Reactionaries and Revolutionaries: Classical Fairy Tales and Class
Sunday, 24 October 2021 22:14

Reactionaries and Revolutionaries: Classical Fairy Tales and Class

Published in Fiction

Professor Anne Duggan explores the history of classical fairy tales and their double-sided relationship with class, whereby they both 'evade and compensate for a dire social reality', and outlines some reconceptions of fairy tales which can work as 'builders of communism'.

Beginning in the 1980s with the seminal studies of Jack Zipes, fairy tale scholars have worked long and hard to foreground the ideological underpinnings of a genre often viewed as innocent, child-like, and transparent. Generally speaking, the idea that fairy tales engage with complex class issues is not the first one that comes to mind when reflecting upon the genre. 

However, from sixteenth-century Italy to twentieth-century France and beyond, the fairy tale has always expressed class ambitions and aspirations in ways that both uphold and challenge sociopolitical norms. Moreover, writers of fairy tales approach the genre from their particular position within the sociopolitical field, which both shapes their conceptions of class within a particular tale and marks their engagement with specific class issues. Writers deploy the genre to express hopes of social mobility or of regaining lost status as well as to challenge social hierarchies by providing alternative models for finding happily ever after.

In what follows, I trace some of the general parameters that foreground the dynamic ways the fairy tale has been used to engage with class issues in different periods and sociopolitical contexts. Because my area of expertise lies in the French tale tradition, this will be my main focus; however I will look at intersections with other national traditions as well.

What has come to be known as the classical fairy tales—i.e., “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Puss-in-Boots,” among others—have their roots in the Italian and French fairy tale traditions. Later they find a home in the works of the Germans Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and perhaps their most popular iteration in Disney Studios’ animated films. Whether we consider classical or lesser known types of fairy tales, new historical and cultural contexts reshape the tales for new audiences, defined in part by class identities. The corpus of each of these tale traditions bears the mark of their sociopolitical context and the ideological positions of their writers and editors.

The fantasy of upward social mobility

Giovanni Francesca Straparola (ca. 1480-1557) and Giambattista Basile (ca. 1575-1632), for instance, penned their fairy tales within the context of proto-capitalist, urban centers (Venice and Naples, respectively) in which characters often succeed in their quest for social mobility. In Fairy Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile (2008), Suzanne Magnanini affirms Sue Bottigheimer’s argument “that the fantasy of upward mobility contained in the rags-magic-marriage-riches plot invented by Straparola greatly appealed to the growing class of literate Venetian artisans who in reality were barred by Venice’s marital laws from forging such advantageous bonds with the ruling class” (93-94).


Dugan She Bear Basile Donkey Skin

Basile's version of Donkey Skin in which the heroine turns into a bear


In her introduction to her translation of Basile, entitled The Tales of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones (2007), Nancy Canepa provides a similar context for Basile’s tales: “Why the choice of the fairy tale to fill the void left behind by bourgeois realism [of the novella]? One explanation sees the attraction to the enchanted realms of the fairy tale as an attempt to both evade and compensate for a dire social reality in which mobility was evermore restricted and active virtue seemed to count for less and less; a reality where magic became one of the only viable means to achieve social betterment and a privileged life” (13). Both Straparola and Basile wrote from within the context of a society in which social mobility was possible but limited by the law, or had been recently possible but new economic developments foreclosed upon openings in class structures.

When Straparola and Basile’s tales crossed into France by the late seventeenth century, they also found themselves in a very different sociopolitical context. Rather than the urban city-states of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, French fairy tales of the 1690s were generated from within the context of the aristocratic salon at the time of the political absolutism of Louis XIV.

Class choices

Several of the women writers of this period, including Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy (1650/51-1705) and Henriette-Julie de Murat (1670-1716), issued from the declining feudal nobility, which, with the rise of absolutism, was losing its traditional function as protectors of the realm and as local rulers. By the 1690s, the monarchies of Louis XIII and Louis XIV had succeeded in prohibiting private (feudal) armies, thus centralizing military force under the absolute monarchy. Governmental matters were also increasingly being centralized—taking local power away from the nobility—and Louis XIV was particularly known for promoting members of the upper bourgeoisie, rather than the feudal nobility, to top positions. D’Aulnoy in particular penned tales that involved the recovery of a lost noble identity, reshaping tales by Straparola and Basile to serve a completely different social class: the declining feudal nobility.

