Catherine Carswell (1879-1946): Correspondent of D.H. Lawrence, Biographer of Robert Burns and Epistolary Novelist
Author(s): Margery Palmer McCulloch
Copyright holder(s): Margery Palmer McCulloch
“I am very glad to hear of the novel. I firmly believe in it. I think you are the only woman I have met, who is so intrinsically detached, so essentially separated and isolated, as to be a real writer or artist or recorder. Your relations with other people are only excursions from yourself. [. . . ] You were never made to ‘meet and mingle’, but to remain intact, essentially, whatever your experiences may be. Therefore I believe your book will be a real book, and a woman’s book: one of the very few.” (1)
This assessment, towards the beginning of what was to be a friendship, conducted largely through letters, which lasted until Lawrence’s death fourteen years later, is one which greatly differs from Carswell’s own contemporaneous and restrospective view of her situation and from the divided self which emerges from her letters, autobiographical novels and fragmentary autobiography. Writing about her grandmother in her autobiography, she says:
“I have inherited in large measure her weakness and a cast of feature which conveys a false impression of austerity and strength. [...] ‘Yes’, we say to each other, ‘I see through you. I see the timid, indeterminate, puzzled soul behind that firm front. In forgiving you, I must needs forgive myself.” (2)
Carswell is unsparing with herself here. She achieved much, but it was never a straightforward achievement; and her struggle was related not only to the practical difficulties of being a woman in a patriarchal society, but also to the psychological tension between her admiration of successful male writers and the male traditions in which she had been educated, and her intuitive rejection and subversion of these traditions in favour of a female expression more true to her own experience. Her letter-writing to her female friends and her conversations with herself in her unfinished autobiography are important primary sources for her intuitive recognition of female difference. On the other hand, her letters to the American Professor J. De Lancey Ferguson on the subject of Burns show her attempting to validate her intrusion into the traditional male-dominated world of scholarly activity.
Carswell’s life-story is itself a challenge to the patriarchal mores of her time. She was born Catherine Roxburgh Macfarlane in Glasgow in 1879, one of four children of deeply religious parents who adhered to the Free Church of Scotland and lived modestly despite their middle class status. As a young woman, Catherine studied music at the Frankfurt Conservatoire and on her return she took classes in English Literature at the University of Glasgow under Professor Sir Walter Raleigh. Invited to spend a summer holiday with the Raleighs who had moved to Oxford in 1904, she fell in love with Mrs Raleigh’s brother and at the age of twenty-four made a hasty marriage which led to disaster when her mentally unstable husband attempted to kill her on discovering she was pregnant. He was committed to an asylum and Catherine returned to her family in Glasgow where, against the wishes of the Raleighs, who opposed her in court, she fought to have her marriage annulled. She won her case which made legal history. (3) Some time later, she entered into a passionate sexual relationship with the painter Maurice Greiffenhagen, who had come to Glasgow School of Art as Head of the Life Class in 1906. Greiffenhagen, however, was already married, and unwilling to divorce. Eventually, after the death of her young daughter Diana in London in 1913, soon after she had settled there permanently, the relationship with Greiffenhagen was broken and early in 1915 Catherine married Donald Carswell, a friend from her Glasgow years who was now with the Times in London.
There are few Carswell letters from this difficult period extant. However, Lawrence’s comments in his early correspondence with her, the pleasure he communicates at her decision to marry Donald Carswell and his continual nagging over the need for her to move to the completion of her autobiographical novel “Open the Door!” provide some sense of the troubles and uncertainty she experienced. Although Carswell’s part of this correspondence has unfortunately not survived, if we read between the lines of Lawrence’s letters to her and consider the evidence of “The Savage Pilgrimage”, her memoir of him, we can see that she found in Lawrence someone in whom she could confide and receive understanding, as in this description of their first meeting:
“Nothing memorable was said over tea. But afterwards, when we all walked down to the Finchley Road together to see the Lawrences into their bus, he and I walked in front; and as we passed the churchyard where my child was buried and I had paid for a grave for myself, I found that I was talking to him as if I had known him all my life.”
