A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A couple of years ago, out of the blue, I was invited to play a part in our village Burns Supper. What a village in deepest, darkest Surrey was doing holding a Burns Supper is a mystery, but it was a superbly convivial event, and one I hope will be repeated many times. In spite of my complete lack of any Scottish connections or credentials, I was asked to reply to the Toast to the Lassies. Definitely something to put on the CV (especially if I ever feel the need to flee north of the Border). I knew absolutely nothing at all about the ritual of the Burns Supper; my research told me that my main two aims were to be sarcastic at the expense of the Laddies, and pay tribute to the founder of the feast, Robert Burns. It was great fun being allowed to lambast the laddies and their mansplaining ways, and I had no problem at all in exempting Burns from the charge sheet when I found and quoted one of his beautifully heartfelt, simple verses to his Jeany:
Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo’e best.
There wild woods grow and rivers row,
And monie a hill between;
But day and night my fancy’s flight
Is ever wi’ my Jean.
I see her in the dewy flowers;
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds;
I hear her charm the air.
There’s not a bonie flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There’s not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o’ my Jean.
How wonderful to be Jean! I could not help thinking. For all that I now have Burns Night form, I am not steeped in Burns lore and tradition, and do not really know his works, beyond the obvious and best known. It was a delightful and intriguing experience then, to be obliquely introduced to him through a novel based on the life of ‘my Jean’, Jean Armour, who was his wife and mother to his children and his sheet anchor in the country that is associated with him, Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire. Burns’s life and the trajectory of his poetical career took him away from home and across barriers of class; the simple country lass he married (eventually) is generally a bit-player in his romantic life, and has not always been given her due.
Catherine Czerkawska has written an elegant, beautiful, sincere and emotionally charged novel with steadfast Jean, not mercurial Robert Burns, at its centre. She imagines what the life of a girl like Jean, the Ayrshire stonemason’s daughter from Mauchline, must have been like – falling for ‘Rab of Mossgiel’, bearing his twins, married but not married, pregnant again, abandoned by Rab and subject to the judgement of her family, kirk and community. Around two thirds of the novel imagine Jean’s life before their ultimate marriage and setting up home, and the other third her life married to Robert Burns, and as his widow.
Burns’ love for Jean Armour began before he was a published and feted poet, just a brilliant lad with a bad reputation, striving as a farmer and a writer. Those beautifully simple verses date from that time, when he was captivated by Jean’s unshowy beauty and the loveliness of her voice. Her singing of the old songs inspired the musical side of his genius. Later, it was his success that complicated matters between them, and only Jean’s steadfast fidelity and patience saw her through to being together with him at last.
Catherine Czerkawska, as always, has found the perfect voice for her characters. The poetry of the simple old songs are in Jean’s voice, and the transforming touch of the poet in Robert’s. The narrative is rooted in the landscape of South-west Scotland with its particular beauty and its rigours. It is impossible to read it without being pulled into the time and place where these lives are being lived.
It is a marvel that for once Robert Burns’s story is not at the centre; it is Jean who is the pivot for the novel. She stays; he goes. He goes to Edinburgh; he mixes with scholars and gentlemen; he is lauded and celebrated and gains a fame in which she has no part. He comes back, and then he goes again. He falls in and out of love. But Jean remains and endures, his perpetual rock. She remains when he abandons her, crying betrayal, and never repudiates her love for him; she quietly insists on the promise of marriage she made to him, in the teeth of family denial; she provides a home when his natural children come to live with her own. She loses children in tragic circumstances, and raises others to live long and happy lives. Her love is tried and never wavers, just as his for her is never completely overcome.
Catherine Czerkawska’s research has immersed her in the lives of Jean and Robert. In no way is this a case of ‘your research is showing’ – it underpins a fictional world that is very believable. I am always interested in how successfully a pre-Victorian world is portrayed. It is refreshing when the right tone prevails, as here. In the 18th century codes are strict; policing of morals is harsh; families and communities can be unforgiving, but can still provide the stark shelter that enabled Jean to survive. (The Diaries of Thomas Turner are contemporary evidence of this.)
I found this novel a delight to read, lyrical throughout and in turns romantic, tragic and full of the quiet strength of its heroine. As always, the publisher Saraband has made an excellent job of the book, creating for it an enchanting cover, with legible text on the page, and no typos – huzzah! Any doubt that Jean was the true love of Burns’s life and his most worthy companion in life is dispelled in this beautiful book.
Catherine Czerkawska. The Jewel. A novel of the life of Jean Armour and her husband, Robert Burns. Glasgow: Saraband, 2016. 330pp.