Spooks Week: The Real Jean Armour

 

19th century ivory miniature of Robert Burns

I've written so much about Robert Burns that you'd think I'd have seen his ghost by now, but I never have. I suspect if I did see him, he would look nothing like the above romanticised image, although as a young man he was described as very dark and 'spare' - slim without being skinny - with fine dark eyes. He liked to dress fashionably when he could, so I reckon he'd have been an attractive young man. His wife Jean Armour certainly thought so.

Even before I knew much about her, I had a soft spot for Jean. I thought she had been hugely neglected over the years by later commentators. Catherine Carswell, in her biographical novel of Burns described her outrageously as a 'young heifer' while even the present day Burns organisations never seem to make much of a connection between the wee song bird on his self designed seal, with the motto 'wood notes wild' - a phrase he always associated with the wife he loved. She had the finest singing voice in the district. 

I've never seen Jean's ghost either, although I would have been very happy to meet her. I think she was a woman of great character, with a wonderful sense of humour. However, something happened when I was researching my novel about her, The Jewel, that certainly gave me pause for thought.

I had been researching Jean, her milieu, her marriage, her life story, for a long time before I ever plunged into writing The Jewel. That's the way it works for me. I try to immerse myself in a time and place for as much as a year beforehand (sometimes more) and then when I get down to telling the story, I'll find out even more things that I didn't know I didn't know, and have to research those too. It's absorbing but exhausting. 

For a time, it seemed as though there was nothing but Jean Armour in this old house which, when you think about it, would have been built while Jean was still alive. She died in 1834.

One night, my husband had got up to go to the loo. It adjoins the room I use as my office, just off our bedroom. I woke up too, as you do, so I saw him come back through the bedroom door, halt for a moment or two, say 'oh!' in a puzzled tone of voice, and then get back into bed. 

'What's the matter?' I asked. 

'I could have sworn I saw a woman standing in the doorway,' he said. 'At first I thought it might be you, but she was wearing strange clothes, a long skirt, a shawl, a cap on her head.' 

'The following morning, I showed him a picture of Jean Armour. 'That's her' he said.

I must admit I was a bit sad that I hadn't seen her myself. But we were immersed in her, so perhaps it's not surprising that my 'thought forms' had suddenly become visible to my poor husband! It's maybe just as well I don't write horror stories ... yet. 


Jean and I


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