She adds later in the memoir:
“From beginning to end I had for Lawrence, as he well knew, a special kind of love and admiration which I never had for any other human being. It was impossible not to pay him the profoundest tribute and at the same time not to rejoice in his companionship in ordinary ways.” (4)
She continues, however, that, despite this love and admiration, she ‘felt also the need to save myself’ and refers to how although she ‘saw a good deal of Lawrence when he was in Hampstead [...] there was a thin veil between us [...] of my making’. (5) It may be that the strength and length of their friendship was in large measure due to the distancing effected by its epistolary nature, which helped them avoid the explosive contacts which so often brought to an end relationships with the Lawrences.
Catherine had supported herself and her daughter as a journalist since 1905, reviewing fiction for the Glasgow Herald and later writing drama criticism for the Observer as assistant to St John Ervine. It was as a Glasgow Herald reviewer that she first came upon Lawrence’s fiction, and her daring in slipping a review of “The Rainbow” - shortly to be banned as an obscene publication - into the paper without first consulting the editor resulted in the loss of her job. During her marriage to Donald Carswell, she was the main and sometimes the only breadwinner since, having left journalism for the Bar, her husband was not successful in attracting briefs, although he made a modest reputation as a writer of books and articles on Scottish topics. Catherine, meanwhile, in addition to money-earning journalism, looking after their young son and attempting to maintain some kind of career as a serious writer, still performed the accepted female task of typing her husband’s manuscripts; and it was to Catherine that Lawrence also turned in 1928 to find a typist for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, when the woman he had himself commissioned found it ‘too indecent’ (6) to continue. Catherine was one of four women who completed the typing and instead of gratitude, this task would appear to have provoked one of only two acrimonious exchanges in their correspondence, Lawrence having complained about the slowness of the job. At this point, the increasingly successful Lawrence would appear to have forgotten his earlier assessment of Catherine’s potential and ignored the fact that in order to arrange and participate in the typing of his manuscript, she was herself obliged to put her own work on her “Life of Robert Burns” on hold. Despite her literary ambitions, she, like many women of the past and, I suspect, of the present also, found it difficult to refuse an importunate male request for help: ‘I am bad at refusing it without giving painful offence’, she says in her autobiography. (7)
Carswell’s two novels - “Open the Door!”, which won the Melrose prize for fiction in 1920, and “The Camomile” of 1922, written in epistolary and journal form (8) - are autobiographical works in which the actions of the principal female protagonists challenge conventional social mores. In “Open the Door!”, the challenge is primarily a sexual one, and Joanna’s flight from provincial Presbyterian Glasgow is on the whole a search for sexual identity and fulfilment, while her love affair with the English painter Pender parallels her author’s actual love affair with Maurice Greiffenhagen. This book, with its lively dialogue and imagistic prose, offers an insider’s account of middle-class Glasgow at the turn of the century (something of a rarity in Scottish fiction), its streets and parks and social life evoked as vitally as Clarissa’s Dalloway’s Westminster in Woolf’s roughly contemporaneous novel. Yet while women’s lives are at the centre of the narrative, one would hesitate to cite it as a consciously feminist or proto-feminist text. Joanna’s search for sexual freedom is as much a rejection of Scottish religious teaching as it is a challenge to gender rules, while opportunities to develop issues raised by several interesting female character sketches, such as that of Joanna’s mother Juley, are not taken up. All is subordinated to Joanna’s love story. Interesting as the book is, it can be seen as more truly following the traditional male Bildungsroman pattern than as adapting or subverting this genre for female purposes. For after her apparent rejection of the values of her provincial upbringing and her departure from Glasgow to seek experience in the wider world, Joanna in the end brings her extra-marital sexual relationship to an end and returns to Scotland and marriage with the faithful friend (interestingly named ‘Lawrence’) who has long loved her: a conclusion which follows the pattern of Carswell’s own life with regard to marriage (although not to Scotland), but one which many readers, including D.H. Lawrence, have found to be false to the process of the fictional narrative. Lawrence wrote to her in October 1917: ‘I have just finished the novel. Yes, I think it is very good. The part rewritten is very much improved’. Then he added: ‘Of course the one character you have not really drawn - not conceived even - is Lawrence Urquhart. You haven’t got it in. it wasn’t to be got in, in this book. [...] Lawrence, in this end, is ex machina’. (9) Lawrence’s sensitivity to the autobiographical nature of the book and its ending is shown by his further comment that its problem is ‘what Urquhart really means to Joanna. But that is a dark problem, not to be written about now. We will talk some things when we meet’. (10) One senses, with him, that the writing of this novel was for its author, in part at least, an exercise in self-understanding and self-justification, and that the deeply felt personal need to make sense of her actions and validate them to herself was a powerful impulse behind the characterization of Joanna and the structuring of her story. As Lawrence wrote: ‘It will be really something overcome, a phase surpassed in you, when the book is finished’. (11)
