure to sympathise with her comments on arithmetic, ‘the most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 & 7 times 7 it is what nature itselfe cant endure’.

Marjory tried hard to be good but often had to tell herself off for her own shortcomings: ‘when Isabella went up the stairs to teach me religion and my multiplication and to be good and all my other lessons I stamped with my feet and threw my new hat which she made on the ground’.

In the summer of 1811 Marjory went back to live with her family in Kirkcaldy. Five months later she fell ill with measles and died, probably of meningitis, just before her ninth birthday; she is buried in Abbotshall kirkyard. Her family were completely heartbroken. All her writings were carefully preserved and stayed in the family until 1930 when they were gifted to the National Library of Scotland. However about 50 years after Marjory’s death her journal was shown to a Scottish journalist and the subsequent publicity led to a great deal being written about her – much of it sentimental nonsense. However, it attracted some serious attention, even coming to the notice of Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, who wrote an essay about her titled ‘Marjory Fleming: The Wonder Child’. The current edition of her work, a little hardback book illustrated by Sheila Cant and published by the Mercat Press, helpfully provides a realistic and thoughtful account of Marjory’s life and writings.