I'm reblogging this post - with a few changes - from 2016, when the Jewel, my novel about the poet's wife, Jean Armour, was first published by Saraband. After all, it's the right time of year, even if the only Burns Suppers we'll be attending will be online. I never thought I would miss book events as much as I do but I miss meals with friends even more, and that's what a Burns Supper is, after all - a meal with good friends. And poetry. And song. Mind you, it's probably my least favourite meal of the year, given that the only parts of the menu I like are the oatcakes and cheese at the end.
After many conversations about Jean and Robert Burns, with individuals and groups, I’ve realised that some misconceptions about the poet are still very much in existance. These are beliefs I thought had been disproved by more distinguished academics than me years ago.So many people have repeated the notion 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 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 the next man often consumed a prodigious amount of alcohol, the gentry even more than the poor. Partly this was because in the cities at least – less so in the countryside where many houses would have a well – fresh water was at a premium and it could be safer to drink ale, although ‘small ale’ contained very little alcohol.
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, although not necessarily fatal, inflammation of the heart muscle. This would certainly have been a challenge to a constitution already weakened by rheumatic fever in his youth. Here too was a man who was involved in hard physical work in all weathers.
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 loved his children and was happy to work with them playing around his feet. Not for him the retreat to the study and the writerly hush. He was by all accounts an indulgent father who appreciated a little mischief.