Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
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 Then, in 1932, Carswell’s biography of her friend D.H. Lawrence, The Savage Pilgrimage, was sensationally withdrawn from stores amid accusations of libel—not from the subject, who died in 1930, but from John Middleton Murry, the writer and critic.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.