Monday, March 23, 2015

Downloading Rab - or - yet another post about Jean Armour!

I'm reblogging this from my recent Authors Electric contribution since I got a kick from writing it - and I hope you might enjoy reading it.

I wrote this play about Burns for Glasgow's Oran Mor venue
As everyone who knows me, and quite a few people who don’t, will know by now, I’m working on a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour. Never heard of her, somebody said to me only the other day. Which is one of the reasons why I’m writing it. Even when I wrote my play Burns on the Solway for one of the Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor, I found myself writing about Jean as much as Rab.

Anyway, as usual in mid-project, especially mid historical project, I’m doing a lot of research. Some of it is necessary but some of it is just for fun, meandering down some strange highways and byways of history and occasionally (like last week) coming up with one or two electrifying possibilities about certain – I hesitate to use the words ‘sacred cows’ but they just popped into my head – of Burns lore.

Also popping into my head in the early hours of the morning with uncomfortable regularity is the desperate need to look something or other up just to see if it fits with my far-fetched but fascinating thesis about somebody who isn’t central to the story – but the theory is perfectly possible and much too good, not to say controversial, to leave out.

Anyway, there I was, all cosied up in bed on a wild, wet and windy morning, 5 am and I was wondering if I could really be bothered to get out of bed before the central heating had come on and pad through to the study and rummage through my great heap of research books old and new until I found the poem I was looking for to see if it really did seem to say what I thought it said, and if it really did seem to date from when I thought it did.
Jean, in her late forties, John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council

No, I couldn’t, was the answer to that one.

Then I noticed that my Kindle was lying beside the bed. It’s a Paperwhite, so I didn’t even need to switch it on. I just opened up its girly pink cover and woke it up. Unlike my husband, it never seems to object. It had just occurred to me that although I have many volumes of Burns’s poetry and letters, some of them quite old and rare, I don’t have any of his poems on my Kindle. I touched the shopping cart symbol, put Robert Burns into the search box, and up popped lots of available editions including one that had everything, and I mean everything, with all kinds of interesting old annotations and notes. 99p. I gently touched Buy It Now and within about three seconds it was on my Kindle, and I was reading it. Some blessed soul has digitised this out of the goodness of his or her heart, and although the formatting isn’t perfect (Well have you ever tried formatting poetry or even plays for an eBook?) the readability is spot on and the notes are fascinating.

I spent the next couple of hours until I could justifiably get up and make the tea, reading through a series of poems written particularly at the time I had been speculating about. Another thing struck me forcibly. I found it easier, much, much easier, to read the longer poems on the Kindle than on the pages of a book. I have no idea why that should be, but it was true. I’ve ploughed my way through The Holy Fair before today and found it difficult, even with a good working knowledge of the Scots language of Burns’s time. No longer. It was like a lightbulb coming on in my head. The Holy Fair, if you don’t know it, is a blissfully satirical account of one of the huge festivals of preaching, prayers and communion held in late eighteenth century Scotland. 

Fabulous old photo of Mauchline's Cowgate,
courtesy of
This one was in Mauchline about a mile away from Rab’s farm at Mossgiel. But the fact of the matter was that they were also festivals of eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and subsequent fornication. Even those who disapproved of the raw satire couldn’t actually say that the poet was lying or even exaggerating. In fact the Holy Fair seems to have borne a strong resemblance to those days of misrule you find in Mediaeval times when all the gravity of the church would be turned topsy turvy and I suspect the origins of them are pretty much the same – a sort of communal letting off steam. 

Reading it on my Kindle, I find myself appreciating the poem from the ‘batch o’ wabster lads, blackguarding frae Kilmarnock ...’ (Kilmarnock weaver lads coming into town – probably with money burning a hole in their pockets - and definitely up to no good, certainly nothing holy) to the lovely lines: Oh happy is the man and blest, nae wonder that it pride him, whas ain dear lass that he likes best, comes clinkin’ down beside him. Wi’ arm reposed on the chair back, he sweetly does compose him, which by degrees slips round her neck and’s loof upon her bosom, unkenn’d that day. I do like the idea of the happy man copping a wee feel of his ain dear lass’s ‘bosom’ while the oblivious minister is preaching hell fire and damnation. You get the feeling that the poet is writing what he knows all about, don’t you? 