Lawrence had not spared Carswell’s feelings in his early criticisms of “Open the Door!”. ‘You have very often a simply beastly style’, he wrote, ‘indirect and roundabout and stiff-kneed and stupid. And your stuff is abominably muddled - you’ll simply have to write it all again’; then he added, characteristically: ‘But it is fascinatingly interesting. Nearly all of it is marvellously good’. (12) Similarly, Carswell herself could wield a sharp pen, especially when writing privately to female acquaintances, although she tended to be more diffident towards successful male figures in the public world. She wrote few formal critical essays and few literary reviews of a substantial nature. Her letters to her women friends are therefore important for the insight they give into her thoughts about art and life. Such letter-writing would appear also to have been a freeing experience. She writes as if she were talking to her correspondents and this personalised, conversational style is found also in her epistolary fiction and biographical work.
Carswell exhibited Lawrence’s severity - although not his simultaneous capacity to point to the positives - when she criticized her friend Florence McNeill’s attempts at fiction writing in a letter of 1928:
“I’m sure your trouble is (and it sticks out in your letter and in your phraseology and in your habits of thought) that you are too much given over to ideas which have not sprung straight from your own experience but have been imported from without by reading, etc. and always through the intellect first. [...] To intellectualise is the temptation and the disaster.”
A few days later she wrote again:
“I can see we have a different notion of what I mean by ‘intellectualising’. The essentially intellectual being does not ‘intellectualise’, as it is natural and therefore right for him (if he exists!) to deal with life through the intellect. But for a woman or any being whose nature it is to live through the emotions, clarity of mind can only be got by taking the natural order. And I do think many of us thinking and educated women of this age - go against our natures by striving to force ourselves to deal first through the intellect, living too much with ideas and not sufficiently trusting to the truths that would come to us through the deeper sensual and emotional channels. So we get confused, uncreative and ‘pathological’.”
And she adds:
“To think for me is entirely different from to ‘intellectualise’. One can and should think with all one’s being - thought to be real must be linked up with the stream of the blood.” (13)
This epistolary lecture could well have come from Lawrence’s “Women in Love” and its many debates about the differing nature of female and male experience. It relates also to the ideas proposed in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and her essay ‘Women and Fiction’, although it predates both of these 1929 publications; while it looks forward to feminist theories about écriture feminine and ‘writing the body’ later in the century. From her letter-writing to female correspondents, therefore, and from the implicit evidence provided by her book-length compositions, creative and biographical, it would appear that Carswell recognized an essential difference in the way that men and women operate in life and in art. Yet it is not easy to escape the suspicion that, intellectually, she believed the male way was the superior way. She writes in her unfinished autobiography:
“Women writing anything have never set up as rivals to men writers. They, like men, have written because they wanted to find expression in words. Their contribution, as it happens, has not been negligible. But even such original writers as Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti and others, whose work could not have been done except by women, never made any claims that I know of to exceeding, or even to equal excellence, with men writers. Virginia Woolf is a possible exception, but there have been men writers also of overweening vanity’.” (14)
As can be seen in the above quotation, Carswell’s fragmented autobiography frequently communicates a sense of its author having a conversation with herself. Such immediacy is found also in her second novel, “The Camomile”, with its epistolary and journal form. As in “Open the Door!”, she draws to a significant extent on autobiographical experience and her heroine Ellen goes to Frankfurt to study music at the Conservatoire before turning to literature, as she had done herself. On the other hand, there is a significant difference in the use of autobiographical material in this second book. In her later letters of advice to Florence McNeill, Carswell was to insist that ‘in an autobiographical novel [...] 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’. (15 ) This is something that she herself did not completely attain in “Open the Door!”. In “The Camomile”, however, the necessary distancing has taken place and this frees the narrative to pursue more objectively a critique of the disabling forces in women’s lives, sometimes imposed externally and sometimes coming from women themselves. Although “The Camomile” was not as successful with the public as its predecessor, Lawrence called it ‘better made’ (16), and it is certainly a more coherent text of female emancipation. Its prose also has the swift intelligence of Carswell’s letters to her female friends and as in her actual letters she creates a world of activity and speculation for her readers.