For instance, in Straparola’s “The Pig King,” an antecedent to “Beauty and the Beast,” three sisters destined to marry a monstrous groom are the daughters of a poor woman, the youngest eventually restoring the pig to his handsome form and becoming queen. To contrast, in d’Aulnoy’s “Prince Marcassin,” which closely draws from Straparola’s tale, the three sisters are from a noble family that has lost its wealth due to the death of the father. In Straparola, the marriage with the beast and eventual happily-ever-after raise the heroine from rags to riches, whereas in d’Aulnoy, the financial position of the noble heroine is restored through marriage to the beast-turned-prince. Both rely on magical transformations and fairy interventions to reward their characters, but from different ideological positions.

D’Aulnoy’s class choices are also evident in what she excludes from her sources. Her adaptation of Basile’s frame narrative from the Tale of Tales to pen “The Blue Bird” is a case in point. Basile’s frame narrative concerns Princess Zoza, who tries to fill a pitcher with her tears in order to break the spell that cast Prince Tadeo into a death-like sleep. The prince is destined to marry the woman who frees him, and Zoza nearly fills the pitcher but falls asleep. At that moment the Moorish slave woman Lucia passes by, steals the pitcher, and finishes the job, leading the prince to awaken and marry the slave. In order to take her rightful place beside the prince, Zoza schemes to have ten storytellers, “lame Zeza, twisted Cecca, goitered Meneca, big-nosed Tolla, hunchback Popa, drooling Antonella, snout-faced Ciulla, cross-eyed Paola, mangy Ciommetella, and shitty Iacova” (Tale of Tales 42), entertain the false bride until Zoza recounts her own story.

Through her tale, Zoza exposes the false bride, who is executed, and the heroine is united with the prince. In d’Aulnoy’s version, the heroine Florine’s rival is not a slave or poor, but rather an ugly member of court who happens to be Florine’s stepsister, Truitonne (the name associates her with trout or truite in French). Not only does d’Aulnoy replace the slave with a character of higher social status. She also strips the tale of the unseemly, lowerclass female storytellers by streamlining this part of Basile’s narrative to include only Florine’s narrative relating to the deception of Truitonne, the false bride, after which Florine obtains the king’s hand. D’Aulnoy also elevates the linguistic register of the text, purging it of language that would have been inappropriate within a salon or court setting.

In her tales d’Aulnoy clings to a feudal past—albeit a reformed one in which women play fundamental roles as rulers and fighters. In d’Aulnoy’s “The Good Little Mouse,” a fairy, a queen, and a princess lead a coup d’état to take back their kingdom from a neighboring king; the heroine of “Belle-Belle, or the Knight Fortuné” saves the kingdom from the evil emperor Matapa; and the Amazonian Aimée rescues her cousin from ogres.


Duggan Goble Pent Cinderella

Warwick Goble's illustration of Giambattista Basile's Cenerentola, or Cinderella tale


Charles Perrault (1628-1703), on the other hand, promoted a more bourgeois ideology, evident in his versions of tales such as “Cinderella” and “Puss-in-Boots.” In Perrault’s “Cinderella,” although the father is described as a “gentleman,” the family clearly is from among the lower echelons of court society, for Cinderella and her sisters are approached by the prince’s men to try on the glass slipper only after they seek out princesses, duchesses, and “all of the court.” However, in d’Aulnoy’s twist on Perrault’s tale, “Finette Cendron,” the heroine is the daughter of a king.

Puss in Bourgeois Boots

Perrault’s “Puss in Boots,” which draws from similar tales found in Straparola and Basile, is even more exemplary of his bourgeois outlook. In this tale, a male cat assists the hero, the son of a miller, to steal away the lands from an ogre—a character that could be read as a figure for the traditional nobility—and at the tale’s conclusion, the miller’s son marries the daughter of a king. Blending aspects of cat tales by Straparola, Basile, and Perrault with the theme of the animal bride, in “The White Cat” d’Aulnoy makes her hero the youngest son of a king who finds the beautiful white cat, who turns out to be a princess. The princess not only possesses six kingdoms; she also offers them up to her future father-in-law when she asks for his son’s hand in marriage. Social climbing in Perrault translates into social stability or restoration in d’Aulnoy.


