Jean Adam (Adams) (1704-1765), poet
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Introduction and biography
Jean Adam is extremely unusual among lower-class women writers in being given an entry in the first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography (1885), a distinction due solely to the view, disputed by the DNB itself, that she was the author of the famous ballad, praised by Robert Burns, ‘There’s Nae Luck About the House’. This ballad is still widely read and available in many printed and internet versions, for example at Rampant Scotland. In the words of Adam’s earlier biographer and supporter, Alexander Rodger, this simple and moving poem – describing a wife’s joyful preparations for her absent husband’s home-coming – gradually struggled upward ‘to its proper place in our nation’s literature, first by being sung upon the streets, and recited and sung by the firesides, next by being circulated in ballad sheets, and latterly by being adopted into the most eminent of our country’s song collections’ (Rodger 1866: 5). But it is quite different in style, language and subject matter from the Miscellany Poems the author published under the name Jane Adams in 1734, a volume that seems to have destroyed her finances and achieved very little fame or recognition either during her lifetime or after her death in 1765.
It is owing to the ballad (and Burns’s admiration of it) that Jean Adam’s biographical details were first sought out in the early 19th century by R. H. Cromek (in his Select Scotish Songs, Ancient and Modern, 1810) and later built on by Rodger. Born in 1704 in Cartsdyke, near Greenock, Renfrewshire, to a shipmaker and his wife, Adam worked as a domestic servant for a local minister and was encouraged to read his books, thus (so it appears) coming into contact not only with works of Calvinist theology but also with those of Sidney, Milton, and the classics (presumably in translation). Later in life, she became mistress of a day school in Cartsdyke and was remembered for singing songs to her pupils and for a particularly affecting reading of Othello (after which she ‘fainted away’). On another occasion she is supposed to have walked to London to ‘pay her personal respects to Mr Richardson’ – i.e. Samuel Richardson, author of Clarissa, a work she deeply admired (Cromek 1810: 194).
In 1734, her collection Miscellany Poems was published with the help of a Mr Drummond, a customs officer in Greenock who drummed up subscriptions for the volume from many of his fellow officers. Excess copies were rather ambitiously sent off to Boston, Massachusetts, but the cost was never recouped, and Adam later gave up her school and became an itinerant needlewoman and domestic worker. She fell into poverty and died on 4 April 1765, the day after she had been admitted as ‘a poor woman, a stranger in distress’ to a workhouse in Glasgow (Cromek 1810: 195).
Adam’s works and their quotation in OED
Miscellany Poems, unquoted in OED1 (and therefore OED2), contains eighty poems altogether, mostly on religious and moral subjects, which show strong biblical influences. Their occasional classical references give evidence of the reading Adam may have done in the unnamed minister’s library, but the diction is notably plain and straightforward, something the author explicitly defended in the address printed at the beginning of the volume to its dedicatee, the local laird Thomas Crawford (also a subscriber), in which she said she had been assured that her work ‘had Truth enough, to Compensate for the Want of Ornament’ (Miscellany Poems, sig. A2v). There is no trace of Scottish dialect, though some of the vocabulary has Scottish connections (e.g. the adjective depute), and the title page of the volume bears her name in anglicized form, i.e. ‘Jane Adams’ (though the address to Crawford is signed ‘Jean Adams’).
The original DNB entry was written by John Westby-Gibson and published in 1885. This characterizes Adam’s Miscellany Poems as ‘written in the Brady and Tate style [i.e. reminiscent of the New Version of the Psalms of David (1696) produced by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady; Westby-Gibson seems to intend this as an insult], and…poor specimens indeed of what she called [in her preface] “the style of the best English poets that have written within seventy years”…only fitted to win a little local popularity’. Although ‘correct in phrase and sentiment’, Westby-Gibson commented, they were ‘inflated and childish’. Perhaps this contemporary estimate – along with the comparative rarity of Miscellany Poems – explains why OED1 editors might not have read the poems. This is a pity, since Adam’s work contains many examples of language usage that would have valuably enhanced OED’s record (see Unrecorded usages in Jean Adam).
