n eminent moral novelist of the
19th century, was born in the island of Burra, in Orkney, November 1, 1778. Her father was Colonel Thomas Balfour of Elwick, a cadet of one the most respectable families in the county of Orkney. Her mother was Frances Ligonier, only daughter of Colonel Ligonier of the 13th dragoons, and niece of the Earl of Ligonier, under whose care she was educated. Previous to her sixteenth year, Mary Balfour had received some instructions in music, and in French and Italian, from her mother; and her education was completed by a short residence at a boarding-school in Edinburgh. At the early age mentioned, she had to under take the charge of her father's household, from which she was removed in her twentieth year, to be the wife of the Rev. Alexander Brunton, minister of the parish of Bolton in East Lothian. In the retirement, and moderate elegance of a Scottish manse, Mrs. Brunton was only at first conspicuous for her attention to her household duties. Afterwards, however, the tastes of her husband led her gradually into habits of study, and she went, with his direction and assistance, through a course of reading, in history, philosophy, criticism, and the belles lettres. The promotion of her husband to a ministerial charge at Edinburgh, which took place six years after her marriage, was favourable to the expansion and improvement of her intellect, by introducing her into a circle of society more enlightened than any in which she had hitherto moved. The native powers of her mind were slowly developed; she ripened from the simple house-wife into the clear-minded and intelligent savante. Yet for many years, she was only known as a well-informed, but perfectly unpretending female. So far from displaying any disposition to active literature, she felt the composition of a letter to be burdensome. A trivial circumstance is said to have operated, with several other causes, in inducing her to attempt a regular work. She had often urged her husband to undertake some literary work, and once she appealed to an intimate friend, who was present, whether he would not publish it. This third party expressed a ready consent, but said he would at least as willingly publish a book of her own writing. This seemed at the time to strike her with a sense of her powers hitherto not entertained, and she asked more than once whether he was in earnest. She then appears to have commenced her novel, entitled "Self Control," of which she had finished a considerable part of the first volume before making even her husband privy to her design. In 1811, the work was published at Edinburgh, in two volumes, and the impression which it made upon the public was immediate and decisive. It was acknowledged that there were faults of a radical and most unfortunate kind - such as the perpetual danger to which the honour of the heroine was exposed, (an intolerable subject of fictitious writing,) but everyone appreciated the beauty and correctness of the style, and the acuteness of observation, and loftiness of sentiment, which pervaded the whole. The modesty of Mrs. Brunton, which was almost fantastic, induced her to give this composition to the world without her name. Four years afterwards, she published a second novel in three volumes, entitled "Discipline," which was only admired in a degree inferior to the first. She afterwards commenced a third tale under the title "Emmeline," which she did not live to finish.
Mrs Brunton had been married twenty years without being blessed with any offspring. In the summer of 1818, when a prospect of that blessing occurred, she became impressed with a belief that she should not survive. With a tranquillity, therefore, which could only be the result of great strength of mind, joined to the purest sentiments of religion and virtue, she made every preparation for death, exactly as if she had been about to leave her home upon a journey. The clothes in which she was to be laid in the grave, were selected by herself; she herself had chosen and labelled some tokens of remembrance for her more intimate friends; and she even prepared with her own hand a list of the individuals to whom she wished intimations of her death to be sent. Yet these anticipations, though so deeply fixed, neither shook her fortitude, nor diminished her cheerfulness. They neither altered her wish to live, nor the ardour with which she prepared to meet the duties of returning health, if returning health were to be her portion.
To the inexpressible grief of her husband and friends, and, it may be said, of the literary world at large, the unfortunate lady's anticipations proved true. On the 7th of December, she gave birth to a still-born son, and for some days recovered with a rapidity beyond the hopes of her medical attendants. A fever, however, took place, and, advancing with fatal violence, terminated her valuable life on the 19th, in the forty-first year of her age.
The whole mind and character of Mrs. Brunton was "one pure and perfect, chrysolite" of excellence. We are so agreeably anticipated in an estimate of her worth by an obituary tribute paid to her memory by Mrs Joanna Baillie, that we shall make no scruple for laying it before the reader:-
No more shall bed-rid pauper watch
The gentle rising of the latch
And as she enters shift his place,
To hear her voice and see her face.
The helpless vagrant, oft relieved,
From her hath his last dole received.
The circle, social and enlightened,
Whose evening hours her converse brightened,
Have seen her quit the friendly door,
Whose threshold she shall cross no more.
And he, by holy ties endear'd,
Whose life her love so sweetly cheer'd,
Of her cold clay, the mind's void cell,
Hath ta'en a speechless last farewell.
Yea, those who never saw her face,
Now did on blue horizon trace
One mountain of her native land,
Nor turn that leaf with eager hand,
On which appears the unfinish'd page,
Of her whose works did oft engage
Untired attention, interest deep,
While searching, healthful thoughts would creep
To the heart's core, like balmy air,
To leave a kindly feeling there,-
And gaze, till stain of fallen tears,
Upon the snowy blank appears,
Now all who did her friendship claim,
With alter'd voice pronounce her name,
And quickly turn, with wistful ear,
Her praise from stranger's lips to hear,
And hoard as saintly relics gain'd,
Aught that to her hath e'er pertain'd.
The last beautiful allusion is to the unfinished tale of Emmeline, which was published by her husband, Dr. Brunton (now professor of Oriental Languages in the university of Edinburgh), along with a brief, but most elegant and touching memoir of her life.