Forgotten Best-Sellers: Mary Brunton’s Self-Control (1811)

In her blog last week, Katie Halsey introduced the first of a new series within the Books and Borrowing blog: the ‘Forgotten Best-Sellers’. These best-sellers must ‘either top the charts in a single library, or…appear frequently across a large number of different libraries’; they are works that ‘were clearly popular and important in their own time…but very little known or read now’.

Last week’s forgotten best-seller was John Moore’s novel Zeluco (1789), which, in keeping with these guidelines, was ‘the most borrowed single title by the Leighton Library’s Water Drinker borrowers between 1815 and 1828’. This week’s best-seller is fellow Scottish author Mary Brunton’s novel, Self-Control. Published in 1811, Self-Control was the first of three novels written by Orcadian-born Brunton, followed by Discipline in 1814, and Emmeline in 1819. Sadly, Brunton died in 1818 before she had finished Emmeline, and so the extant fragment was instead published posthumously (alongside a memoir and some extracts from her correspondence) by her husband, Alexander Brunton, during the year after her death. Both of Brunton’s later titles certainly merit attention within their own right – something to which I hope to attend in future blogs – but for now I shall focus on Self-Control: Brunton’s first venture into novel writing, aptly described by Anthony Mandal as ‘an overnight bestseller’.[1]

Portrait of Mary Brunton, from Emmeline (1819).
Portrait of Mary Brunton, from Emmeline (1819).

Whilst, as mentioned, Zeluco was a clear chart-topper at the Leighton Library during the opening decades of the nineteenth century, Self-Control falls into the second best-seller category of appearing frequently in the catalogues and borrowing registers of multiple project libraries. So far, these libraries include, though I suspect will not be limited to: the Wigtown Subscription Library, the Royal High School of Edinburgh, and the Orkney Library. In a blog published last June, upon her ‘Return from Orkney’, Katie confirmed that both Self-Control and Discipline appear in Orkney Library’s 1816 catalogue. She confirmed, moreover, that there is indeed evidence of all three of Brunton’s novels being borrowed (and hopefully read) over the course of these early decades, with Emmeline appearing latterly between the years 1820 and 1824, for example. This was an exciting discovery, as it constituted a promising step towards uncovering examples of regionalised trends of people reading texts by their local authors – a matter upon which one of my own doctoral research questions is centred. Katie also suggested that, within the Orkney borrowing registers, Self-Control appeared ‘at first glance to be the most popular’ – a suggestion that in turn points towards another exciting discovery, particularly when considered within the context of Self-Control’s ‘best-seller’ status.

Coverof 2016 edition of Brunton's Self-Control
In addition to being selected for inclusion in the Standard Novels series, Self-Control was also selected more recently to appear in the Chawton House Library: Women’s Novels series, edited by Stephen Bending and Stephen Bygrave. This pictured edition was edited by Anthony Mandal, and published in 2016 by Routledge.

In his introduction to the Chawton House Library edition of Self-Control, published in 2016, Anthony Mandal opens with the following lines:

Mary Brunton’s Self-Control is one of those novels. For people who read or study Romantic fiction in general, and Jane Austen’s novels in particular, it is a familiar title – a recognizable touchstone which, we might recall, enjoyed some popularity around the time Austen herself was being published. At the same time, Self-Control is also a novel that has been long forgotten, despite initial critical success and republication throughout the nineteenth century. Self-Control is a text that, by and large, remains unread, even if it is spoken of, its author consigned to obscurity. And yet, when Self-Control appeared in the spring of 1811, six months before Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, it was Brunton’s first novel that was the sensation of the year, an overnight bestseller, and not Austen’s.[2]

Indeed, the fact of Mandal’s edition of Self-Control representing the first ever scholarly edition of Brunton’s novel speaks volumes to its initially popular but since forgotten existence. Last week, Katie made the observation that Zeluco was ‘was clearly enormously popular with its contemporary readers, and judged worthy of inclusion in Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s collection of The British Novelists, of 1810’. For obvious reasons pertaining to its publication date, Self-Control did not make the cut for Barbauld’s collection. However, it was selected, and its copyright purchased, to be included in Richard Bentley’s ‘canon-forming’ Standard Novels series in 1831.[3] The Standard Novels series was a series of novels, each originally published as a three-volume work, and subsequently republished as one-volume versions by Colburn and Bentley. As observed in The Scotsman in 1835, the idea behind the Standard Novels series was to reprint best-selling titles, ‘closely, yet legibly and elegantly’, in order to render these works ‘generally accessible to a new set of readers’, crucially ‘at one-fifth of their original price’; it was ‘a form of publication’ that recommended itself ‘not only by its cheapness, but by its great convenience’.[4] Self-Control was selected to appear as the fifteenth volume of this series – a whole eight volumes ahead, I might add, of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, first published also in 1811, and, as the above passage tells us, just six months ahead of Brunton’s own debut.[5]

Frontispiece and title page of the 1849 edition of Self-Control.
An 1849 Bentley edition of Self-Control (first published by Bentley in 1832).
Frontiespiece and title page of Bentley's edition of Austen's Sense and Sensibility, 1833
A first edition of Bentley’s Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, published the year after Self-Control, in 1833.

