Catherine Carswell

Catherine Carswell

Catherine Carswell wrote against conformity with strong feelings and a considerable sense of humour, and it makes sense that she was a friend of D.H. Lawrence and admired his writings. She was born in Glasgow in 1879, as Catherine Macfarlane. There are short but atmospheric sketches of her life in the prefaces written by her son and daughter-in-law for the Virago reprints of her two novels: Open the Door (1920), and The Camomile (1922).

carswell01pic1.jpg Right: Catherine Carswell aged about 19.

She read literature at Glasgow University but, as a woman, she could not take a degree under the regulations of that time. She went on to study music for two years at the Frankfurt Conservatorium, a period about which she wrote in The Camomile. In 1904 she married Herbert Jackson, the brother-in-law of the literary scholar Sir Walter Raleigh. Her husband proved to be insane, and tried to kill her the following year when she told him she had become pregnant. She made legal history by winning her case for the annulment of the marriage.

She returned to Glasgow and worked for the Glasgow Herald as literary and drama critic, but lost her job in 1915 for having written an enthusiastic review of D H Lawrence’s The Rainbow – something she was only able to get included in the paper by putting it directly to the printers. In the same year she married Donald Carswell, who was also from Glasgow and was then working for the London Times. Though he later qualified as a barrister, they both made their living by writing from that time. She lived most of her life in London, but her working routine (which often involved renting a room in some quiet part of London where she could work undisturbed during the day) was broken by the war, and she died in Oxford in 1946.

Her biographies of Robert Burns and D H Lawrence are both well known and are still in print (the volume on Burns has recently been reprinted by Canongate). The Burns volume was immediately controversial because of its new unsentimental approach, and it remains a convincing and moving account of him. She used her own experience to try to understand him as a human being, and not as the mascot of Scottish cultural history which he is so often presented as being. In her preface to her book (unfortunately not reprinted in the Canongate version) she explained: ‘In matters of fact I have accepted the latest credible authority or information… In matters of deduction, without which no living narrative can be constructed, I have relied upon my own conception of Burns… and upon what knowledge I have of life through my own experience. This last may seem a superfluous statement, but the factor has been strangely absent in biographers of Burns, most of whom would seem to be immune from experience alike of folly and of passion in themselves. ‘ Less formally, she commented about her research in letters of 1929 to her friend Florence Marian McNeill, when she showed herself well aware of the reactions she was likely to get from the Burns lobby: ‘…it is a damned difficult life to write, even adequately. … An essay – yes; a long, formless collection of facts – yes again. But to build up the life fully and in true proportions – well I’m not sure that it can be done … I truly believe I have straightened out, without taking any liberties, the story of Burns over his crucial period … This simply because not one other biographer has taken the trouble to grapple afresh with the existing evidence. … The interesting things are – 1. That the whole story now becomes simple, free from ‘mysteries’ and altogether credible and moving – where before all was question and confusion, and 2. with all the attention Scotsmen have paid to Burns, not one has taken this amount of trouble to ponder over the evidence. … how furious they will be to have R B brought out of the mist they have loved to keep about him!’

Her friendship with D H Lawrence was not due to any coincidental meeting, but came about because of her early admiration of his books. She had reviewed The White Peacock for the Glasgow Herald in 1911 and had been impressed by it. carswellc01pic2.jpg One of her friends, Ivy Low, wrote to Lawrence through his publisher after the appearance of Sons and Lovers, and Lawrence and his wife Frieda called on Catherine Carswell when they were next in London. She clearly admired Lawrence as a person as well as a writer: ‘…when we all walked down to the Finchley Road together to see the Lawrences into their bus, he and I walked in front … he gave an immediate sense of freedom, and his responses were so perfectly fresh, while they were puzzling, that it seemed a waste of time to talk about anything with him except one’s real concerns. … Life in Lawrence’s company was so great an adventure that the utmost weariness or disappointment was without boredom. He was the man in whose company to miss a last train…’

But she was not the kind of person to be an uncritical disciple: ‘His first letter, short but friendly, was triumphantly read aloud … I remember nothing about it now except that it was written … upon coroneted notepaper; that the coronet had been crossed through with a pen stroke; and that beside it Lawrence had written the words, ‘My wife’s father was a baron’ … precisely the same thing was repeated on the second letter which made us smile.’ And she noted: ‘I never quite believed and do not now, that Lawrence found his beard hideous. His saying so was one of the small and transparent affectations which – in the absence of all profounder deceits – made him so easy to approach…’

