Over the past few days, some of our newspapers have been touting the notion that Robert Burns was a 'sex pest'. Quite apart from the stunning lack of historical perspective displayed, the comparison seems peculiarly invidious to me. And here's why.
First of all, the poet had a great many well documented, close but largely platonic friendships with women of all ages. To be fair, he probably wished some of them were more than platonic, especially when the woman in question was young and pretty. But there's little evidence that he forced himself on anyone who wasn't willing and - a rare quality in an eighteenth century man - he seemed happy to write in the character of a woman in the songs he wrote himself as well as those like this one that he collected, here in an incomparable performance from the late Andy M Stewart.
Jean Armour's abiding affection for her husband.
To label as rape the encounter with Jean Armour described in the notorious 'horse litter letter' is to deliberately over-simplify a relationship of great complexity. So complex and dramatic, in fact, that I wrote a novel about it: The Jewel, published to critical acclaim by Saraband in 2016. I've spent years researching Jean, who has been neglected not to say denigrated by many Burns's biographers. Even Catherine Carswell, who might have been expected to have some sympathy, dismissed her as an illiterate and 'unfeeling heifer'.
|Portrait thought to be of Jean in middle age,|
by John Moir, courtesy of Rozelle House, Ayr.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The more I discovered about Jean, the more I found to love. She emerges from a morass of small and often neglected but vital references, pieced together bit by careful bit, as a woman of strength and wisdom, with an abiding affection for her husband.
Disapproving parents and an impatient lover.
In 1786 the poet had offered Jean marriage and then taken her hesitation for rejection. She had little choice in the matter. She was pregnant. With, as it turned out, twins. Her father had torn up the marriage contract and whisked her away to relatives in Paisley. She found herself trying to please both disapproving parents and an impatient lover, a dilemma which would cause family tensions even today.
Burns wrote a string of angry poems and letters. Never man loved or rather adored a woman more than I did her, and to confess a truth between you and me, I do still love her to distraction after all, though I won't tell her so if I were to see her, which I don't want to do. He could self dramatise as much as the next young man - 'hopeless, comfortless I'll mourn a faithless woman's broken vow!' he wrote, but beneath the exaggerated lines runs a deep vein of genuine passion: a prolonged howl of outrage, grief, hurt pride and thwarted desire.
|Mossgiel as it once was.|
A fond father.
He was driven half mad with it. He may have courted Highland Mary on the rebound, but Edinburgh and potential fame called and that ultimately tragic relationship was short-lived. Meanwhile, Jean's babies were born. Rab was always a fond father and, once weaned, the boy, Robert, went to Mossgiel to be brought up by the poet's mother and sisters while the girl, Jean, stayed with her mother and grandparents along the road in Mauchline.
The relationship was still fraught.
In Edinburgh, Burns met pretty Nancy McLehose. They corresponded under daft pastoral names. The whole Clarinda -Sylvander episode seems to most grown women like an exercise in (almost certainly thwarted) seduction, by means of overheated letters and the occasional equally overheated meeting. The lady was married, middle class and though physically tempted, she was cautious. There's no evidence that the affair involved anything more than a certain amount of touch and go. She probably let him touch, but then she made him go.
Unlike Jean who in 1788 found herself again carrying twins.
|By John Faed|
It says a great deal about their relationship and the manner of their courting that in later years, the song O Whistle and I'll Come To Ye, My Lad was a great favourite with Jean, who had her own version - tho father and mither and a should gae mad, thy Jeanie will venture wi ye my lad. Sadly, this isn't generally the version sung, but it should be.
The pregnancy must have alarmed them, although it couldn't have come as a surprise. Burns went back to Edinburgh feeling guilty - and truculent - about the emotional and physical mess he had left behind. Unlike many men, he couldn't quite ignore it either. Soon, both of them would be in mourning for their thirteen month old daughter who seems to have died in a domestic accident.
I am a girl out of pocket and by careless murdering mischance too, he writes, bitterly.
He doesn't blame Jean, but I've often wondered if he blamed her mother, since the two were never close, even when Jean's father was reconciled to the marriage. When this second pregnancy began to show, Jean was sent to stay with Willie Muir and his wife at the mill near Tarbolton, a few miles from Mauchline.
|Houses at Willie's Mill by Janet Muir|
At Willie's Mill.
