Review published on October 17, 2016.
When Jeany met Rabbie.
Catherine Czerkawska’s historical novel The Jewel tells of the passionate romance and enduring love between ‘Mauchline Belle’ Jean Armour and Scotland’s most (in)famous poet Robert Burns.
The Jewel is, however, very much Jean’s story; from her first encounter with the roguish young ploughman – a lad best avoided by a lass like her, a lass with a good reputation to maintain – to their ardent courtship and illicit marriage, through Burns’ infidelities and ending with her premature widowhood. The couple’s powerful and devoted relationship, which very nearly didn’t happen thanks to Jean’s disapproving father’s machinations, was severely tested due to Rab’s roving eye and his long visits to Edinburgh, ‘The City of Enlightenment’, where he hobnobbed with the cream of the capital’s society.
18th century rural Ayrshire comes alive on The Jewel’s pages, as do its inhabitants. Although fiction, the novel is based on fact and the author stresses that everything that happens did or could have happened. Surviving correspondence, contemporary records and biographies were all diligently studied by Czerkawska. Indeed, the author’s passion for her research shines as she paints a realistic picture of Jean’s surroundings and her family and acquaintances.
Jean Armour comes across as a strong, compassionate and forgiving woman as she copes with the temptations, troubles and tragedies which life and Rab throw at her. Burns’ himself, for all his obvious and well documented flaws, is a loving husband and father, a unique man, talented and clever, perhaps born before his time, who found creative inspiration courtesy of his ‘sweet muse’ Jeany.
Beautifully written and eminently readable, Czerkawska’s prose flows and her narrative style and language are in keeping with the period and place of the novel. The dialogue too seems natural and fitting for the characters and their era. Of course, local colloquialisms and auld Scots words appear occasionally, as do snatches of Burns’ poetry. But in a book about Jean Armour and Robert Burns how could they not? Helpfully, a short Glossary is included at the back of the book.
For this reader, not only was The Jewel an enjoyable love story laced with intrigue and sadness, it was also an education, illuminating the social conditions, conventions and attitudes of 18th century south west Scotland. Proving that, although centuries may have passed, people – their personalities and behaviours – fundamentally remain the same. Were they alive today, without doubt, Rab would be a prime candidate for Jeremy Kyle’s stage with Jean reluctantly hovering in the wings.
Catherine Czerkawska’s The Jewel has brought to sparkling life a remarkable, loyal and empathetic woman whose influence on Robert Burns has been long ignored by the history books. It was a pleasure to read.
To quote the Bard himself – Armour’s the jewel for me o’ them a’.
The Jewel Author by Catherine Czerkawska
Saraband 9781910192238 pbk 330 pages
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