Her biography of Lawrence also caused controversy. It was temporarily withdrawn shortly after its publication in 1932 (two years after Lawrence’s death) after objections from John Middleton Murry, whose Reminiscences Of D.H. Lawrence, published in 1933, contained a long and detailed reply to Catherine Carswell’s book. Her determination to set things down as she had seen them continued to cause controversy after her death. In the 1951 reissue of the book, her son John included a note which stated ‘my mother describes the meeting, which she helped to arrange, between Lawrence and Mrs Belloc Lowndes. I have it on good authority that Mrs Belloc Lowndes was not, at the time of that meeting, influential in any literary fund from which Lawrence might have been helped; and that if she had possessed such influence she would not have been deterred from giving any help in her power by a personal encounter with him which does not seem, from the one account we possess, to have been particularly successful’. Catherine Carswell’s account of the meeting notes that ‘When we were left alone Lawrence indulged in some pithead language’. Her book is a revealing and sympathetic memoir from someone who knew and liked Lawrence, but who kept her distance and perspective, and avoided producing a breathless hagiography of a modern saint.

However, these two biographies brought her many friends as well as enemies in the literary worlds of Scotland and London during the nineteen thirties – among them Hugh MacDiarmid, Helen Cruickshank, Neil Gunn, Edwin Muir, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Aldous Huxley, Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Walter Elliot, Hugh Kingsmill and Storm Jameson. But, as her son puts it, ‘though she loved company she disliked organised social life and its formalities. Her closest friends, apart from Lawrence, were not famous, and many of her friendships belonged to her youth in Glasgow, and never faded’.

Her two novels were discussed in letters between her and Lawrence, although unfortunately only his have been kept. They are forceful books about characters who, without setting out to be rebellious, deliberately reject the quiescent sinking into polite society which is expected of them. Joanna Bannerman, in Open the Door, marries but, after her husband dies, finds herself drawn back to the sense of life which she remembers from her childhood visits to farms and moors, and which she glimpsed in the Italian countryside during the rare walks she was able to take during her marriage: ‘…over the walls the olive trees stretched their branches, now thickly strung with harvest-ripe fruit. Here and there the muscular, grey wood had thrust its gnarled elbows through the stone-work, making it bulge dangerously. … And between the gaps of the hedge, and above it, was tile blue, blue sky of the Tramontana. … She looked at the yellow villas, blind and basking. She remembered one … which Mario had pointed out as the home of a woman celebrated for her loves … Joanna had a vivid memory of the little sunken door in the wall…’

carswellc01pic4.jpg Even before her marriage is ended by her husband’s death, she has come to feel that it didn’t contain the reality seen in the countryside of Scotland and Italy: ‘It can’t go on, she thought … It isn’t real. It is playing at something – pretending, as children pretend when they play.’

After her return to Scotland, Joanna reacts with fury to the placid views of her sister who suggests that she ‘herself might be a stupid failure – But what did that matter? All that mattered was the new generation, which was so wonderfully to profit by our mistakes. They would do, and do far better all that we had left undone.’

Joanna sees this as ‘a shirking of the personal issue… the last, most exquisite cowardice. … If the children, born and unborn were to be served fairly, one must utter clearly and fearlessly one’s own word of truth in one’s own lifetime. And against this utterance, hard enough in itself the whole world was combined in the most tyrannical of all combinations, the combination of the past with the future generation. What a plausible and cruel trick was there! … she looked with strange, terror-stricken eyes at the faces of the passing people. There were the satisfied, solid ones, the flighty, knowing ones … Today, for the first time she saw them as a flock of blind things, each one trusting implicitly, as she had done, in the corporate wisdom of all the other blind ones…’

It’s the sound of water, heard in the unromantic setting of a Princes Street hotel room placed too near the building’s water tank, that finally makes clear to her the kind of existence that is not dependent on social constructions and human vagaries: ‘the water began to speak. It started unaccountably out of the silence with exquisite precision. … it was an ecstasy to hear – a keen ecstasy quite purged of any dross of excitement. … like a rill that leaps under starlight it would scatter its drops in a spray of grace-notes. … And though it was a voice from childhood, Joanna had never truly heard it before. It was the still, small voice of a new birth, of a new life, of a new world. It was a new voice, but it was the oldest of all the voices. For it was the voice before creation, secure, unearthly, frail as filigree yet faithful as a star.’

