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on 16 May 2013
I felt a bit depressed on finishing this. Burns' end may have been miserable and premature, but his work is so full of life that you feel he must have enjoyed himself most of the time. Catherine Carswell's Burns, though, is a man who - having elevated himself by his talent above the simple folk he grew up with - spends the rest of his life desperately battling against loneliness and financial ruin. Caught between classes, terrified of debt, he is unable to find people - particularly women - who are his equals intellectually without considering themselves distant superiors socially. He gradually becomes disaffected with virtually the entire human race, and dies defeated.

Undoubtedly the model for this portrait was Carswell's friend DH Lawrence, who had a similar life in certain ways (although in his case, it was more that he couldn't find anyone he didn't think himself superior to). In reference to Burns, it is a highly conjectural one; Carswell uses a novelist's freedom in relating thoughts, feelings and sometimes even events with complete confidence, even where there can be no way of knowing for sure what they were. She's like a child skipping along a line of posts in a playground. Her footing is firm at the most important points, and the direction of travel is clear; but though she can guess more or less confidently at the nature of the ground between, she doesn't know for sure.

This easy objectification of her writer's instincts is one mark of Lawrence's tutelage; a preoccupation with the sensual - the whole physical side of life - is another. Her comparative frankness about sex would be unusual in a biographer now and must have been deeply shocking when this was first published, especially since it extends as much to her women 'characters' as the male lead. But in this respect she probably does no more than justice to her subject, and it's a corrective to relying too much on words. Carswell appreciates that, though words are the only remnant we have of most lives, they are not the substance of any life as it is lived.

As for those women, who have sometimes been portrayed as his hapless victims: she has no patience with the 'vile seducer' image of Burns. Her attitude is that all his women - friends, lovers and wife - got exactly what they asked for, although not always what they really wanted (her impatience with Agnes McLehose's pussyfooting about - wanting Burns on a string, but without giving him anything - is amusing to see). It's a robust, refreshing view, though you feel that some of his humbler conquests do deserve a lot of sympathy.

If Carswell been writing today - when such books are commonplace - I feel sure she'd have gone the whole way and made this a novel. As it is, she has told a story which rings psychologically true even though its author cannot possibly vouch for every detail. She has a gift for linking the disparate events of his life into a unified consciousness, and - sad to say - this is probably a truer picture of him than those of more rigorous, objective biographies.

The 'dated language' mentioned by one reviewer is, as another said, English. We still await the first textspeak biography of Burns (lol).
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on 20 January 2012
An excellent read, with just enough references to make it feel convincing. The author has created a credible story of his life, which may use authors licence in places, (I am no Burns Authority). It gives good insight into the period and the lives of many sections of society at the time. I don't understand the above comment that is is unreadable - it is standard English. Thoroughly recommended.
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on 6 August 2014
Through the past two centuries there have been very many high level reviews of this Burns biography by Sir Walter Scott's son-in-law JG Lockhart, so I am hardly going to add anything original. What I will say though is that I found this extremely readable, and a very enjoyable book. I have one minor criticism in that Lockhart seems to rather uncritically follow the line that Burns in esse3nce had a drink problem. Burns was a man of his place and time, and enjoyed a drink in company, but certainly did not have a problem - his problem was that his ailing stomach would not let him drink much. Otherwise, Lockhart is very good, for its time, on many aspects of Burns' life.
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on 4 March 2016
A refreshingly new approach by the author on Robert Burns and his relationships with, and treatment of women created unwarranted controversy when the book was first published in the 1930s. Written in a novel-like style, it is both readable and informative and the way in which the author deals with controversial issues is done with accuracy and sensitivity. An enjoyable read that sheds a new light on a very complex individual and how his relationships clearly influenced his writing.
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on 19 April 2010
It is astonishing that this book was first published in 1930. Its frank and unblinking assessment of the virtues and glaring faults of a great man make it one of the most impressive biographies to come out of the 20th century. Burns' dilemma as impoverished peasant ploughman and (temporary) darling of the polite salons of Edinburgh is beautifully brought out, perhaps because Catherine Carswell was aware of parallels in the life of her friend D.H.Lawrence. Her explicitness about Burns' promiscuous sex-life makes it no surprise to learn that she was fiercely attacked by the 'unco guid' of her day, just as Burns was. Then, as now, people with a distorted understanding of religion turn it into an instrument of condemnation.
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on 10 October 2015
Fabulous book by a sadly underrated author
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on 26 November 2015
Really good sent this abroad
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on 10 June 2013
A perfect addition to my collection of Robert Burns books. I have no hesitation in recommending this supplier and would use again.
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on 29 April 2009
Such a tragedy that this is written in such dated language as to render it
pretty much unreadable.Needs to be re-written or withdrawn.
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