Showing posts with label Historical Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Historical Fiction. Show all posts

Blending Fact and Fiction - Writing Advice




This is one of my occasional 'how to' posts, although I don't ever presume to tell people how to write - so it's more of a 'how do I do it' kind of post. Or even 'how did I do it' because there's no guarantee that I'd do it the same way in future. Writing is always a learning process. The theme of this blog was suggested by writer friend Wendy Jones. It was originally intended as a podcast, but fell victim to various unforeseen circumstances earlier in the year. I'd already drafted out some notes in response to Wendy's questions  - so just in case they might be useful - here they are - and the podcast may still happen at some point. 

To illustrate this, I'll be considering a couple of novels published some time ago, but still available online: The Physic Garden and The Jewel.

The Physic Garden was inspired by the true story of a Scottish gardener, but it evolved into a tale of friendship and terrible betrayal, set in late 18th and early 19th century Glasgow. It's a first person narrative, told by an old man looking back on his life.  The narrator, William Lang, had a voice so strong that he simply had to tell his own story. One of my (disappearing) agents suggested that it would work better as a third person narrative and I tried it, but I just couldn't. William wasn't having it. During one of my book group sessions, after publication, a woman asked me how I could have written 'a whole book about such an unpleasant old man.' I was gobsmacked. William may be crabbit. A little tetchy from time to time. A man whom bitter experience has changed irrevocably. But this is the story of his youth, of tragic events that have made him the man he is. I loved him from start to finish. 

In the Physic Garden, (physic as in medicinal, NOT psychic as in supernatural, even though everyone thinks that's what it is!)  the garden itself is a backdrop, and the novel is inspired by a true story. Years ago, I found an old book called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University and one of the chapters was about William Lang, who was made head gardener of the university physic or herb garden, at a very young age, after the death of his father. Sadly, the garden was dying because of industrial pollution from the Type Foundry that the university had permitted to be built nearby. Soon, young William was blamed for something he could do nothing about. It was clear that the real William had support from one of the university professors, Thomas Brown. I thought he was an older man who had taken William 'under his wing' but when I did some further research, I realised they were quite close in age. Close enough to become good friends in spite of the difference in their respective statuses. 

That relationship was the basis for my novel. I used fact - that original book - as a springboard. I also went to the Hunterian museum, and the Glasgow University library to look at various books that are key to the story. Then at a certain point in the tale, I gave myself permission to make things up. I didn’t know what the (fictional) great betrayal was that tore the friendship apart till quite close to the end of the story and this is not the place for spoilers, but I knew it was something horrific and unforgivable. 

By contrast, the Jewel is a third person narrative, the untold story of  Jean Armour, the wife of  Scottish poet Robert Burns, but with the focus, the 'experience' of the story very much told from Jean’s point of view. In this novel, I stuck to the truth as far as was humanly possible. There is a mass of information 'out there', but very little about the poet's wife. I went back to primary sources: the highly illuminating Kirk Session Minutes from Mauchline, for example, or accounts from people who had known the couple, but I did lots of online research as well. The result is that everything I wrote about in this novel either did happen (you’d be surprised by how much!) or could have happened. I even found out one or two things that aren’t in the public domain at all - for example, the fact that the whole village seemed to know that Jean was expecting the poet's twins well before they were born.

One of the keys to writing historical fiction based on fact is to realise that you can’t put everything in.  The research is just a means to an end. My advice would be to immerse yourself in the time and place as far as possible, but then write the first draft of the story without checking too many facts. You’ll soon find out what you don’t know and you can go back and fill in any gaps later, before revising and editing. You need to get inside your characters’ heads, to allow them to speak, to listen to them. 

William Lang seemed to dictate his story to me. With Jean, the poet's jewel of them all, I needed to know more about her, to explore her emotions, how she felt about her talented, mercurial, lovable and sometimes reprehensible husband and why. Fiction gave me the elbow room to do just that. 

If your book features a well known character, like Robert Burns, you will find yourself defending your point of view and sometimes your protagonist too. So many men and a few women have written about Burns. Almost all of them ignored Jean. I knew that there would be some challenges to my version of the story – and there still are!

Above all, you have to choose something that obsesses you, something you love. You are going to be living with these people and in this time and place for a very long time. (My husband swore he saw Jean in our bedroom one night, because I’d spoken of nothing else for months!)

An important point: don’t allow your characters to have thoughts and feelings they could never have in that time and place. Jean Armour was a strong and admirable woman, but she was an 18th century woman who had terrible trouble defying her parents. If I had written her as too feisty, too modern, nobody would have believed in her. I wouldn’t have believed in her. Ditto Burns, who was a man of his time and place, but one who liked women, made them laugh, charmed them. Back then, I expect I'd have fallen for him too. In the Physic Garden, William is an intelligent and imaginative man born into the wrong class at the wrong time. But he can only tell his story from the perspective of his emotions at that time, disliking the constraints, celebrating the successes, lamenting a betrayal that he still knows he himself could never have committed, but even so mourning what might have been. 'It is as though something was planned for me, some pathway I could not find, could not take,' he says. And later acknowledges that he has 'a sense of regret so profound, so bitter that it is like a physical pain in me.' 

Above all, be prepared for your research to change your mind about characters and events. Because it will. Inevitably.  That’s half the pleasure of it. We all write to find out.



 


Medicus by Ruth Downie



I used to review professionally for various magazines and newspapers, but I seldom do it now, unless I've fallen in love with a book so completely that I just have to tell people. Which is what happened with Medicus by Ruth Downie. 

I wouldn't have known about this book at all if it hadn't been recommended by a member of our village book group. She suggested that she had enjoyed the whole series. I went home, downloaded it onto my Kindle where I read almost all my fiction these days, started it that night, and loved it so much that I could hardly bear to go to sleep. I finished it quite quickly, moved on to the next in the series (I'm on Book Four right now) and at some point, went back and read Medicus again, this time wearing my writer's hat, just to see how she had done it.

Why am I enjoying the books so much?

Partly, it's because Downie has created a pair of thoroughly (and instantly) engaging central characters. Gaius Petreius Ruso is an experienced army doctor posted to Britannia. Tilla (Darlughdacha, but he finds the name difficult) is the British girl he rescues from a fate worse than death. Somewhat reluctantly, he treats her broken arm. Also reluctantly because he's strapped for cash, he buys her from the rogue who is ill-treating her. We see the world mostly through these two believable characters. The last time I was so invested in the central character of a novel was when I read Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg novels, during the pandemic. Now, I love Ruso. Nothing more attractive than a man who makes you laugh. And I love the subtlety of the growing and occasionally problematic attachment between him and Tilla, more credible than so much manufactured 'sexual tension' in other fiction. 

