I spent Saturday at the always-enjoyable annual Centre for Robert Burns Studies annual conference. The main feature of the day was the launch of Murray Pittock’s two volumes on James Johnson’s Scots’ Musical Museum, the latest instalment of the the Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century project, and certain to be valuable resources as I move into looking at Burns’s creative work.
Perhaps one of the more thought-provoking papers, however, was a re-examination of the nature of Burns’s relationship with Mary Campbell, more often known as ‘Highland Mary’. While the core of the paper was interesting in itself, what really caught my attention was the speaker’s somewhat negative take on the potential role of Frances Dunlop in a far-reaching and entangled web of Campbell conspiracy, and her relationship with Burns.
Having spent several months similarly exploring a re-framing of the friendship between Mrs Dunlop and the poet, I realised that my take was very different. As we approach Burns night, with thousands of suppers due to take place around the world, I’ve come to realised that among all the Addresses to the Lassies that will be delivered, Frances Dunlop will likely be largely neglected as one of those lasses. And yet, there’s an argument to be made for her being one of the most influential individuals in Burns’s life.
The friendship between Burn and Dunlop is, to my mind, unlike any other he maintained. She was nearly 30 years older than he, a widowed mother of 13 by the time they became acquainted, and of a different generation with very clear ideas about propriety. What they did share, though, was the painful experiences of melancholy.
Following her husband’s death, and loss of family lands due to her son’s financial mismanagement, Frances fell into a deep depression in the summer of 1786. As she emerged, she was gifted a copy of Burns’s Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Among the lines printed there, she found solace and encouragement; she particularly took comfort in ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, being so much moved that she wrote to Burns to express her admiration and order further copies of his volume to gift to friends.
From this letter grew a friendship that would survive until Burns’s death, ten years later, spanning more than two hundred letters and several visits by the bard to Dunlop’s home. As the formality softens across the first few letters, what becomes evident that the glue in their friendship is the shared experience of melancholy.
At the time, melancholy was a somewhat fashionable condition – being melancholic signalled you as a sensitive individual, marked you as intelligent, something special – so it was not uncommon for melancholic symptoms to be feigned. But in the same way that we might talk about feeling depressed now, it is often without a real understanding of what it means to be affected by the condition. In Dunlop, Burns had found someone who did understand.
Consequently, Burns writes to Dunlop more often than any other individual during times of abnormal mood. Over the course of their letters, we see them comfort and counsel each other through difficult times and episodes of melancholy (some of which we would now consider true clinical depression). As one critic puts it, Dunlop becomes Burns’s ‘‘friend, confidante, correspondent, critic, advocate and surrogate mother’. She offers support and guidance, she helps him come to terms with the nature of his disordered moods and their role in his creativity, she even offers some critical advice on new poetic compositions (not that he always takes her advice!).
Frances Dunlop is truly a fascinating woman, her relationship with Burns pivotal in his development as a person and a poet. And yet, she remains largely ignored in comparison to the other women in Burns’s life, probably because there’s no possibility of romance or scandal in their relationship.
Certainly a comment on where the focus of years of Burns studies has lain. Perhaps also a commentary of how society judges the value of a woman?
A fuller exploration of the Burns-Dunlop relationship with a focus on their mental health can be found here.