The last lines of the poems are probably the best known:

There’s some are fu’ of love divine
And some are fu’ of brandy
And many jobs this day begun
Will end in houghmagandie
Some ither day. 

Houghmagandie. If you don’t know what it is – I’ll bet you can guess.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean
Anyway. Amid all this, it struck me how very privileged I am to be able to access this with so much ease. The ancient volumes in my possession are engaging and - yes – they smell good to me. I quite like that old, dusty, library smell. But on a wild, wet and very cold March night give me a warm bed and a Kindle. And for most other practical purposes too, if I'm honest.

The internet has revolutionised this kind of research. Too much, sometimes. The temptation to pursue white rabbits (or sacred cows) down enticing holes in the fabric of the world wide web is overwhelming and the research can expand to ridiculous proportions. On the other hand, there’s something extraordinarily satisfying in piecing together a complicated tissue of known facts, rampant speculation and distinct possibilities based on a hundred subtle hints. It’s one of the things I love about writing historical fiction: that combination of the actual and the possible facilitated by the countless pieces of the puzzle that are now available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen. 

The Holy Fair - Robert Bryden

Making sense - or credible fiction - of them all is where the fun starts.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Is this the real Jean Armour?

Jean by John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council
It happened a few months ago and it came quite out of the blue. I had never seen this picture on the left before. Then it popped up online, on the BBC's 'Your Paintings' site, under the name of Scottish portrait painter, John Moir. I'm assuming this is because the BBC, in conjunction with museums and councils, are now digitising public collections - which is excellent news for historical novelists everywhere!

For the past year or so, as anyone who follows this and the Authors Electric Blog will know, I've been researching - and now I'm in the middle of writing - a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, his 'bonnie Jean'. But of course, the research never ends. You find yourself pursuing strange little byways of history, enticing and fascinating, speculating endlessly about what might have happened,  and eventually you have to tell yourself firmly to get on with the story. But just occasionally something amazing happens.

Like this picture that quite suddenly appeared on my computer screen - a bolt from the blue.

If you know anything at all about Robert Burns, if you have been to any of the excellent museums where his life story is explored and celebrated, you will have been told that we don't really know what Jean looked like. We have her husband's word for it that she was 'clean limbed, handsome and bewitching.' Clean limbed, incidentally was a great compliment, albeit hard to translate. Slim and well formed, I suppose is as near as we can get. She had the 'handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution and the kindest heart in the country.' Certainly she was a tolerant and sweet natured woman but she doesn't ever come across as a doormat. So presumably, she was a woman of great character. And she could sing. Beautifully.

But most accounts of her life refer to the portrait on the right, with her grand-daughter, which is of an older lady in every way, the lines of pain etched onto her face. And although it's a strong face, it doesn't stand up well when compared with the pretty silhouette of Nancy McLehose (Clarinda) or the romantic depictions of Highland Mary who died young and tragically.

Jean lived on, of course, surviving her husband by many years, brought up her children (and another one of his), kept fresh flowers in the windows of her house in Dumfries and patiently welcomed in the pilgrims and the souvenir hunters, although she must have wished them far enough from time to time. I've learned one thing from all my research. If your dearest wish is to be immortalised as a romantic heroine, don't, for God's sake, outlive the love of your life. Die young, preferably of some fatal disease. Poisoning is a good alternative. But you could also consider leaping to your dramatic death. Male writers will love you for it. If you must live on, die in penury lamenting your lost love.

Jean did none of these things and look where that got her?

Anyway, you can imagine my excitement at suddenly seeing the much more youthful image at the top of this post - and tracing it back to South Ayrshire Council. It's currently in storage, but they are very kindly going to let me see it. If it is by John Moir, then it makes sense that it might have been painted in 1812 or 13 - which would put Jean in her late forties, still youthful, very smartly dressed, carrying a bit of weight after all those children - but an indisputably pretty woman, with those lovely candid eyes staring straight at you!

