By ERIN ALLEN
In the back of a strange little shop on Thompson Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Library’s Nancy Groce found an item of antiquity and intrigue. Nestled amidst hopelessly dated $5 earrings and mysterious dark oil paintings priced in the thousands of dollars sat a cheap, retro frame holding what appeared to be a handwritten letter.
“When I first picked it up, I immediately noted it was dated 1804, that it came from Dumfries, and that it was signed ‘Jean Burns,’” said Groce, a folklorist in the American Folklife Center.
Groce, who produced a symposium at the Library of Congress in 2009 to mark the 250th anniversary of Scottish poet Robert Burns’ birth and served as curator of a major exhibition and festival on Scotland at the Smithsonian in 2003, felt the letter warranted further inspection.
The letter began by thanking “Madam” for her “kind inquiry after … What was become of Mr. Burns children,” and went on to provide information on Jean’s five sons.
Groce knew that Burns and his wife, Jean, had nine children together, three of whom survived into adulthood.
“My first reaction was, ‘It couldn’t possibly be,’” Groce said. “Then I saw a P.S. about Maxwell, who I remembered was the child born the day of Robert Burns’ funeral. I really thought it was just a facsimile.”
The shop owner wanted several hundred dollars for the letter, although he was uncertain of its authenticity. Groce left the shop to mull over the purchase and do a little research.
“I thought I would find a copy in some Scottish gift shop, but I couldn’t find anything or even a mention of the letter,” she said.
Going back to the shop, the letter had moved to a place of prominence in the front. In the sunlight, Groce was able to notice that the letter had been folded and had a remnant of a wax seal, which would be consistent with an original. Reading closer, she was also able to discern that the letter contained significant historical content.
“I’m not much of a collector, and I didn’t want to appear too anxious,” she said of her negotiations with the shop owner. Groce ultimately walked away with the letter for $75.
When she got home and took it out of its plastic frame, she found a receipt enclosed. Dated 1970, it came from New York document dealer John Fleming and was addressed to a retired Washington-based American diplomat named Norman Armour, indicating that the letter had been purchased on his behalf at a March 26 auction hosted by Parke Bernet for $71.50. On the back of the letter, she discovered that the “Madam” in the letter’s salutation was “Mrs. Riddell,” believed to be Maria Riddell (1772–1808), a member of a local landed family, friends of Robert Burns.
“Riddell was sort of a muse for Burns,” she said.
There was no address or stamp, which would be consistent with the year and the fact that the note was probably delivered by hand.
Further research led Groce to references to the letter in two obscure 19th-century works on Robert Burns and to track down previous owners. She also consulted several document experts, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the letter was indeed genuine.
Wanting to give the letter an appropriate home, Groce donated it to the National Library of Scotland, where it will go on display.
“I was tempted to donate it to the Library of Congress,” she admitted. “It was a hard choice, but I thought it would get a lot more attention in Scotland.”
Curiously, the Scotland library had a photostat copy of the same letter.
Jean outlived Robert by 38 years. Burns wrote 14 songs expressly for her, including “Of all the Airts the Wind can Blaw” and “I hae a Wife of my Ain.”
“Jean Burns is sort of a shadowy figure … an object of veneration,” said Groce. “Other people’s impressions of her were that she and Robert were the perfect Victorian love story or even that Robert married beneath him and that’s why he was involved with other women.
“My impression is that they had a typical late 18th-century marriage—not romanticized,” she continued. “The letter proves she’s very canny. She was writing to a woman above her station, trying to get a place in the world for her sons and keep a balance—she’s busy, broke, raising children (including one of her husband’s illegitimate daughters) and trying to maintain a household.”
Groce hopes her discovery will open the doors to the study of Jean Armour Burns and to women in Scotland during that time.
Robert Burns (1759-1796)
Robert Burns is considered Scotland’s national poet and an icon and inspiration for generations of artists, politicians, social activists and cultural reformers throughout the world.
Burns began writing poetry and song lyrics at the age of 15. In 1786, he published his first volume of poetry, “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect,” in Kilmarnock. The volume was an immediate critical success, and a second edition printed soon thereafter in Edinburgh proved a financial success. In the decade that followed, Burns’ works were published widely in books and periodicals. He contributed to compilations of Scottish songs and ballads, submitting his own original poems as well as verses based on traditional songs and poems collected from folk performers.
A talented poet in Scots and English, Burns was also a dedicated collector of folk songs and tunes, an able musician and a gifted lyricist. He is credited with preserving more than 300 Scottish songs, often setting his own lyrics or traditional lyrics to new or revised tunes. He contributed hundreds of lyrics to publications, such as George Thompson’s “A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice” (1793) and James Johnson’s “The Scots Musical Museum” (1787-1797). Among his best known songs are “Auld Lang Syne,” “Scots Wha Hae” and “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”
To mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, in collaboration with the Scottish government as part of its Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebration, presented a free public symposium on Burns’ life and work, as well as his impact on America and American culture. The two-day event on Feb. 24 and 25, 2009, was produced in cooperation with the Library’s Center for the Book and the Poetry and Literature Center. “Robert Burns at 250: Poetry, Politics and Performance” can be viewed on the Library’s website at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
The symposium included an overview of Burns materials in the Library of Congress by Stephen Winick of the American Folklife Center.
The Library’s holdings include almost 700 works by and about Robert Burns, including some early editions that were published during the poet’s lifetime. Burns’ impact on luminaries of American history and culture—including Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.—are also reflected in the Library’s extensive holdings.
Erin Allen is acting editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.