by Jennie Calder

A Bullet Through the Post

October 22, 2009 | by Jennie Calder

CATHERINE MACFARLANE, an intelligent young woman with artistic leanings and some talent as a musician, grew up in Glasgow in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Her early years reveal an environment that was at the same time constrained and expansive, closed and stimulating. She was a child of the Free Church, with two minister grandfathers who had come out in the 1843 Disruption. Her father, George Macfarlane, was a merchant trading to South America and a Glasgow City Councillor, equally part of the city’s commercial vibrancy and of its progressive reform. Her mother Mary Anne Lewis, a descendant of steamboat pioneer Patrick Miller, shared her husband’s evangelical enthusiasms.

In many ways the Macfarlane family represented the contradictions embedded in Victorian Scotland. Life in their large Renfrew Street house was quite frugal; luxury was frowned on and there were periods when it was unaffordable. The children, two girls and two boys, had remarkable freedom, and engaged in Glasgow’s street life with enthusiasm. As well as the usual games of tops, marbles, peevers and bowling hoops – “insisting”, wrote Catherine, “upon iron hoops and hooks to match those of our street boy friends” – they participated in gang warfare: “We fished down gratings for queer objects, we scoured waste lands, we dodged policemen, hung onto the backs of horse trams, four-wheelers and lorries in the traffic of Sauchiehall Street… we were often rude… fought pitched battles, encountered crude facts, learned to be wary”. Not your average protected middle-class childhood – no doubt today they would have been served with ASBOs. Catherine Macfarlane, however, did not grow up delinquent. As the writer Catherine Carswell, she became a significant and often controversial voice in the cultural life of the Twenties and Thirties.

It has only been in the last twenty years, with the reprinting of her two novels Open the Door! (1920) and The Camomile (1922) and her biography of Robert Burns (1930), that Carswell’s importance has been recognised. She also wrote a memoir of DH Lawrence, The Strange Pilgrimage (1932), and a collection of autobiographical writings was put together by her son John Car-swell and published after her death as Lying Awake (1950). An account of her intriguing and courageous life is long overdue, and Jan Pilditch’s Catherine Carswell: A Biography is much to be welcomed. I hope it will stimulate further work, both on Carswell herself, on the environment within which she wrote, and perhaps in particular on her professional role as a woman seeking, and just about managing, self-sufficiency as a writer.

What did Glasgow, at the end of the Nineteenth century, offer an enquiring and adventurous young woman with vaguely defined artistic abilities and aspirations? The city was intellectually and culturally dynamic, and full of tangible expressions of profit channelled into education and improvement: the new university buildings on Gilmorehill, the Mitchell Library (though not its current building), the McLellan Galleries. Catherine was in her eighteenth year when in 1897 the first part of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art building was opened and the foundation stone laid for the municipal museum’s new premises in Kelvingrove. But for a woman, opportunities were limited. As her novels express, Glasgow seemed both to offer and withhold, to open the door enough to allow a glimpse of what lay on the other side, and then to slam it shut.

Encouraged to develop her musical skills, Catherine went to Frankfurt to study music at the Conservatory, but although she relished both the exposure to music and two years of independence, she realised she was not cut out to be a professional musician. Returning to Glasgow, she enrolled at Queen Mar-garet College, the women’s wing of the University of Glasgow. Catherine flourished as a student, though she chafed at the unequal treatment: women were taught separately from men. She studied literature, attending the classes of Professor Walter Raleigh who became something of a mentor. But she did not take a degree. It was through Raleigh that she met his brother-in-law, the artist Herbert Jackson, whom she married in 1904. She was 25 years old, seemingly about to enter a period of personal and professional fulfilment. The reality proved very different.

Her marriage rapidly turned to dust when her husband’s serious mental instability emerged. He was institutionalised, and after considerable difficulty the marriage was annulled. Catherine’s daughter, born in 1905, died at the age of eight, and a long-term affair with a married man led nowhere. In 1911, desperate to disentangle herself from Glasgow and lead her own life, she made her home in London. By this time she was earning a living as a theatre and literary critic, reviewing regularly for the Glasgow Herald and the Manchester Guardian, and occasionally for other papers. Leading drama critic William Archer was so impressed by her work that he asked “who this man could be who was writing dramatic criticism in a Scottish newspaper that was equal if not superior to anything the London critics were doing just then”. Given the assumptions of the time, the mistake has to be taken as praise – which was how Catherine herself received the comment.

