It is traditional at this time of year to be thinking about Robert Burns - but what about Mrs Burns? A rare letter giving an extremely rare glimpse into the life of Jean Armour, Burns's wife and widow, which was bought in a New York junk store for just $75, was donated today to the National Library of Scotland.
Written in 1804, eight years after the poet's death, the letter is from Jean Armour to Maria Riddell, an old family friend, in response to a verbal enquiry after the health of Burns's children. The letter is not the most fluent or florid but, in its own way, speaks volumes about the trials and tribulations of having been Mrs Robert Burns.
In it, she writes about the children, their schooling and their future opportunities, although perhaps most poignantly she refers to Francom Wallace, who had died the previous year: 'He was to have gon to the East Indies this spring had he lived, Mr Shaw had got a cadets place for him'. Even more sadly, a 'ps' reports that 'Maxwell died 2 years and 9 months.'
The letter has its own fascinating history, which ended up with it being discovered in a junk store in New York's Greenwich Village by Burns enthusiast Dr Nancy Groce of the Library of Congress. After seeing it once, tucked away in the back of the shop, Dr Groce went away and did some research. Having convinced herself that it might be the real thing, she returned to the shop, where it was now proudly on display in the window and bought it for the bargain price of $75.
Having met National Library of Scotland staff at a Burns symposium she hosted in Washington last February, Dr Groce contacted NLS for advice on getting it authenticated. Dr Groce then offered to donate the letter to the Library's collection.
Dr Groce said: 'In the back of the store, perched on a pile of assorted junk, I noticed a cheap 1970s plastic box frame containing a handwritten letter. When I picked it up, I immediately noted it was dated 1804, that it came from Dumfries, and that it was signed "Jean Burns." Having recently produced a symposium on Robert Burns at the Library of Congress, it caught my attention. I'm so pleased that it has proven to be genuine and I hope the presence of this letter at the National Library of Scotland will lead to further research into Jean Armour Burns, her life and times, and her contributions.'
Cate Newton, Director of Collections and Research at NLS, said: 'It's an amazing story, to find a letter like this in such unusual circumstances, particularly one from someone like Jean Armour for whom there are very few comparable documents, if any. We're delighted at the find, and doubly so at Dr Groce's generosity in donating the letter to the National Library of Scotland.'
National Library of Scotland
George IV Bridge
Tel: 0131 623 3700
25 January 2010