I can hardly do better than quote from a New York Times review. 'With a gift for comic timing and historic detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.'

It is. It's realistic, but never anachronistic. Years ago, I wrote a drama series for BBC R4 called Voices from Vindolanda, and did a hefty chunk of research about Roman Britain, as well as visiting Hadrian's Wall and Vindolanda itself But even before that, I'd been interested in the time and place. My first degree was in Mediaeval Studies, but I'd always been fascinated by the centuries before, and by the interaction between the incoming Romans and the native British culture, as well as what came after. 

I remember being fascinated by a poem called The Ruin by an Anglo Saxon poet, contemplating the ruins of the 'works of giants' - aka the Roman city of Bath. Downie has extensive knowledge of the time and place, but she wears it lightly and handles it perfectly. Some  historical writers seem to feel the need to cram every last bit of research into their books. This is far more subtle, more immersive, more true to life - and far more funny than that. 

Ruso manages to be both hilarious and sexy, which is quite an achievement. Tilla is clever, brave, enterprising and passionate. Downie explores the tensions between two races and cultures occupying the same space, one dominant, the other mutinous, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. She is fully aware of the the cultural differences, the reluctant or self interested accommodations that must be made, the mistaken assumptions  - all of these are part of the rich mosaic of each book, but she never loses her deft, storytelling touch. 

I loved it. 

Try it and see what you think. In the UK at least, you'll probably have to get it on Amazon. A friend here in Scotland asked for it in Waterstones and was told it was unavailable, even to order. A quick glance at their website shows that to be the case. I don't know the full history of this novel or its excellent British author, but I suspect it and at least some others in the series may have been traditionally published at first, (to rave reviews). Subsequently, Downie seems to have republished under her own imprint. If so, I'm very glad she did. Bookstores don't know what they're missing, but thank goodness for Amazon! 


The Fiction and the Fact - how a true story inspired a novel

 

My great grandmother Anna 

Many years ago, when I first started researching my Polish family history, I heard the tale of my great grandmother, Anna, a lady of high status even among the szlachta, the Polish aristocracy. All I knew then was that she had, somewhat scandalously at the time, married her estate manager. I was intrigued, and the more I discovered, the more intriguing the story became. 

The real Anna was left a youngish widow, after the death of my great grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski. By then, she had five children, of whom the eldest was only fourteen, and two large estates, some fifty kilometres apart, to maintain. All this was in the uncertain and often dangerous borderlands of what was then Eastern Poland, but is now Ukraine. For a woman who had been cossetted for most of her married life (my great grandfather seems to have been quite a romantic) it was challenging to say the least, especially since most of the cash was tied up in land. 

One thing I did manage to discover back then, well before the internet made things so much easier, was that her youngest son, my grandfather, also Wladyslaw, had inherited the second estate, at a place called Dziedzilow, from a wealthy but unmarried great uncle, at an extraordinarily young age. Seven, in fact. Leaving Anna with a set of intractable problems, little ready money, and many people relying on her for their very livelihoods. Not to mention the demands of her own children. I promised myself that in future, I would find out more. A lot more.

Meanwhile, this information, of which I knew tantalising little real detail, fermented away in my head and the result was a novel called The Amber Heart. Because I knew so little about the real people who inspired the story, I decided to set it very firmly in the more distant past, in the early to mid nineteenth century rather than in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of the true story. And because I had an inkling, even back then, that some people who knew the truth of the relationship might still be alive, I used the story as a springboard for the novel. Anna became my fictional Marianna, a landed lady, and her lover, Danilo, started life in extreme poverty. I loved telling that story, even though it was to take a long time to come to print. (You can read a bit about it on this blog, here.) 

Cue forward many years, and I found out all kinds of interesting and moving things about the real relationship between Anna and her much younger Jan - facts which gave me considerably more sympathy and understanding of the real estate manager than (I suspect) the family had ever accorded him at the time. Which was a pity, because he had been an intelligent young man and their saviour in more ways than one. You can read all about it in my new non-fiction book, The Last Lancer.   As ever, truth is often more messy, more nuanced, more difficult than fiction, in which we always have the impulse (and, let's face it, the permission) to shape things into a satisfactory story. 

All the same - I'm very fond of the big family saga that The Amber Heart became. I was as much in love with Danilo as Marianna, and there are things about it that can still, when I read them again, make me cry. As readers have told me, they too cry over it.

If you want to download it on Kindle, it's only 99p from now until 19th of May. A bargain, because it's a big book. If you'd rather read it in paperback, that's available too, although you'll have to pay full price for that, I'm afraid. 

The point I want to make for any writer just starting out, though, is that your 'material', whatever that is, can inspire many different ways of writing. Just follow your heart. 




The Amber Heart - The Long, Long Story of a Story and Pardon Me While I Scream.


Yesterday, a friend who had just read my new book The Last Lancer, was telling me that she had enjoyed reading it - but she didn't love it as much as one of my novels called The Amber Heart. She went on to tell me how and why she loved it, which is always cheering for an author to hear. And perhaps doubly so, when it was praise for a novel with a long and chequered history. 

Now that it's available as an eBook and in paperback, at long last, I think it's time to revisit the tale of how we got here, what inspired it - and what the connection is with the true story of The Last Lancer. 

Once upon a time, when I was young and optimistic, my first full length adult novel, titled The Golden Apple, was accepted for publication by The Bodley Head, an old and distinguished publisher. To be clear, this wasn't my very first novel. There were others, tucked away in folders, never to see the light of day. Practice novels. And there was a young adult novel, published in Scotland, before young adult was even a thing. But this was my first grown up novel that was fit to be seen.

I considered myself very lucky. My agent for fiction at the time was Pat Kavanagh, and she was a fine agent with a wonderful reputation. Among other things, and unlike almost all agents now, who will tell you that publishers are looking for an 'oven ready book' (that's a direct quote from one of my subsequent agents) she didn't consider it her job to edit. That was the publisher's job. If a book was good enough, she would sell it. Beyond that, the editorial relationship was with the publisher.

Half way through the publishing process, the Bodley Head was taken over by what was then Century, an imprint of mega conglomerate Random House. What should have been a thoughtful, typical Bodley Head novel, about a cross cultural marriage, was published as a beach bonkbuster and sank without trace. It was an early lesson in the power of branding. And the disaster of the wrong branding. My editor at the time, with whom I had no quarrel, wrote to me later to say that she felt guilty about what had happened to my novel, and the knock-on effect on my career.

