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.

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.

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. 

The New Mattress and the Selkirk Grace

For anyone who has been wondering what happened next, the new mattress is wonderful, thanks! It's a Sealy Posturepedic Diamond Latex and no, they aren't paying me to advertise. I don't do that on this blog. But when something is this good, I may as well be honest about it. 

I love it.

It is about a million times more comfortable than the Memory Foam Monstrosity: firm but not too firm, soft on top, springy where it needs to be springy, deep and deeply comfortable. Actually, I didn't sleep too soundly last night, only because I kept half waking up and thinking 'Wow, isn't this mattress blissful?' and then falling asleep again.

My husband, who was excessively attached to the Memory Foam Monstrosity thinks that it is 'alright' which is high praise. We'll see. The day the MFM is carted away by the council is the day I'll know he means it.

In other news, the weather is wintry beyond belief and we had a power cut this afternoon. We were due to attend a meeting at the Burns Museum in Alloway, so took ourselves off there for an excellent lunch first.  Does this count as 'research' for my Jean Armour novel? Maybe. Disappointed to see that the museum shop is selling Burns Supper invitation cards containing the Selkirk Grace with ... aargh ... the wrong words. Not just a variation on the Scots which would be OK, but an intrusive 'not' that makes a  nonsense of the second line and - to some extent - the whole wee poem: 'Some wad not eat that want it.' Did they think Rab got it wrong, maybe and took it upon themselves to edit him?

Just in case this bugs you as much as it bugs me, here are the right ones:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

The Hated Memory Foam Mattress Meets Its Doom Today. Yay!

My most popular blog post ever wasn't on this blog - it was on my old Scottish Home blog (now amalgamated with this one because I can't manage more than one blog at a time) - and it was titled I Hate My Memory Foam Mattress. Turns out that a whole lot of other people hate their memory foam mattresses as well. And since on the internet, everything lasts forever, the comments still pop up on that post from time to time.

Some years ago, we decided that the time had come to buy a new mattress. I was persuaded by my husband and the salesman to go for a memory foam mattress. Big big BIG mistake. As soon as I got into it, that night, I realised that I hated it with a passion. It was like sleeping on quicksand. It sucked you in. You couldn't move. You could hardly get out of it. It smelled horrible. And the heat emanating from it was a nightmare.

The problem was that my husband, with serious arthritis, loved it. Still does, really. Eventually, unable to stand it any longer, and becoming subject to all kinds of inexplicable aches and pains, I took myself off to the spare room. My husband's arthritis got worse and worse. I blame the mattress. He won't hear a word said against it. But I remember adverts at the time proclaiming that you don't move much on a memory foam mattress and selling this as a benefit. But it isn't a benefit for anyone with arthritis. We are designed to move when we sleep and if we don't do it, and are prone to arthritis, we seize up. He seized up good and proper. Trouble is, I don't think anyone is researching this kind of thing. Why would they? The manufacturers won't do it. Everything you read online suggests how good these wretched things are.

Fortunately, the mattress has now lost its memory. I couldn't be happier about this, even though it was an expensive purchase. It doesn't spring back. It is set, like cement, in my husband's shape, and there is an ineradicable dip in the middle. When we have visitors I (don't much) sleep in there with him and find myself sliding slowly down the sand dune, clinging to the edge of the bed.

So - just after Christmas, we went in search of a new mattress. I note with a certain amount of wry amusement that the manufacturers of horrible memory foam mattresses have cottoned onto the fact that a lot of us loathe them, and are busy trying to ameliorate the problems by adding springs, coils and all kinds of other things. Still, as we left one shop, I met a man who was arguing with his wife. She wanted the memory foam. He had just sat on the mattress in question, struggled to get up and said 'I'd be wrecked within weeks if we had one of those.'

I couldn't resist it. 'You probably would be,' I told him.'And your wife will suffer from heat stroke.'

The new mattress arrives today. We got it in the January Sales, in Archers and it's a Sealy Posturepedic. We tried it out in the store. If felt absolutely wonderful, reasonably firm underneath, springy, soft on top, natural. Now my sceptical husband says that he won't be flinging out the memory foam job until he's sure that he can sleep on this new one so we have to keep it for a bit. If it wasn't so environmentally unsound (not to say toxic) to do it, I would be tempted to build a bonfire in the garden and put the old mattress on the top. As it is, I'm keeping fingers and toes crossed that it will soon be the subject of a special uplift from the council and sent to the recycling centre to be made into whatever useful substances can be recovered from this waste of space as a mattress.