That insistence that one should get on with being alive, and not allow oneself the easy acceptance of society’s comfortable ways of passing the time, is one of Catherine Carswell’s repeated emphases throughout her writing.

The Camomile tells, through a series of letters, how a young Glaswegian girl avoids, but only just, agreeing to marry the son of the minister, and to leaving Scotland for an Anglo-Indian life of bridge and official dinners. She reaches similar conclusions to those of Joanna Bannerman: ‘I must say most middle-aged people do look as if they had lived, and this makes them interesting and enviable, at least to me. If only they could tell us more about their living!’

In the last pages, she looks forward to a new life in London: ‘I know things are a bit more expensive in London, but I shall manage. All I need is time to write! … One room in the most unfashionable neighbourhood will hold me and my books … I know at last to what world I irrevocably belong, and that it is not Duncan’s world. … One can never write till one stands outside. … ‘Also, vorwarts!’ as Zilcher used to say!’

The tone of exaggerated youthful enthusiasm is quite deliberate. Catherine Carswell was already well aware that London and literature were a great deal less straightforward than this. Neither of her two heroines entirely reflect her own previous experience. They take on some of what she had been through, but they are carefully recreated to produce distanced, more objective characters. Catherine Carswell discussed this explicitly in a letter of 27 January 1926 to her friend Florence Marian McNeill: ‘in an autobiographical novel of the kind you are trying to write nothing is any good until you get somehow a stage removed from the self of the story, outside of that self, cool, critical, perhaps even hostile, having exchanged human sympathy for that very different commodity artistic or literary sympathy towards your characters. Not till then anyhow will the characters assume that life of their own which they need.’

Catherine Carswell wrote no more novels, but she produced a large number of other books and essays – the anthology The Scots Weekend with her husband Donald, the anthologies A National Gallery: being a collection of English characters and The English in Love: a museum of illustrative verse with the critic Daniel George Bunting, a further book on Burns for Duckworth’s Great Lives series, a biography of Boccaccio (on the grounds that he was the first author to write for women), an essay on Proust’s women for a commemorative volume edited by Proust’s translator George Scott-Moncrieff, a commissioned rewriting of a theatre biography, and a recollection of John Buchan and other help in the preparation of two volumes edited by his widow – The Clearing House and John Buchan by his wife and friends. She had known Buchan well, and in spite of her general antipathy to ‘establishment’ characters, greatly admired him as an individual and an author. He, despite his natural conservatism, felt the same for her.

carswellc01pic5.jpg Catherine Carswell (at typewriter) c. 1930.

All these books are clearly professional products of an experienced writer. But the book which gives the strongest and most moving impression of her personality is Lying Awake, edited by her son John Carswell after her death, and including autobiographical essays, notes, poems and letters. Sadly it has so far not been reprinted, but it is the one book of all her production which most deserves it, which most gives the individual feel of a strong, witty and independent personality.

Some extracts from the book were published in the second issue for 1946 of the magazine The Windmill, under the title ‘Winter Face – an extract of autobiography’. In the essay entitled ‘The Clock’ in the finished book, she gives an atmospheric account of her day in wartime London, and examines her desire to write about her past, making clear that this was not a purely backward looking activity: ‘I propose to survey what is gone for the better regarding of what is immediately here and what is present for the better knowledge of what is past. With eyes on the setting suns I shall try to examine former dawns. Looking back at the faces of youth I shall endeavour to see the more steadily my own winter face. In this dual undertaking I may well fail. But, while I have the sense to hear the French clock chime, I mean to do my best.’

