Jean Armour and Robert Burns.

Burns on the Solway (see post below this one) was another Oran Mor production. The play was a long time brewing, and one of these days I may go back to it and write something longer on the same subject, though Lord knows there have been plenty of plays about the poet. I've loved Burns, ever since we moved to Scotland when I was only 12 - a romantic and impressionable age! Once I discovered his songs, I was hooked. What other writer, at this time and place, could so precisely put himself into the mind of a woman, and write so sympathetically from her point of view? And if you want to know what I mean, read My Tocher's The Jewel for a fiercely female song, a full two hundred years ahead of its time. There are a number of otherwise distinguished Scots writers who can't even manage it now.
Later, I wrote a radio play about the inspiration behind Tam O' Shanter. And I gradually realised that - unlike so many (male) academics who wrote about the poet - I was becoming fascinated by the woman who became his wife: Jean Armour. She always seems to be relegated in favour of Highland Mary, Clarinda, or Maria Riddell, depending upon the writer's particular taste in heroines. (Men can be romantic too, they just conveniently categorise it as something else.)But I began to believe that Jean Armour may have been the one real love of the poet's life.
Perhaps writers are deterred by the Gilfillan portrait of 1822, when her husband had been dead for 26 years: a rather grim-faced elderly lady in a bonnet. But look closer and you will see her for what she is: a smart matriarch (why else would she be wearing her best bonnet?) with greying but still dark curls peeping out from below the frills, large, wideset, thoughtful eyes which must once have been stunning, rosy cheeks, and a slightly set line to her mouth which speaks not of ill temper, but of the memory of sorrow, or possibly even present pain: arthritis or rheumatism. She has a real 'Ayrshire' look about her. You can see many like her today, bonnie lassies all: lovely, clear skinned, capable young Scotswomen, like trees in bloom, strong and attractive.
Mauchline was a small place. Jean knew Highland Mary Campbell and her reputation, and by some accounts didn't like her very much. Like many a woman before her, she couldn't see how Rab could be so deceived in her, but Rab was always a soft touch where a pretty face and female vulnerability was concerned. The same goes for Clarinda. Although he wrote one of his most beautiful love songs for Nancy McLehose, it doesn't make her any less of a tease, nor does it change the sense you get from their correspondence that Rab was playing a game and that she was a willing conspirator - a kind of flirtatious game which it would never in a million years have occurred to honest Jean to play. Maria Riddell was a more serious proposition. It seems they were friends, and may or may not have been lovers. Certainly, she was bright, clever, and adored him. He enjoyed her company, genuinely liked her and was cut to the quick when she fell out with him, big time. Why else would he have written such bitterly satirical verses about her? They were reconciled before he died; Maria even visited his widow, and did her best to organise some financial help for her.
But Jean was the real woman in his life. It was serious with Jean. Her voice, herself, the essence of her is in so many of his best songs. She is at the heart of so much that we know and love about him. And if that seems overly romantic, it doesn't mean that it isn't true. It's just that her influence on him is seriously undersold.
She could sing, for one thing. Though Burns knew a good song when he heard it, and was perhaps the best lyricist ever to come out of Scotland, he was no musician. Jean was his voice. So many of the songs are essentially her songs. Even when they were not directly about her, I think he heard them in her voice. She was a kindly soul, a good woman in the best sense of the word, although she was very afraid of her father. She was attractive, and - although inexperienced when they met - she was comfortable in her own body. She loved him. She loved him enough to forgive him. She loved him enough to bring up his children by other women, although the more I learn about her, the more I suspect that she just loved children. She knew what it was to lose a child, and there was no way she was going to allow the sins of the father to be visited on his offspring.
For sure, she was a country lass and much is made of the fact that she wasn't his 'intellectual equal' - but there is another side to Robert Burns. Contemporary accounts (often with a certain amount of surprise) tell us that for much of his time, he was happy to live the life of a country farmer, fond of hearth and home, with the weans playing about his feet. And why not? It was the life he had been brought up to and it suited him.
So the play is as much about Jean, as it is about Robert - it is about the relationship between the two of them, as much as it is about the 'great poet'. It's not meant to be judgemental: it's just an exploration of the way it may have been, and an attempt to restore Jean Armour to her proper - and central - place in the poet's life.

Comments

lavenderlass said…
What a refreshing and wise point of view Catherine. Too often we ignore the influences on someone's life.
Janet Thompson Deaver said…
Catherine, I also share your views about Jean Armour. In my screenplay she is the true love in Robert Burns life. Cheers and a toast to you!

Janet "the Other Scot"
Many thanks Janet, and all good luck with your screenplay.
Catherine