Saturday, 18 July 2015

The Last Days of Robert Burns by Catherine Czerkawska

I can’t think of anything except Robert Burns at the moment – well, Robert Burns and Jean Armour – since I’m deep into a new novel about Jean and becoming ever more absorbed in the lives of the couple. It helps that I’m living in Ayrshire and it’s summer and the landscape here is very beautiful and – once you get off the beaten track – not a million miles from the way it must have looked in Burns’s day. It strikes me that I could probably write a whole other book about researching this novel. This has involved not just online research, but visits to the various places where they lived and worked. I've also used various old books, collections of his poetry and other volumes of the time, even if the connection is fairly tenuous, like the beautiful little Old Testament below - most of them bought on eBay or in our local saleroom.

Clarinda's husband's cousin's bible!
There’s nothing quite like holding in your hands a book printed before or not long after the poet’s death – and most certainly while his widow was still alive.

But the poet himself died young. And in July, three days before the anniversary of his death on 21st July 1796, it seems fitting to remember him. I’ve been looking at pictures of his signature, once so bold and beautiful, but not long before his death, at the early age of thirty seven, it had deteriorated into a sad, frail scrawl, laboriously inscribed onto the page and with a little blot to one side. It haunts me, that signature from the beginning of the July in which he died, because it’s clear that he can no longer even hold a pen properly.

The bare facts of his death can still make me cry. 

Some years ago when I was working on a play about his last days, down on the Solway Coast, I went to the Brow Well near Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire – a sort of poor man’s spa, a tank into which a ‘chalybeate’ spring drains. People would come to drink these waters, known to contain iron salts, in hopes of a cure.  There used to be a huddle of cottages, in one of which Burns took lodgings. He had been prescribed seabathing for what was called the ‘flying gout’: gout in the sense that he was in intense pain, flying because it was everywhere.

We can’t be sure exactly what killed him, but there is some evidence that he had rheumatic fever when he was young, that hard work on stony ground had placed stress on his heart and that endocarditis was the cause of his death. He seemed to suffer from what would certainly be diagnosed as panic attacks throughout his life, and quite possibly bipolar disorder or clinical depression as well. Certainly in those last months he had the high temperature, the chills, the night sweats, the intense fatigue, the muscle and joint pain that are symptoms of endocarditis. It all seems to have come on relatively slowly, which – I gather – is evidence of subacute pulmonary heart disease – something that he may have had for a long time. He was in intense pain, he was confused and worried, he could hardly eat – and the doctors had prescribed seabathing.

Wild roses
You have to understand that down on the Solway, there are mudflats and the sea is very shallow. People go flounder trampling there, feeling for flatfish with their bare toes. I went there on a June day, a few years ago, and found an atmospheric place of long horizontals. There was a mass of pink thrift, a natural rock garden, fringing the shore near the Brow Well, and then a vast expanse of glistening water, like polished metal, cold even in summer, into which he must have struggled and staggered, because he had been told that the water must reach his waist. God knows how he did it. I remember wondering why he didn’t die on the spot, but he even said it did him a bit of good, although I suspect it just numbed the pain.

Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie as Jean and Rab at Glasgow's Oran Mor.
Picture by Lesley Black
He was running out of money and he was running out of time. People are fond of pointing out that he wasn’t exactly destitute, and he certainly wasn’t. But he was an exciseman, a customs officer, and this was an active profession. A few years previously, he had been riding 200 miles a week, even in the middle of winter, through hail, rain and snow. His writing wasn’t exactly lucrative and he had refused payment for his song collecting and writing, seeing it as a service to the nation, a nation that seemed rather stubbornly to resist helping him out in more acceptable ways. The fear of penury that comes with sickness, with the inability to work, and with a large family to support, must have haunted his last days, and the more sick he became, the worse his fears grew for that family. Jean was heavily pregnant with his last child, a son. She would give birth on the day of his funeral.

Earlier, he had written:
Waefu want and hunger fley me
Glowrin by the hallan en
Sair I fecht them at the door
But aye I’m eerie they come ben.

Woeful want and hunger frighten me, glowering by the porch (not quite, but there’s no equivalent!)
I always fight them at the door, but I’m terrified they’ll come in.

