Monthly Archives: January 2014

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Jean Lorimer – Robert Burns’ ‘Chloris’

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Harry and Puma at East Preston Cemetery, Edinburgh

 

The house I live in on the South Side of Edinburgh abuts the old Newington grave yard. It was an open field until purchased by St. Cuthbert’s Kirk Session in 1820 and put to its present use. Well-off Edinburgh merchants were interred there when graveyards in the west end of the city reached capacity. Many had grand mausoleums built in their memory.

At the back of the graveyard there is a stone watchtower with ‘1820’ inscribed above the door. This once provided a secure lookout for a guard who would scan the area for ‘Ressurectionists’ (i.e. body snatchers). Last summer the tower sheltered a homeless man until some official looking types showed up to evict him and barricade the entrance. The crypts, however, are not so easily sealed off and host many a rainy day imbiber of some of Scotland’s less celebrated beverages.

The history and current activity in the graveyard are interesting enough in themselves, but a book called ‘The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh’ took my interest up a notch. It was here I discovered that Robert Burns’ muse Jean Lorimer is buried a mere twenty yards of so from my back window. Jean was the inspiration for the songs ‘Lassie wi the lintwhite locks’, ‘Whistle and I’ll come tae ye’, and 24 others. The online Burns encyclopaedia is rather dismissive of Jean and the songs written to her. ‘Whatever the state of her charms’, it says, ‘none [of the songs] is among Burns’ finest’.

In life as in death Jean Lorimer struggled to get respect. It did not help that Burns named her ‘Chloris’ – too close, perhaps, to the better remembered ‘Clarinda’ (Mrs Agnes McLehose) for full separate recognition. Clarinda, incidentally, also lived for a while in this area of Edinburgh, just half a mile or so from the Lorimer grave.

Burns early songs to Chloris were written on behalf of an Excise colleague called John Gillespie, but the later ones were offered on his own account. She was the daughter of a rich merchant who moved the members of his family from Moffat to just outside Dumfries where Burns’ excise duties brought him into contact with them. Jean married a man named Whelpdale who was prone to running up debts. He was eventually incarcerated at Carlisle.

After they separated, Jean returned to Scotland and reverted to the name of Lorimer. She took a housekeeping job with a family in the Newington area. When she became too old for housekeeping duties she was pensioned off to a humble abode, again on the south side of Edinburgh.

Jean Lorimer died in 1831 aged fifty six and in these reduced circumstances. She was the subject of a book called ‘Chloris’ by one James Adams which was published in 1895. Adams was the son of Lorimer’s doctor and was sent on an errand to her when he was a boy. One source says that the book ‘vindicates her character, which seems to have been carelessly depreciated in some of the biographies of Burns’.

This early attention to Chloris, however, was not sustained and these days she is commonly described as the least known of Burns’ heroines.  In lieu of a Burns gathering this year, I crawled out the back window and walked over to her grave. It is easy to find as it is in a cruciform which, as far as I can see, make is unique in the graveyard. It was a bleak day with a wind ‘ensuin baith snell and keen. Jean’s grave has seen many such days and the stone has acquired a film of green algae over the years. The inscription is still legible, though only just. It reads:

“The “Chloris” and “Lassie wi’ the lint white locks” of the poet Burns

Born 1773 Died 1831

Erected under the auspices of the Ninety Burns Club.

Edinburgh 1901″

The Lorimer stone is set back from the line of the others and slightly raised on bricks which may have been laid over the site of her previously unmarked grave. It’s a pity the Ninety Burns Club had no more space on the plinth or they might have considered adding some verses from “Lassie wi’ the line white locks”. On a Burns Day such as this was, the last two verses seem particularly apt:

 

And should the howling wintry blast

Disturb my lassie’s midnight rest,

I’ll fauld thee to my faithfu’ breast,

And comfort thee, my Dearie O.