I've been able to discover a little more about Moir. He was born in Aberdeen, he went to Italy to study for a while, and then he set up his studio in Edinburgh where he produced some excellent portraits of the great and the good, including a splendid image of Willie Marshall the 'King of the Strathspey' whom Burns knew all about and called the 'first composer of Strathspeys of the age.'

Willie Marshall, National Galleries of Scotland
 I suspect he may have wanted to paint Burns, but by the time he was returning from Italy as a fully fledged artist in the 1790s, the poet was either ill or dying. In 1812, Moir was certainly exhibiting successfully in Edinburgh. Reviews speak of his great facility for painting children, but I haven't been able to find any examples online, although his work seems to crop up at country auctions from time to time. He didn't always sign his work either which complicates things. Examples seem to be largely in the possession of various councils.

There's some evidence that Jean was in Edinburgh around 1812 - James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd who seems to have had a bit of a crush on her, met her there. Her clothes in the portrait are intriguing - smart and fashionable, especially the bonnet and the beautiful shawl, which looks expensive. But then we know that she was a woman who liked nice things, and had once been married to a man who loved his wife to dress well, who bought lutestring silk for her dresses and ordered a very fine printed shawl for her from his friend who had set up business in Linlithgow. Her hair is still dark and curls around her face. Her skin is soft and clear. She looks both thoughtful and kindly. She is, it seems to me, a very attractive middle-aged woman - and it's easy to see the 'handsome and bewitching hussy' the 'delicious armful' lurking just below the surface. That, coupled with her obvious intelligence, certainly gives the lie to all those commentators who have seen fit to damn Jean with faint praise as 'not quite worthy' of her husband.

So what do you think?

If I can find out more about this portrait I'll certainly let you know.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Bear Necessities.

Family of very elderly bears
Some people reading this might not know that, wearing my other hat, I buy and sell antique textiles - partly because the contribution to our family income is essential when it comes to buying more writing time, and partly because I'm daft about them and have been since I was in my teens.

But just occasionally, I'm tempted by teddies as well. And last week, it happened again. I managed to acquire the sad little family of bears you see on the left. Mostly, I don't keep them - I rehome them and these will be no exception. I'd quite like to keep them and add them to my own collection but I can't afford to. Mind you, I did buy a couple of elderly Chad Valley teds a few years ago and they are still sitting in my living room just because one of them is so cuddly, even more cuddly than my own old bears, Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson, that I can't 'bear' to let them go.

Anyway, this quartet of teds came together in the same auction lot and obviously belonged together and I'm not planning to split them up. Like rescue dogs that have been brought up together, I'll try to find some sympathetic arctophile to take all of them. The biggest ted is the most valuable. This isn't always the case, but he isn't just any old bear, he's a pretty rare antique bear. He has no labels and no, he isn't a Steiff, but with his triangular face, his long arms and longish humped body, his quite chubby legs with definite ankles, his stitched nose, his boot button eyes and low set ears and most of all because of his slightly pointed pads on his feet, I think he's probably a very very early Ideal bear all the way from the USA - pre WW1 - which is a long time to survive. He's a bit threadbare, he's a bit wobbly, and he has some trouble about the feet where you can see some of his wood wool stuffing - but he's so smiley and engaging that I'm sure somebody somewhere will love him as much as I do and - more importantly - as much as somebody so clearly did in his long, long past.

Smiley and engaging.
He was very dirty and I have a feeling he had been kept with his companions in an attic - or at least that's what he looked like. The only thing I've done is given him a very gentle, very cautious clean up to remove the worst of the grime and show him up in his true honey colours. With him there's a much smaller blue bear - not half so old, I'm sure, but jointed and with nice eyes. There's a chubby little Japanese bear - much faded pink wool - with a working squeak (like Piglet!) which surprised me when I was brushing him very gently with a soft brush and touched his tummy. And finally there is a very strange creature with upright arms, no eyes, a terribly threadbare knitted jumper and feet that look as though they were intended to be booted at one point. He has clearly been loved almost to bits and only rescued by a grubby canvas covering, crudely stitched. Where it is coming apart, you can just see that there might once have been mohair or similar beneath - but if you touched him too much, he would fall apart!

