Month: May 2018

Burns for Bonnie Birdies?

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The Rights of Woman, is a poem written in 1792 by Robert Burns, but was written with a particular purpose. It was an occasional address spoken by Miss Louisa Fontenelle on her benefit night: the 26th of November 1792. Fontenelle (1773 —99) was an actress popular in Scotland in Burns’s day. He greatly admired her acting and wrote her a poem and several letters which flattered her immensely (this will not be a surprise to most readers who know of Burns’s character and history with women!). In The Rights of Woman, however, Burns communicates the idea that the ruling class would benefit from turning their attention to the female sex to generate humanity, as opposed to crippling civilisation with war.[1] Indeed, Burns was arguably more of a “lover” than a fighter as he stated: ‘war I deprecate: misery and ruin to thousands are in the last that announces the destructive demon. I am better pleased to make one more than be the death of twenty”.[2]

 

Robert Burns

 

The first stanza starts off strong and excitingly; as does the last stanza, with both referring to politics, a theme Burns knew well and was very passionate about. The rights mentioned are ‘protection’, ‘decorum’ (or good manners) and ‘admiration’. This seems laughable by today’s standards; but the things women’s rights campaigners argue for are more or less the same things Burns was talking about in the 18th century. For example, better laws to ‘protect’ women, ‘admiration’ in the form of equal pay and representation, then ‘decorum’ by not harassing or objectifying women. So, it seems modern women are still in need of what Burns believed was due them.

The poem suggests that society must protect and respect the delicacy of the female sex, and so Burns can be seen to assume a stance typical of his time. In the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers did place women in what was considered to be a crucial role within society, however, woman’s contribution was measured in terms of the positive and passive effect that they supposedly had upon their husbands. This highly emotional influence was believed to encourage sympathy in men and therefore enrich the structure of society as a whole.[3]

It has to be noted that there are limitations in this poem as it was written to be performed, and performed by a woman at that. If it contained anything too radical then there could be a backlash and prejudice against the actress herself. This is something which Burns would have undoubtedly have thought of, so his own opinions may not be fully expressed within this poem, as it coming from a female protagonist and not himself.

It has been astutely stated that

‘Few poems written in the late 18th Century would have been entirely free of conditioned chauvinist condescension but, in this monologue written from a female point of view for a woman to perform, Burns give voice to sincerely egalitarian opinions, limited by, but enlightened for, their time.’[4]

However, one text which was revolutionary, radical and centuries before its time was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792 (coincidently the same year as Burns’s The Rights of Woman). It is a glorious piece of work which argues vehemently that ‘true equality and reciprocity of affection between the sexes can only be built on a base of intellectual – and economic – independence.’[5] She goes on to argue that ‘would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable wives – in a word, better citizens.’[6] This kind of language coupled with the rational arguments being reasoned here is very enlightened for its time, and in comparison, Burns’s poem seems meek.

 

Mary Wollstonecraft

 

The piercing conclusion of the poem – ‘Ah! Ca ira!’ – is taken from a French revolutionary song. It apparently caused a controversy as it was implied that Burns supported the French Revolution. It has been noted that ‘through invoking the spirit of the French Revolution, Burns the Crown employee, ran a considerable risk.’[7] If Burns felt like he could risk all for supporting the French Revolution, why not for women’s rights? Why not support women’s struggles for equality? The conclusion is simply because this is not something Burns was passionate about.

Burns’s relationships with women were not one of dislike, in fact he liked women very much, but did he fully respect women as equals? I would argue no. He did enjoy women’s company but he seemed to objectify women; his numerous affairs are evidence of this. Also, the Bachelor’s Club debating society rule conveys Burns’s machoism over his sexual endeavours. It stated you had to be “a professed lover of one or more of the female sex”.[8] This kind of attitude is even typical of society today but Burns seemed to have a very gentle soul. He seemed to fall in love, have crushes or infatuations repeatedly with various women and he did so very quickly after meeting them. But, typically of Burns, he is hard to pin down as he also had close, platonic friendships with the opposite sex, for example, Mrs Frances Dunlop. She was suffering from depression when she read The Cotter’s Saturday Night. It led her to communicate with Burns, and resulted in a friendship, which, except for a break towards the end of the poet’s life, seemed very nice.[9]

To conclude, it is worth mentioning one hundred and eighteen years later, two suffragettes attempted to bomb the Burns Cottage, as part of their militant campaigning strategy to gain the right to vote in the UK. They targeted it because of Burns’s famousness – they were not against Burns per say – and the suffragette Frances Parker who got caught and jailed as result of the attack even cried out Burns’s epic lines from Scots Wha Hae in court. She shouted: “Liberty’s in every blow! /Let us do or die!” I wonder how Burns would have felt about his childhood home nearly being destroyed by women campaigning for equal rights… with A Man’s A Man For A’ That ringing in my head, I like to think despite all I have said in this blog, he would not have minded that much.

