Yesterday marked the 258th birthday of a giant of British literature. (No, not her! Her birthday was 242 years ago, and in December!) I speak of Robert Burns, Scotland’s beloved national poet, who was born in a two-room farming cottage in the village of Alloway, in southwest Scotland, on January 25, 1759.
Burns’ life was about as different as can be imagined from that of Austen, his semi-contemporary. His parents were far less educated than hers, and while the Austens sometimes skirted the edge of genteel penuriousness, the Burnses faced real poverty. Burns spent much of his short life in hard manual labor, trying to claw a living from the land.
Of course, his life had compensations that a respectable middle-class woman like Austen could never experience: The handsome and charming Rabbie was a lover of legendary prowess who fathered at least a dozen children by four different women.
Unlike Austen, Burns also achieved fame in his own time. Although his work never made him rich, he was a rock-star poet, and after his untimely death at the age of thirty-seven, thousands of people lined the streets to watch his funeral procession pass by.
For more than two centuries, Burns fans around the world have celebrated his life by gathering on or around January 25 (Burns Night) to eat haggis, drink Scotch and perform Burns’ poetry and songs. A centerpiece of the occasion is a series of elaborate toasts, including the Toast to the Lassies (offered by a laddie) and the Reply from the Lassies, which traditionally provide the occasion for an exchange of good-naturedly sexist ribbing.
From time to time, my half-Scottish husband and I throw a Burns Night party for our friends and neighbors, and in the past we have amused ourselves by concocting Austen-themed versions of the Lassies toasts. Although Burns died when Austen was only twenty, she surely knew of him and his work. We prefer to ignore that fact, however.
One year, we instead imagined a mutually uncomprehending encounter between our two protagonists, reported in a letter from Burns to a friend, and, rather differently, in one from Jane to Cassandra. Another year, we described the discovery of Burns’ lost pornographic novel, Fifty Hues of Tartan, and Austen’s reaction when she happened upon the book in her local circulating library.
This year we’re taking a break from the Austen parodies, since the just-concluded male-vs-female American presidential election seemed too good a satirical target to pass up. But Burns Night rolls around every year, so we’ll have many more opportunities to bring Jane and Rabbie together.