About Me

My photo
I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Musing About Muses

Burns House Museum, Mauchline
I've been musing on the notion of the poetic muse. I did a bit of thinking about muses in The Jewel, given that Burns is on record as describing his wife, Jean, as his muse, but later commentators seemed determined to personify his muse in other, more majestic and less domestic ways. Actually, the poet himself also described his muse as 'Coila' - the spirit of the Kyle district of Ayrshire that had nurtured him, and given that he wrote so vividly about the natural world, this is entirely understandable.

Just as an aside, one or two people at various book events, have mentioned to me how pleased they are not just that Jean has been given her due, but that for much of the novel, the poet himself is depicted in summer. Not exclusively, of course, since the novel covers many years. But it's a sunny, spring and summer book and there is a sense in which Rab was so often a sunny spring and summer poet. He wrote about winter, for sure, but it's clear that he wasn't at his best in the winter months. I reckon now he'd probably be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder!

One of my favourite Burns songs is O Were I On Parnassus Hill, here in a delightful version by Ceolbeg. 'My muse maun be thy bonnie self,' he says, of his wife. 'Then come sweet muse, inspire my lay, for all the lee lang simmer's day, I couldna sing, I couldna say, how much, how dear I love thee!'

This poem has been dismissed as a 'vapid lyric' - by a man, obviously. I've read it to largely female audiences, all of whom seem to appreciate it immensely as a 'honeymoon poem' which is exactly what the poet intended. You know, that intense feeling when you can't bear to be apart from the beloved for any length of time? But perhaps modern men prefer more stately and intellectual muses.

muse
myo͞oz
noun
(in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.
synonyms: inspiration. creative influence,  stimulus.
formal
"the poet's muse"
a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
noun: muse; plural noun: muses

Anyway, I got to thinking - what about women? I've never had a muse.  Have you? As a writer, I've had - and still do have - a very supportive husband. Before that I had a wonderfully supportive father. On the other hand, I've known men who have been downright counterproductive as sources of inspiration although female friends have sometimes inspired me. 

But I never felt the need of a muse and wouldn't know where to begin searching for one. Maybe it was a good excuse for writer's block. The man could blame the woman (or muse) for deserting him. All the fault of her indoors as usual. 












Thursday, May 19, 2016

Launching a Novel: Pausing for Breath

Research material.
Last week was a whirl of train travel and book events for me: the Boswell Book Festival, followed by Blackwell's in Edinburgh followed by Waterstones in Argyle Street, on a warm and sunny evening in Glasgow. In between I managed to spend a very happy couple of hours chatting to my son - who had come down to Edinburgh  from Dundee for the occasion - in the gorgeous Cafe Royal in West Register Street, a place I used to visit occasionally with radio producers and other 'media people', back when I was writing radio drama for a living.


'You look very comfortable in here,' he remarked.

I studied at Edinburgh University and I lived in Edinburgh for five years in total, two of them in a big, shabby, cold, but beautiful flat in the New Town, and I still love the place. One of these days, I keep promising myself, I'll move back there.

Truth to tell, I love the book events as well. What's not to like about chatting to nice people about a subject you love? And this time, the questions have been fascinating, perhaps because so many people know about Robert Burns, have wondered about his wife, and are now really interested to hear more about her.

But it's also good to have a breather this week, if only to catch up on the mountain of paperwork that seems to have accumulated on my desk in a short space of time - as well as tackling the garden that was awash with mare's tail and ground elder. Besides, I have letters to write, books to post, people to email. And a husband with an art exhibition coming up next month to add to the confusion.

The book is going very well, I'm pleased to say. It is Scottish Book of the Month for May in Waterstones and Blackwell's Book of the Month too. I feel an extraordinary sense of pride in Jean, my long neglected heroine. You can't live with such a fine character for so long - a couple of years of intensive research and writing - without growing to love them.  I feel as though Jean is a friend. Rab too, although you'd find yourself coping with the warm blast of his charm.

Next week I've an event in Ayr and then what promises to be a really fun evening at the Globe Inn in Dumfries - where the poet bedded Ann Park - on 22nd June. (In conjunction with Waterstones)  I use an academic year planner - August to August - so yesterday I pinned up a new one because I'm beginning to be booked for autumn and winter and even a few dates for next year.

In between, there's a new project or two nipping at my imagination. Meanwhile, I've been thinking about muses. Of which more in the next exciting post!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Three Common Misconceptions About Jean Armour's Husband - and the Probable Truth.


In among various conversations about The Jewel, Jean and Robert Burns, over the past few months, both with individuals and with groups, I’ve realised that three misapprehensions about the poet are still current. These are beliefs I thought had been disproved by more distinguished academics than me years ago. Let’s look at them.

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.