The Ballad Repertoire of Anna Gordon, Mrs Brown of Falkland

By Emily S. Chasse. 2011. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. 339 pages. ISBN: 978-1-89797-632-6 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Julie Henigan.

[Review length: 719 words • Review posted on November 30, 2011]


The ballad repertoire of Anna Gordon (alternately known as Mrs. Brown of Falkland) has generated both admiration and controversy since the end of the eighteenth century, when the texts were first recorded. Dismissed by Ritson as new-fangled and by Scott as inauthentic, Mrs. Brown’s ballads were considered exemplary by both Robert Jamieson and, later, Francis James Child, who gave her variants pride of place in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads as instances of the best the popular ballad tradition had to offer. In the twentieth century, the differences between her renditions of several specific ballads became the focus of scholarly attention—held up by Bertrand Bronson as examples of oral re-creation and subsequently used by other scholars as ammunition in the conflict over the applicability of oral-formulaic theory to European balladry.

With the publication of Sigrid Rieuwerts’ The Ballad Repertoire of Anna Gordon, Mrs Brown of Falkland, those of us who have followed the controversies about variation, authenticity, and oral-formularity over the years can now more easily judge these matters for ourselves. The book presents the ballads—in two sections—as they appear in the various extant manuscript and print sources. The first section features facing-page comparisons of the ballads in Brown A (Jamieson’s transcriptions of the earliest, no longer extant, manuscript) with variants from Brown B (a somewhat later selection of ballads from A, transcribed by Mrs. Brown’s nephew, Robert Eden Scott) and Brown C (a still later selection of ballads written in Mrs. Brown’s own hand). The book’s second section features songs from sources without parallels in A, again putting variants of specific ballads together for easy comparison. Rieuwerts also provides the melodies from Brown B (again transcribed by Mrs. Brown’s nephew), both in printed notation and in manuscript facsimile.

Rieuwerts’ book is full of ancillary features designed to satisfy the most fastidious scholar—as well as to make the work of the comparatist easier. These include lists of the ballads found in each source, a glossary, a bibliography, an index, facsimiles of manuscripts and correspondence, and a table correlating Child’s texts of Anna Brown’s ballads with the sources for each one. The book also includes copious notes for each of the ballads, presenting synopses of the ballad-stories, international counterparts, and comments on melodic variants.

The introduction is equally useful—at least for those of us who have not had the opportunity to study the primary sources. Rieuwerts provides painstakingly detailed bibliographic descriptions of each of the manuscript and printed sources she includes, followed by a thumbnail biography of Anna Gordon Brown herself. This is in turn followed by a careful delineation of Mrs. Brown’s interaction with her “collectors” and editors and the use they made of her materials, all illuminated by correspondence between the various parties involved, including Mrs. Brown, her father Thomas Gordon, William Tytler and his son Alexander Fraser Tytler, Walter Scott, Robert Jamieson, and Joseph Ritson. The correspondence also highlights the publishing rivalries between Scott, “Monk” Lewis, and Jamieson, and clarifies the aesthetic standards and motivations of these very different personalities in relation to Mrs. Brown’s ballads. The letters that Rieuwerts includes by Anna Brown herself reveal a woman with a well-defined aesthetic sense, an established knowledge of literature and ballad scholarship, and some sense of the importance of her contributions to that scholarship. In assessing the critical reception of Mrs. Brown’s ballads, Rieuwerts also outlines the controversies surrounding the variations in her repertoire—controversies that, despite the publication of the present volume and Rieuwerts’s assertion that “with the evidence presented. . . it should now be possible to unravel the art of oral/written composition in Mrs. Brown’s repertoire,” may never be entirely settled. The publication of these sources does, however, allow the common reader to better evaluate them on their own merits and to come to an independent conclusion.

This is a splendid volume, one that contributes substantially to ballad scholarship, especially as it relates to a single singer’s repertoire over time—in this case, the earliest singer for whom we have such detailed records. The book is also exemplary in its adherence to the highest scholarly standards, its careful analyses, and its attention to detail, not only as a work of scholarship but also as an example of bibliographic artistry. Those already familiar with Rieuwerts’ work—and the previous publications of the Scottish Text Society—will not be surprised.