Wednesday, 25 January 2017

For Jean by Catherine Czerkawska

Having read Catherine Czerkowska's books The Physic Garden and The Jewel, I was privileged to receive and advance reader copy of her latest work, For Jean. This book was published just in time for Burns Day and when you read it I am sure you will understand why.

Before reviewing the book I am delighted to say that I was fortunate to be able to interview Catherine for the blog. So its back and relax, Bookaholics because you have a treat in store.

Please could you start by letting the readers know a little bit about yourself?

Hi Wendy, and thanks for inviting me. I write fiction (historical and contemporary novels and short stories) and non-fiction. I’ve also written plays for theatre, BBC radio and television. My dad was Polish, my mum English and Irish. I was born in Yorkshire but I’ve spend most of my life living and working in Scotland, with time also spent in Finland, Poland and the Canaries. I’m the classic ‘citizen of nowhere’ and proud of it. I live in a 200 year old cottage in a lovely Ayrshire conservation village. My husband is an artist and we have one son who is a professional video game and app designer in Dundee. I collect and sometimes deal in antique textiles – and often find myself writing about them in my fiction.

Your books are set in Scotland and your passion for this country shines through. Where does that passion come from?

We moved here when my dad, a research scientist, got a job here when I was only twelve. I think my passion for Scotland began back then. My dad was madly interested in local history. He was a hill walker too. We used to go off exploring, the four of us, mum, dad, myself and the dog, every weekend. And I’ve carried on being fascinated by all aspects of Scottish history and landscape, people and places. Later, my husband and son used to talk about me ‘bagging another heap of old stones’ whenever we visited yet another castle or stone circle or ruin. But those places are inspirational for a writer.

Your book The Physic Garden is set in the university in Nineteenth Century Glasgow. Where did the idea for the book come from?

I found a book called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University by A D Boney in the Oxfam shop in Byres Road. It was a history of the gardens of the old college of Glasgow University – the one on the High Street, not where it is now. Two people, William Lang, a head gardener, and Thomas Brown, a professor of botany, were mentioned, so at least two of the main characters in my novel are based on real people. William’s problem was that the ‘physic’, or medicinal garden, was dying, due to early industrial pollution, but Faculty was blaming him. It seemed obvious to me that William and Thomas were close. I thought at first that it was a case of an older professor taking a promising young man under his wing, but as soon as I checked out their relative ages, I saw that Thomas was only a little older than William. It must have been a genuine friendship at a time when such friendships across the social classes were rare. I started to ask myself ‘what if?’ William disappears from the historical record quite quickly, so most of my story is fiction. It’s a tale of friendship and terrible, tragic betrayal.

The Jewel is based on the life of Jean Armour, Robert Burns wife. Why write a novel about Jean rather than Scotland’s own bard, Rabbie Burns?

I’ve wanted to write about Jean for years. She has always fascinated me because she has been so neglected. For many 19th and early 20th century biographers it’s as though she just doesn’t matter. They feel that he married ‘beneath him’ (nothing could have been further from the truth) and they discount her influence all the time. I found many examples of this, not least the refusal to see her as his muse, when she had a wonderful singing voice and a great fund of the old songs and melodies of lowland Scotland. When he designed his own seal, he set the image of a songbird over everything else. He told his correspondents that Jean had the ‘finest wood-note wild’in the country. Yet the bird on the seal is routinely identified as his love of nature rather than his love of Jean! The story of their relationship is dramatic, tragic, touching and very romantic. I loved writing it.

You’ve brought out a book just in time for Burns day. Tell us something about the book?

It’s called ‘For Jean’ and it’s a small collection of poems, songs and letters by Robert Burns for his wife. It’s a companion volume to the novel, 31 poems and songs all either written for or about Jean or (in my opinion) with Jean in mind. I added my own notes and a glossary so that people can read them and find out a bit more about the background. Then I put together a selection of letters Burns wrote, mostly to friends, about the ups and downs of the relationship. My favourites, though, are the handful of letters to Jean herself. I think there must have been more but they didn’t survive. They are so touching, so domestic, and sometimes very loving. 

You spend a lot of time writing about historic Scotland. If you were asked to cook a meal from the historical period of one of your books, what would it be?

Good question! Not a lot of people know that among Jean’s possessions was a cookery book by Hannah Glasse called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Seemingly Burns wasn’t very fond of fancy cooking. He liked plain soups and stews. I’m not mad about traditional Burns Supper fare, although I do love a good cock-a-leekie soup with crusty bread and butter, and I’m sure Jean would have cooked something similar. They made what they called ‘sweet milk cheese’ back then – a typical Ayrshire cheddar - and that would be nice too, with home made oatcakes. 18th century desserts might involve cheesecakes, made with curd, honey, eggs and precious spices like nutmeg. There’s also ‘cranachan’ made with whipped cream, toasted oatmeal, honey, raspberries and whisky. I’ll go for the soup and skip straight to the cheese and pudding I think.

If money was no object and you could go anywhere in the world on holiday where would you go?

These days, I would go to Italy rather than further afield. It’s my favourite country after Scotland but (surprisingly) I’ve never yet been to Venice. I’d love the opportunity to spend some time in Italy, two months or more, not travelling, but spending more time in one place. I’m desperate to see Venice, but the town of my dreams is a place called Volterra in Tuscany. We once had a holiday in a village nearby and it was magical. A month or two in Volterra would fit the bill, although a couple of months on the Isle of Gigha off Kintyre would be nice as well. I have a novel to finish and could do it there.

What will you be doing to celebrate Burns Night?

I think I’ll be in Glasgow. I have a number of engagements to speak about the books and about Jean. In fact it has turned into a Burns season for me rather than just a night. I’m looking forward to all of it, but perhaps especially to a Burns supper here in the village with a small group of old friends, in early February. I’m doing an Immortal Memory but from Jean’s point of view – of course! 

Thank you, Catherine for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions. It has been fascinating to get to know more about you. I wish you all the best with the new book, which I loved, as you will see from the review below. 

At first sight this appears to be a simple little book, and yet it's not. Although small the book is packed full of insight into the relationship between Robert Burns and his wife, Jean Armour. It is essentially a collection of Burns' poems, sings and letters written for and about Jean.Catherine's insights and commentary bring these to life beautifully. I particularly liked the letters. It is the letters and the commentary which lifts this book out of the ordinary. Catherine's passion for both Armour and Burns is evident in her writing. 

The cover is exquisite in its simplicity. The publisher has essentially taken a panel from Czerkawska's book, The Jewel, and used it for the cover of this one. I love this touch as The Jewel itself is about Jean Armour.

I would highly recommend this book for any lover of Burns' work or anyone interested in finding out more. It should be in the library of Scot's everywhere.

You can find out more about Catherine and her books on her Website, Amazon and Twitter

That's it for another day Bookaholic's. Happy Burns Day to all Scots wherever you are in the world. Enjoy Burns Day and enjoy the book. 

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