Mary Brunton (1778-1818) was born Mary Balfour in Orkney into a prosperous, land-owning family who were influential in the islands. When she was a young girl, the family moved to Elwick House on the island of Shapinsay, where Mary spent her childhood. She was sent to a private school in Edinburgh, and in 1798 married Alexander Brunton, tutor to her two brothers at Elwick House. Brunton went on to become a clergyman before taking up the post of Professor of Oriental Languages at Edinburgh University.
Mary Brunton's first novel, Self-Control, appeared anonymously in 1811, and was popular throughout fashionable society in Great Britain, running to a fourth edition in the year after publication. Brunton's second novel, Discipline, was published in 1814. She died in 1818 after the still birth of her son, her only child. Emmeline, her third novel, was published posthumously in 1819.
Brunton is known as “the forgotten Scottish novelist” who’s works, “rose very fast into celebrity, and their popularity seems to have as quickly sunk away.” Far from being “gothic” in nature, like other novels of the period, Bruton’s work carries a theme that good will win out, and only when our own selfishness has been recognized and eradicated and a new order of reverence and piety established, can a happy ending be found.
Ellen Percy is a young, beautiful heiress – selfish and thoughtless, and because of her pride prone to mistreat the worthiest people, i.e. Miss Mortimer, her deceased mother’s friend, and Mr Maitland, an equally moral Highlander who falls in love with her against his better judgment. After much fashionable frivolity in London, treacherous friends, and one near-elopement, Ellen suddenly finds herself friendless and penniless: her father has gone bankrupt and committed suicide.
Miss Mortimer takes her under her wing; but she too is poor and mortally ill, and cannot help her for long. Ellen then gets a job as a governess, but despite her best efforts she is unable to resist the downward spiral in which her pride and selfishness are brutally knocked out of her.
New Monthly Magazine, 1815 - It is highly gratifying to have it in our power to notice a novel which has so excellent a principle for its recommendation, independently of its other claims to favour, on account of the strength of its characters, the variety of its incidents, and the beauty of its descriptions.
The Edinburgh observer, 1817 - May we not fairly try the question on some others that have subsequently appeared,—particularly two, the productions of an anonymous author? We allude to the novels entitled Self Control and Discipline. These works have had an extensive circulation, and their merit is attested by the most unqualified approbation. But Discipline, which we think the preferable production, it is more immediately our present intention to commend.