My new novel, The Jewel, is all about Jean Armour, the wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Jean has been inexplicably neglected by some critics and commentators, especially the Victorians and Edwardians who clearly didn’t find her romantic enough for their tastes. They seemed to prefer Highland Mary, who died tragically young, or ‘Clarinda’ who was tragically forsaken. Yet the tempestuous tale of Jean and Rab’s courtship and marriage might be dismissed as almost too incredible for fiction, if it were not absolutely true. I’ve lived in Ayrshire for years and have been a fan of Burns, especially his songs, since my teenage years. But even I knew little about the woman who became his wife until I began to dig for more information.
Jean was a lovely young woman with a fine singing voice. Her father, James, was a prosperous stonemason in the town of Mauchline. He and her mother tried (and failed) to protect her from the advances of the mercurial and unreliable poet, Robert Burns of Mossgiel farm. But if I could feel the warm blast of Rab’s charm and sexiness more than two hundred years later, what hope was there for Jean? All the same, their relationship endured against all the odds and Jean emerges as a thoroughly likeable, wise and indomitable character. How she lived with – and frequently without – her famous but difficult husband is surely Scotland’s greatest untold love story.
New for 2017, Saraband will be publishing my selection of poems and songs written by Robert Burns with Jean in mind. These have never been gathered together in one volume before, but it will be an invaluable resource for anyone contemplating a ‘Toast to the Lassies’ at a Burns Supper. After all, many of these were written specifically for Burns’s best lassie, the jewel of them all.
‘Even if Jean had wanted to say something kindly about Rab Mossgiel – and perhaps she did – she didn’t dare. Her father was softer with her than with anyone else in the house, including her mother. All the same, and though she wouldn’t say so, Jean thought that Rab Burns may have something to recommend him. It was mostly to do with his appearance. You couldn’t help but notice him. He seemed to make an effort to stand out, and that was not well received in a town where an observance of all the conventions, as well as a careful avoidance of anything that might be labelled scandal, was considered praiseworthy and prudent. Tall poppies were ruthlessly cut down and Rab was a very tall poppy. He wore his black hair longer than most. Her father was right about that, although it didn’t infuriate Jean as it clearly infuriated James. Rab tied it behind with a ribbon, as nobody else in the parish did, an Edinburgh fashion and one that James also thought was more fit for a lassie. As far as James Armour was concerned these signs betokened a young man with a high opinion of himself for no good cause that he himself could see. Too clever for his own good, thought James.’