Woppit? Loved almost to bits.
Looking at him, the shape and size of him, I think he was once a Merrythought Woppit Bear - issued in 1956 from the Story of Woppit cartoon strip. Almost unrecognisable, for sure, but I think that's what he was! His better known (and better preserved) cousin is, of course, Donald Campbell's Mr Whoppit. This one could do with some eyes, and possibly a whole knitted suit, to keep him together. But I find him touching beyond belief - somebody has clearly loved him very, very much.  

That's the problem with dealing in something you love - it's always so difficult to let them go! Meanwhile, if you think you too might like to try your hand at buying and selling antique and vintage items to add to the household income, I've written an eBook about it. It's called Precious Vintage and it's available across all platforms, but I'll give you the Amazon Kindle link, here in the UK and here in the USA. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Happy Birthday to Jean Armour

Jean's brooch

25th February  is Jean Armour's birthday. Not only that, but it's the 250th anniversary of Jean Armour's birthday - so why does nobody seem to have noticed but me?

Ah well. Happy Birthday, Jean!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Poor, Dear, Unfortunate Jean

Jean Armour in old age, with her grand-daughter. 

I posted this recently on the Authors Electric blog (some very good stuff on there at the moment about the hideous new EU VAT rules - you can find it at this link) but thought it might be worth reblogging it here on my own blog - especially given how close we are to Burns Night

For the past nine months or so, I’ve been deep into research for a new novel – a fictional account of the life of Robert Burns’s longsuffering wife, Jean Armour. Or, ‘poor, dear, unfortunate Jean’ as the poet (often called ‘the Bard’ up here) described her in one of his more whiny and self absorbed letters. And for the past couple of months, I’ve also been writing the novel itself. Or trying to.

He had offered her marriage, she had agreed, then repented under pressure from her parents, especially her dad who is reported to have fainted clean away when he heard the news of the common law marriage. He thought Rob wasn’t good enough for his much loved daughter, and he may well have had a point. Very much miffed, the poet decided to cut his losses and leave Scotland. Only the success of his first publication prevented him from heading to the Indies where he would probably have fallen victim to some foreign fever. But even when he was being celebrated in Edinburgh, even when he was seeing other women and writing love poems to and about them, his references to Jean in his correspondence suggest that he couldn’t quite dislodge her from his affections, however hard he tried. And believe me, he tried.

I’ve had a soft spot for Jean for more years than I care to recall. I’ve written two plays about Rob Mossgiel as Burns sometimes called himself – Mossgiel being the name of the family farm, or the one they were currently renting, anyway. Both times, the plays turned out to be as much about Jean as they were about her husband. Interestingly, even nowadays in Ayrshire, farmers are often named after their farms. There used to be a Jim Grimmet who lived outside this village. Sometimes it’s just the farm name as applied to the man – Auchenairney, for instance.

The Bleach Green in Mauchline which figures in the tale of Jean and Robert.
Also said to be the site of the Elbow Tavern.
The old man is Sandy Marshall, born while Jean was still alive.

I already knew quite a bit about Jean, but I needed to know more. There is a vast amount of information about Robert out there but considerably less about his wife. This, I’ve decided, is because with a handful of welcome exceptions, most of the commentators past and present, academic and popular, have believed the fiction that in marrying Jean, a reasonably prosperous, property-owning stonemason’s daughter, he was somehow marrying beneath him. Thank goodness for Robert Crawford who in his excellent biography of the poet, The Bard, was not shy of expressing his opinion that Jean was too good for her husband. Besides, if Jean’s dad thought that the marriage was a non-starter, how much less welcome would the Bard have been as the strapped-for-cash, albeit not actually penniless, partner of some country gentleman’s daughter in a Scotland where the class divisions were much more strongly marked than they are now. And the divisions still do exist.

Mossgiel looking very much as it would have done in Burns's time
Jean may not have been a great reader although she was well able to read and write. Books were scarce, unless – like her husband – you went out of your way to beg, borrow or buy them. She certainly read his poems. She was a strong, healthy, good natured and intelligent young woman who was willing to learn what she needed to know to support her husband and her children. There is a kindliness about her, a sturdy and beautiful sense of morality that shines through all her actions. And a deeply attractive physicality. The more I know about her, the more I love her. 

