Feminize Your Canon: Catherine Carswell


Feminize Your Canon

Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.

Catherine Carswell

The life and career of the gifted Glaswegian writer Catherine Carswell was marked by such alarming and recurrent notoriety that her present obscurity is baffling. In 1908, still in her twenties and working as a newspaper critic, Carswell made headlines when a judge ruled that her husband, who suffered from murderous paranoid delusions, was of unsound mind at the time of their wedding. Although the couple had a daughter, Carswell got the marriage annulment she’d fought for and an enduring legal precedent was set. In 1930, she became a pariah in Scotland thanks to her sexually frank biography of national poet-hero Robert Burns, which offended zealous keepers of the Burns myth. One reader saw fit to send the author a letter containing a bullet, with the suggestion that she “leave the world a better, brighter, cleaner place.” Then, in 1932, Carswell’s biography of her friend D.H. Lawrence, The Savage Pilgrimage, was sensationally withdrawn from stores amid accusations of libel—not from the subject, who died in 1930, but from John Middleton Murry, the writer and critic. Murry, Lawrence’s posthumous biographer and the widower of Katherine Mansfield, had a tangled and volatile history with the late novelist and his wife, Frieda. An angry Lawrence once told Murry he was “an obscene bug sucking my life away.”

Lawrence and Carswell had hit it off immediately upon meeting in London in the summer of 1914, when she showed him her autobiographical novel-in-progress, Open the Door! At twenty-eight, Lawrence was nearly seven years Carswell’s junior, but he’d already published three novels. In 1915, the publication of Lawrence’s The Rainbow occasioned a typical Carswell quagmire. Carswell’s Glasgow Herald review praised the book as “so very rich both in emotional beauty and in the distilled essence of profoundly passionate and individual thinking about human life.” She offered some criticism, too, warning of “revolting detail” and descriptions “which will be strongly offensive to most readers.” Nevertheless, unlike some reviewers, she didn’t unequivocally censure the elements that led to an obscenity trial and the book being banned in the UK. No doubt aware of the brewing scandal, Carswell arranged for her review of the novel to go to press without her editor’s say-so. The review was pulled from the evening edition of the paper and Carswell, a Glasgow Herald critic of nine years standing, was fired in disgrace.

Neither the incident nor Carswell’s less-than-adulatory review affected her friendship with Lawrence. As Carswell neared completion of her manuscript for Open the Door!, Lawrence was working on The Rainbow’s sequel, Women in Love, and the two authors exchanged feedback. (Lawrence even stole one of her male characters’ names, and she told him to change it.) Carswell’s sensuous, poetic, nature-exulting literary style is likely to strike the reader as somewhat Lawrentian, but the influence wasn’t unidirectional. “I think you are the only woman I have met,” he wrote to her, “who is so intrinsically detached, so essentially separate and isolated, as to be a real writer or artist or recorder.” To be told she didn’t write like other women might be considered a dubious compliment, but Carswell welcomed it.

Carswell eventually placed Open the Door! with the publisher Andrew Melrose, who in 1920 awarded it his first novel prize. The prize was worth 250 guineas: about £260, the equivalent of maybe £12,000 today. It was a sum that meant a great deal to Carswell, who was then forty-one. Yet as she remarked, “heaven knows as work goes, it is not high pay.” Other than letters, she didn’t enjoy writing and felt that to produce anything of value she had to work harder and more slowly than other people, agonizing and rewriting to achieve the effect she sought. Of course, she was—and is—very far from alone in this. As her contemporary Jean Rhys said, “I think if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write.” Carswell’s rumination on her plight would surely resonate with many, if not most, writers:

It’s a great shame and mystery that I am driven by so strong an urge to intellectual and literary pursuits for which I am ill-fitted (so that I am always trying to escape them) and that I cannot give myself up to some kind of manual work at which I am by nature apt enough and in doing which I could give free rein to my inveterate disposition to dream and to think without trying to find words for my thoughts.

Open the Door! sold out its 9,000 copy UK print run, went into several further editions, and received respectful if mixed reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. “No mere bestseller,” decreed the Daily Telegraph, “but a real contribution to literature.” The Los Angeles Times described it, with perhaps a note of caution, as “deeply concerned with the sex life of its heroine,” but “written with remarkable sincerity.” In fact, when the manuscript was on submission, an admiring recommendation from a publisher’s reader certified it as “entirely clean.” The point perhaps needed to be made, given Carswell’s association with obscenity-law breaker Lawrence.

