Exploring the dramatic relationship between Robert Burns and Jean Armour
My novel The Jewel explores the dramatic relationship between Robert Burns and Jean Armour, the woman who, after a long and tempestuous courtship, finally became the poet’s wife. Many biographers and critics have not been particularly kind to Jean. Burns’s lover Margaret Campbell – or Highland Mary as she’s more popularly known – was much more appealing to Victorian sensibilities as the demure heroine, conveniently dying young and depicted gazing adoringly up at her lover in a dozen Staffordshire flatbacks.
Similarly, the poet’s overheated letters and beautiful poems to Nancy McLehose, aka ‘Clarinda’, are intriguingly mysterious. Did she succumb to the poet or not? Only the two people most closely involved could say for sure, and they never revealed the secret. Jean and Nancy did, however, take tea together some years after the poet’s death, although I can’t imagine that Nancy was moved to speak about the details of the relationship.
However, accounts of ‘Jeanie’ often range from dismissive to downright insulting. She has been called everything from ‘glaikit’ (foolish) to an unfeeling ‘heifer’.
The best-known painted portraits of Jean Armour show an elderly woman, her strong face marked by ill health. There is a much more sympathetic picture of Jean as a widow, probably in her forties and very much at ease with herself, but what seems to be missing from most images and accounts is Jean’s vitality. She was a vivacious brunette with a kindly manner, a steadfast generosity and a fine singing voice. Moreover, she had a fund of songs and melodies with which to enchant the lover who was to become her husband.
She may not have been scholarly, but she was certainly literate, as were her girlhood companions, the ‘Mauchline belles’, the self-consciously superior lassies of the town with their interest in fashion and novels. Later, her wisdom and strength of character in coping with her husband’s infidelities, his moods, his illness and early death – not to mention the ever-present threat of poverty – speak to us of a woman of spirit and fortitude. And all while bringing up a family of children, including the poet’s daughter by another woman.
Until now there has been no single collection of the poems Robert Burns wrote with Jean Armour in mind, or at the very least with memories of their courtship informing the lyrics. It will be clear to anyone reading these poems and songs – as well as the letters – that Rab and Jean’s love for one another was real and abiding, even though they may occasionally have fallen out of liking.
I’ll Ay Ca’ in by Yon Town
I’ll aye ca’ in by yon town,
And by yon garden green again;
I’ll aye ca’ in by yon town,
And see my bonie Jean again.
There’s nane sall ken, there’s nane can guess
What brings me back the gate again,
But she, my fairest, faithfu’ lass,
And stownlins we sall meet again.
I’ll aye ca’ in, &c
She’ll wander by the aiken tree,
When trystin time draws near again;
And when her lovely form I see,
O haith! she’s doubly dear again.
I’ll aye ca’ in &c
(Tune: I’ll Gang Nae Mair To Yon Toun)
This song recalls the secret meetings between Robert and Jean, when Jean’s parents disapproved of the poet. Certainly, even while Robert was in Edinburgh and was writing love letters to Nancy McLehose, he was still arranging the occasional ‘tryst’ with Jean: he could never quite keep away.
The town of the song is presumably Mauchline and we know that the couple was in the habit of meeting in the countryside round about. It may be that for Robert, the ‘garden green’ is the garden of Netherplace House on the edge of the town.
stownlins: in a secretive manner
trystin: meeting or assignation
O haith!: exclamation of surprise
For Jean is a new collection of Robert Burns’ poems and songs written for his wife, Jean Armour. This volume also includes a chapter of his letters to, and about, Jean. Both verse and correspondence cast fresh light on their relationship. For Jean by Catherine Czerkawska is out now published by Saraband Books priced £7.99.
Catherine Czerkawska will be on BBC Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth Show on Wednesday 25 January. She will be appearing at the Burns Celebration Day being held at Ayr Waterstones on Saturday 28 January from 10am.