Catherine Czerkawska had known nothing about Burns until, on relocating to Ayrshire and hearing about him at school, she visited Burns Cottage and fell in love with the bard, becoming interested in him and the women in his life. Writing the novel, The Jewel, took a lot of research since hardly anyone had written extensively about Jean in particular. Plenty of people had written about Highland Mary and Nancy McLehose, aka Clarinda but it was difficult to find even a family tree for the Armour family. In the Belles of Mauchline where Burns describes Jean as ‘the jewel of them all’ he was writing about young women of consequence in the busy town of Mauchline. The Mauchline ‘belles’ were pretty young women, expected to make good marriages. Poor Jean is often dismissed by the poet’s biographers as the illiterate girl next door. Nancy McElhose is presented as a better match, while Highland Mary is sanctified, but the former was already married while the latter died as a very young woman.
Catherine Carswell called Jean an ‘unfeeling heifer’ without the capacity for self sacrifice of Highland Mary but nothing was further from the truth. While not a great reader, she could manage the Bible and her husband’s poems, having attended the Mauchline school, run by the session clerk, Andrew Noble. Her father, James Armour, was a master stonemason who paid more than anyone else in the town for his pew in the Kirk. As well as reading and writing, she knew how to dance and more importantly, how to sing. Her mother and grandmother had a great fund of old songs, and Jean learned them all. This may well have been something that drew the poet to her. She was acknowledged as the finest singer in the parish and sometimes sang in public. She was the apple of her father's eye and her parents hoped for a good husband for her, which explained why they disapproved of Burns.
Mauchline was bigger and more populous then than now, and on the death of their father, the Burns family had moved to Mossgiel Farm just outside the town. Dances at Morton's Ballroom in the centre of town gave the opportunity for young people to meet and converse. There is some evidence that the couple made use of a ‘black fit’ (or black foot) who was essentially a matchmaker. This would have been needed because Jean’s parents wanted her to be wooed by a Mauchline weaver called Rab Wilson who was learning his craft in Paisley. Robert Burns, by contrast, wore his hair in the Edinburgh fashion and dressed stylishly, being described as ‘spare and swarthy’ - an idea romantic hero, even then. He was clearly attractive, but her parents didn't think he would be a good provider as his ‘nose was always in a book’. Books, even second hand, were a very expensive commodity.
The couple agreed to marry, as soon as Jean realised she was expecting, but her parents objected and the situation quickly became complicated. Jean was sent to relatives in Paisley where her parents hoped she might marry Rab Wilson. Burns was very angry – he clearly thought she had betrayed him, although there was little else she could do in the circumstances. This was not a time when you could go against parental wishes. Jean soon came home to Mauchline, clearly carrying Burns’s child. She should have sat on the ‘cutty stool’ to be publicly admonished for her sins in the kirk, but instead the minister, Mr Auld, refused to let this happen and allowed her to write a letter of penitance, which was copied into the kirk session minutes book. Interestingly, the word ‘child’ changes to ‘children’ in this minutes book, even before the babies were born, so the local midwife must have detected twins. All of this demonstrates the value of such ‘primary sources’ for writers of historical fiction as well as for serious academic research – the two often overlap.
Burns was planning to go to the Indies, and was now determined not to marry "that woman" as he called Jean in his letters. But he was still telling people how much he loved her, and was clearly conflicted. He seems to have been courting Highland Mary, a dairymaid to the Montgomeries of Coilsfield House. There is some evidence that Burns knew that she was having an affair with James Montgomerie and it is possible that both Burns and Mary were ‘on the rebound’ and that the affair was never consummated. Mary went to Greenock where her brother had taken a job. It’s thought that she may have been waiting for Burns to join her there, but there is also some evidence that she had been about to take a position as a nursemaid in Glasgow. She may have hoped that Burns would send for her once he was settled overseas, but he postponed his travel and Mary died of typhus in Greenock.
Jean meanwhile had given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. As was the custom at that time, the boy, Robert, was brought up by the Burns family, while his sister, Jean, stayed with the Armours. After the publication of the first edition of his poems, Burns went to Edinburgh where he prospered for a time and where he met Nancy McLehose. Their friendship seems to have been passionate, but unconsummated. Nancy was married, albeit with an absent husband. With Mary now dead and the poet becoming more famous, Jean’s parents were more receptive to the poet’s visits, a change of heart which disgusted him. Burns seems to have been torn between his crush on Nancy and his abiding affection for Jean. He would visit his daughter, at the Armour house, and was allowed to ‘walk out’ with Jean. Inevitably, Jean fell pregnant again but Burns was still refusing to marry her. While Burns was away, the little girl twin, Jean, died at the age of 13 months. Burns refers to it in a very angry letter when he says he is ‘a girl out of pocket and by careless murdering mischance too’ which suggests that she died in some kind of accident.
Because her ‘condition’ was beginning to show, Jean’s parents suggested that she would be better off staying outside the town and she spent some weeks at Willie Muir’s mill, near Tarbolton. Muir had been a friend of Burns’s father and was also a colleague of James Armour. Burns was still saying he wouldn't marry her but he was persuaded, perhaps by Willie Muir and his friend Dr Mackenzie, to take a room for her in Mauchline (where the Burns Museum can now be visited in the centre of town.) The second set of twins were born very prematurely and died almost immediately . However at this point Burns seems to have changed his mind, visited Jean, offered to marry her and told her of his plans to take the tenancy of a farm at Ellisland, in Dumfriesshire, and to train as an excise officer as well. After their formal marriage, Jean remained in Mauchline, while Burns supervised the construction of the new farm buildings at Ellisland, and would walk out every day to learn cheesemaking from Robert’s brother Gilbert at Mossgiel. Burns would travel back and forth from Dumfriesshire to visit his new wife.
Ellisland found them reasonably happy together although the Bard remained congenitally unfaithful. Jean is known to have said ‘oor Rab should hae had twa wives.’ Jean outlived her husband contentedly by many years, treasured his memory and never remarried, although she seemingly had plenty of offers. She visited Edinburgh, took tea with Nancy McLehose, but remained in Dumfries where she was very well respected.