Last year I very much enjoyed Gavin MCrea’s Mrs Engels – the story of Friedrich Engel’s mainly invisible-to-posterity female companion. That was a novel written very much into the spaces left by history. Czerkawska’s fictionalisation of the life of Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burn’s has more historical backup. Nevertheless, in writing from Jeanny’s point-of-view, the talents, strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s national bard are seen through the subjective eyes of the young girl who fell in love with him and never stopped loving him until her dying day, and that despite the hard times, repeated infidelities, and a widowhood that lasted 38 years.
What did he do to deserve it? I was shaking my head at times, but then, times were different in 18th century Ayrshire, and Jeanny’s options were limited – particularly after falling pregnant to Burns, not once, but twice outside of wedlock. The wedlock status, it turns out, can be debated. Certainly the civil arrangements that Burns had put in place were not recognised by her parents during the first pregnancy. They loathed him. He had no morals, no money and no prospects at that time, and so Jeanny’s parents packed her off to relatives in Paisley. At which point Burns felt deserted and started the affair with Highland Mary, a rebound relationship, not only for him, but for her. Just one of the many surprises in the twists and turns and emotional anguish that were endured before Burns and Jeanny were recognised as man and wife.
Not that the anguish abated. 9 children, only 3 of whom survived to adulthood. Adopting her husband’s illegitimate daughter. Recognition of her husband’s poetic talents brought fame, no fortune, but plenty of opportunity for further amorous adventures. And pain when their private lives were put on show in his published poetry. Further pain and humiliation when poems about his other women were published. Czerkawska’s novel makes the emotional cost to Jean Armour of Burns’s success all too clear.
But, as we say in Scotland, she was some woman…. with an amazing generosity of spirit. She was Burns’s feet-on-the-ground anchor in Ayrshire. Not without artistic talent of her own either. She had a wonderful singing voice and the ballads that she learnt from her mother were the source of much of Burns’s material. It’s no wonder Burns genuinely loved her (as best he was able.) She was the Belle of the Belles of Mauchline to him, his jewel, and his pet name for her was “mae wee lintie” (songbird). In tribute to her, he included a woodlark on his personal seal.
The choice of an omniscient 3rd-person narrative gives the author freedom to include descriptive passages, conversations, and conjectures in a much more natural way than a 1st-person narrative would have done. The narrator doesn’t intrude for the most part. (Except with one she’ll rue the day type statement after the couple’s first reconciliation.) The dialogue has a distinctive Scottish cadence using local vocabulary of the time. It rings true, and there is a useful glossary at the back for non-Scots (like me).
Each chapter is headed by a short excerpt from one of Burn’s poems, relevant to forthcoming events. I found this an effective way of showing the sublimation of life into art. Behind some of those poems are events that are often anything but sublime. Also people made invisible due to the brightness of their spouses’s star. Such as Jean Armour. Czerkawska’s novel certainly brings her out of the shadows to give her the credit that is due. It also confirms that, when Burns chose her, he chose well.