She gives a surprisingly emphatic and robust account of what it was like to have been brought up in the Victorian period: ‘For wars we were … admirably prepared. Were they not foretold … as precursors to the coming of Christ, which might (my mother hoped) not be long delayed? We could get along nicely without gas, electricity, bathrooms, tap water, indoor lavatories, restaurants, luxuries, hot-water bottles – in a word, in an Arran cottage or a remote Perthshire farmhouse. Like my father I was naturally a good shot and I was skilled at climbing and ambuscades. I should, I believe, have made a good guerrilla fighter … It is the custom now to attribute to the Victorians a sort of bland and blind security. On the contrary, we were ready for everything…’ No matter how torn, bruised or muddy we might return we were subjected to none but helpful, immediately practical questionings. … Neither in town nor in country can I remember a single instance of ill-temper. It was a shock in after-life to find that people otherwise well conditioned should get angry over trifles. ‘We followed with mimicry and absurd gestures any passer-by who appeared to us over-dressed or stuck-up. I still feel this impulse come over me at times in fashionable surroundings.’

The last phrase is characteristically provocative and deeply felt. Later in the book she comments: ‘… the semi-privacy of neat and pretty suburban gardens causes me to feel oppressed … the war-time removal of walls and railings has given me relief. The only exception to this is the very high wall having in it a small, closed, as it were secret door which leads abruptly from the public highway to private grounds – the kind of entrance that is to be found in full perfection in Italy.’

The chapter ‘Frank: The Boards’ opens with an amusing account of being lectured to by the kind of young man who uses enthusiasm for literature as an expression of himself: ‘he is about half my age, emotional, a convert … from atheism to high Anglicanism, with a tendency in both phases to regard me as a Mother Confessor. The role is one which I neither seek nor like, but when it is assigned I am bad at refusing it … He … asked if he might read me some of the poems which had meant most to his life. … I felt … depressed. … I assumed a listening attitude with eyes closed in the comfortable knowledge that, if he so much as marked my smiling, he would ascribe it to anticipatory pleasure.’ And, as her literary tormentor embarks on a recitation of George Herbert’s ‘I struck the board, and cried No more!’, she drifts away, to her relief and ours, into her own musings.

She ends the chapter as ironically as she began: ‘Yes, I said, rousing, opening my eyes – Lovely. Thank you.’

‘How it fills one with humility, he said. He appeared to me somewhat distended by the influx.’

What is most moving about the book is her enthusiasm, her instant response and interest in what is around: ‘It is a strange and unexpected comfort in the happier hours of old age to find that life itself has become more and more interesting, especially in its material and everyday aspects. The mystery grows and grows.’

carswellc01pic3.jpg It was a sort of self-deprecatory irony on her part to refer to her ‘old age’. She was only sixty-six when she died, and the moving quality of what she writes in these notes has nothing to do with age, but rather with the quality of her response. She seems to have been always ready for the next moment, and to have found a wealth of detail to take in from the most quiet experience – perhaps most of all from quiet times: ‘I can truly see only when alone. The most congenial companion takes the edge off my seeing’.

Throughout her career, it was her habit to rent a room somewhere she could not be disturbed, away from her home, in order to write in peace during the day. She wrote of this in a letter of 1929 to Florence Marian McNeill: ‘I go every morning to a lovely secret room … in Keats Grove, with no telephone and with a French window opening on to a quiet old autumn garden. It’s so wonderful knowing that one can’ t be called upon. Long may it last…’


Open the Door, Andrew Melrose 1920, Chatto and Windus 1931, Virago 1986

The Camomile, Chatto and Windus 1922, Virago 1987

Essay in Marcel Proust: An English Tribute ed. George Scott-Moncrieff ?1923

The Life of Robert Burns, Chatto and Windus 1930; new edition with note by John Carswell, Chatto and Windus 1951, Canongate 1990

The Savage Pilgrimage, Chatto and Windus 1932. Revised edition, Martin Secker 1932, reissued by Secker and Warburg 1951; with memoir by John Carswell: Cambridge University Press 1981

Robert Burns, Duckworth 1933

A National Gallery (with Daniel George), Martin Secker 1933

The English in Love (with Daniel George), Martin Secker 1934

The Fays of The Abbey Theatre, W.G. Fay revised by Catherine Carswell, Rich and Cowan 1935

The Scots Weekend with Donald Carswell, Routledge 1936

The Tranquil Heart (Life of Boccaccio), Lawrence and Wishart 1937

Essay on Robert Burns in From Anne to Victoria ed. Bonamy Dobree, Cassell 1937

Essay and other help with The Clearing House, Hodder and Stoughton 1946 & John Buchan by His Wife and Friends, Hodder and Stoughton 1947

Lying Awake edited by John Carswell, Secker and Warburg 1950

Copyright David Fergus.