Saturday, December 4, 2010

Infant Phenomena

“The innocent and the beautiful / Have no enemy but time” -- William Butler Yeats

I'm not one to discourage children, or even their parents, from thinking that here, at last, we might have the next great genius. It's a lovely biological impulse, which, in most of humanity, will be thwarted soon enough. Certainly was for my poor folks, if they ever indulged any such dreams. Of course there are actual prodigies -- have been since Hercules -- who by whatever combination of innate talent and intelligence, and usually quite questionable parenting, prove themselves the exception to the general rule and produce something of lasting value; in music most obviously, and in the visual arts perhaps. Certainly, in interpretive and performing arts, there have been and will always be remarkable children. Not so much in literature. In one of his Essays in Little, the critic Andrew Lang says, "Whatever other merits the songs of minors may possess, they have seldom that of permitting themselves to be read." Put it another way, to paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, writing is the only art that requires that a person know something about life -- and to be able to read. That's why there are no literary prodigies.

Recently here, I mentioned finding a treasure, unsuspected on a bookstore shelf until I went bargain hunting at a competitor's Black Friday book sale. (This is how books best come to us, I think, by way of serendipity -- and at a discount.) What I found was a little hardcover book, from 1935, still in its original wrapper: The Complete Marjory Fleming: her Journals, Letters & Verse, edited by Frank Sidgwick. I'm in that bookstore all the time but never noticed this book before. It is a rather slim volume, and the spine of the dustjacket is faded to illegibility. Marked down already from ten bucks to five, I figured this was what I got for the free five dollar gift card I was handed at the door when I showed up the morning of the sale. Sweet.

Most people won't know who Marjory was. I didn't, until I read the eponymous essay by Dr. John Brown, written in the 1860s. In that essay, the good Scotts physician rather invents a whole, charming narrative of little Marjory, whose family certainly seemed to know The Great Man, being a favorite of Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter tucks Marjory in his Tartan and carries her off to recite for him. They are innocent and charming playmates, the great novelist and poet and his wee companion. He intentionally gets rhymes wrong, and the little girl corrects him. Evidently there is little enough to support the truth of this friendship beyond Brown's essay -- neither mentions the other in their surviving journals -- but I like Brown, and I like his story, just as I like what the story suggests of Sir Walter's sweet nature, so I'm fine with Brown's version. What is known of the life of little Marjory Fleming, we know largely from her own infant record, and from letters to Dr. Brown and others from her family, many years after her death. Marjory was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, in 1803, and died of meningitis at the age of 8. She left behind her a few letters, and a journal, full of delightful things; poems and prayers and bits of a diary. Now in the National Library of Scotland, it was this that Dr. brown read, quoted from in his essay, and helped to introduce to a Victorian audience that promptly made a favorite of the lost little girl. The edition I found at the book-sale restores the whole as Marjory wrote it. Believe it or not, there was that in it that some of her early admirers felt the need to edit her language a bit.

She does say "dam" now and again, her spelling of the curse. Really though, Marjory seems now a perfectly pious little girl, but her chief charm is her temper:

"I am now going to tell you
about the horrible and wretched
plaege that my multiplication
gives me you cant concieve it --
the most Devilish thing is 8 times 8
& 7 times 7 it is what nature itselfe
cant endure."

That would be her spelling, no better than mine at that age or since, but I completely agree with her point. Frustrating as multiplication, or sitting still in church would seem to have been for her, Marjory seems actually to have been an almost entirely happy child, and quite funny, intentionally nearly as often as not. Her family, and her father specially, clearly adored her. She died in his arms. Very much a man of his time, he never spoke her name again. The family did however preserve her precious notebooks.

Now just as the good doctor found, fifty years after the little girl died, so I find reading Marjory's writing a wonderful afternoon's occupation, two hundred years later. Why? Well, her precocity of course is admirable, but so is her honesty and, yes, her innocence. She seems to me, still, in every way, a wonderful child. It is as the record of a child's writing that Marjory Fleming's little book is worth reading, still.

This might seem to contradict not just what I said at the beginning here, as well as Lebowitz and Lang, but I don't think it does. Like reading Daisy Ashford's wonderful little novel, The Young Visiters or Mister Salteena's Plan, written in a notebook in 1890, when the novelist was all of nine, and brought to the attention of the public by the English writers Frank Swinnerton and J. M. Barrie, who wrote a preface to it, reading Marjory Fleming is fun precisely because it is only a child's effort at literature. Both girls were unusually bright, and surprisingly clever for their ages, but neither was an infant Mozart of fine letters. It is as much their "mistakes"; the odd spelling, the juvenile pomposities, the weirdness, that so satisfy the adult reader, as it is their obvious and exceptional, if small gifts. Daisy was 36 when she found her notebook in a drawer and lent it to a friend to cheer her up when she was suffering from the flu. It passed from hand to hand until it found it's way to Swinnerton, and into print.

Marjory was not so lucky, of course. Her death, as most movingly described in Brown's essay, may or may not have robbed the world of a future writer of talent. Who can say? What was lost was a delightful little girl. That's what a book like Majory's preserves for us; a few hours with a happy, charming child. It may not be literature as such, but I'm most glad to have it.


  1. A lovely tribute. I'm doing a Ph.D. dissertation that includes Marjory Fleming and Daisy Ashford, and I found your blog via a google notification I set up. I know two other people who are working on published Victorian children as well, so it will be interesting to see if Marjory Fleming will become the household name Lang once said she was.

  2. Thanks for this. As for "household name" status for either young person, nowadays... maybe if either girl was around to date Joe Jonas. Meanwhile, I now rather want to read what you've got to say on the girls!