She even went to Mossgiel to learn all about dairying from Rob’s mother and sisters, when her husband took a lease on a small farm called Ellisland, down in Dumfries and Galloway. 

Ellisland in Dumfriesshire. They moved here from Mauchline.
Little of her correspondence survives. There were a few letters written by other people on her behalf but these were mostly on matters of business or legality, when she was older. It’s clear that she was literate but unsure of herself when it came to the complexities of these matters. We have a clutch of letters from her sons when they were grown up or in their teens, living elsewhere, especially from a son who was studying in London and wrote her the kind of loving, begging letter with which all mothers will be familiar: ‘It’s great down here, but I need some clothes and a bit of cash.’ Well, perhaps not in those very words, but that kind of thing.

We don’t know what she wrote to her husband when they were apart because he didn’t think to keep any of it. We have a handful of letters and poems from him to her, touchingly domestic, extraordinarily loving. In fact it seems very odd to me that strings of academics have been blind to just how much he loved and relied on her. 

Jean's teapot.

‘My Dear Love, I received your kind letter with a pleasure which no letter but one from you could have given me – I dreamed of you the whole night last; but alas! I fear it will be three weeks yet ere I can hope for the happiness of seeing you. My harvest is going on. I have some to cut down still but I put in two stacks today, so I am as tired as a dog.’ 

He goes on to talk endearingly about sweet milk cheese, table linen and her new gowns. Real life. We know that when he did manage to come back to Mossgiel, she would walk out to meet him along the road. As you would. They were in their twenties, in love and in lust. 

Robert Burns: the handsome husband.
But although it’s easy to get a sense of her, it’s harder to find out the facts. There are objects, of course, and references to objects, and that’s what fascinates me most of all : a pretty teapot, a flower picture, a plate, a pair of spectacles, a beautiful gold and coral brooch, a fine china bowl with birds and roses, a corner cupboard, a kettle, a cookery book and a bonnet box. I love her stuff. There’s so much of the woman in there. But as I read all these books, past and present, in which she figures only as a bit player, a walk-on part, I realise that so many of these commentators and researchers despise the domesticity instead of asking themselves what this love of pretty things and nice clothes might tell us about Jean and her husband, who clearly liked them too and aspired to a certain level of comfort.

Jean's flower picture

Oh, and she could sing like a bird. She knew all the old songs and she sang them well. And since her husband was a song collector, the song collector of Scotland par excellence – that too has to count for something, doesn’t it? Burns Night, by the way, is on 25th January. Robert was born on that date in 1759 in a cottage in Alloway not far from the town of Ayr, and almost immediately, the chimney blew down in one of the winter storms that were commonplace in the West of Scotland and still are. There's one blowing up even as I write this in a house built only fifty years after the year of the poet's birth. Jean was younger than her husband, born on February 25th in 1765. 

Meanwhile, I wrestle with the elephant in the room, a large poet-sized elephant, an elephant that has assumed the status of myth, all things to all men. This is a novel about Jean. It will of necessity also be a novel about her famous husband. But the task of making it genuinely about Jean and not about ‘Rob through Jean’s eyes’ like everything else ever written, including my own plays on the subject – that’s the really tricky bit!

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

January has been so horrible that I'm doing a three day giveaway on The Curiosity Cabinet!

My Scottish island novel
with a beautiful cover by artist Alison Bell
Up here in Scotland, especially in the West of Scotland where I live and work, it has been a truly horrible January. I mean it isn't generally the best month of the year, but we're only half way through and we have had almost constant wind, heavy rain, hailstones, snowstorms and more rain. As I sit here writing this, there is a horizontal blizzard roaring past my window! We have had power cuts and train and ferry cancellations. I know, I know - it's winter. But when it all comes at once after a fairly mild autumn, and when the post-Christmas malaise has set in as well, it's not exactly calculated to cheer you up, is it? And that's without reference to the hideous sad and sorry political situation in the world beyond this small village.