 

Lassie wi’ the lintwhite locks,

Bonie lassie, artless lassie,

Wilt thou wi’ me tent the flocks,

An wilt thou be my Dearie O.

 

 

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Reviewing in the Gutter

Book reviews are always good for a bit of controversy. There was some when we announced the use of reviewer pseudonyms with the launch of Gutter Issue 01. At the time, the concern was that our reviews would be too vicious – that our reviewers would dig the knife in from the comfort of their pseudonym shadows. I’m happy to say that didn’t happen. Now, as Issue 10 approaches, the concern has changed. In a recent SRB blog article Harry McGrath asked pertinently if in fact reviewers at Gutter, and throughout Scotland, are all just far too nice.

The glee with which people read Will Self’s scathing review of Mark Kermode’s Hatchet Job in The Guardian last October made me wonder if I should roll up my sleeves and get into a bar brawl just to increase our sales figures. But what did his hatchet job of Hatchet Job actually achieve. It’s generated a lot of attention – for Will Self, for The Guardian, and for Mark Kermode. A 1500 word review in the national press that gets everyone talking? Most writers can only dream of that kind of coverage, and the attention has probably ensured more sales for a book that doesn’t deserve them at the expense of those that do. Will Self comments that to “critique such a work strikes me as altogether surplus to requirements.” He’s absolutely right. Particularly interesting is his conclusion that the role of the critic, as we know it, is over. Perhaps he is right again, for what the publication of this review really shows is that no matter how “irritating” or full of howlers your book is, you can be the one to get in The Guardian at the expense of more deserving authors so long as it’ll generate enough gossip. Depressing, isn’t it?

We have ten pages of reviews in Gutter (occasionally more). It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s bigger than many review sections. Nevertheless, every six months we can only review around ten books, including novels, short story collections, and poetry. Our reviewers range from experienced critics and academics to writers and journalists of all ages. I think they probably are all “nice people”, as Harry McGrath suggests, but that’s not why we publish their reviews. We publish reviews of books that we believe merit that exposure. Of course there has to be a balance between established names and debut writers, poetry and prose, women and men. But overall, as a review editor with limited space to work with, I try to focus on the best. 

Make no mistake: in Scotland, just like everywhere else, there are plenty of mediocre, badly written, and thoughtless books being published. There are plenty of books out there that I could rip apart (and I sometimes do, in the privacy of my own home). So why don’t I review these books in Gutter, and publish a juicy review section guaranteed to kick off a public spat with every issue? Well, it seems to me that at the heart of the hatchet job is a fundamental contradiction. A reviewer takes a book that she or he dislikes and then turns it into the book that everyone is talking about. At a time when review space is so limited that high quality literature can be published and disappear again without so much as a mention in the press, publishing a scathing review of a bad book really amounts to one thing: doing the author a favour. At Gutter, we don’t want to waste one of our review pages talking about a book that we don’t think anyone should read. We’d rather give that space to a book that we think people should read.

Review coverage is continually diminishing as print media struggles to stay afloat. In the latest of a long line of book review section cuts, The Scotsman have now reduced their review pages by half. In both The Scotsman and The Herald, Scottish titles compete for space with books from the rest of the UK, further reducing the review space devoted to Scottish literature. Even the most talented writers can now struggle to get review coverage anywhere. At Gutter, we are trying to fill that void. With the launch of Issue 10, we will also be launching an on-line monthly review of Scottish books that will allow us to increase our coverage. While I have no intention of slashing my way through the worst books recently published, the diversity of books we review will expand and there’ll be space to talk about the disappointments as well as the successes of new Scottish literature.

But there is one achievement of hatchet jobs that is worth mentioning: they get people talking about book reviews. I can see that there’s a place for them, it’s just not on the printed pages of a necessarily small review section. So if you’re still hankering for a fight, fear not. There will always be bad writers to fuel your rage, and there’ll always be literary critics who love nothing more than being at the centre of a good old tussle. At Gutter, we just don’t like a waste of space.

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