Still, with Pat's encouragement, I embarked on a new project. That new novel was - in essence - The Amber Heart. Back then. I think it was called Noon Ghosts. It was an epic and passionate love story, a family saga, very loosely inspired by what I knew of episodes from my own family history, not least a somewhat scandalous liaison between an aristocratic forebear and her estate manager, one which you can read all about in The Last Lancer. Knowing that at some point in the future, I might want to tackle the true story of that relationship, I deliberately set my fictional love story in the previous century. 

To my relief, Pat approved. She quickly sent it out and the responses were wonderful. She related some of the reader and editor comments to me. 'I literally could not put this book down,' one of them said. 'I read it through the night and wept buckets at the end.' There were lots in the same vein. They loved it and said so. Cloud nine loomed.

Pat couldn't sell it. 
And she could have sold sand in the desert. 

You know what the stumbling block was? It was the Polish setting. It always fell at the last editorial hurdle. The consensus in every publishing house she tried (and there were already diminishing numbers of possibilities) was that nobody would want to read a piece of historical fiction set in Poland, especially one that was aimed at a largely female readership, never mind that some of those same readers had compared it to a Polish Gone with the Wind, never mind that it was a big, sexy and ultimately tragic love story. It was too foreign and that was that.

Years later, Pat told me how frustrated she had been that she couldn't sell the novel. For her too, it was the 'one that got away'. Sadly, she died far too young. I put the manuscript away, stored all the research in a big box under the bed, and got on with other writing. I forged a pretty successful career as a playwright but I was also working on more novels, finding the pull of fiction irresistible. Many have now been published by Saraband. I'm a compulsive teller of tales, so I finished up with more novels than Saraband could ever reasonably publish.

Three in particular fell through the cracks in the publishing business: Ice Dancing, Bird of Passage and, of course, The Amber Heart.  Sadly and inexplicably, I think these three are among the best books I've written, and I don't say that lightly. Other people have told me so too. 

Time passed. 

I found and retyped the old manuscript of The Amber Heart. You can tell how long this has been going on by the fact that its first faded incarnation was on old fashioned perforated computer paper - the kind that ancient printers spat out in long reams. I expanded it, wondering if it would make a trilogy. Realised that the answer was no. Filed it away on the computer, instead of in the box under the bed. Changed computers. Lost the file. Found it. Opened it up. Cut and edited it. A lot.

Throughout this time, I had several agents. One left the business. One of them decided that she could make more money with other clients (true) and jettisoned me.  My last agent was enthusiastic, but he  disappeared before he could send it out. For all I know he may have gone out for a loaf and never come home because I never heard from him again. All of them read The Amber Heart in its various incarnations, liked it very much, but still pointed out that nobody wanted to read a piece of fiction set in Poland. Two of them told me that it needed pruning. They were right about that, at least, but the problem was that one wanted me to lose the first third, while another wanted me to lose the last third. 

So why didn't I give up?

The answer came to me when, over lockdown, I realised that Pat and all those readers had been right. It is a good book. But the others were right too. It was much too long. Stodgy in places. Going back to it, years later, and with a lot more experience as a writer, I could see clearly enough that it needed rewriting. Just not the kind of pruning that destroys the whole tree. I took about fifteen thousand words out of it, here, there and everywhere. I killed a few darlings. I think now it's tighter, more readable, less verbose. A better book.

I'm still in love with my main characters. Still love the story. And I'm still quite proud of some of the writing in it. Interestingly, I did this while I was deep into research for The Last Lancer, just published by Saraband. My very last enquiry to an agent referencing this proposed new non-fiction book (why on earth did I do it?) elicited the faintly bored response that there were 'so many similar stories out there'. That was not long before the Russian invasion. Since my grandfather was born in what is now Ukraine, in a sleigh, grew up to look like a younger version of Olivier's Maxim de Winter, was a cavalryman who drove a Chrysler and died at the age of 38, at Bukhara on the Silk Road, I suspect that there aren't all that many similar stories out there, but what do I know?

All the same, if I ever again publicly express a desire to find an agent, you will know that it's code for 'I've been kidnapped. Send help immediately.'

Meanwhile, Saraband were at the London Book Fair. I'd have thought the Last Lancer might have been a good candidate for translation into Polish and publication in that country. Poles certainly keep telling me so. And I just got a heartening and glowing testimonial from my hero Neal Ascherson. But my publisher reported no interest in it. 'All the focus is now on Ukraine,' they said. Which is, of course, where the book is set, exploring the troubled history of that region through the history of one family.

Pardon me while I go away and scream.

Before I do though, you can download the Amber Heart as an eBook for the bargain price of 99p, from May 12th to May 19th. It's available in paperback as well. And if you want to know where the idea for the love story at the heart of that novel came from, you might like to read The Last Lancer as well. 








The Amber Heart - The Story of a Story - and a Valentine Freebie.

 


I've blogged before about my new book, The Last Lancer, the story of my grandfather's life and milieu.  It's currently with my publisher, awaiting edits, while I sit here watching developments in Ukraine with a sick sense of deja vu. 

Meanwhile, here's one I wrote earlier. The Amber Heart is set in the middle years of the 19th century, in what was then rural Eastern Poland  It's the story of Marianna and Danilo. She is a wealthy Polish landowner's daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful manor house of Lisko, while he is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two young people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the moment of their first meeting. 

Back when I wrote the first draft of this novel, I had a good London based agent. I'd just had a novel published, and she was confident that she would be able to sell this one as well. I thought so too. Our confidence couldn't have been more misplaced. 

There were a lot more publishers in the 80s, although the Great Amalgamation had already begun, in which so many good small publishers were swallowed up by big corporations, gradually reducing the options for publication and the options for writers too. At the same time, and probably no coincidence, the so called 'mid-list' was disappearing - those well written, readable books that were never going to be mega sellers, but still sold steadily over many years, if they were kept in print. Which wasn't what the big corporations wanted at all. 

Desperate times, until Amazon, the Great Disrupter, saw not just a gap but a yawning chasm in the market and went for it like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe. Good for them. Now, smaller independent publishers are springing up, but they have a hard row to hoe, and so do writers. A  whole publishing infrastructure was destroyed in the rush to consolidate traditional publishing houses into ever bigger entities.

