It is said that Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, has a birthday that is celebrated worldwide to an extent only surpassed by Jesus Christ. Fame indeed. Yet Burns himself is a rather enigmatic and certainly very paradoxical character who repeatedly succumbed to his defining weakness, an eye for a pretty woman. Such was the depth of this weakness that it led to his fathering eight illegitimate children by five different women.
"The Jewel" by Catherine Czerkawska is a historical novel about the life of Jean Armour, Robert Burns' wife and an oddly neglected historical figure. No-one approaching this book is going to do so in the belief it is likely to offer a happy ending. If Robert Burns' serial philandering were not enough to ensure that the course of his relationship with his long-suffering wife could never run smoothly, the deaths of no fewer than six of their children and his own death at the age of just 37 means this is not a lighthearted read.
Yet it is an uplifting one. Jean Armour has been as poorly treated by generations of historians as she was by her husband. Perhaps the presence of a strong, faithful and loyal wife proved difficult to fit easily into the legend of the great romantic bard, a man who might be said to have invented the "burn bright and die young" trajectory that was to prove so alluring for too many film stars and pop idols in the twentieth century.
"The Jewel" does much to put right the wrongs of historians, if not perhaps of history itself. The incredible depth of research that underpins the book is obvious, but not intrusive. The reader finds themself deeply immersed in the world of a strong-willed and highly capable young woman who falls in love with a man whose reputation she knows only too well. The characters of Jean and her parents and friends, and of Robert Burns himself, come to life beautifully on the page, as do the complexities of the society in which they are trying to live what many regard as deeply unconventional lives. The book is a "novel" in the sense that gaps in the historical record have been filled to produce a coherent and satisfying story, and in the sense that it takes the form of a novel. It also serves as a superbly researched biography of a deeply admirable woman who until now has been as unjustly neglected by history as she was by her husband.