not only local history

I read a biography of Robert Burns this summer that focused on his creativity and how it was linked to love, or more accurately, to sex. If you think that Thomas Aquinas has his hands full Christianizing Plato, you should have seen what the Victorians went through trying to make Robert Burns respectable!

Burns was deeply respected women and saw them as equals. He did not deify them but truly enjoyed their companionship throughout his life. And, he had a voracious sexual appetite, numerous illegitimate children and was usually chasing at least one goddess (or two). The point of the book is that the creative and sexual aspects of the poet’s life were linked, with spikes in inspiration whilst he was in love.

One attempt the Victorians made to rehabilitate Burns’ reputation was to focus on a woman immortalized as “Highland Mary”, who died when she was very young. These paintings portray a very chaste parting and imply that had Mary lived, Burns’ life would have been more respectable. However, the evidence is not encouraging, with contemporary sources recounting that the young lady was quite free with her favours and a rather interesting persistent story that she died giving birth to Burns’ child.
What I appreciate about Burns is his frankness and far sighted commitment to liberty. His plain speaking occasionally alienated people (he rather tactlessly celebrated the deaths of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI to a member of the Scottish nobility). I raised myself on Burns and I suppose I’ve got him to thank for the fact that I’ve always been a Jacobite at heart. His personal life was kind of a hot mess … but I prefer it to the way Victorians creepily repressed things and tried to wallpaper over people’s reputations and whole sections of life, and history!

The book is A Tinder Heart by Hugh Douglas.

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