Duggan White Cat Aulnoy1

 d'Aulnoy's aristocratic Puss, who will recover her human state at the end of the tale


Perrault exemplified those members of the French upper bourgeoisie who attained significant positions within the bureaucracy of Louis XIV, and his tales tend to reflect, much like those by Straparola and Basile, the ideal of social mobility. It is perhaps for this very reason that by the late nineteenth century d’Aulnoy’s tales, which emerged from within aristocratic salon society, begin to wane just as that social class from which they issued was disappearing, whereas French children continue to read Perrault’s tales today. Infused with bourgeois ideology, Perrault’s tales conform better to the ideals of contemporary capitalist society than tales by the women writers, more deeply embedded within early modern aristocratic culture.

Fairy tale films like The Princess Bride (1987) subvert the implicit class prejudices present in many classical tales by validating the lowerclass or outlaw character who enjoys a happy ending with the princess. In the film, Buttercup (Robin Wright) is in love with her farmhand Westley (Cary Elwes), thought to have been killed by pirates after he leaves to seek his fortune. Believing Westley to be dead, some years later Buttercup reluctantly becomes engaged to the cowardly Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon), when Westley returns as a pirate himself. In the end, the prince is outwitted by the pirate, and the princess and former farmhand live happily ever after. In the film, the notion that the ideal hero should be noble and wealthy is undermined by the validation of the outlaw of peasant origins.

Already in post-Revolution France, whether out of survival or true belief, aristocratic women writers like Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis (1746-1830) and Félicité de Choiseul-Meuse (1767-1838) similarly questioned the traditional plotline that pairs the attainment of social mobility with that of true love. In her 1803 tale, “Pamrose, or the Palace and the Cottage,” the title character is a peasant infant who, when her mother dies, is raised at court by the kind princess Amélie. Over the course of the tale, it becomes clear that traditional aristocratic life is not satisfactory, and Pamrose, rejecting the proposal of a nobleman, ends up marrying her peasant cousin William.

In a similar manner, in her 1818 tale, “Rose and Black,” Choiseul-Meuse has her heroine marry the peasant clogmaker Mirto after her short and unhappy marriage to Prince Terrible. Both tales include explicit references to Perrault’s “Cinderella,” whose rags-to-riches, social climbing message is put into question with Genlis’s and Choiseul-Meuse’s not so charming princes and their idealization of peasant, pastoral life.

Radical approaches to class in the fairy tale

Perhaps one of the most radical examples of approaches to class in the fairy tale can be found in the work of filmmaker Jacques Demy (1931-1990). Demy produced explicitly fairy-tale films, including Donkey Skin (1970), an adaptation of a French canonical tale considered by folklorists to be a variant of “Cinderella”; and The Pied Piper (1972), which integrates a critique of the ways in which Hamelin’s sociopolitical elites, who fail to pay the Pied Piper for his work, exploit the labor of the lower classes for useless monuments and wars of glory.

But his interest in fairy tales is already present in his earlier films Lola (1961) and Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), both of which draw on motifs from “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” among other tales. In “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the heroine is torn between two models for Prince Charming: the auto mechanic, whom she deeply loves but is away at war; and the businessman, of whom her mother approves and who is present in Cherbourg. In the end, the heroine renounces her (socially inferior) true love to marry the apparent prince charming (the wealthy man) whom she does not love but who is viewed as being the socially acceptable mate. In this film, Demy is implicitly critical of the socially acceptable prince charming who may not provide the heroine with a happily-ever-after, and suggests that an auto mechanic can indeed incarnate prince charming, albeit one of a different stripe. In several ways Demy’s films undermine the model of the classical hero, who is noble or wealthy, and validate heroes of lower social classes, anticipating films like The Princess Bride.

Demy also drew from the tradition of maiden warrior tales—think of Joan of Arc and Mulan—to produce his Lady Oscar (1979). The Chinese “Mulan” and French maiden warrior tales by writers like d’Aulnoy and Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier de Villandon (1664-1734) are firmly grounded in a hierarchical feudal or early modern society in which the heroine dons male garb, concealing her female identity, to protect her father’s honor and the king’s domain. In essence, she fights to uphold the patriarchal kingdom that rules over the lower social orders.