In this second novel, the sexual theme appears more as the necessity for freedom from hypocrisy in sexual relations and in marriage, together with an emphasis on an equal partnership between men and women in sexual matters. Even more important, however, is Ellen’s struggle for the freedom to be a writer; and it is her fiancé’s inability to understand that creativity for a woman need not be limited to the production of children that brings an end to their engagement, so that instead of embarking on marriage, Ellen takes the train to London where she and her correspondent Ruby will try to make their way as writers. If, therefore, “Open the Door!” can be read as a justification of the actual road Carswell’s life had taken in her young adulthood, this second, epistolary novel might well be seen as the exploration of an alternative self, whose potential creativity would be allowed to take first place in her life, instead of being stifled by the demands of male/female relationships, outwith and within marriage.
The conflict between Ellen and her fiancé, a doctor in the Indian colonial service, also provides an ironic cameo of Anglo-Indian colonial life, which predates E.M. Forster’s more extensive critique in “A Passage to India” (1924). Ellen writes to her friend Ruby that in her new life in India:
“I must not speak of anything abstract or ‘superior’ or of ‘high-brow works of art,’ unless I am content to be regarded as a bore and blue-stocking. I am to keep all my real thoughts for him, and to ‘let others be dazzled by the small change of my wit’. He says life will be all the more thrilling this way. For it will be our delicious secret that he has married ‘such a serious little woman’. (17)
Even more daunting, however, is Duncan’s attitude to her writing ambitions:
“ ‘Life,’ he said, ‘is a bigger affair than books, and life is pre-eminently your business. Wait till your hands are full of life, and I doubt if you will have the time or the wish to add to the mass of feminine writings already in the world’. [...] When I asked - didn’t it seem unfair that men-writers could write, and yet not be stinted of life? - he agreed that perhaps it was unfair, but that things were like that, and had to be faced.”
“I feel that he is right, and yet that somewhere there is an untruth in his argument. It is true that if I had to choose between writing and life I should choose life. But then I couldn’t do otherwise, for without living myself I know I couldn’t write: I am not imaginative enough. And is any one? Besides, I feel that even if I had ten children D. would still want me to play tennis and ride with him. And how are tennis, dancing, riding more ‘life’ than writing?” (18)
As in Carswell’s own letters to her female friends, Ellen’s fictional correspondence with Ruby opens up the question of the nature and role of women in society, and especially the role of women who feel drawn towards a creative vocation. For Duncan is not the only one to be suspicious of female writers. Ellen’s whole upbringing should have conditioned her against such a calling, since her dead mother’s mental illness has been attributed to her unsuccessful attempts to be a writer; and several years before the publication of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, Carswell’s Ellen secretly rents a small room where she can pursue her hesitant attempts at writing unobserved - a practice which her author also developed: ‘It’s so wonderful knowing that one can’t be called upon’, Carswell wrote to a friend about her rented room in Hampstead’s Keats Grove. (19) The characterization of women who attempt to write as madwomen and freaks has been a consistent finding in feminist researches, and even Lawrence, despite his encouragement of her fiction, wrote to Carswell about some poems she had sent him: ‘there is something tragic and displeasing about a woman who writes’; adding, ‘but I suppose Sapho is as inevitable and as right as Shelley’. (20) With such active disparagement and discouragement, it testifies to the strength of the artistic vocation felt by women in the early years of the century that so many of them did succeed in publishing so many outstanding works.
