Biography

Catherine Carswell (nee MacFarlane) was born in Glasgow in 1879 into a merchant family with a strong evangelical background. Her two novels, set in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Glasgow are strongly autobiographical and evoke the middle class world in which she lived. Catherine studied at both the Conservatory of Music in Frankfurt and at Glasgow University, but, because women were not formally admitted to the University at this time, was never awarded a degree. Her first marriage ended disastrously when she discovered that her husband was insane, and the annulment of the marriage made legal history when Carswell had to prove that he was insane at the time of marriage and unaware of what he was doing.

If to have expressive words and balanced phrases ringing in one's head is to be a writer, then I am one
Catherine Carswell

Catherine then embarked on a long affair with the artist Maurice Greiffenhagen, who appears under the guise of Louis Pender in Open the Door!. She later married fellow journalist Donald Carswell with whom she had a son.

Catherine Carswell worked as a journalist for many years in Glasgow and London and was famously fired from her position at the Glasgow Herald for writing a review of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Lawrence’s friendship and correspondence encouraged Carswell to write her first novel Open the Door! which won the Melrose Prize on its publication in 1920. Another novel, The Camomile, appeared in 1922, but Carswell became much better known in 1930 when her fictional biography, The Life of Robert Burns was published to much outrage. This frank account of the Scots bard met with attack from Burns Clubs and sparked sermons in Glasgow Cathedral as well as a bullet arriving in the post with a letter asking Carswell to make the world a ‘cleaner place’ by killing herself.

Carswell went on to write biographies of D.H. Lawrence and Boccaccio, and to prepare fragments of an autobiography which were published after her death as Lying Awake. Carswell died in England, her home for much of her adult life, in 1946.

Works

Although Catherine Carswell achieved fame for her biography of Robert Burns, her two novels Open the Door! (1920) and The Camomile: An Invention (1922) have, in the past twenty years, resurfaced as important examples of Scottish women’s writing.

Open the Door! is a bildungsroman (a novel about a person’s formative years) following the personal and sexual development of Joanna Bannerman. This novel shows a search for identity and for love which leads the heroine from Glasgow, to Italy, to London, and back to Scotland. Constantly trying to rebel against her mother in order to avoid the failed ambition and union of her parent's marriage, all of Joanna's relationships with men are tainted by her desire to escape her mother's destiny.

The doors of the novel, which open each chapter with a biblical quotation, lead the heroine to escape and then return to Scotland for a rebirth. Joanna's first disastrous marriage takes her to Italy where her romantic dream of the foreign is destroyed. Returning briefly to Glasgow, the over-powering relationship with married artist Louis Pender then takes her to London until his denial of her will 'rob her of identity'. Joanna's return to Scotland and her relationship with Lawrence Urquhart at the end of the novel forces her to create her own identity, equal to her lover's. Up until this point, Joanna's lovers have created their own vision of her, but Urquhart allows her a part in her own construction.

Despite its somewhat contrived ending, Open the Door! successfully creates a view of late nineteenth century Glasgow and the position of a woman, desperately trying to seek out her own identity in that society.

The Camomile: An Invention is similarly about a young woman attempting to shape her own identity rather than have others decide it for her. This is a much shorter novel than Open the Door! and its compact nature encouraged by its epistolary form means that it is more concise than the first novel. The Camomile is written as a series of journal-style letters from Ellen to her friend Ruby who lives in London, and the confessional nature of the letters allows Ellen's character to develop while giving the novel a certain momentum.

Here we have the same problems of a constraining Glasgow society, religious mother figure, and controlling male relationship. Yet we also have important comment on the woman as an artist and on the need for social and sexual independence. Ellen Carstairs is a musician (the novel starts with her musical training in Frankfurt) who feels drawn towards becoming a writer. Trying to curb her desire to write in order to conform to society and her fiancé's desire, Ellen finds it to be her true vocation. Hence the title of the novel, taken from Shakespeare's Henry IV plays which says of the camomile: 'the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows'.

Although these are Carswell's only two novels, her later biographical writing is attractive because of the novelist's touch which she brings to her subjects. The Life of Robert Burns was the book which brought Carswell recognition in her lifetime because of its support by the modern Scottish Renaissance movement through Hugh MacDiarmid, and the controversy it caused among Burns traditionalists. Similar to The Camomile in its exploration of the problems of the artist in Scotland, Carswell also injects a novelistic liveliness into her picture of Scotland's bard. Previous biographies of Burns had belonged to a cult of hero-worship which avoided some of the more bawdy aspects of Burns' life. Carswell, on the other hand, gives full details of the poet's affairs, illegitimate children, and drunken exploits, giving the reader a fuller illustration of the poet's life without being overindulgent.

Writers such as MacDiarmid were attracted to Carswell's biography because it was a re-visioning of Scotland's literary heritage. It attacked the myth of Burns without discrediting him as a writer, bringing Burns to life outside the cult which had been created around him, but at the same time taking pride in his achievement of becoming a poet against the odds of his class and situation. The lively style of this biography makes it attractive to readers who wish to learn more about the experience of the artist in Scotland, more about the life of the bard, or simply want an entertaining story.

Carswell wrote two other biographies: one of her close friend D.H. Lawrence, The Savage Pilgrimage, and another, indulging her interest in Italy, of Boccaccio, The Tranquil Heart. Her own autobiography was not completed in her lifetime but fragments of her thoughts, letters and autobiographical incidents, entitled Lying Awake, were collected by her son John after her death and make an enlightening read.

Reading Lists

Primary

Open the Door (1920)

The Camomile (1922)

Life of Burns (1930)

The Savage Pilgrimage: A Narrative of DH Lawrence (1932)

Lying Awake: An Unfinished Autobiography (1950)

The Fays of the Abbey Theatre, W. G. Fay and Catherine Carswell  (1935)

Secondary

Opening the Doors: The Achievement of Catherine Carswell, ed. by Carol Anderson (2001)

A Critical Guide to Twentieth Century Women Novelists, ed. by Kathleen Wheeler (1997)

A History of Scottish Women's Writing, ed. by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (1997)

Articles

'Opening the Door on Catherine Carswell', Scotlands, No.2, 1995. pp. 53-65

'Touched by the Rainbow: the Biography of Catherine Carswell', Glasgow Herald Magazine, 15 Feb. 1997. p. 9

Other

Papers of Catherine Carswell, University of Nottingham

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