Literary daybook, Aug. 6

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published August 6, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On August 6, 1988, Dr. John Perino dies.
-- "The Stallion" (1996)
by Harold Robbins

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1786, 27-year-old Robert Burns served the last of three public penances for "ante-nuptial fornication" with his eventual wife, Jean Armour. Burns had privately acknowledged his behavior and legally bound himself to Jean by giving an oral and written promise of marriage, but her parents would have none of it. They destroyed his note and had their daughter write one of her own to the church fathers, admitting pregnancy and naming Burns. The "fornication police," as Burns called them, were empowered to impose both a fine and a public rebuke -- though in his case Burns was allowed to stand in his usual pew rather than sit on the penitential stool or, again in Burns' parlance, "the Creepie Chair." Burns' compliance was not based on contrition: The penance released him from marriage, and left him free to pursue his new plan of sailing for Jamaica, to oversee a sugar plantation. Though bitter at being judged an unworthy mate by Jean, or more precisely by her parents, Burns had every intention of providing for his "bastard wean": He would publish his poems, his only asset and means of providing support. When "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" was an overnight success, and when both Jean and the new twins proved to have greater claims on his heart than expected, the Jamaica plan was forgotten.

Not so Burns' interest in other women, nor his contempt for the Presbyterian snooping on it. Many of his more outrageous slaps at the local laity were kept out of the first edition of "Poems," but a measure of payback was achieved with the inclusion of "The Holy Fair." Such summery evangelical events were meant for devotion, but they were popular, says Burns, for their other opportunities:

    . . . How mony hearts this day converts
    O' sinners and o' lasses!
    Their hearts o' stane, gin* night, are gane         by
    As saft as ony flesh is:
    There's some are fou* o' love divine;         full
    There's some are fou o' brandy;
    An' mony jobs that day begin,
    May end in houghmagandie*         fornication
    Some ither day.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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