Duggan Aulnoy Belle1

 Belle-Belle ou Le Chevalier Fortuné: d'Aulnoy's aristocratic maiden warrior tale


In his twist on the maiden warrior tale, Demy situates his version within the context of the French Revolution. The heroine Lady Oscar gains consciousness about class oppression in part through her love of the stable boy Andre, whom she initially resists due to his lowerclass status. Instead of upholding the French monarchy, she ends up joining the people in dismantling it. Ironically, Demy’s maiden warrior takes part in the downfall of the political structure that gave rise to this type of tale. And unlike her predecessors, who engage in individualistic aristocratic forms of heroism, Demy’s Lady Oscar marches with the people and Andre to take down the Bastille, engaging instead in a form of collective action characteristic of a more working-class model of political action.

In fact, the scene depicting the taking of the Bastille was inspired by the script of Demy’s working-class operetta, A Room in Town, about the important 1955 workers strike in Nantes, which saw the silver screen some three years later. As I have argued in Queer Enchantments: Gender, Sexuality, and Class in the Fairy-Tale Cinema of Jacques Demy (2013), Demy proposes alternative ways of attaining happily-ever-after (which is at best ephemeral in Demy), in which mechanics can be prince charmings, and a cross-dressed Cinderella rejects the aristocrat for the stable boy.


Duggan lady oscar rev

Storming the Bastile: a still from Lady Oscar, by Jacques Demy


Builders of communism

Although initially resistant to the folk tale and fairy tale, the Soviet Union embraced the genre after a speech by Maxim Gorky in 1934 in which he lays claim to the proletarian origins of the genre and advocated ways in which it could be rehabilitated and used to socialist ends. Indeed, in Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales (2005), Marina Balina clearly foregrounds “Soviet literature’s efforts in the 1930s to subordinate the fairy tale genre to ideological purposes” (105), mainly that of “builders of communism” (108).

These tales can include realistic features, such as references to the “bourgeouins” (or bourgeois), enemies of the Red Army in “Tale of the Military Secret” (1935) by Arkady Gaidar; or having a genie appear before the boy Volka in the very banal bathroom of his apartment in The Old Genie Hottabych (1938) by Lazar Lagin. Fairy tale films in both the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic marked another site within the genre where conceptions of class were challenged. In the GDR, the state studio DEFA (Deustche Film-Aktiengesellshaft) produced a significant corpus of socialist fairy tale films. In The Politics of Magic: DEFA Fairy Tale Films (2015), Qinna Shen characterizes the early period of DEFA fairy tale films in terms of “a working-class protagonist [who] uses his intelligence and perseverance to become victorious over the upper class or even to become king” (83).

Despite many challenges to the types of plotlines that valorize an elitist perspective on class, the association of social mobility and marrying a handsome prince has not disappeared from the twenty-first century landscape. One cannot underestimate the role of Disney in perpetuating this motif through their fairy tale films and other media. As Jennifer Pozer argues in Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV (2010), reality television shows in the U.S. like The Bachelor, America’s Top Model, and Joe Millionaire play on Cinderella tropes of finding wealth, stardom (think of the ball scene), and sometimes true love in ways that affirm normative (patriarchal, capitalist) constrictions of gender and social class. Pozer notes: “Today, dozens of reality shows aim to convince us that such [luxurious, fairy tale] lifestyles are not only desirable but reasonable—or worse, realistic” (146).

In ABC’s The Bachelor, for instance, women are dated and dined within a luxurious context until supposedly “true love” reveals itself and prevails. The construction and reception of the show makes indirect and direct fairy tale associations, which should not be surprising given that ABC is owned by Disney. One of the most explicit examples of relating the show to fairy tales concerns an episode in which the bachelor Chris takes Jade on a “Cinderella date.” We see clips of Disney’s 2015 live-animated Cinderella that Jade views as a model not only for her elaborate gown but also for her behavior with Chris. Although Chris is a farmer, the show focuses instead on a luxurious lifestyle available only to the 1%.

As is arguably the case with the classical tale tradition, the happiness afforded by fairy-tale endings as understood and propagated through such shows makes it practically impossible for the majority of people to attain. This devalues the lives of lower-class and middle-class people who do not have the financial means deemed necessary to acquire such happy endings. The moves on the part of Genlis, Choiseul-Meuse, and Demy, as well as work by Soviet and DEFA artists, challenge—in ways that can also at times be problematic when taking the form of state propaganda—the traditional class underpinnings of classical fairy tales.