Although from time to time Carswell mentions in her letters plans for a third novel, this was never written. Her next two books were biographies of male writers whom she admired: a “Life” of the Scottish poet Robert Burns and the memoir of Lawrence she wrote in order to refute Middleton Murray’s “Son of Woman”. (21) Apart from her fragmentary, unfinished autobiography, where the opening tantalisingly offers much potential as a novel depicting female old age, all her remaining books were also concerned with male lives. She never wrote at length about women writers or about the possibility of a female tradition and there is nothing in her identified reviews which gives encouragement to women of her own time. In her review of Willa Muir’s “Mrs Grundy” in Scotland in 1936, she comments: ‘Mrs Muir rumbles on’ and criticizes her use of ‘slang expressions which carry neither rapier point nor bludgeon weight’. (22) Of Rebecca West she wrote to Florence McNeill: ‘too much brass there & too little precious metal’; while she described Esther Andrews, an American artist acquaintance of the Lawrences as ‘frankly journalistic’ in her talent. Conversely, Frieda Lawrence wrote consolingly to Esther about Catherine: ‘Mrs Carswell got on your nerves - There is a certain scotch [sic] impudence about her at times, very trying’. (23) Despite her active membership of a small group of letter-writing female friends - something which might suggest that she found this female contact necessary and supportive, and which, as we have seen, appeared to allow her to express more freely her sense of her female nature and its difference from the male literary world she so much admired - Carswell does not appear as an advocate of sisterly solidarity in her professional life or in relation to her fictional characters’ lives.
Letters are also an important tool in the evaluation of Carswell’s biographical writing and the interesting conflict it demonstrates between her admiration of male traditions and her intuitive following of her own female perspectives. In her extensive correspondence with the American editor of Burns’s letters, Professor De Lancey Ferguson, she is at pains to demonstrate to this professional male scholar how seriously she took her work as biographer and with what care - despite her awareness of her lack of training - she pieced together her interpretation of Burns’s life. Yet, whether consciously or intuitively, her book subverts the traditional biographical genre developed by male writers, giving instead a representation of the poet and his times in a subjective and novelistic form. Although it has now been surpassed in terms of scholarly research, Carswell’s “Life of Robert Burns”, like her memoir of Lawrence, has stood the test of time. In its Edinburgh sections in particular, her use of an indirect free style more often associated with the novel enables the reader to enter into Burns’s thoughts and feelings as he attempts to come to terms with a cultural elite who preferred to keep him as the exotic ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ than help him find some occupation which would be more in keeping with his work as a conscious artist. It was, however, her portrait of Burns and the women he associated with as sexual beings that aroused the outrage of the Burns Clubs and the female readers of excerpts from the book, serialized in the Daily Record in late September 1930. ‘Such Trash!’, ‘Womanhood Degraded’, ‘Piece of Fiction’ were the headlines in the correspondence pages of the paper. (24) In a letter to S.S. Koteliansky, she wrote:
“This morning (through the newspaper where it was serialised) I had an anonymous letter containing a bullet, which I was requested to use upon myself that the world might be left ‘a brighter cleaner and better place’. So evidently the fun has started. Oh Scotland, oh my country!” (25)
One senses here an anticipatory enjoyment of the coming battle with the Burns Clubs, where she would be the metropolitan woman of letters attacking Scottish provincial mores: a mood very different from the tentative, self-effacing letters she also wrote to Koteliansky, obliquely signalling her interest in writing a preface about D.H. Lawrence to any collection of his letters. In the latter situation, she was clearly the inferior female supplicant.