While it doesn’t wholly adhere to the details of Carswell’s life, Open the Door! follows the coming of age of Joanna Bannerman, who very much resembles the author: an artistically gifted, modish, and whimsical young woman born to an Evangelical family in late-nineteenth century Glasgow. Carswell was the second of four children born to George and Mary Anne Macfarlane, both of whose fathers were ministers and who themselves followed a creed, in Carswell’s words, of “militant protestantism.” George was a merchant trader, and his household employed a nanny, a housemaid, and a cook. In Carswell’s unfinished memoir, Lying Awake, she remembers frequent visits from missionaries and friends George made on his world travels: “freed negro slaves, Indian rajahs, South Sea Island royalties.” For a spell, Carswell’s beloved playmate was a Congolese Christian convert named Bompole, “a well-behaved, merry, and truly pious child, far more so than the Glasgow street boys (‘keelies’) with whom we were also permitted to consort.” The Macfarlane children, unusually, were not subjected to repressive Victorian rules of conduct and ran wild in the neighborhood:

We made our forays unburdened by warnings, moral instructions or questioning … we fought in gangs with peashooters and catapults, rode madly on a tricycle horse, tore about on roller skates or trundling a cane “mail-cart” crammed with passengers; we coasted the steep hills on wheels and sledges. We fished down gratings for queer objects; we scoured waste lands, dodged policemen, hung on to the back rails of horse trams, four-wheelers and lorries in the traffic of Sauchiehall Street … Though we returned often with torn clothes and broken knees, and always with dirty faces, we never came by any serious accident.

In Open the Door!, Joanna matures from a physically reckless child, who enjoys climbing high trees and balancing “on the windy edge of roofs,” into a dreamy young art student preoccupied with beauty, which she has no trouble perceiving in the world around her. The windows of a block of buildings in darkness appear as “a dense forest screen hung unevenly with barred, many-colored lanterns”; a crescent of shops is “like a necklace of gold and brilliants curved in a velvet case.” At age seventeen, despite the attempts of Joanna’s mother and a cousin to enlighten her on the facts of life, she recoils from “natural processes” in favor of elevated love fantasies. She gets engaged to a local boy, but he fails to inspire deep feelings. Astutely, he sees this, and breaks things off. Joanna then meets a young Italian engineer at the Glasgow School of Art who exerts a more hypnotic power. “Beautiful he was—fine—gem-like. Yet for all his delicate, glittering quality, more male than any other man she had yet seen.”

Mario Rasponi, with determination and calculation, sweeps Joanna off her feet. Despite an initial resistance, she is unequal to Mario’s “onslaught,” and they’re soon off on honeymoon to Tuscany. She just about recovers from the shock of sex—an “astonishing, grotesque experience”—but cannot imagine how she’ll cope with Mario’s sudden refusal to permit her the smallest measure of freedom or solitude. When he loses sight of her for even a brief period, he suspects her of infidelity. And even when he keeps track of her continually, he cannot relax:

Mario, though he never left her side, was often in torture. He felt she was escaping him always. When she gazed away from him at trees or stars in a long rapture he could hardly bear it. Even when she entranced him by her leaping response to his passion, he had the sense that she was keeping her ultimate self immune—that she was holding back, waiting for some other touch than his.

The portrayal of Mario and Joanna is a romanticized and sanitized version of Carswell’s own ill-fated first marriage. She met Herbert Jackson, a painter from an artistic English family, when she was twenty-five; he was thirty-six and had recently returned to England from fighting in the Second Boer War. His sister, Lucie, was married to Walter Raleigh, Carswell’s former Glasgow University tutor and the newly appointed Merton Chair of English Literature at Oxford. Carswell was visiting the Raleighs in their Surrey village when she was introduced to Jackson. He was handsome and soft spoken, to all appearances an ideal suitor. Within days, they were engaged, and just a couple of months later they had a small church wedding in West London. Jackson’s rush to the altar may have sounded alarm bells, as may his making an allusion to some unspecified secret trouble. During the couple’s short courtship, however, his behavior did not betray the terrible mania afflicting him. It would emerge, with a vengeance, as soon as they set off on honeymoon to Italy.

Passengers on the train and boat, Jackson believed, were shadowing him. He was under surveillance, he claimed, suspected of criminal acts, the victim of mail tampering, and conspiracies involving the government and even his doctor. This paranoia came to a head when, back in London, Carswell revealed she was pregnant. Jackson became enraged: the child, he insisted, was the result of her dalliances with the Prince of Wales or some other luminary. Following a fracas during which he brandished a gun, Jackson was taken away by police and committed to a psychiatric hospital—for life, as it turned out. They had been married for just five months. Carswell moved back in with her widowed mother, just as Joanna does after her abortive Italian adventure: “She must go back to Glasgow and learn how to live … She felt rather like a child who has played truant from school, and is led back to its task.” For several years Carswell existed in the limbo of being married, but irrevocably estranged, until she was finally granted the freedom of an annulment.