Thus, it is obvious that Self-Control must have been deemed worthy – indeed, still worthy, two decades after its original publication – of this more affordable reprint, in order to maximise its accessibility amongst a bigger and more inclusive reading audience. Indeed, in The Scotsman article, Brunton is counted (albeit posthumously) ‘among the very best of our novel and romance writers’, appearing alongside names such as: ‘Godwin, Cooper, Mrs Brunton, Miss Austen, Galt, Grattan, Banim, Beckford, M. G. Lewis, Gleig, and Morier’.[6] The author of the article subsequently writes: ‘We would willingly devote a page to a moral writer of so much excellence as Mrs Brunton, but for the present we have only time to say, that her two admirable stories – “Self-Control” and “Discipline” – have already appeared’.[7] To refer to Brunton as ‘a moral writer of so much excellence’ may sound to some, at least initially, as potentially verging on the insincere in its excess. It is however, to my mind, an accurate description, for Self-Control is truly nothing if not a novel about moral excellence – or, indeed, as is perhaps more to the point, a didactic tale of a lack thereof.

Self-Control tells the story of Laura Montreville, a young woman who grows up in the rural seclusion of her native Highlands. The daughter of a ‘shewy’ mother, Laura instead receives her education from the benevolent Mrs Douglas, and as such grows into a morally virtuous and devout Christian.[8] The reader is soon introduced to the rakish Colonel Hargrave, whose intentions with Laura are predictably less than honourable. Laura refuses Hargrave’s advances, stipulating a period of moral and religious reform and improvement as the terms of his conditional acceptance. Financial problems regarding Laura’s annuity subsequently take Laura and her father to London, where she is met with a very different society to that which she has hitherto known. Whilst in London, Laura endeavours to support herself and her father through her artwork, and in so doing also meets Montague De Courcy, who promptly falls in love with Laura (much to the chagrin of his old comrade Hargrave) and buys some of her paintings anonymously. Eventually, Laura’s father dies, and she is left with no other option than to seek safety at the residence of her maternal aunt, Lady Pelham. Thus marks the beginning of a series of yet more unfortunate events, as Lady Pelham joins forces with Colonel Hargrave, who has since discovered Laura’s new residence, to facilitate a union between Laura and Hargrave. Eventually, upon realising that Laura will never accept him (it transpires that Hargrave, needless to say, has not remained faithful to Laura’s terms), Hargrave has Laura (engaged, by this point, to De Courcy) kidnapped and removed to America. Laura manages to escape – prompting Hargrave’s suicide – and returns to Scotland, where she finally marries De Courcy.

When considering, then, the reasons behind Self-Control’s immediate though unexpected popularity, it is instructive once again to return to Mandal’s invaluable introduction:

A key to understanding both the significance and popularity of Self-Control lies in the emergence of the evangelical novel in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, this form of morally improving fiction can be understood as an outgrowth of the wider evangelical revival that was taking place in British society in the last third of the eighteenth century…Brunton’s writing evinces an evangelical moral vision, and her novels can thus be seen as part of the wider evangelical engagement with popular fiction that occurred at the start of the nineteenth century.[9]

My own PhD thesis, to which Brunton’s novels are intrinsic, focuses specifically upon novel reading in Post-Enlightenment Scotland and its associations with versions of improvement. In light of the evangelical context within which, as Mandal’s introduction suggests, Self-Control ought rightfully to be read, it is therefore unsurprising that the most prominent – and, in this case, interlinked – versions of improvement that are presented in Self-Control are religious and moral improvement. Over the course of the novel’s narrative, heroine Laura Montreville is presented as a paragon of both religious and moral virtue. Described, fittingly, as a ‘Heavenly creature’, the reader learns at the beginning of the novel how:[10]

Laura early saw the Christian doctrines, precepts and promises, warm the heart, and guide the conduct, and animate the hopes of her who she loved best. Sympathy and imitation, the strongest tendencies of infancy, first formed the disposition which reason afterwards strengthened into principle, and Laura grew up a pious Christian.[11]

This religious principle is subsequently outlined in the rather more visceral terms of what Brunton describes as Laura’s ‘Christian combat’:[12]

I am here as a soldier, who strives in an enemy’s land; as one who must run – must wrestle – must strain every nerve – exert every power, nor once shrink from the struggle till the prize is my own. Nor do I live for myself alone. I have a friend to gratify – the poor to relieve – the sorrowful to console – a father’s age to comfort – a God to serve. And shall selfish feeling disincline me to such duties as these? No, with more than seeming cheerfulness, I will perform them all. I will thank heaven for exempting me from the far heavier task of honouring and obeying a profligate![13]