As this brief introduction to Catherine Carswell has attempted to suggest, her identity as artist and woman can be elusive, often contradictory. Yet it is this tension between her recognition of her female self and her contrary wish to meet the demands of a literary world developed primarily by men which gives her work its continuing freshness. In particular, it is in her letters and the related forms of her epistolary fiction and conversational autobiography that she speaks to us most freely about these tensions, as if these personalised writing forms released thoughts held in check in the more public literary world. We women recognize what she means when she speaks in her autobiography of ‘the irritability of diffidence’ and of being pulled in various directions simultaneously; or when she says: ‘I am good at concentrating on the thing I am not doing’. (26) Like hers, our door is not yet fully open.
1. D.H. Lawrence to Catherine Carswell 16 April 1916, “The Letters of D.H. Lawrence”, eight volumes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979-2000), general ed. James T. Boulton, II, 594-95. Further references to D.H. Lawrence’s letters are to this Cambridge edition.
2. Catherine Carswell, “Lying Awake: An Unfinished Autobiography and Other Posthumous Papers”, ed with an introd. by John Carswell (1950) (Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1997), 98-9.
3. Biographical information about Catherine Carswell can be found in her son’s introduction to “Lying Awake”, ix-xxiv; and in ‘Remembering Catherine Carswell’, his contribution to “Opening the Doors: The Achievement of Catherine Carswell”, ed by Carol Anderson (Edinburgh: Ramsay Head Press, 2001), 17-35.
4. Catherine Carswell, “The Savage Pilgrimage: A Narrative of D.H. Lawrence” (1932) reprint. (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp.16, 37.
5. Ibid, p.37.
6. Letter of 10 January 1928, “Letters of D.H. Lawrence” VI, 260-1. Lawrence wrote of his timid typist Nelly Morrison: ‘Dirty bitch!’.
7. “Lying Awake”, p.89.
8. “Open the Door!” (1920) (Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1997); “The Camomile” (1922) (London: Virago, 1987). The latter is unfortunately once again out of print.
9. Letter of 27 October 1917, “Letters of D.H. Lawrence” III, 173.
11. Letter of 11 May 1917, “Letters of D.H. Lawrence” III, 125.
12. Letter of [29 June 1914], “Letters of D.H. Lawrence” II, 187-88.
13. Letters from Carswell to F. Marion McNeill, 24 April 1928 and 30 April 1928, “Lying Awake”, 198-99, 200.
14. “Lying Awake”, 123-34.
15. Ibid, letter of 27 January 1926, 195.
16. Letter of 22 June 1922, “Letters of D.H. Lawrence” IV, 270.
17. “The Camomile”, 236.
18. Ibid, 250-1.
19. Letter to F. Marion McNeill, 16 October 1929, “Lying Awake”, 206.
20. Letter of 31 December 1915, “Letters of D.H. Lawrence” II, 492.
21. “The Life of Robert Burns” (1930) (Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1990); “The Savage Pilgrimage” (1932) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres, 1981).
22. ‘The Grundy Women’, Spectator, 22 May 1936, 946.
23. Carswell to F. Marion McNeill, Sunday [1930?], NLS, MS 26195; “The Savage Pilgrimage”, 58; Frieda Lawrence to Esther Andrews [9 February 1917], “Letters of D.H. Lawrence” VIII (Previously Uncollected Letters), 20. It should be emphasized, however, that despite her outspokenness, Carswell did maintain a strong personal friendship with most of her regular correspondents, especially with Florence McNeill.
24. See Daily Record 26-9 September 1930 and Margery Palmer McCulloch, ‘“Bad sort but - lovable”: Catherine Carswell’s “The Life of Robert Burns”, “The Bibliotheck”, 22 (1997), 72-8. Carswell’s letters to Professor De Lancey Ferguson (but unfortunately not his replies) are in the Carswell manuscript collection in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.
25. Letter to S.S. Koteliansky, 23 September , British Library, Add. MS 48975, No.174. Other letters from Carswell to Koteliansky are also in this collection.
26. “Lying Awake”, xix, 126 and generally 121-30 and 173-84.
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Catherine Carswell (1879-1946): Correspondent of D.H. Lawrence, Biographer of Robert Burns and Epistolary Novelist. 2022. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved August 2022, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1434.
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