Lay off Robert Burns

In their Guest columnist slot on 26 January, the Sunday National had an article by Sara Sheridan (“best selling Scottish writer”, according to her website) with the headline: “Burns wasn’t on the correct side of the argument for women’s rights”. It’s hardly a snappy title, and it’s also a 21st century one being used to have a go at an 18th century poet.

Whether the writer chose the headline I don’t know, but there’s really only a couple of paragraphs in her article with a direct connection to it.  In these, she refers to one line of a poem Burns wrote in 1792 in which he says that the “rights of women” merit some attention but then points out that the “rights he goes on to outline are to “protection”, “caution” and “admiration””.  She goes on to contrast these ‘rights’ with those identified by Mary Wollstonecraft in her famous book  A Vindication of the Rights of Women, also published in 1792.

Thus Sara Sheridan finds Burns guilty of not being “at the cutting edge of 18th-century forward thinking which advocated the endowment of actual legal rights on women over the rights conferred by the male gaze”.  Does she have any evidence that in the last four years of his life Burns had read and dismissed Wollstonecraft’s book?  Does she know that he was even aware of it?  Were there other writers, supportive of Wollstonecraft’s book, being published and did Burns have access to them?  She described Wollstonecraft’s book as “groundbreaking” so in 1792 women’s rights was a newish concept.  Thomas Paine had published “The Rights of Man” only the previous year.

To give Sheridan her due, she does acknowledge Burns “undoubted talents” and is aware that it’s “modern sensibilities” that can make it difficult for some women to celebrate Burns.  She’s aware that “Georgian Scotland was a million miles from the #MeToo generation”  so why on earth does she also use the modern phrase “toxic behaviour” to describe how Burns treated Jenny Clow?  She needs to be careful that she’s not doing the wider women’s movement a disservice by condemning Burns using standards from our very different kind of society.

Earlier in her article, Sheridan refers back to Catherine Carswell being sent a bullet in the post after she had published a biography of Burns in 1930 which referenced his heavy drinking and active sex life.  (The sender of that bullet would possibly have felt quite at home today on Twitter, abusing women in public life.)  She thinks there’s still a “hard core of Burns fans for whom any criticism of the bard is heresy” but what her evidence for this is, I don’t know as it’s not disclosed.  Anyway, if such a group exists, I’m not part of it as I don’t think any of us lead a blameless life.

Sheridan acknowledges Burns’s struggles as a working class writer and his battles with depression; she outlines how he praised the writing of some female poets, and alludes to his appraisal of some young females.  She acknowledges that he supported his illegitimate children but describes his pleasure in his philandering.  His coorse verses won him fans in the male drinking clubs of Edinburgh but he also got personal and professional support from the women in his life.

When I really search the article, I can find balance of a sort so maybe it’s the headline that’s the poorest part of the piece?  We can’t now condemn Burns for being of his time; we can praise him for the egalitarianism of his later work; we can laugh at Holy Willie and cry at Ae Fond Kiss; we can give thanks for the success of the Kilmarnock edition and we can wonder at Jean Armour’s tolerant and forgiving nature.  We can surely be proud that his song was sung this week in the European Parliament.

Let’s lay off Burns and go after those alive now and sinning, in the full knowledge that they’re on the wrong side of history.








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