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.


You have a task ahead of you but your admiration for the character is already clear, and this will help with the writing. Good luck Catherine!