My Obsession With Textiles

Detail of an Ayrshire whitework baby gown
Yesterday, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the company of the ladies of the Ayrshire Embroiderers' Guild. They'd asked me to speak to them about my collection of Ayrshire whitework - and the history of this astonishing needlework - but it was going to be some time in the future. Since I'm not too far away, I offered to fill in if any of their speakers let them down - and the opportunity arose a lot sooner than we expected. One of their speakers had to cancel so I stepped in.

I'm occasionally asked to speak about this work to various local groups. I take along my own collection, set it out on a couple of tables, talk about the history and then let people handle and examine it. There's nothing quite like being able to see and touch the real thing when it comes to textiles, and since whitework like this is quite surprisingly washable (in spite of its obvious delicacy) I'm happy for people to look more closely - especially embroiderers. I should add that I felt a bit of a fraud because I can't embroider at all, even though I so often write about the textiles I love. My late mum was an embroiderer but I have trouble sewing on buttons!

Somebody in the audience asked me where my interest first started. It was a good question. My mum used to go to the saleroom quite often and in the school holidays, I went with her. She was into pottery and porcelain but even back then, it was the textiles that attracted me: vintage and antique clothes, shawls, baby dresses, linen and lace of all kinds. My first purchase, when I was old enough to bid for myself, was a beautiful but very badly damaged antique whitework baby dress. From then on, I was hooked.

Continental needlework - very beautiful!

Now, I collect textiles, and deal in them from an eBay shop called The Scottish Home, dividing my working life between these and my novel writing. If I have a big writing project on, like now, I will do much less selling online. If times are hard, then I will restock my shop and sell whatever I can bear to part with. But the whitework stays here. That's my own little obsession.

I find that these lovely old embroideries and other textiles find their way into my fiction all the time. Sometimes it's just a matter of getting costume right when I'm working on historical fiction. Sometimes, as with The Curiosity Cabinet and The Physic Garden, the embroidery is more central to the story. I don't know quite why I'm so passionate about these things, but there does seem to be some connection between the interweaving of threads and the weaving of words into stories in my mind!

A little while ago - recognising that a lot of of people out there might be looking for ways to make a bit of extra cash I also wrote a fairly basic eBook guide to buying and selling vintage items online and elsewhere. It's called Precious Vintage and it's available as an eBook on all the popular platforms - for example on Amazon and in the iTunes store and on most other platforms too. So if like me you're obsessed with some particular area of collecting, you could do worse than try to turn your hobby into a source of much needed income.

Detail from a Georgian christening cape that features in
my novel, The Physic Garden

And a Very Happy and Successful 2015!

My lovely haunted cupboard.
One of the nice things about living here in a small Scottish village is that for a few days and sometimes weeks after New Year's Eve, every time you meet a friend or acquaintance for the first time, they will shake hands or kiss you (or both) and wish you a 'happy new year!' There's something quite cheering about getting so many good wishes in such a short space of time.

Have just spent two good working days when I ought to have been writing, taking down and putting away Christmas decorations. And cleaning up the resulting chaos of dust, pine needles, dried up holly leaves and general domestic disorder. And trying to come to terms with the slight feeling of let-down because I love Christmas, coupled with the overwhelming sensation of panic at the amount of writing I now have to do.

It will get done. It always does.

Have also, however, been distracted by the EU and its new VAT regulations on digital downloads. Fortunately, Amazon and D2D, my distributors of choice are handling the nuts and bolts. Not quite sure what my trad publishers are doing about it yet. But it still means higher prices for eBooks for which I apologise now, to my readers and potential readers. I'll still keep them as low as possible, within reason.

There's also a certain amount of work for me while I decide how much of this price increase I can afford to absorb, and lots more business for Amazon, which I suspect was not really the intention of this bad, stupid, ill thought out law. It was no doubt developed by a bunch of Brussels fat cats who haven't a scoobie how digital sales work, and whose salaries are so monumental that it never crosses their minds than anyone might have to supplement their meagre incomes with a micro-business or two. And even if it does cross their minds, they will probably be of the 'let them eat cake' persuasion.

Meanwhile, if you want to know the kind of thing that really goes on in a small Scottish village in winter, you could always read Ice Dancing.  It's very authentic!