He was aye eerie they would come ben.

Also, he knew he had not set his papers in order and he fretted about his work. He knew that they were hawking ballads on the streets of Dumfries with his name attached to them, paltry pieces of work that he had not written and would have been ashamed of. He was desperately worried about leaving Jean to cope with all this. A haberdasher had threatened him with prosecution for an unpaid debt. The reality was that somebody would have paid it for him, people owed him money, but in his woeful state of health and mind, the threat must have loomed very large.

He offered his landlady his seal – a beautiful piece he had designed himself in happier days - if she would refill his bottle of port wine, because that and a little milk was all he could manage to swallow, but she refused the seal and filled the bottle anyway. She arranged with a local farmer to lend him a gig so that he could get back to Dumfries, some ten miles away. He could not have ridden. He could not have mounted a horse. On 18th July, on this day in 1796, he came home to Dumfries. He got down from the gig at the foot of the cobbled vennel where the family lived, and had to be helped – oxtered - up to the house by Jessie Lewars, a young neighbour who was helping Jean. He could not walk alone. They sent the children out with friends to keep the house quiet for him. He took to his bed, and lived only three more days. Jessie made the children gather the wild flowers he had loved to strew over the body.

Then, of course, everyone came scrambling out of the woodwork to attend the great poet’s funeral and to beg, borrow and steal scraps of his life from his widow. They never stopped harassing her throughout her long life, and she treated them all with patience and understanding.

 I suppose we – and I don’t except myself here – have been doing it ever since.


Wendy Jones said...

What a fascinating insight into Burns, life. As a Scot I am surprised how much of this I didn't know. Thank you.

Jan Needle said...

That's lovely, that. Thank you.

Leela Soma said...

A brilliant tribute to the National Bard on this July 18th, Catherine. Like Wendy there is so much new stuff that I didn't know either. Your meticulous research is a treat to read. Thanks for sharing it with us. I look forward to your new book when it is published.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, all. I keep finding things out that I didn't know either!

Susan Price said...

I knew Burns died young, but had no idea he had such a miserable end. Thank you, Catherine.

It's good to hear of the kindness of the landlady, at least. - I feel for Jean and Jessie too, struggling to cope with the dying man. And love that quote!

Lydia Bennet said...

Catherine, your love for this couple shines through and will make your novel even more luminous and wonderful. Perhaps you could do a book on the writing of, perhaps include it with the ebook? Poor soul, and of course all who died of various ills in the past must have suffered so much without the meds we have now. So young to die, so much for 'hard work never killed anybody', a lie told to the labouring class by those who've lived comfortably off their work for centuries. it reminds me of Jane Austen's death, a mystery to her and her family, and Keats all too familiar early death from TB.
An aside on the language, intrigued to see 'oxtered', here in north east England the dialect term for armpits is oxters, so I assume this means being supported under the arms.

Dennis Hamley said...

Val, have you read the Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford? A plausible case for murder. Catherine, what a wonderful post. I can't wait for the novel.

Lydia Bennet said...

I haven't, Dennis, will look into it. Bright's disease has been suggested for her COD.Can't imagine anyone murdering her, she had no money or influence etc!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Dennis and yes to Valerie - he had to be supported to walk up to the house. Didn't know 'oxters' was used in the North East - good to know! Poor Rab. He was never good in winter, although he claimed to like it as a season. Wrote a lot of poems about it. There's one story from when he was working as an excise man - he rode to Sanquhar through hideous weather, arrived at the inn and was just settling in when the funeral party of one Mrs Oswald of Auchencruive turned up - not a popular lady by all accounts. Rab had to press on to the next inn which was all of 12 miles away. And even driving over those moors in winter, never mind riding, is no picnic! I've driven that road quite a lot and always think of Rab, soldiering on and writing a nasty poem about the lady and her husband quite soon after!

Dennis Hamley said...

I can't imagine anyone bumping off Jane either, Val. But, as we all know and Lindsay Ashford proves, families are weird things. The MDOMA is a fascinating novel. It's published by Honno, the Welsh publisher, and is on Kindle.