Born in Kirkcaldy High Street, 'Pet' Marjorie Fleming came to be hailed as child genius, though she did not begin to be widely celebrated until some 50 years after her death.
She died aged just 8 years old and her grave is located in Abbotshall Churchyard.
Our story traces her short life and the much longer evolution of her reputation, with some of the embellishments of what we would now call celebrity.
In a familiar refrain, we are forced to ask - have we truly honoured her memory?
In depth written study
Gone but Remembered or
Gone and Forgotten?
Marjorie Fleming was born and died in Kirkcaldy’s High Street. She was but eight years old when she passed away in 1811 suffering from what is now believed to have been meningitis. Despite her tender years and having only received her education at home she was in time both recognised as the “youngest immortal in letters” and as a “child genius”.
Beyond any doubt, Marjorie was the gifted child of two strongly academic parents who invested their time in ensuring Marjorie’s obvious talents were nurtured to the best of their own ability. Strong in reading, mature in both observation and poetry, Marjorie, had she lived, may well have developed into an outstanding figure in the world of literature.
For a lengthy spell she went to live with her mother’s relations in Edinburgh. No satisfactory reason has yet been unearthed for this step which lasted well over a year. Here she was tutored by her cousin Isabella Keith who also set Marjorie on the path of recording her thoughts, experiences and poetry, via a journal. The initial intention had been to improve Marjorie’s handwriting – but the significant outcome was that these journals, letters and other writings, now form the core of the collection of her written material held by the National Library of Scotland.
It was almost fifty years after her death before she was recognised and hailed as an outstanding child in thought and word. Her written output had been retained by the family with no intention of sharing it with the wider world. In these intervening 50 years all Marjorie’s siblings, bar one, had passed away, as had her parents. The only survivor was her younger sister Elizabeth who had become the custodian of the material.
It was Burntisland born Journalist H. B. Farnie who, in 1857, first came upon the writings through a chance meeting with Marjorie’s surviving sister. Recognising it for what it was, Farnie immediately serialised his findings in the Fife Herald and then in pamphlet form. The pamphlet sold well, but not outside the boundaries of Fife.
It was the celebrated Edinburgh author John Brown who five years later read a copy Farnie’s article, reworked it, and subsequently turned it into a bestselling book.
The story caught the imagination of many and that included Queen Victoria! The work of the child was subsequently lauded by many literary figures – Robert Louis Stevenson, Thackery and Mark Twain to name but a few. A mystique and aura grew up around her and it was often claimed that she had a close friendship with Sir Walter Scott. Sadly, it would appear that this came from the fertile imagination of John Brown. Had it been true – surely Scott, who lived twenty years after Marjorie’s death would have made mention of her, but he did not!
John Brown’s story did propel Marjorie into the public consciousness and any number of articles, pamphlets, books, plays and radio programmes, were devoted to her over the intervening years.
Make no mistake the child genius, dead before her 9th birthday, caught and held the public’s imagination for almost 100 years. In 1935, a new headstone was placed over her grave in Abbotshall Cemetery, the stone being gifted by members of the family with the ceremony being attended by hundreds of Langtonians.
As the years passed and more detailed research was carried out it became obvious, and then accepted, that historic accuracy had been heavily flavoured by wishful thinking, especially in terms of the Scott connection.
That said, the works of Marjorie Fleming are a testament to the unique talents and gifts which the little girl possessed. Since 1930 The National Library of Scotland has held all the material and it can be easily accessed on-line.
The saddest part of this story is that “Pet Marjorie” is now an almost forgotten figure in the town where she was both born and died. Perhaps the 19th of this month, which sees the 210th anniversary of her death, may stimulate a resurgence of interest and appreciation in Kirkcaldy’s child genius. She really should be better recognised by and in the Lang Toun.