Today is Referendum Day in Scotland and this country where I have lived and worked – on and off – for the past fifty years, is torn in two in a way that I would hardly have believed possible. Way back at the start of the year, my husband said, ‘It will get very much worse. It will be terribly, tragically divisive.’ I didn’t believe him. Well, I hoped he was wrong. But he was right.
Every morning, for the past few weeks, as the debate - often between otherwise close friends - has become more bitter, more insulting, more angry, I have woken up at three or four in the morning with words practically bursting out of my head. I have, so far, resisted the urge to write them down. They are too angry, too insulting, too divisive in themselves to be committed to paper or screen. But I’m feeling sleep deprived and rather ill. Because here I am, living in a divided country. And make no mistake, it is divided. Horribly so. People speak about winning and losing, they speak about an inspiring and peaceful campaign and all pulling together whatever the outcome, but where more or less half the population are in absolute and occasionally violent disagreement with the other half about a country’s future, the only answer to that is the useful, cynical, Scottish double negative:
I’m working on a new novel. Or trying to work on a new novel. It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Jean Armour, the bonnie Jean who became Robert Burns’s wife and who has been very largely sidelined by a string of mostly male academics, commentators who seem to think that she was somehow ‘unworthy’ of the poet’s towering intellect. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always been on Jean’s side. In fact, I’ve written a couple of plays in the past, one for Radio 4, about the writing of Tam o’ Shanter and one for Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue, called Burns on the Solway, ostensibly about the last few weeks in the life of the poet, down on the Solway coast. Except that both plays turned out to be quite as much about Jean as about the poet. And the more I wrote about her, the more I heard her voice inside my head, the more I realised that I liked her enough to be able to live with her for the time it takes to complete a novel.
For those who don’t know, the couple had a difficult start. He promised marriage and they signed a document to that effect which in those days, in Scotland, meant that the marriage was legal. Her father fainted at the news and then ‘persuaded’ her to go back on her word. The names were cut out of the document. This didn’t invalidate it but perhaps he thought it did. Robert was outraged as only a handsome, self-regarding, self-dramatising poet could be. Jean was pregnant. She gave birth to twins. Robert took the boy to his family farm, Mossgiel outside Mauchline, and left the girl with Jean. The girl died. Robert took up with Highland Mary of unjustifiably saintly memory. Then Robert went off to Edinburgh to be lionised and Mary died as well. Jean’s parents tried to marry her off to a Paisley weaver but she wasn’t having it. Undoubtedly she loved Robert, truly, madly and deeply. On one of his return visits to Mauchline they met up but didn’t make up. They did something though, because Jean fell pregnant again and was turned out of her father’s house in disgrace. Robert relented enough to take a room (and a bed) for her. She gave birth to another set of twins but the babies didn’t survive for long.
And then, quite suddenly, the poet, who had been dallying in Edinburgh with ‘Clarinda’ aka pretty but prudish Nancy McLehose, came back to Ayrshire, married Jean without further ado and set off to Dumfriesshire to establish a hearth and home for his new wife at Ellisland.
It is an intriguing story with a certain amount of mystery about it. On the one hand, it reads like a conventional romance: nice girl goes through hell but tames bad boy who turns out to have a heart of gold. Except that she didn’t and he didn’t. Nor did it really end happily ever after. But it’s a complicated story and one that has huge potential as a novel. I could have written it as a piece of non-fiction but I want to be able to make up what I don’t know, and there is an awful lot we don’t know about Jean. All we have are hints, intriguing suggestions, possibilities. What ifs.
So what does this, if anything, have to do with the dread R word. Well, the other day, I was chatting to a friend who said ‘how’s the work going?’ and I said ‘It isn’t, really. I’m working around the idea rather than through it.’ And she said she felt much the same. When, as I do, you write with a very strong sense of place, a strong sense of history, your own attitude to that place as a writer makes a difference to how and what you write. I have loved living here in Scotland. But I was born in England. My parentage is Polish, English, Irish. And now, increasingly I find myself putting a little mental distance between myself and the place where I currently live. I think I am doing it for the sake of my health, as a matter of self preservation. I had written ‘have loved’ there, well before I thought about it, about what that might mean for my future.
Meanwhile, I have to find a way for Jean and her story to take precedence over everything else that is going on, that will go on over the next year or so. It’s a very strange thing to say, but I may have to find a way of buying some time in isolation to write this novel. Some time elsewhere. Not here. Otherwise, I know that all my perspectives will be skewed by the nasty mixture of conflicting emotions that is Scotland today.
Pictures of Jean and Rab are by Leslie Black, from the Oran Mor's excellent production of my stage play Burns on the Solway with Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie. If you want to read the play, it's available in eBook form on Kindle - and it should be available pretty much everywhere else too in due course.