Anyway, apart from gazing morosely into my garden and noticing among all the chaos that some of the bulbs are starting to poke their noses through, and some of the shrubs are starting to show definite signs of buds, and the jackdaws that live among the chimney pots are clearly starting to think about nesting - I thought I might do a three day giveaway on one of my novels, The Curiosity Cabinet, on Amazon. Here in the UK and here in the US.

I haven't done a freebie for years and I don't suppose I'll be doing another one any time soon. I'm planning to release The Curiosity Cabinet, by far my best selling novel on Kindle, onto other platforms and also as a paperback, some time later in the year when I've completed the first draft of my new novel.

But meanwhile, since it's quite a sunny and summery book, set mostly on an idyllic Scottish island, I thought it might cheer a few people up. The island that inspired the book is my beloved Isle of Gigha, just off the Kintyre Peninsula, but I'm told it could just as easily be a number of other small, beautiful Hebridean islands.

The wonderful Isle of Gigha
The novel is listed as a 'time slip' novel but it isn't really. It's set in the past and in the present - two intertwined stories - and it's about the significance of parallel lives and loves. It's a quiet book. It's about the unsung lives of women, and the hidden histories of remote places. It's about the magic of small islands. It isn't really a mystery novel, and there isn't really a 'twist' in the tale. Some readers guess what has happened to bring Henrietta to the island but a surprising number of people don't. Either way, that's OK because that isn't really the point. The point is the sense that sometimes the problems and difficulties of the historical past can be resolved in the present. And then life goes on.

I think this novel was inspired by a fine writer called Elizabeth Goudge and a novel I read when I was still in my teens, called The Middle Window. It was an old novel, even then, but it enchanted me. I recently bought a battered paperback copy and reread it. It is very much a book of its time, but I still found myself caught up in the magic of her descriptions. Back when I was working in radio, I dramatised Kidnapped for BBC Radio 4 and that also fed into this story. I wrote a radio trilogy called The Curiosity Cabinet and then this novel which was different, in many ways, from the radio drama.

Anyway - it's free for three days, today, tomorrow and Sunday. If it cheers you up in the middle of a dreich winter, my job will be done!

The original Manus McNeill.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Needing My Fix of Wuthering Heights

Top Withens, the site, if not the building, that inspired Wuthering Heights.

Every so often, I find myself needing to reread  Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights all over again. I love this novel so much. Something reminded me about it today and (having read several paperback copies to bits over the years) I've just transferred the file to the newer of my Kindles. I don't know why but from time to time, these days, I also find myself acutely, almost painfully homesick for Yorkshire - but I think it's the Yorkshire of my childhood and that's a hard place to visit! 

I was born in Leeds. When I was young, we used to visit Haworth - my parents and myself - and we would walk over the moors to the already derelict farmhouse called Top Withens, said to be the site - if not the actual building - of Wuthering Heights. This was my mother's favourite novel as well and the reason why she chose to call me Catherine which isn't a family name at all. In fact family legend has it that my parents trundled me over the moors in a baby buggy, before I could walk and there is an old black and white snapshot to prove it. 

Ponden Hall  - much quoted as the model for Thrushcross Grange - is actually much closer to the appearance of the Heights, albeit not its situation. Browsing online today, I was enchanted to discover that you can stay there for Bed and Breakfast and they have an Earnshaw Room with - oh joy! - a box bed like Cathy's. 

I now want to go and stay there so much that it hurts. 
We'll see what this year brings. 

Here I am, right in the middle of a deeply Scottish writing project and I can feel my Yorkshire roots tugging at me, reminding me of something else I'm longing to write. Isn't that always the way of it? 

But really, Wuthering Heights has influenced so much of my writing - not least in my Scottish novel Bird of Passage which was always intended, not as a rewriting, for that would be impossible and undesirable, but a reimagining,  a 'homage' to the original if you like. 

One reviewer, Susan Price, describes it as a dialogue with the older book, and I like that idea very much. Sometimes it feels as though I've spent my whole career in a kind of dialogue with Wuthering Heights, never quite getting to the end of it as a source of inspiration.