My agent couldn't sell the novel,  no matter how hard she tried, but it had - as she herself said - the most fulsomely complimentary set of rejections she had ever seen. One editor said she had 'stayed up all night reading it, couldn't put it down, wept buckets.' 

The stumbling block seemed to be its Polish setting. Nobody wanted to read a novel set in Poland, they said. 

Dear reader, I filed that original manuscript away in a box, where it sat mouldering for years. I still have that copy somewhere, out of pure sentimentality. It's on old flimsy paper,  typed - as far as I remember - on an early IBM Word Processor. 

I pressed on with my radio drama career and my theatre career, and even when I went back to novels and had some success - originally with a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet that is still in print with its gorgeous Saraband cover and many glowing reviews - I occasionally thought about chucking the Amber Heart in the bin. But I would start to read it, and realise that there was something about it ... something about Poland too. I wrote a stage play about the rise of Solidarity and three radio plays with Polish settings: Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts. 

Many years later, the novel was still nagging away at me. In between projects, I got down that faded manuscript and typed it up again. It's a long book and it was a big task, since I was editing as I went. In between times, I had acquired another agent. He read this new version and liked it, but suggested deleting the last third. Later, a different agent suggested deleting the first third. It was certainly much too long. Over several years, in between other projects, I reworked it completely in the light of all that I had learned since that first draft, and did, in fact, delete quite a lot of it, but not the beginning or the end! It's still quite a big book. 

Now, I can say with a certain amount of confidence that this is the definitive final draft and I don't intend to edit it ever again. It has to get out there and take its chance. It's on Amazon as an eBook and also as a paperback, designed by the talented Lumphanan Press, so you can take your pick. 

The criticisms I have had of it over the years have mostly been from mostly male Polish historians, who thought there was 'insufficient historical detail' and wanted it to be a factual account of those times. But that wasn't what I was writing, although I think such detail as there is, is accurate. 

Let's hope they like The Last Lancer better, although it's still a saga of conflict, love and loss, albeit a true one, so extraordinary that I could never have made it up. 

Anyway, if you fancy reading the Amber Heart, you can download the eBook free on 14th February (and for the two following days as well), Valentine's day, which seems a pretty good day to offer my readers the gift of a big bold tragic love story. 








Loving Ayrshire


 

It's no secret that I love Ayrshire. We moved from Leeds, years ago, when I was twelve, and my biochemist father got a job in a research institute here. I never enjoyed school much, even though I did quite well academically - but I adored the countryside and history of this lush, green and, let's face it, rainy county. If you can put up with the rain, it's considerably warmer than the rest of Scotland, and warmer than much of Northern England. Winters are much milder than in my native Leeds. 

Holidaymakers tend to pass it by in the mad rush for the Highlands, but the scenery is spectacular and the history is fascinating. Not surprisingly then, it has featured in at least some of my fiction, in novels such as The Jewel and Ice Dancing, as well as in many of the radio plays I used to write, notably a couple of series: The Peggers and the Creelers and Running Before the Wind. I'm planning a new series of novels even as I write this, and guess where they are mostly going to be set? 

I was happy to be asked to record a reading for this year's Tidelines Festival and chose a passage from the Jewel, about an early encounter between our very own Robert Burns and the woman who was destined to become his wife, and who was quite clearly the love of his life: Jean Armour. I didn't much want to record myself just sitting on a rock reading and my tech skills weren't up to recording myself walking and reading on a smartphone - so I included a sheaf of my own pictures of Ayrshire, as well as some lovely watercolour images from a Victorian artist called Janet Muir, who lived in Mauchline. Nice to see that the person putting the video together worked a bit of magic on them all. 

Anyway - here it is. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and watch the whole Love Ayrshire video. You'll find me, and a sheaf of other Ayrshire writers too. 

An Unforgettable Novel




Often, when I'm working on a new book, I actively avoid reading fiction set in the same period, although I always read plenty of non-fiction books around the subject, especially if I'm writing historical fiction and non fiction. Sometimes the 'voice' of a particular piece of fiction is too strong and gets in the way of the made-up voices in my head - and this is even true of non-fiction in which I tend to write narrative rather than academic non-fiction.

But this wonderful novel, Neal Ascherson's, the Death of the Fronsac, is the exception. 

I don't know why I didn't know about it earlier. I should have, given the subject matter and the narration, and also given that I admire the writer both as a journalist and a historian. Set in 1940, it is mainly, but not wholly, told through the experiences of a Polish soldier who has found himself in Scotland when his own country has been divided between Hitler and Stalin. It is, as one reviewer describes, an extended and 'marvellous meditation on what it means to have lost a country and a past.' It is a book about the meaning of the word 'home' in Polish more than in English. What it means to lose it, where it resides and whether, once lost, you can ever find it again. 

I finished it at 3 o'clock one morning, found myself dreaming about it for the rest of the night, wept over it, and wrote an online review which I knew wouldn't do it justice. My late father could have been the main narrator of this book - he too lost everything in the war and had, if anything, an even more traumatic time. He too arrived in Britain and elected to stay here, in the face of suggestions that the Poles 'go back home' to a home that no longer existed. I think nobody in his new country, even his much loved wife, my mother, really understood how it no longer existed and what his experiences had been. Not back then, anyway, although my mum certainly came to an understanding later. They simply didn't understand the trauma of it. 

During the course of my life, so many people here in Scotland have rushed to tell me how much they loved the Poles who stayed at the end of the war. 'Oh, they fitted in,' they'll say. 'Fine people.' I always suspected that it wasn't quite the whole truth at the time. It certainly wasn't my mother's experience in post-war Leeds. This book serves to confirm that it wasn't the whole experience of Poles in post-war Scotland either. 

I'm in the middle of researching the history of the Polish side of my family for a new book called The Last Lancer, and I've found more than one Scottish person asking me 'why didn't your dad go back to Poland'? Among much else, this fine book also explains some of those reasons why, in sensitive, detailed and horrifying terms. 

The novel also clarifies for me the reasons why my father's attitude to Churchill was equivocal at best. It was an attitude he shared with many Poles. But above all, it explains something central to the Polish perception of 'home', an inadequate word in English, and of the way in which Poles never confuse the piece of land labelled state - and nation. 

But what is that nation? What does it mean to be Polish? What, and where, is home, when home has been all but obliterated.

I think about it a lot these days, having recovered my own precious Polish citizenship a year ago. I think about it when, as happened to me recently, a new social media 'friend' posts something astoundingly insensitive, inaccurate and angry about 'illegal immigrants' (And is promptly unfriended - something I very rarely do!) 