Such reconceptions of the fairy tale open up alternative ways of attaining happiness, in which the heroine might reject the castle for a farm or gas station, forego the prince for a pirate or stableboy. This validates social classes and groups that typically are not privileged within classical tales by providing examples of heroines and heroes that do not issue solely from the social classes that control the means of production or hold the reigns of political power, and by locating happiness outside the attainment of wealth and privilege.
Sunday, 24 October 2021 22:14

The Real Robert Burns

Published in Poetry

My word you can’t know Burns unless you can hate the Lockharts and all the estimable bourgeoisand upper classes as he really did – the narrow gutted pigeons. Don’t for God’s sake be mealy-mouthed like them. I’d like to write a Burns life. Oh, why doesn’t Burns come to life again andreally salt them.

D. H. Lawrence, letter to Donald Carswell.

Norrie Paton presents two articles on Burns, to accompany An Alternative Burns Supper. The famous novelist D H Lawrence, on learning that Catherine Carswell was working on a biography of Robert Burns, wrote to her husband, Donald, expressing his opinion on the project: “Cath’s idea of a Burns book I like very much; I always wanted to do one myself, but am not Scotchy enough. I read just now Lockhart’s life of Burns. Made me spit! Those damned Lockharts grew lilies of the valley up their arses to hear them talk. If Cath is condescending to Burns, I disown her.”

Catherine Carswell’s response was positive enough, and in her bio-novel on Burns, published in 1930, she duly acknowledged: “Without D. H. Lawrence, my friend, and Donald Carswell, my husband, this book could not have been. I therefore inscribe it to them both.” She even excused Burns one of his darkest hours, when he was literally thrown out of Robert Riddell’s house for what was deemed, drunken, inexcusable behaviour, during a New Year celebration. Some of the men had decided to act out the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’, and Burns, allegedly well gone in drink, was to lead the ‘amorous raid’. He did so by grabbing hold of Maria Riddell, the host’s sister-in-law, only to realise too late that he was on his own; the whole escapade was a lousy trick - to expose him as, “a too haughty poet whose hands were not clean of the coom of Jacobin democracy.”

The plot had nothing to do with Robert Riddell himself, but, as Carswell suggested, it was the idea of a group of army officers who were also guests in the company. Class, after all, is class, a drunken exciseman had affronted the Riddells, and he was compelled to leave the house in complete disgrace, no longer accepted as a friend of the family. He admitted in verse that the thought of having to pass Maria Riddell in the streets of Dumfries filled his mind:

The shrinking Bard adown an alley sculks,
And dreads a meeting worse than Woolwich hulks-
Tho’ there his heresies in Church and State
Might well award him Muir and Palmer’s fate:

The reference to his heresies in Church and State was no exaggeration. Thomas Johnston, in his epic work, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland (published in 1946), made the point that, “a somewhat injudicious letter”, sent by Burns to the editor of a radical newspaper in 1792, “almost resulted in Botany Bay for Scotland’s greatest singer, and, in truth, good men did go there for less.” Burns had been extremely fortunate that his friend, Robert Graham, an Excise Commissioner, had accepted his explanation that he no longer supported the French Revolution, and he was spared the threatened inquiry the Excise had ordered regarding his disaffection toward the Pitt government. Graham probably suspected that, the poet’s plea of loyalty, was merely a desperate lip service to an Establishment that he had no particular liking for; however, he chose to standby him, and Burns, much to his relief, was duly excused. He then informed his correspondent Mrs Dunlop that his lips were henceforth sealed regarding his political opinions, but to her he would breathe his true sentiments. The part of the letter in which he did so was torn away, and we can but guess what he had written!

Burns’s politics seemed to fall into two diametrically opposed viewpoints – Jacobitism and Jacobinism. The former stemmed from his deep love of Scotland, his passionate patriotism and nationalism. He was convinced that his forebears had committed themselves to the cause of the Stuarts, and the very thought of the family who had replaced them on the British throne was anathema to him:- “An obscure beef-witted race of foreigners whom a conjuncture of circumstances kickt up into power and consequence” was his verdict on the Hanoverians. The Jacobites, by attempting to win back Scottish independence, gained his sympathy, though his overall support for the Stewarts was decidedly questionable.