In a tragic turn of events, their daughter, Diana, died at age eight following an appendectomy. She never met her father. As a single, and now grieving, mother, Carswell did not put romance on hold. For some years she was involved in an intense affair with Maurice Greiffenhagen, an English portrait painter, illustrator, and department director at the Glasgow School of Art. Greiffenhagen, who was a married father of two and seventeen years Carswell’s senior, was hardly a romantic ideal. “Photographs of the time,” writes Carswell’s biographer, Jan Pilditch, “show him to have been a slender man with white hair and a beard, who evinces energy.” Yet he was the greatest passion of Carswell’s life. In Open the Door! he is depicted as Louis Pender, who arouses equal joy and misery, and whose handwriting, in his frequent letters, “came to affect Joanna like his bodily presence, made her tremble through her being when her eye lighted upon it.”

Carswell suffered deep anguish over Greiffenhagen, as she confided to a sympathetic Lawrence. In the fall of 1914, partly to loosen the grip of her infatuation, it seems, she agreed to marry an old university friend. “We are glad to hear you are going to marry Donald Carswell,” Lawrence wrote. “Your life will have a stable pivot then.” Her fiancé was a gentle and cerebral man, and he had always adored her. Before the wedding he said: “My love for you is not a physical one. I shall not trouble you greatly on that side of things.” Despite this self-effacing reassurance, after four years of marriage they had a son, John Patrick.

Donald, himself an author and a meticulous editor, helped Carswell with her biographies of Burns and Lawrence. She had “unbounded faith in his literary judgement,” recalls John Carswell, “and everything serious she wrote was subjected to his comment.” Where she was excessive and impulsive, he was careful and controlled. Donald’s steadying presence was needed when, within the space of a few years, Carswell endured the Burnsians’ “storms, cascades, cyclones of protesting fury,” in Arnold Bennett’s words, and the fight over what she insisted was an entirely truthful account of Lawrence’s life. Carswell partially prevailed: soon after The Savage Pilgrimage was withdrawn by Chatto & Windus, it was published with some alterations by Secker in the UK and Harcourt Brace in the US. “The Savage Pilgrimage is a stimulating book,” declared a review in the Chicago Tribune, “one that is vastly important to the understanding of Lawrence, and a biography that makes clear to the reader … the genius and strangeness of one of the most significant literary personalities of this generation.”

In 1937 Carswell published a third biography, of the Italian Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio. But she never completed another novel after The Camomile, her 1922 follow-up to Open the Door! A sparer and more restrained reworking of a time in Carswell’s younger life, The Camomile draws on the two years she spent studying music at the Frankfurt Conservatory. Reviews were mixed, and it didn’t sell well. Lawrence blamed the title: “Perhaps if you called it Gingerbread they’d sup it up like anything.” A career as a biographer must have seemed more practical to Carswell, an endeavor one step closer to the precision of music that Ellen Carstairs, her alter-ego in The Camomile, regards as less daunting than literature:

When I think of Mother and of her writings that she spent so much money on publishing, I feel a horror of all that is vague, mysterious, or even imaginative. It is this, I believe, that makes me long so ardently for what I call reality … the sheer technical necessity of practicing the piano seemed a way of safety for me.

In 1940, at just fifty-eight, Donald was fatally run over by a car in London on the first night of the World War II blackout. Carswell’s novelist friend Storm Jameson, writing after Donald’s death, commiserated: “You have fought so hard—and, whatever some say, it is not possible to fight with one hand and to write with the other—that you have not yet reached your full height as a writer in spite of fine books.” Carswell died five years after Donald, in February 1946, following a bout of pneumonia and pleurisy. She was sixty-six.

Over the ensuing decades, only her biographies remained in print; it wasn’t until the eighties that the novels were reissued, as Virago Modern Classics. In the New York Times, Professor Sandra M. Gilbert duly applauded Open the Door! as “an incisive female analysis of society and sexuality.” Currently, Open the Door!, Lying Awake, and The Life of Robert Burns are published as e-books by the Scottish publisher Canongate. Yet Carswell remains little-known as a novelist and has been neglected by the academy. As her more famous friends agreed, she deserves lasting renown for her fiction, which beguiles as much with its strangeness as with its scrupulous realism. Carswell knew how to conjure magic from the mundane, as this anecdote from her son’s childhood beautifully illustrates:

She had taken me with her into a church in France which, because of some festival, was crowded with worshippers. Just inside the door an extremely shabby man blew his nose on a dirty rag, thrust it into his pocket and sank down, quite alone, in prayer. Catherine sank down behind him and gently picked his pocket of the rag, which she replaced, with equal gentleness, by a completely clean handkerchief from her pocket, neatly folded. Through it all he remained, I am sure, quite unconscious of what was happening. Taking me by the hand she led me out of the church, and when the door had closed behind us said, “I hope he’ll think it was a miracle. He needed one so much.”


Read earlier installments of Feminize Your Canon here. 

Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly RoundtableLongreadsNewsweekThe Daily BeastSalonThe AwlWords without Borders, and other publications.