In those early years in London, she made a number of literary and like-minded friends, and was working on her first novel. And she met a man who matched and inspired her own quest for independence of mind and spirit, DH Lawrence. Pilditch gives considerable space to their mutually supportive relationship, which lasted for the rest of his life, and makes it clear that it was equally important to both of them. Her championship of Lawrence brought her employment by the Glasgow Herald to an abrupt end, when she contrived that her (not uncritical) review of The Rainbow, already the object of hysterical condemnation, went straight into print without being seen by the editor. It was pulled from later editions of the paper.

Catherine was a staunch ally of Lawrence’s outspokenness on sexual matters, and in her own novels explored young women’s creative and sexual awakening in ways that challenged convention. Like Lawrence, and like many of her friends, Catherine was an outsider in the London literary environment, and alongside the discipline and commitment of her writing life there is a continual sense of insecurity – financial, professional and psychological. Yet, as Pilditch makes clear, she did not allow herself to deviate from her convictions. “Let us conspire together to be truly courageous,” she wrote to her friend Florence McNeill, and she was.

Her courage was tested when her controversial Life of Robert Burns came out in 1930, to a chorus of disapproval. Protectors of Burns’s reputation were outraged at her frank discussion of his sexual activities, and that a woman should have undertaken the task was just too much for some. “Poor Burns! Imagine his character and reputation in the hands of an irresponsible woman,” spluttered the reviewer in the Daily Record and Mail. She received in the post a rifle bullet, with the instruction to use it on herself, and “leave the world a better, brighter, cleaner place”. But there were others who praised her rescue of Burns from uncritical adulation, even if they felt that to an extent she had fictionalised her narrative of his life. And as a consequence of the book she received invitations to speak at Burns suppers, which she clearly relished.

In 1915 Catherine Jackson married Don-ald Carswell, whom she had met first when they were both students in Glasgow. The two of them struggled to live by their pens, taking on whatever work they could, much of it ill-paid, driven by fluctuating finances from rented accommodation to rented accommodation. At one point, to make a little extra money, Catherine was selling clothes from a market stall, and doing it rather well. This precarious pattern of life continued after Donald’s sudden death in 1940. They revisited Scotland often, and although Catherine never became an acknowledged part of Scot-land’s literary scene of the Twenties and Thirties, she was friendly with a number of Scottish writers, including Hugh MacDiarmid and John Buchan.

The mix of opportunism, boldness, adaptability and determination that characterised Catherine Carswell’s life echoes the experience of many creative individuals, but is intensified by issues of gender. Carswell was averse to compromise. The birth of her son John in 1918 inevitably changed the dimensions of her life, and although impatient of the demands of domesticity, she liked her homes to be both comfortable and efficiently run. Her letters often express frustration at the need to juggle work and home, friends and family. Interestingly, Naomi Mitchison, a generation younger and in a much more privileged and secure position, expressed exactly the same frustration in the same period. There are also echoes of the life of Victorian Margaret Oliphant, another Scot who survived by her pen in London, who acknowledged that the pressures as sole family breadwinner affected the quality of her work. She, like Carswell and Mitchison, had an incisive intelligence as well as acute powers of observation.

Catherine Carswell continued to write until her death in 1946 (wartime deprivation may have been a contributory factor in her last illness). Would she have written more fiction if she had been relieved, like her contemporary Virginia Woolf, of the need to put food on the table? Her two novels draw directly on her own experience as a young woman on the cusp of independence. At the end of The Camomile Ellen Carstairs turns her back on conventional life as a middle-class married woman and prepares to leave Glasgow to make her way in London. “Any wage-earning work I get must either be itself writing or something to do with writing which will at the same time allow me leisure and strength for working out my own ideas.” Thus must Carswell have articulated her own life-changing decision to leave Scotland. Ellen adds, “No one in London will live more economically or more laboriously than I.” But that is as far as Carswell’s fiction takes us. That economical and laborious life does not become part of the narrative.

Yet to speculate on the fiction Carswell might have written is not helpful. Her work as critic, biographer, editor and compiler, is richly expressive of a keen intelligence, an independent spirit, and a humane engagement with life. Certainly, her novels draw all these qualities together and we might have asked for more, but as Pilditch’s biography reveals, her legacy lies in much more than her fiction. The fabric of her literary life illustrates place and time, shifting relationships between writers, readers, publishers and critics, and the vulnerability of female creativity. If Pilditch’s biography is a little pedestrian at times (and oddities of spelling and syntax would have benefited from careful editing) it opens the door into a remarkable life and invites us in.


CATHERINE CARSWELL: A BIOGRAPHY
Jan Pilditch
John Donald, £20
pp225 ISBN 9780859766852

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