The injur’d STEWART-line are gone,
A Race outlandish fill their throne;
An idiot race, to honor lost;
Who know them best despise them most.-

According to a close friend of Burns, James McKitterick Adair, when revolution broke out in France in 1789, Burns and his crony, William Nicol, who had previously expressed themselves as ardent Jacobites, immediately pledged their support for the French democrats – the Jacobin party. Although Burns, as a democrat, had been greatly influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man – it had inspired his great song, ‘For a’ that and a’ that’ – he did not follow Paine’s support for the Girondists in the French Assembly. In a reckless moment, he attempted to send four carronades to the French Assembly. It is unlikely they reached their intended destination; however, this act and reports of him proposing seditious toasts in Dumfries, brought him under close scrutiny concerning his political activities.

In 1793 a young doctor arrived in Dumfries who was soon to be regarded by Burns as his “most intimate friend”. He was the scion of dedicated Jacobites: his grandfather had answered the call in 1715, his father in 1745. William Maxwell, however, had returned from France where he had played an active role in the revolution as a fully committed Jacobin, and member of the National Guard, who had escorted King Louis to the scaffold. Burns and Maxwell were indeed kindred spirits, staunch republicans who were now effectively silenced. Maxwell was well aware that he was under constant surveillance, and it had been made clear to Burns that the Excise Board would no longer tolerate any displays of disaffection.

With his health now failing, and being totally dependent on his government salary to provide for his family, Burns became a mere shadow of the free spirit that had once sent shock waves through the Kirk with a series of devastating anti-clerical satires exposing absurd dogma to ridicule and scorn. He had also threatened the political establishment with his radical verse and song. In the early morning of 21 July, 1796, Burns died. On the day of his funeral Jean Armour gave birth to his son, who was duly named Maxwell, after the doctor and friend who attended him in his final illness.


It is unlikely that Burns wrote ‘The Tree of Liberty’, and he certainly wasn’t the author of ‘Why should we idly waste our prime?’, two pieces frequently attributed to him; however, within his known works there is sufficient material to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Robert Burns was a true democrat, an astute political observer, freethinker, and nationalist. At his funeral in Dumfries, on 25 July, 1796, the Cinque Ports Cavalry took part; they were commanded by Robert Banks Jenkinson, whom Catherine Carswell described as “this celebrated nonentity”. He had previously made it known “that he would never shake Mr Burns by the hand”. Later, Jenkinson (as Lord Liverpool), was destined to serve a long, but thoroughly undistinguished period, as Prime Minister. Whilst he is barely remembered today for anything, Mr Burns, whom he had declined to meet, is highly regarded across the international scene as an outstanding poet of common humanity.


Flow Gently Sweet Afton

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes, Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise; My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream, Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

On the 5th February, 1788, Robert Burns wrote to his constant correspondent, Mrs Dunlop, enclosing a song that he had, apparently, just composed, and he described it thus:

There is a small river, Afton, that falls into the Nith, near New Cumnock, which has some charming, wild, romantic scenery on its banks.- I have a particular pleasure in those little pieces of poetry such as our Scots songs, &c. where the names and landskip-features of rivers, lakes, or woodlands, that one knows are introduced.- I attempted a compliment of that kind, to Afton, as follows: I mean it for Johnson’s Musical Museum.-

Flow gently, clear Afton, among thy green braes,

The song was duly published in Vol. IV, p. 400, of the Scots Musical Museum, with the title, ‘Afton Water’, and with ‘clear’ amended to ‘sweet’. The full text of the lyric is given in all main works of Robert Burns, and, the internal evidence of some verses make it immediately obvious that he had taken considerable poetic license. In the third stanza he comments:

There daily I wander as noon rises high, My flocks and my Mary’s sweet Cot in my eye.

Whilst in the following stanza he continues the theme of Mary and him still together by Afton’s pleasant banks and green valleys:

There oft as mild ev’ning weeps over the lea, The sweet scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Stanza five has Mary bathing her snowy feet in Afton’s wanton waters, and, in the concluding verse, as she sleeps by its ‘murmuring stream’, the river is charged not to disturb her dream. Burns, however, never lived anywhere near the River Afton, with, or without a girl named Mary. He would have passed through the area on his journeys between Ellisland farm and Mauchline, June to November, in 1788, and doubtless enjoyed the picturesque views he observed, which he encapsulated into his exquisite lyric.

Although he expressly stated that his lyric was paying a compliment to the River Afton, there is a reference to Mary in every verse, in all but one by name. In his letter to Mrs Dunlop he gave no indication or identification of any specific Mary. Several months later, in a letter to her, dated 13th December, he did, however, mention a Mary whom he had known intimately. Reflecting on the possibility of a life beyond the grave he declared:

There should I with speechless agony of rapture, again recognise, my lost, my ever dear MARY, whose bosom was fraught with Truth, Honor, Constancy & LOVE.-

My Mary dear departed Shade! Where is thy place of heavenly rest? Seest thou thy Lover lowly laid Hear’st thou the groans that rend his breast!