There are no easy answers, and this is by no means an easy book - but it is still the finest and most illuminating piece of writing on these subjects - and on my own heritage - that I have ever come across.


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No More Crime (For Now) Thank-You.

 

I apologise in advance to all my writer friends who work in this genre, but I've had it with crime fiction. This is probably a temporary state of affairs, but I know what brought it on. A little while ago, a friend who often has similar tastes in books, recommended Fred Vargas's 'Commissaire Adamsberg' novels. I read one from the middle of the series, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. I was captivated from the first few pages, and then I went back and read the whole series, obsessively, far into the night. 

Feeling absolutely bereft when I had finished - and I may even go back and read one or two of them again - I read Vargas's three 'Evangelists' novels. I wasn't quite so captivated by them, but I still liked them very much indeed, especially the last one: The Accordionist. 

Then, as you do, I went on Facebook and asked for recommendations for similarly captivating novels. They flooded in. 

And you know what? I haven't really liked any of them. 

One, I bought on Kindle, read several chapters, and then sent it back for a refund. It was much too violent for me. It began with a woman being tortured in graphic detail, and went on with the murderer fantasising about torturing and murdering the torturer. 

I tried again. I bought a couple more, read about fifty pages, and nearly died of boredom. I downloaded samples of various recommendations. Just couldn't get into them.

Fred Vargas, incidentally, is female, and the string of books I've started and discarded this week are all by men. Does that tell me something? Maybe. But I love Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, E F Benson, China Mieville, James Joyce, Phil Rickman (especially his standalone paranormal books) and many many more. I'm nothing if not eclectic in my reading. And many of my favourite writers are men.

I need to move on. But partly, as the same friend who recommended Vargas pointed out today, it's that Adamsberg was a kind of watershed. The books were so original, the characters so vivid, the settings,  even the police station concerned, so wonderfully quirky and yet real, in the way that real life is so often bizarre and funny and strange, the plots so clever, and Adamsberg himself so engaging that everything else pales by comparison. There's a pedestrian, box ticking quality about so much of what I've been trying and failing to read. 

I wonder if it's the publishing industry itself? Maybe they're right, because all of these books had many glowing reviews. It wouldn't do if we all liked the same thing, would it? And people must be buying them, reading them, loving them. So who am I to complain?

But for the moment, I really have to give myself a break and find some other fiction to immerse myself in. I need somebody like Barbara Pym. Or Shirley Jackson. Or Rumer Godden (a recent discovery for me) or even - back to crime again - a Margery Allingham. 

Oh go on then. 
Any recommendations? 

Happy Birthday, Rab

 




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. 

Actually, Rab was probably less inclined to overindulge in hard liquor than most, although he certainly had his moments. But when you look at the body of work he produced, alongside a vast amount of clever, entertaining, thought provoking correspondence, as well as hard physical work, first as a farmer and then as an exciseman, riding some 200 miles each week, winter and summer alike – and being a loving father to a great number of children - you can see that the occasional spree is much more likely than any persistent problem. 

He was a social drinker on high days and holidays. He also thought the odd ‘session’ contributed to his creativity, as perhaps it did. He was sometimes led astray by wealthy men who ought to have known better. And during his last grave illness, alcohol seems to have given him some slight relief, if only as a painkiller. But it wasn’t what killed him. 

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.

In Dumfries, his health already deteriorating, he developed a painful tooth abscess, and it’s now thought that the resulting massive infection could have been enough to trigger acute endocarditis. He became gravely ill, with all the symptoms of that painful condition, and died the following summer. During his last few weeks, with his illness exacerbated by the 'cure' of seabathing in the chilly waters of the Solway, he seems to have been able to eat nothing. Milk mixed with a little port wine was all that gave him any relief. But the ‘flying gout’ diagnosed by the doctors of the time was only a way of describing the dreadful widespread pains that must have beset his attenuated body during his last few weeks. 

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. 

He was, nevertheless, a man of significant presence, physical and intellectual. He was a better friend than an enemy and was known to threaten to ‘skewer in verse’ anyone who overstepped the mark, like the Celtic bards of old. But his reputation was always for non-violence, for tolerance and good humour and there is no evidence that he was violent towards any of the women with whom he was associated. 

Except for one notorious occasion.

Who knows just what went on with Jean in the stable in Mauchline when the couple were at their lowest ebb? Was it overwhelming passion or something verging on rape? We have Burns’s own version in a letter to a friend, bragging about a coupling he had persuaded himself Jean enjoyed as much as he did. But Rab was a chameleon and could write what he thought might most impress an individual correspondent. We would know nothing about this episode if the poet hadn’t chosen to brag about it himself. 

We know that Jean was struggling with a mass of intractable emotional problems, not least a second unwanted pregnancy, and she went into labour very soon after the incident. She undoubtedly loved this man but she can't have been anything but shocked and hurt by his behaviour. We also sense that the poet was ashamed of himself, in spite of the bragging letter. He was the son of a highly moral father, and it seems significant to me that during this second pregnancy, with Rab in Edinburgh, Jean had taken refuge near Tarbolton with the family of Willie Muir, a friend of Burns senior, as much if not more than Rab and the Armours. 

The tension between desire – theirs was clearly an intense mutual physical attraction – and Jean’s obvious vulnerability presented me with some problems as a novelist. All the same, I suspect my interpretation of events may be closer to the complicated truth than the poet’s version. May be closer to Jean's perception of it as well. 

Finally we should remember that we are reading and writing about an 18th century man. Very different times, and not always comfortable to contemplate, but we can't rewrite history or historical attitudes to suit our own sensibilities. Laddish he may have been, but the term 'sex pest' belongs in 21st century tabloids. 

For his time at least, the poet’s ability to project himself into the minds of the ‘lassies’ – to defend them and appreciate them and befriend them, older women as well as young  – is one of the things that most endeared him to me when I was writing the Jewel. 

I suspect Jean loved him for it too.


The Amber Heart: The Long, Long Story of a Story


I've blogged about my Polish novel The Amber Heart on and off over the years, but I don't think I've ever told the full unredacted story  - and now seems like as good a time as any, with a brand new, edited version out on Kindle, and a paperback and other eBook versions planned for early in 2021.

Lucky me.
Once upon a time, when I was young and optimistic, my first full length adult novel, titled The Golden Apple, was accepted for publication by The Bodley Head, an old and distinguished publisher. To be clear, this wasn't my very first novel. There were others, tucked away in folders, never to see the light of day. Practice novels. And there was a young adult novel, published in Scotland, before young adult was even a thing. But this was my first grown up novel that was fit to be seen. 