Thus it becomes clear that, throughout Self-Control, Laura is presented as a moral standard and as a figure of example to the other characters in the novel, and indeed to none more so than her somewhat predatory suitor – or, the ‘profligate’ – Colonel Hargrave. Distressed by his brazen lack of morality and attempts at seduction outwith the morally acceptable bounds of marriage, Laura outlines the terms of what is described as Colonel Hargrave’s ‘probation’,[14] as she entreats him to ‘let a higher motive influence’ him – or, in other words, to submit to the process of religious improvement:[15]

Laura had resisted entreaty – had withstood alarm – had conquered strong affection; but the hope of rousing Hargrave to the views, the pursuits, the habits of a Christian, betrayed her caution, and gladdened her heart to rapture. ‘If for two years,’ said she, her youthful countenance brightening with delight, ‘your conduct is such as you describe – if it will bear the inspection of the wise, of the sober-minded, of the pious, – as my father’s friend, as my own friend, will I welcome you’.[16]

Ultimately, Hargrave fails his probation period and, knowing he won’t succeed with her, has Laura abducted. She escapes, and, after a ‘passage down the American River’, described somewhat satirically by Austen as ‘the most natural, possible, every-day thing [Laura] ever does’, Laura marries the equally virtuous Montague De Courcy.[17] Indeed, over the course of the novel, parallels are drawn between the two, leaving the reader in no doubt as to their marriage being one of proverbially true minds.

In addition to acting as a figure of example to other characters within Self-Control itself, it is important to note that Laura, too, is presented – and, indeed, intended – as an example to Brunton’s readers. Writing in her preface to the first 1811 edition of Self-Control (dedicated, by the by, to fellow Scottish female author, Joanna Baillie), Brunton expresses ‘for the generality of [her] readers…a fervent wish, that these pages may assist in enabling their own hearts to furnish proof that the character or Laura, however unnatural, is yet not unattainable’ (my italics).[18] This wish is crucial to understanding the novelistic metadiscourse that develops within Brunton’s novels – and, indeed, elsewhere – and which centres upon the possibility of readers being reformed by their experience of novel reading. As Mandal observes,

Brunton clearly perceives that fiction could itself offer a meaningful, effective tool for social improvement, particularly to an audience that might be resistant to more orthodox forms of moral didacticism. Portraying a heroine who is continually tested, both by her circumstances and her own desires, the essential message of Brunton’s novel is that regulation of the self leads to an understanding of one’s place in the Christian world, and therefore personal and social improvement.[19]

I believe that this metadiscourse, and the potential for self-regulation amongst characters and readers alike that it implies, is key to the best-selling success of Self-Control; certainly, it is something that I look forward to considering in greater depth over the course of the next three years. Indeed, in reading the debut novel of – to return, briefly, to The Scotsman – ‘a moral writer of so much excellence’ as Brunton, one can but hope that readers – past, present, and future – are successful in attaining (to use her word) the same, fruitful ‘habit of self-examination’ as that which her heroine so effortlessly demonstrates within its pages.[20]

[1] Anthony Mandal, “Introduction”, Self-Control, ed. Anthony Mandal (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. xiii. The extent of this ‘overnight bestseller’ status was reflected in the fact that, as Mandal later observes, Self-Control ran into ‘four editions within the first year of its appearance’ (xiii); it is the fourth of these editions – an 1812 edition, published by Edinburgh’s Manners and Miller – that appears in the Wigtown Subscription Library catalogue.

[2] Ibid, p. xiii.

[3] Anthony Mandal, “Note on the Text”, Self-Control, ed. Anthony Mandal (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. li.

[4]“THE LIBRARY: BENTLEY’S LIBRARY OF STANDARD NOVELS AND ROMANCES,” The Scotsman (1817-1858), May 13 1835, p. 4.

[5]  Discipline was subsequently published as the sixteenth volume of the Standard Novels series.


[7] Ibid.

[8]  Mary Brunton, Self-Control, ed. Anthony Mandal (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 5.

[9]  Mandal, “Introduction”, pp. xix-xx.

[10] Brunton, Self-Control, p. 32.

[11]  Ibid, p. 8.

[12]  Ibid, p. 172.

[13]  Ibid, p. 14.

[14]  Ibid, p. 34.

[15]  Ibid, p. 33.

[16]  Ibid, p. 34.

[17] Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, 11 October 1813; in The Letters of Jane Austen; ed. D. Le Faye, 4th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 244.

[18]  Brunton, Self-Control, p. 3.

[19]  Mandal, “Introduction”, p. xxi.

[20]  Brunton, Self-Control, p. 8.