The Jewel by Catherine Czerkawska looks at the life of Jean Armour and her husband, Robert Burns, and on a dazzlingly sunny evening, she came to Blackwells in Edinburgh to chat about it.
She says that Catherine Carswell in her fictional book on Burns was extremely mean to Jean, as were many subsequent Burns commentators. Jean Armour was largely insulted, or they ignored her. Catherine was invited to write some plays about Burns – one on Tam o’ Shanter and another on the last few weeks of his life – and Jean kept intruding; she thought at one point she had to do more with her. It wasn’t easy to research her, she spent a year digging.
Luckily, Burns wrote about her in letters and poems, songs and in commentary. Most choose to focus on Highland Mary and Clarinda, though they were both fairly short lived relationships in Burns’ life. Catherine has a theory that there have been a lot of attempts to do a film on Burns, but they haven’t come to anything as they try to focus on the other women, and never what Jean was to the poet. She thinks they wanted burns to have a real heroine, and living happily into old age isn’t the heroine they wanted.
These young women were driven so demented with passion for Burns, they were besotted. But she doesn’t know why Jean was dismissed time after time, so she wanted to write a novel to prove to tackle people’s assessment of her. As writers, we usually know the start and finish, but we almost always write to find out.
Writing fiction has its pitfalls, especially when on someone connected to a well known figure – Burns was the “large poetic elephant in the room”. With universities who have the original documents digitising them, there’s almost a never-ending stream of research. As a writer of fiction you need to decide where to stop researching and start writing; you only find out what you don’t know when you start writing.
Everything in her book did or could have happened. You have to work within the facts. Dates matter – she created a timeline for Jean. There’s plenty for Burns, but not many for her. In looking at the dates, things became clearer: when Jean first became pregnant, the idea is that they were dallying on riverbanks in the summer, but when they were born shows they were conceived in winter. You start to wonder, where did that happen? How did they meet then? It is, indeed, helluva cold in Ayrshire in winter.
Burns was a wonderful letter writer, and he had different personas depending on who he was writing to. One of the greatest moments of Catherine’s life was being able to see the Kirk session minutes back from their courtship. It’s the only place in the world where you can see both their signatures together. Their first twins were also documented in there, but not the second pregnancy – you, again, wonder why? There’s also a copy of her letter confessing that she was pregnant, and unlike all the other pages, this was blotted and blotched – she believes that Jean was crying as she signed it.
It’s these little things you can learn through research, these little bits that slowly build a character so often overlooked and overcast in history. Catherine’s book The Jewel is published by Saraband Books, shows Burns through the eyes of his wife, and gives Jean her story.