So many people have repeated the judgement that Burns was a drunkard. He wasn’t but it goes back a long way. A mean spirited Dumfries draper called William Grierson attended his funeral in 1796 and wrote that the poet was ‘of too easy and accommodating a temper which often involved him in scenes of dissipation and intoxication which by slow degrees impaired his health and at last totally ruined his constitution.’
Well, he was as fond of a drink as the next man at a time when a prodigious amount of alcohol might be consumed by the gentry perhaps even more than the poor. Partly this was because in the cities at least – less so in the countryside where houses might have a well – fresh water was at a premium and it could be safer to drink ale, although ‘small ale’ contained very little alcohol. Actually, Rab was probably less inclined to overindulge in hard liquor than most, although he certainly had his moments. But when you look at the body of work he produced, alongside a vast amount of clever, entertaining, thought provoking correspondence, as well as hard physical work, first as a farmer and then as an exciseman, riding some 200 miles each week, winter and summer alike – and being a loving father to a great number of children - you can see that the occasional spree is much more likely than any persistent problem. He was a social drinker on high days and holidays. He also thought the odd ‘session’ contributed to his creativity (as perhaps it did). He was occasionally led astray by men who ought to have known better. And during his last grave illness, alcohol seems to have given him some slight relief, if only as a painkiller. But it wasn’t what killed him.
He didn’t die of the drink, and he didn’t die of consumption either. The evidence seems to point to a diagnosis of endocarditis – chronic inflammation of the heart muscle – which would certainly have been a challenge to his ‘constitution’, especially for a man involved in hard physical work in all weathers. Then, in Dumfries, he had a painful tooth abscess, and it’s now thought that the resulting massive infection, at a time when there were no antibiotics, would be enough to trigger acute endocarditis. He became gravely ill, with all the symptoms of that painful condition and died the following summer. During his last few weeks, he seems to have been able to eat nothing. Milk mixed with a little port wine was all that gave him any relief. But the ‘flying gout’ diagnosed by the doctors of the time was only a way of describing the dreadful widespread pains that beset him during his last few weeks.
Finally, I’ve been asked more than once if I thought Rab was a violent man. Well, I reckon he was a lover not a fighter. Fond of fishing, he was no fan of shooting and once took a neighbour to task for wounding a hare on the borders of his land (and wrote a scathing poem about it afterwards). He was, nevertheless, a man of significant presence, physical and intellectual. He was a better friend than an enemy and was known to threaten to ‘skewer in verse’ anyone who overstepped the mark, like the Celtic bards of old. But his reputation was always for non-violence, for tolerance and good humour and there is no evidence that he was ever violent towards any of the women with whom he was associated.
Who knows just what went on with Jean in the stable in Mauchline when the couple were, frankly, at their lowest ebb in a great many ways. Was it overwhelming passion or something verging on assault? We have Burns’s own version in a letter to a friend, bragging about a coupling he had persuaded himself Jean enjoyed as much as he did. But Rab was a chameleon and could write what he thought might most impress an individual correspondent. We would know nothing about this episode if Rab hadn’t chosen to brag about it himself. We have the fact that Jean was struggling with a mass of intractable problems not least a second unwanted pregnancy, and she went into labour very soon after the incident. But even then, she undoubtedly loved this man. The tension between desire – theirs was clearly an intense mutual physical attraction – and Jean’s obvious vulnerability presented me with some problems as a novelist. My interpretation may be slightly shocking, but I suspect it may be closer to the truth than the poet’s version. Of course we should remember at all times that we are reading and writing about an 18th century man. Laddish he may have been, but for his time, the poet’s ability to project himself into the minds of the ‘lassies’ – to defend them and appreciate them and befriend them – is one of the things that most endeared him to me when I was writing the Jewel. I suspect Jean loved him for it too.