I considered myself very lucky. My agent for fiction at the time was Pat Kavanagh, and she was a fine agent with a wonderful reputation. Among other things, and unlike almost all agents now, who will tell you that publishers are looking for an 'oven ready book' (and that's a direct quote from one of my subsequent agents) she didn't consider it her job to edit. That was the publisher's job. If a book was good enough, she would sell it. Beyond that, the editorial relationship was with the publisher.

Not so lucky after all.
Half way through the publishing process, the Bodley Head was taken over by what was then Century, an imprint of mega conglomerate Random House. What had been a thoughtful Bodley Head style novel, about a cross cultural marriage, was published as a beach bonkbuster and sank without trace. It was an early lesson in the power of branding. And the disaster of the wrong branding. My editor at the time, with whom I had no quarrel, wrote to me later to say that she felt guilty about what had happened to my novel, and the knock on effect on my career. 

Still, with Pat's encouragement, I embarked on a new project. 

Back on cloud nine.
That novel was - in essence - The Amber Heart. It wasn't titled that back then. I think it was called Noon Ghosts. It was an epic and passionate love story, a family saga, very loosely inspired by what I knew of episodes from my own family history, not least a somewhat scandalous liaison between an aristocratic forebear and her estate manager. 

To my relief, Pat loved it. She quickly sent it out and the response was wonderful. She related some of the reader and editor comments to me. 'I literally could not put this book down,' one of them said. 'I read it through the night and wept buckets at the end.'

There were lots in the same vein. They loved it and said so. Cloud nine loomed.

Pat couldn't sell it. 

Too foreign.
You know what the stumbling block was? 
It was the Polish setting. 
It always fell at the last editorial hurdle. The consensus in every publishing house she tried (and there were already diminishing numbers of possibilities what with all the corporate takeovers) was that nobody would want to read a piece of historical fiction set in Poland, especially one that was aimed at a largely female readership, never mind that some of those same readers had compared it to a Polish Gone with the Wind, never mind that it was a big, sexy, enticing love story.  It was too foreign and that was that.

Years later, Pat told me how frustrated she had been that she couldn't sell the novel. For her too, it was the 'one that got away'. 

Sadly, she died far too young. I put the manuscript away, stored all the research in a big box under the bed, and got on with other writing. 

A compulsive teller of tales.
I forged a pretty successful career as a playwright. But simultaneously, I was working on more novels, finding the pull of fiction irresistible. Many have now been published - beautifully - by Saraband. But I'm a compulsive teller of tales, so I finished up with more novels than Saraband could ever reasonably publish. 

Three in particular fell through the cracks in the publishing business: Ice Dancing, Bird of Passage (of which more in another post) and The Amber Heart. 

Curiously, and rather sadly, I think these three are among the best things I've ever written, and I don't say that lightly. Other people have told me so too. But of these, Bird of Passage and The Amber Heart are big novels and not just in terms of length. Of everything I've written, these three books have never been close to being published in traditional form. Bird of Passage and Ice Dancing haven't even been read by traditional publishers. 

Meanwhile, I had retyped the manuscript of The Amber Heart. You can tell how long this has been going on by the fact that its first faded incarnation was on that old fashioned perforated computer paper that ancient printers spat out in long reams. I expanded it, wondering if it would make a trilogy. Didn't like it at all as a trilogy. Filed it away on the computer, instead of in the box under the bed. Lost the file. Found it. Opened it up. Cut and edited it. A lot.

Pruning and shaping.
Throughout this time, I had several agents and lost them through no fault of my own. Two, at least, just left the business. All of them read The Amber Heart in its various incarnations, liked it very much, but still pointed out that nobody wanted to read a piece of fiction set in Poland. Two of them read it, praised it and told me that it needed pruning. They were right about that, at least, but the problem was that they recommended cutting quite different parts of the novel: one wanted me to lose the first third, while another wanted me to lose the last third. My very last agent was madly enthusiastic about it, but disappeared into the scenery before he could even send it out. 

I published it as an eBook with Amazon. That was about 2012. 
A few years later, I decided that it was indeed much too long. Unpublished it. Let it lie fallow while I wrote other things.

Most writers will have at least one book like this. I have several very early novels. I look at them from time to time and find them an interesting stage in my development, but - in the conventional words of the standard rejection letter these days - I don't love them. So why didn't I give up with this one? 

I've asked myself this more than once over the years. I suppose the answer came to me when, over this pandemic year, spent mostly at my desk, I realised that Pat and all those readers had been right. It is a good book. But the others were right too. It was much too long. Stodgy in places. Going back to it, years later, and with a lot more experience as a writer, I could see clearly enough that it needed pruning and rewriting. Just not the kind of pruning that destroys the whole tree. I took about fifteen thousand words out of it. Here, there and everywhere. I was drastic in places, but always careful not to destroy it completely. I killed a few darlings. I think now it's tighter, more readable, less verbose. More accessible. A better book.

I'm still in love with my main characters. Still love the story. And I'm still quite proud of some of the writing in it. Especially the bit about the dangerous birth ...

Moving on.
My other reason for re-publishing this now is that I'm currently working on a piece of narrative non-fiction, in a similar vein to A Proper Person to be Detained, but this time about my Polish grandfather, his life and milieu. I'm deep into research and planning for a new book called The Last Lancer. And it seems relevant. I got the big box of pre-internet papers and letters and pictures out from under the bed. Pandora's box, in a way because this all feels very personal.

My last, my very, very last enquiry to an agent referencing this proposed new book (why on earth did I do it?) elicited the faintly bored response that there were so many similar stories out there. Since my grandfather was born in Poland in a sleigh, grew up to look like a bit like a younger version of Olivier's Maxim de Winter, was a cavalryman who drove a Lagonda and died young at Bukhara on the silk road, I suspect that there aren't all that many similar stories out there, but who knows? Maybe there are.

All the same, if I ever again publicly express a desire to find an agent, you will know that it's code for 'I've been kidnapped. Send help immediately.'

So there we are. And here it is. While I'm hard at work on the Last Lancer, if you like deeply romantic historical tales of love and loss (and cake. There's quite a lot of cake in this book), you could do worse than give The Amber Heart a try. 

It will be reduced to 99p here in the UK and also in the US from 21st December till 28th December, so grab a bargain, and escape into another time and place for a while!


















Five Days Till November.