 

By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee

 

 

[1] Pauline Gray, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[2] Dilys Jones, A Wee Guide to Robert Burns, (Goblinshead: Edinburgh, 2016) p42

[3] Pauline Gray, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[4] Donny O’Rourke, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[5] Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Women, the Family and Freedom. The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750 – 1880, ed. By Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford Uni Press: Stanford, 1983) p51

[6] Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Women, the Family and Freedom. The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750 – 1880, Ed. By Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford Uni Press: Stanford, 1983) p63

[7] Donny O’Rourke, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[8] Dilys Jones, A Wee Guide to Robert Burns, (Goblinshead: Edinburgh, 2016) p15

[9] The Burns Encyclopaedia, Dunlop, Mrs Frances Anna (1730 — 1815), http://www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/DunlopMrsFrancesAnna17301511815.321.shtml [accessed 27.04.18]

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‘The descendant of the immortal Wallace’

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A picture of Mrd Dunlop
Mrs Frances Anna Wallace Dunlop

Throughout his life, Robert Burns was inspired by women. He grew up listening to the Scottish songs and folklore of his mother, Agnes, and distant cousin, Betty Davidson; fell in love time and again with a new bonnie lassie; and fathered several much loved daughters of his own who inspired his affections and poetry. Few relationships however are as well documented or as important to his works as his friendship with Mrs Frances Anna Wallace Dunlop, whose support and patronage were invaluable to the Bard for the majority of his publishing life.

Born in 1730, Frances Anna Wallace was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie and Dame Eleanora Agnew. Sir Thomas claimed to have been a descendant of Sir Richard, cousin of William Wallace – a connection which Burns was later delighted by. At the age of 17, Frances married John Dunlop of Dunlop and the couple went on to have 7 sons and 6 daughters. Their happiness was not to last however, as John died in 1785 resulting in Frances falling into a ‘long and severe illness, which reduced her mind to the most distressing state of depression’. This would have been an affliction Burns was also all too used to.

It was as she was recovering from this illness that a friend gave her a copy of The Cotter’s Saturday Night to read. So delighted was she with it that she sent, according to Gilbert Burns, ‘a very obliging letter to my brother, desiring him to send her half a dozen copies of his Poems, if he had them to spare, and begging he would do her the pleasure of calling at Dunlop House as soon as convenient’. The Bard responded by sending her 5 copies of his Kilmarnock Edition and a promise to call on her on return from his trip to Edinburgh. It was the start of a very important friendship.

Burns visited Mrs Dunlop at least five times throughout his life, and wrote more often to her than any other correspondent, sending her copies of his poems and drafts of letters intended for others. She in return wrote to him of her family troubles, as well as counselling him on career choices and urging him to modify what she described as his ‘undecency’ in relation to his affairs with women. She described his correspondence as ‘an acquisition for which mine can make no return, as a commerce in which I alone am the gainer; the sight of your hand gives me inexpressible pleasure…’ It would appear, in saying this, that she underestimated the value Burns placed on her friendship, as his increasingly desperate attempts to illicit a response from her after their falling out demonstrate.

This falling out occurred in 1794. With two of her daughters marrying French refugees and various members of her family having army connections, Mrs Dunlop had hinted at her disapproval of Burns’s apparent sympathies with revolutionaries in France in previous correspondence. He failed to take the hint and wrote in a letter of December 1794, referring to King Louis and Marie Antoinette, ‘What is there in the delivering over a purged Blockhead & an unprincipled Prostitute to the hands of the hangman, that it should arrest for a moment, attention in an eventful hour…?’ This offence was a step too far.

Burns sent Mrs Dunlop two further letters without reply, apparently completely oblivious to what could have caused her anger. ‘What sin of ignorance I have committed against so highly a valued friend I am utterly at a loss to guess’ he wrote in January 1796, ‘…Will you be so obliging, dear Madam, as to condescend on that my offence which you seem determined to punish with a deprivation of that friendship which once was the source of my highest enjoyments?’ On receiving no response, his final letter to her was sent just days before his death informing her that his illness would ‘speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns’ and bestowing praise upon her friendship. It is believed that she did relent on receiving this, and one of the last things Burns was able to read was a message of reconciliation from her.

Mrs Dunlop survived the poet by another 19 years, dying in 1815. Her friendship and patronage were hugely valued by Burns, and her impact on the poet’s life and works should be regarded as just as important as that of other key women in his life. She is buried in Dumfries, Scotland but her words and thoughts live on in her letters to Scotland’s National Bard.

A letter from Robert Burns to Mrs Dunlop
A letter from Robert Burns    to Mrs Dunlop