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Stories from the Scotsman
Genius of Fife's infant author who inspired Mark Twain

SHE did not live to see her ninth birthday, but the journals of Marjory Fleming inspired writers including Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, 200 years after her birth, the work of the child diarist and poet is being brought to life on stage.

Mary Riggans, the High Road actress, is to read Fleming’s poems and extracts from her Edinburgh journals in The World’s Child, at Edinburgh’s Netherbow theatre.

The producers of the show hope the performance, along with other events, will raise her profile and introduce her work to a new generation.

Fleming’s journals and poems, printed 50 years after her death from measles in 1811, became a Victorian publishing sensation and earned her a world-wide literary reputation. Twain called her: "The world’s child", adding: "What an intensely human little creature she was. How vividly she lived her small life; how loving, how sweet, how loyal, how rebellious, how repentant, how wise, how unwise, how bursting with fun."

Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, said of her: "No more fascinating infantile author has ever appeared."

R L Stevenson called her: "one of the greatest works of God," and wrote to William Archer in 1894: "Your note about the resemblance of her verses to mine gave me great joy, though it only proved me a plagiarist."

Marjory Fleming was born in Kirkcaldy but wrote her diaries in Edinburgh’s New Town, during a lengthy stay with her aunt and cousin Isabella, who became her tutor and muse.

The young girl read voraciously. Her writing shows a mature vocabulary coupled with a child’s direct and impulsive nature. She writes of household pets, of her adored cousin, of the affectations of Edinburgh’s regency bucks and of her own daily struggle to calm her fiery and tempestuous nature. Of her battle with maths she fumed: "the most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 and 7 times 7 is what nature itselfe [sic] can’t endure."

One Miss Potune, who was foolish enough to try to flatter Marjory by telling her she should be on the stage, earned the description: "horrid, fat simpleton ... who pretends to be very learned."

Her writings also show a lively interest in world events. A poem composed on the birthday of King George III begins:

"To [sic] days ago was the King’s birthday
And to his health we sung a lay
Poor man his health is very bad
And he is often very mad."

Riggans will read Fleming’s words at the Netherbow theatre this week, with eight-year-old Lucy Fraser, of Broughton Primary, in Edinburgh, appearing on stage as the child author. The performance will also feature music by Richard Rodney Bennet, who set some of Fleming’s verse to music.

Riggans said she had only recently become aware of Fleming’s diary: "She was a wee genius. Her observations about the people she knew are incredible - because children can see right through you. They can see you for what you are."

The World’s Child has been created by David Campbell with Barbara McLean, who edited the definitive version of the journal, Marjory’s Book, published in 1999. Ms McLean said: "She had a great love of language and an amazing vocabulary. We just don’t know what she would have gone on to do."

Mr Campbell said he hoped The World’s Child would bring Marjory’s talents before a completely new audience and inspire fresh interest in the child author.

Thursday, 20th February 2003

The Scotsman

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