NOVEMBER

No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon —
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day.

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! —
November!

Thomas Hood

November is my least favourite month of the year, and we're not even there yet. Bad enough when we're not in the middle of a pandemic. Horrible right now with the virus, with Brexit looming and Christmas quite probably cancelled. 

The only thing keeping me reasonably sane is writing. Research and writing. Of which more very soon. 

Hood didn't get it completely right though. Plenty of birds in our garden, demanding to be fed. 

Of Blaeberries, Midgies and a Scottish Love Story

 



At the weekend, a couple of Polish friends living in Scotland posted pictures online of a place that used to be one of my dad's favourite hill-walking destinations: the Loch Cornish walk in the Galloway hills. We went there often when I was younger, and we would especially go there when it was 'blaeberry' time. These are the small, sweet, aromatic berries that grow on our hills, our islands, our moorlands and - as my friends reported - in Poland too, where they feature in many recipes. My dad used to make blueberry pierogi, which were particularly delicious. It is just a little late in the year now to find many of them. It's a short season and the birds and small mammals make short work of them. As far as I remember, we would go in late July or early August. 


Bajka who loved blueberries. 
 This also happens to be the height of the midge season here in Scotland. The Scottish 'midgie' has a deservedly fearsome reputation. I remember one year, when I was in my teens, heading for the hills with my parents. Knowing that we would be harassed by flies and midges, my father packed three old 'net' curtains along with the picnic. Draped in these, we picked pounds of the luscious berries. The dog had learned to pick them too, seeking them out and nipping them off with her small front teeth, although since she always ate them herself, she didn't contribute much to the hoard. I remember her finding a good patch and browsing contentedly while we picked. A few other hillwalkers passed us by and - seeing three people draped in white, crouching down and engaged in what must have looked like some primitive Druidic dance - gave us a very wide berth. 

Anyway, our blueberry/blaeberry/bilberry conversation reminded me that I had always wondered why the blueberries I buy in the shops never taste remotely like the blueberries we used to pick on the hills. They are big balls of sweet nothingness, whereas the genuine blueberry has a strong aromatic flavour. My Polish friends (who know all about these things) pointed out that the balls of sweet nothing are known as 'American Blueberries' in Poland. They are vaccinium corymbosum, (the Highbush Blueberry) whereas the luscious European berries are vaccinium myrtillus, the European bilberry, blueberry or - in Scotland - the blaeberry. Corymbosum look good. Myrtillus taste good.

Which makes me wonder why some enterprising fruit farmer over here hasn't turned over some of his or her land to growing genuine native blueberries on a commercial scale. I'd buy them.

Finally - all of this reminded me of a rather sexy passage in my novel The Curiosity Cabinet in which Henrietta, exiled to the small Hebridean island of Garve, for reasons that only emerge at the end of the novel, is gathering blaeberries, and almost trips over her reluctant captor, Manus McNeill, 'lying full length on a bed of heather, staring at the sky, his arms pillowing his head.' For the first time they hold a genuine conversation about her background, and she finds herself touched by his anger on her behalf, without understanding just what lies behind it. For the first time too, they acknowledge a mutual attraction. And if you want to know more you'll have to read the book! 

It was one of my first published novels. I've gone on to use the same island setting in a couple more novels, but I find that I have a genuine lingering fondness for the people in this one - especially Henrietta and Manus who are not really a conventional hero and heroine. Looking at the many nice reviews, a number of other people think so too. 




The Jewel - Some Discussion Questions about Jean Armour and Robert Burns



With the anniversary of the poet's death coming up on 21st July, I've been thinking about some discussion prompts and questions for book  or reading groups. I know that many of my friends have been taking part in online discussion groups during lockdown, and I think it's possible that people in particular may decide to carry on with at least some of these get-togethers in the 'new normal' - even though nothing quite beats personal interaction and debate.

Anyway, here are a few questions that you might like to ponder, either for a group discussion, or even if you want to think about what you've read and perhaps do your own research in the future.

1 In her 1930 biographical novel about Burns, Catherine Carswell described Jean as a ‘homely and hearty' and 'a heifer’. Do you think she was right? How did your view of Jean (if you had one) change as you read the novel?

2 Why do you think that a pregnant Jean felt that she must go to Paisley when her parents forced her? What was it like for women at the time? What kind of resources would she have had?

3 Why do you think Burns got so very angry with Jean for her supposed ‘betrayal’ of him. What does that tell us about his feelings for her and his mental state at the time?

4 The so called ‘horse litter scene’ is very controversial now, especially given that Burns wrote about it quite graphically to a male friend afterwards. It was very hard to tackle in the book. What did you feel about it, and were you able to imagine yourself back to that time? Did you believe his subsequent bragging, or do you think he was feeling guilty about it and trying to justify himself?

5 The poet was, by all accounts, a ‘hands on’ and loving father. It is clear that a great many babies in rural Scotland were born out of wedlock at that time, and that the Kirk’s main aim was to get fathers to acknowledge and support their babies – a kind of social control that was actually quite good for mothers and children. Why do you think all this changed during the Industrial Revolution, so that for working women, pregnancy outside marriage was seen as disastrous?

6 When the Mauchline minister ‘Daddie Auld’ wrote that it is ‘aye the poor who maintain the poor in this parish’ what do you think he meant? What does it tell us about him? What do you think the author felt about him?

7 Highland Mary was much lauded by the Victorians. Why? Some of this still spills over into the present day, yet the evidence is that she wasn’t quite as saintly as later commentators and the poet himself made her out to be. What was it that was so appealing about her?

8 How do you think Jean contributed to Burns’s work, and do you feel this comes over in the book?

9 Did you get angry with Burns while reading the novel, or did you manage to maintain a soft spot for him? Did you understand why Jean fell for him? Do you think that if you were an 18th century woman, you would have felt the same? Were you aware of his charm across all these years?

10 Jean continued to lead a very full and contented life for many years after the poet’s death. She even had tea with Clarinda. She had several offers of marriage. Why do you think she turned them all down?


You can buy a copy of The Jewel here.

Willie's Mill, at Tarbolton, where Jean spent part of her second pregnancy.

Happy Saint Bride's Day - The Coming of Spring.

Today is Imbolc, St Bride or St Bridget's Day and an important day in the Celtic world, marking the beginning of spring. I was reminded of it this evening, sitting at my desk, brooding on Brexit, when I realised that not only had the day lengthened considerably, but the birds in the garden were singing and sounding distinctly spring-like. It was very cheering.