It is unlikely that Mrs Dunlop would have connected the Mary of ‘Afton Water’ with the “dear departed Shade” she had now learned about. Burns, however, found to his cost that she was none too pleased with his reference to Mary in this letter. This was probably due to the fact that he was still a few months short of a mere two years married to Jean Armour. There is no doubt that, the Mary in his letter was Mary Campbell, who had been parted for ever from him by cruel fate, when she died in the typhoid epidemic at Greenock on, or around, October 20, 1786. It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that she had been betrothed to Burns at the time of her death. Was she, however, the heroine of the exquisite lyric he had sent to Mrs Dunlop in February?

It would seem inconceivable that, an emotionally charged poet such as Burns, could have used the name Mary in his song without reflecting sadly and deeply, about the Highland Lassie whom he had been planning to marry, three years previously. Indeed, one renowned Burns editor, Robert Chambers, thought it quite possible that Burns had written the song back in 1786, when Highland Mary was still alive, that he had shelved the verses on learning of her death; but had decided in 1789 to make it known, with the setting amended from the scenery around the River Ayr, to the area where the Afton flowed into the Nith. Chambers had obtained information from George Thomson that Gilbert Burns regarded Highland Mary as the heroine of ‘Afton Water’, and Chambers concluded that: “The averment of the brother and bosom-friend of Burns must be next, in a case of this kind, to his own.” Chambers was also aware that a daughter of Mrs Dunlop, claimed that she heard Burns confirm Highland Mary as the subject of the song. The introduction to the song in Chambers’s edition had a quotation by the poet drawn from biblical text:

I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not, nor awake my love – my dove, my undefiled! The flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. – R. B.

Taking up on this, Scott Douglas in the headnote of the song in his edition commented: “And where does the adored name of MARY appear in a more glorious setting than in this lyric? Even the inspired ‘Singer of Israel’ has contributed something to heighten the effect of the poet’s rapturous song.” Douglas was quite convinced that, when Burns had written to Clarinda in a drunken rant, telling her of the finest woman he had known, whose name was indelibly written in his heart’s core - though he dared not look in on it - as a degree of agony would be the consequence, he was referring to Highland Mary. For some vague reason Scott Douglas thought this proved, “... beyond reasonable doubt that MARY was the subject of ‘Afton Water’ and that it was composed when she was yet alive.” As it turned out, Burns was actually referring to Margaret Chalmers.

The four volume Centenary Burns (1896), edited by W E Henley and T F Henderson, announced that they were putting Chambers and Douglas right regarding the information about ‘Afton Water’. They insisted, “... that the heroine – if heroine there were – was another than Mary Campbell.” Robert Chambers, in assigning the lyric to 1786, got it completely wrong, in their opinion, as did Scott Douglas who suggested 1791. (Scott Douglas actually gave 1786, as has been shown above). Henley, in his essay on Burns, Life, Genius Achievement, was particularly scathing about the Mariolaters, and justifiably so, for their absurd adulation of Highland Mary; however, his caustic comments on the woman herself were totally unreasonable. Denouncing Chambers for styling her as the heroine-in-chief of Burns’s story, he pointed out that it was Jean Amour whom he (Burns), “appreciated as the fittest to be his wife he’d ever met.” Yet, it is undeniable that, had Mary not died in 1786, it was she, not Jean Armour, who would have been Mrs Robert Burns.

The attempts of Henley and Henderson to deny Highland Mary’s right as the subject of ‘Afton Water’ appeared to be given a boost when the name of another Mary surfaced in an article in the Burns Chronicle (1910), claiming that, Mary Murdoch who lived at Laight, close to the River Afton, was in fact, the girl Burns had in mind when he had written his verses. In the book, Burns and Stair, by John McVie, published in 1927, this opinion was given further coverage with the viewpoint: “Her claim to be the heroine of ‘Flow gently, sweet Afton,’ is certainly the most feasible of any yet put forward.” She was the niece of John Logan of Laight, New Cumnock, whom McVie stated was an intimate friend of the poet, who stayed with him often when in that area. There is, in fact, no definite evidence to substantiate such a claim. Mary Murdoch, according to McVie, “... is said to have been a great favourite with Burns.” Again, where is the evidence to verify such a statement, apart from local hearsay, not published until 122 years after the alleged event, when anything could have been fobbed off as ‘fact’?