Authorship of the ballad ‘There’s Nae Luck About the House’
Westby-Gibson also dismisses Adam’s ‘only passport to fame’, ‘the claim so persistently asserted for her’ of authorship of ‘There’s Nae Luck About the House’, on the grounds that ‘it is unlikely that such a strain of home and married love could have been written by this wayward and unwedded woman’. Instead he leans towards W. J. Mickle (1734/5-1788) as the ballad’s author, an Anglo-Scottish poet and translator of The Lusiad, whose claims had also been advanced (because a copy of the ballad had been found amongst his papers after his death; see Cromek 1810: 189-90 and Rodger 1866: 5-6).1
This work prints the ballad, without comment, as part of Mickle’s oeuvre. Westby-Gibson’s reasoning is entertainingly flawed: if he thought that biographical evidence was sufficient to disqualify Adam as author, since Adam was ‘wayward and unwedded’ and the narrator of the ballad a loyal wife, then Mickle, being a man, should have been out of the question altogether. More reasonably, Mickle’s own DNB biographer, writing several years later in 1894, thought that ‘doubt on the subject [of the ballad’s authorship] cannot be resolved’, and the ODNB (i.e. today’s revised edition of DNB) comes down on the side of Adam.2
The question of the ballad’s authorship is significant for Jean Adam’s record in the OED. This short work (52 lines in total, counting the refrain just once), is – surprisingly – cited three times in OED1 and (so far) once additionally in OED3, in all cases with the author being named as Mickle. None of the printed copies of the ballad that EOED has been able to locate identify Mickle as the author, however, so it seems that both the OED1 and the OED3 editors must have conducted some independent research into the matter. Of course it is tempting, given the past preference of OED editors for male over female authors, to suggest that the Dictionary’s judgement about authorship was coloured by bias. This is not the case with today’s editors, however, who explicitly state their interest in increasing citation from female sources (see OED3 quotation sources). Perhaps the better course, given the fact of authorship dispute, would be to attribute the ballad to ‘Anon’ rather than favouring male authorship.
Go to Nae Luck for details of OED’s record of vocabulary from the ballad, to Miscellany Poems for OED3’s new insertions from Miscellany Poems, and to Unrecorded usages in Jean Adam for more on Adam’s distinctive vocabulary.
DNB and ODNB (subscriptions required); all links accessed 13 August 2018:
- Bayne, T. W. (1894), ‘Mickle, William Julius (1735-1788)’, DNB, available at https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.013.18661
- Caudle, J. J. (2004), ‘Mickle, William Julius (1734/5-1788)’, ODNB, available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18661
- Westby-Gibson, John (1885), ‘Adam, Jean (1710-1765)’, DNB, available at https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.013.103
- Williamson, Karina (2004), ‘Adam, Jean (1704-1765)’, ODNB, available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/103
Williamson 2004 (as above) provides full references for discussion of the ballad’s authorship, including Cromek 1810: 1.67-70, 189-99, and Rodger 1866. For a critical discussion of Adam’s Miscellany Poems, see Overton 2003, and for an account of how they came to be printed see Overton 2004, whose research has revealed that Adam’s book was ‘only the second female-authored book of verse in Britain to have been published by subscription, and only the fourth female-authored book so published of any kind’ (393).
Last updated on 8 October 2019
- Rodger explains that the Rev. John Sim, ‘having been misled as to the authorship of [the ballad], seized it in 1806 to help a new edition’ of Mickle’s work that he brought out in the same year, i.e. The Poetical Works of William Julius Mickle, with a Life of the Author (London).
- The author of the ODNB entry, Karina Williamson, writes, ‘Alexander Rodger argues compellingly that the language and content of the song weigh strongly in support of Jean Adam’s claim.’ The updated biography for Mickle, written by J. J. Caudle, drops all mention of the ballad, thus tacitly conceding Adam’s claim.