Willie Muir had been a friend to the poet's father, William, and would have been well acquainted with the Armour family too. In fact the story told in Mauchline isn't that the Armours had 'shown Jean the door' - a myth the poet himself liked to perpetuate - but that, anxious to shield their daughter and themselves from the Mauchline gossips, they waited until Jean was visiting the Muirs and then suggested that she stay put.
Certainly this second pregnancy, unlike the first, seems to have escaped the notice of the Kirk Session, since there is no reference to it in the minutes book for those months. Willie and his wife were fond of Jean and when the poet came back from Edinburgh, I reckon Willie told the younger man exactly what he thought of his behaviour. It didn't go down well, but it must have stung. Muir would know all the right buttons to push, where the troubled relationship between Burns and his late father was concerned.
|Near the scene of the 'horse litter letter'.|
And so we come to the subject of that notorious letter. Burns had arrived in Mauchline, all high handedness and self righteous sympathy. But stubborn as a mule too. No, he would not marry her. She had rejected him once and that was that. His protests ring a little too loudly for truth. The best we can say of his behaviour at this time is that it is out of character. He took a room for Jean in Mauchline and later, in a horribly laddish letter to a friend, he bragged that he had made love to a receptive Jean on some 'dry horse litter' in the nearby stable.
I suspect the truth was that Jean, utterly conflicted, submitted to him without much enjoyment and probably in some pain. This was contrary to all their past encounters. I think he knew it, was immediately guilty about it and felt the need to justify it. To recast it as something it was not. The babies, little girls, born soon after, were premature and did not survive for long.
Never a cruel man, Burns had betrayed not just Jean but his own self imposed code of kindness. Even the briefest analysis of his poems and songs shows just how often he uses that word as one of the greatest of all virtues. How often he uses it to describe Jean herself. Even while he was writing pompous rubbish to 'Clarinda' about how much he despised Jean, he was planning something quite different: a future into which she would fit as easily as breathing. He must have known that too.
Within an extraordinarily short space of time, he had trotted back to Mauchline seeking her forgiveness and the couple were officially married - traditionally at Gavin Hamilton's house, just along the road from Jean's lodgings. There is some evidence, in fact, that they were never not married, according to Scots law. But now the liaison was officially recognised.
|Gavin Hamilton's house.|
The honeymoon period, as described in songs and letters, seems to have been both passionate and happy. This was the time of the exuberant I hae a wife of my ain and the simple but beautiful there's not a bonnie flower that springs by fountain, shaw or green, there's not a bonnie bird that sings, but minds me o my Jean.
By night, by day, afield, at hame, the thoughts of thee my breast inflame, and aye I muse and sing thy name - I only live to love thee. Though I were doomed to wander on, beyond the sea, beyond the sun, till my last weary sand was run - till then, and then I love thee.
Nobody ever knows what really goes on in a marriage and we sit in judgment at our peril. From the moment when they first set eyes on each other, Jean was never absent from Rab's story for very long. She lived for many years after his death and had offers of marriage, but turned them all down. She and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, were good friends. She even took tea with Nancy McLehose. (Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!)
She kept flowers in the windows of the house in Dumfries and was endlessly patient with her many visitors. She looked after her grand-daughter for a short time and the girl never forgot her kindness. She visited Gilbert, Rab's brother, on the East Coast, but she was a poor correspondent and always neglected to tell them that she had arrived home safely, so he wrote her plaintive letters saying that for all they knew she could have fallen over Ettrick Stane on the journey.
I think I would have liked her immensely.
A kindly woman and a good humoured man.
I'm often asked what I think of Burns, having spent so long on research for my novel. I always say that I can feel the warm blast of his charm, his sexuality, but most of all his good humour, some 230 years later. There are very few 'sex pests' who would elicit that response. Very few too, who would elicit the kind of lifelong love shown by a fine woman like Jean Armour.
If you want to read more about Jean, the true story, you can seek out The Jewel. You should be able to find or order it in Waterstones and other good bookshops, as well as in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and - of course - online. There's also a companion book called For Jean, in which I've collected the poems, songs and letters for and about Jean, so that you can read them for yourself.
The truth is rarely simple, but we owe it to history to inform ourselves before making 21st century judgments. What do you think?
|All about Jean.|
|Read the poems and letters for yourself.|