It is true that Burns visited John Logan; however, there seems nothing to suggest that he stayed with him at any particular time, far less the frequent overnight stops claimed by McVie. On Sunday, October 19, 1788, Burns dined with Logan at Laight; however, as he made clear in a letter to Jean Armour, after doing so, he intended to continue his journey and arrive at Mauchline late in the evening. On his return journey to Ellisland, on the 23rd October, he again called at the home of Logan, before proceeding to Sanquhar, where he wrote to Mrs Dunlop. The dates of those visits to Logan occurred, incidentally, around the time of the second anniversary of Highland Mary’s death.

The authority of Gilbert Burns in naming Highland Mary, was also dismissed by John McVie, mainly on the grounds of Gilbert being incapable of contradicting Dr Currie. This referred to information supplied to Robert Chambers from George Thomson. Gilbert had inferred that Currie was misinformed in several of the comments he made about the song, in particular the claim of it being presented by Burns to Mrs Stewart of Stair, as a compliment to her; “but Dr Currie must not be contradicted.” This is rather ambiguous – it seems more than likely, that it was Thomson himself, not Gilbert, who was insisting on Currie being correct. It would really have been absurd of Gilbert to point out Currie’s errors, then quite emphatically state that his comments were probably founded on fact after all.

Another version of opinion based on local tradition about the composition of ‘Afton Water’ is given in a book, The Ayrshire Book of Burns-Lore, written by A. M. Boyle, (1987):

Local legend maintains that the song was written in an inn by the River Afton at New Cumnock. The poet had halted at the inn on his way from Ellisland to Mauchline and gone to visit Mr. Logan of Laight, Glen Afton, for the evening. During his absence from the inn, the landlady spread news of the poet’s presence, expecting to have a busy, lively night on his return. When Burns returned he seemed to be pre-occupied with his thoughts and went straight to his room. In the morning he sent a servant to Laight with a draft of the song Clear Afton which he had composed on his way back to the inn.

Again, like the hearsay given out by John McVie, this is no more than a fabricated legend. If Logan received a manuscript of ‘Afton Water’ he was a very privileged fellow indeed, but what became of it? Surely it would have been regarded as a prized and treasured possession, and carefully secured in a safe place. Would Burns not have mentioned to Logan that the Mary of his verses was Logan’s niece? If he had done so, then it would have been made known long before being passed down by word of mouth from 1788 until finally appearing in print in 1910. In more recent times, James Mackay commented that, “Burns visited John Logan on several occasions ... and during one of them is believed to have composed Afton Water.” (Complete Letters, p. 123, headnote). In this and his later comprehensive, well documented biography of Burns, covering the poet’s private life in intimate detail, there is no mention whatsoever, of anyone named Mary Murdoch, nor does any other major biography make any comment concerning her. Indeed, Robert Crawford (The Bard, 2009, p. 309), regarded the song “as an elegy to a dead Mary.”

In all the comments and opinions regarding the song ‘Afton Water’, arguably, none have surpassed that of James C. Dick, for a logical, concise and reasonable assessment, given in his much admired volume, The Songs of Robert Burns, published 1903, p.372:

Currie states that it was written on Afton Water, and in compliment to Mrs. Stewart; Gilbert Burns states that Highland Mary was the heroine; Scott Douglas agrees with this, but in the Centenary Burns it is asserted that it has no connexion with Highland Mary, but was written as a compliment to the River Afton which flows into the Nith near New Cumnock; and that the verses were sent to Mrs. Dunlop on February 5, 1789. This is doubtless correct; but it may be, and very likely is, a reminiscence of Mary Campbell.

It remains, however, perfectly feasible that Burns had at least the idea of the song in 1786, perhaps even an early draft, but on learning of Highland Mary’s death decided to shelve it, reviving it later in the different setting of the River Afton. After all, the lyric, ‘Will ye go the Indies, My Mary’ was not published until the year 1800, although it had been offered to George Thomson in 1792, who rejected it: “This is a very poor song which I do not mean to include in my Collection.” He was not given the opportunity to be the first to publish the lyric gem that is ‘Flow gently sweet Afton’!