Coincidentally, I'd been rereading my own novel, the Posy Ring, and deciding that I was still very fond of these characters and really would like to revisit them and find out what happens to them next. I've been asked to chat to a local book group about this novel, among other work, so I thought I'd better refresh my memory.

I suddenly remembered that I had written about the young women of the Scottish island where the novel is set, celebrating the festival of Bride in 1588.

'In February there was a brief respite when the young women of Achadh nam Bl├áth and the nearby clachan celebrated St Bride’s day. They took a sheaf of oats from the previous year’s precious harvest, formed it into a rudimentary figure, dressed it in some scraps of wool and linen, and trimmed it with whatever decorative items they could find: a handful of glass beads from broken jewellery, small shells from the seashore, a garland of daisies, snowdrops, coltsfoot as well as hazel catkins, culled from sheltered parts of the island. The figure was supplied with a slender white wand formed from a piece of birchwood with the bark scraped off. Ishbel had made a bed of rushes covered by a baby blanket close to the house door. There, Bride was welcomed in and laid down comfortably for the night with a couple of candles burning to keep her company. 
               
‘She was the foster mother of Christ,’ explained Lilias. ‘And so we honour her in this way. But she brings the springtime with her as well. Soon, soon it will come.'

A little later on, Lilias tells the stranger about the cailleach who brings winter - no bad thing, unless she lingers too long. To everything there is a season.

‘I am always forgetting how very little you know. The cailleach is the wise old woman. She walks the fields, bringing winter in her wake. A good thing too. The land needs to sleep and we need to rest for a time, while she walks and renews, walks and renews. Only now, she’s growing weary. It’s her turn to lie down and sleep. Then the springtime will come. You can feel her clinging on. Soon, she’ll not be able to resist. She will lie down and take her rest, and the blessed Bride will come and bring the springtime with her all over again.'

If the snowdrops massed on the roadsides as I drive in and out of this village are anything to go by, Bride seems to be well on her way.




What Are You Writing Next?

My other (Polish) great great uncle was an artist.

The very first question that an audience member asked me, at the very first event I did for my new book about my murdered Leeds Irish great great uncle and what came after (in Blackwell's, in Edinburgh, as it happens) was 'What are you working on next?' I was tempted to say 'I don't have a scoobie' because that would have been the absolute truth.

It was a very hot night. Lovely friends had lent me their apartment, otherwise the event would have cost me a fortune. Edinburgh in July is not the cheapest place to stay. And because it was such a very hot night, only twelve people turned up to hear me speak about A Proper Person to be Detained.  Fortunately, if you click on the above link, you can read all about the book, since the Books From Scotland website very kindly asked me to do a question and answer piece about it.

The Ayrshire launch of the book, a couple of weeks later, was extremely well attended - many thanks to all those who ventured out on another very hot night! - and Waterstones sold out of copies, which was even better. There are more events to come. If you click on my events page, to the right of this post, you'll find a list and there may be a few more to add to that next year.

But ever since then, I've been pondering what to write next. So this post is partly to allow me to put some of those thoughts into words. Because I genuinely don't know. A friend asked me if I was 'looking for inspiration' today, but that isn't it. Besides, as most writers know, if you wait till inspiration comes along, you wouldn't write much at all. I'm never short of ideas or inspiration. In fact I probably have too many.

I've been planning another (factual, reflective) Robert Burns related project, and to tell the truth, I'm about half way through it. But it isn't exactly setting my heather on fire! Before I do anything else, I probably need to knuckle down and finish it and then let it lie fallow for a few months before I work on rewrites.

Recently, three different people have asked me when the sequel to The Posy Ring, which was always intended to be a trilogy, is coming out. It's going really cheap on Kindle for the summer, and the beautiful paperback is still available if you prefer solid books. But I don't know when The Marigold Child is coming out, if ever, because I haven't written it yet, although I do know what happens. And just occasionally, the characters, of whom I am very fond, walk into my head and ask me what I'm going to do about them. 'You can't just leave us in limbo like this!' they say.

There's a third possibility. Because at least some of A Proper Person involved writing about my much loved late father, Julian Czerkawski, and because I have been spending some time embarking on the process of applying to reinstate the dual Polish nationality I once had, I have also been considering researching and writing about the other side of the family, the Polish side. As different from the Leeds Irish side as it is possible to be.

So, I suppose the answer to the question 'what next?' is still, I don't have a scoobie. Because above all, I need to earn some money. Not for extras like holidays, but for money to live on. Money for groceries and house maintenance and electricity and central heating oil. That kind of money. And I suspect that the only way I'm going to achieve that (although it has taken me a lifetime of working in hope to be able to admit it) is not through writing.

It's to do something else altogether.

So I might just sell antiques for a bit, blog about them, and about various related things like gardening and country living on my 200 Year Old House blog, finish my Burns book in my free time, research more of my Polish family history, and see where all that takes me.

Or I might give up completely. For the first time in my whole writing life, since I was about ten years old, and wrote bad poems, madly and happily, I sometimes fantasise about stopping. I don't really believe I will. Sooner or later, the need to shape words into something more than fact will prompt me to start again. But all the same, there's a part of me that acknowledges the novelty of this. I've never felt this way before. Not once. Not ever.

And that worries me.

Sex Pest? Robert Burns? I don't think so!

Sex Pest?
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.

Pregnant again.
Unlike Jean who in 1788  found herself again carrying twins.

By John Faed
The poet had been making the most of his Edinburgh celebrity even as he recognised that it might prove ephemeral. Her parents had learned of his financial success and begun to change their minds about him as a prospective son-in-law. Jean and Robert had made hay while the grudging sun of this approval shone. They could not, as the saying goes, keep their hands off each other, but this seems to have been as much at Jean's instigation as the poet's and to suggest otherwise is to deny agency to this strong woman. She was living in the parental home in the Cowgate in Mauchline. James Armour was a man of some consequence in the town who still didn't trust Burns. Jean could have insisted on a chaperone. Instead, she went out walking with the father of her weans, through the woods and fields, well away from the busy household and the prying eyes of the neighbours.

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.


A girl out of pocket.
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'.
The notorious 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.

Marriage.
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.
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.

Ellisland
Who among us would not melt at the final verse of Parnassus Hill, in which - travelling between Ellisland where their new farm was being built, and Mauchline where Jean was waiting for him - the poet envisaged Corsencon  Hill near Cumnock as Parnassus with Jean as his sweet muse?

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 knows.
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.

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Read the poems and letters for yourself.