Catherine Carswell

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Catherine Carswell
Born(1879-03-27)27 March 1879
Glasgow, Scotland
Died19 March 1946(1946-03-19) (aged 66)
Occupationauthor, biographer, journalist
Notable awardsMelrose Prize
1920 Open the Door!

Catherine Roxburgh Carswell (née Macfarlane; 27 March 1879 – 18 February 1946) was a Scottish author, biographer and journalist, now known as one of the few women who took part in the Scottish Renaissance. Her biography of Scotland's literary hero Robert Burns aroused controversy, but two earlier novels of hers, set in Edwardian Glasgow, were little noticed until their republication by feminist publishing house Virago in 1987. Her work is now seen as integral to Scottish women's writing of the early 20th century.

Early life[edit]

Catherine Fitzgerald was born in Glasgow, the second of four children of George and Mary Anne Macfarlane, God-fearing middle-class Free Church Glaswegians. She attended the New Park School for Girls in Glasgow. Catherine grew up in Garnethill, where Glasgow School of Art is situated. She attended evening classes at the art school, where the director of the life class from 1906 was the painter Maurice Grieffenhagen, with whom she subsequently had an affair.[1] In 1901 she enrolled for English literature classes at the University of Glasgow. Among her professors were Walter Raleigh and Adolphus A. Jack. Although considered a star pupil she could not, as a woman, be awarded a degree. She then spent two years of musical studies at the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory, a period she drew upon when writing The Camomile. She returned to Glasgow intent on a future in the arts.

First marriage[edit]

In September 1904, Catherine Fitzgerald met her first husband, Herbert Jackson, a Second Boer War veteran and artist who was suffering from paranoid delusions. She married him after a "whirlwind courtship" only a month later. Thinking that he was sterile, he accused Carswell of betraying him when he heard the news of her pregnancy and threatened to kill her in March 1905. He was taken to a mental institution, where he remained for the rest of his life, being considered too dangerous to be released. He never met his daughter, Diana, who was born the following October and died in 1913.[1]

In 1908 Catherine made legal history when her marriage with Herbert Jackson was dissolved after she had established that his mental illness had started prior to their engagement and that he was not aware of what he was doing when he married her.

Critic and writer[edit]

Working as a critic for the Glasgow Herald she entered into a lengthy affair with the artist Maurice Greiffenhagen who then was at the heights of his fame and went on to be an academician, her elder by seventeen years. He was married and with a family. It was also around this time that she began to establish her numerous literary connections and later became a close friend of D. H. Lawrence.

Her daughter Diana died of pneumonia in 1913 two years after they had moved to London. Around that time she started working on her first novel Open the Door! and became engaged to Donald Carswell, an old acquaintance from Glasgow University and the Glasgow Herald, whom she married early in 1915. Their son John was born in the following autumn.

The same year she lost her job after a favourable review of Lawrence's The Rainbow, but continued in journalism as assistant drama critic for the Observer. During the autumn of 1916 she had nearly finished the work on her novel and she exchanged lengthy letters about it with Lawrence, who in return asked her for advice with his newest novel, Women in Love.

Carswell's first novel Open the Door! was finally published in 1920 and won her the 250-guinea (£262.10s) Andrew Melrose Prize. Although by no means autobiographical, the story of a Glaswegian girl called Joanna, resembles in many ways her own life in search of independence. Melrose, who selected the book personally, recorded the "profound impression" it made on him.[2]

Only two years later she published her second and last novel, The Camomile, another portrait of a woman living in the Second City of the Empire at the turn of the century.


Neither of her first two books had brought her fame or fortune. She only became well known after finishing a controversial biography of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns in 1930. Orthodox Burns fans dismissed this frank, demystifying account of the poet's life. The Burns Club attacked her with sermons in Glasgow Cathedral and someone sent her a bullet accompanied by a letter asking her to "make the world a cleaner place."

After the death of D. H. Lawrence, Carswell immediately started working on his biography, which was published in 1932 as The Savage Pilgrimage. This was regarded as libellous by John Middleton Murry, who tried to suppress the book and insisted on changes and deletions. The original text was republished in 1981 by Cambridge University Press.

Later life[edit]

In the 1930s there followed three anthologies, journalistic reviews and a third biography, The Tranquil Heart, about the Italian Renaissance author and poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1937).

In 1936 came a publication dedicated to Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan), written in collaboration with her husband Donald and illustrator Evelyn Dunbar (later commissioned as one of the few female official British WW2 artists): The Scots Week-End and Caledonian Vade-Mecum for Host, Guest and Wayfarer (George Routledge & Sons Ltd).

In 1940 her husband Donald was killed in a street accident during the Blackout. She continued to live alone in London, where she worked on a two-volume biography of John Buchan together with his widow, Lady Tweedsmuir. Volume 1, The Clearing House, was published in 1946, and Volume 2, John Buchan by His Wife and Friends, in 1947.

Catherine Carswell died of pleurisy following pneumonia on 18 February 1946, aged 66, at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.[3] Her son John edited her fragmentary autobiographical texts, and published them in 1950 under the title Lying Awake: An Unfinished Autobiography.


  • Giffuni, Cathe; Pilditch, Jan; Anderson, Carol. Opening the Doors: The Achievement of Catherine Carswell. Anderson, Carol, ed. Edinburgh: Ramsey Head Press, 2001
  • Selected Letters of Catherine Carswell. Edited and Introduced by Jan Pilditch. Kennedy & Boyd, Edinburgh, 2016
  • Catherine Carswell's War: Letters 1939-1946. Selected and Introduced by Jan Pilditch. Kennedy & Boyd, Edinburgh, 2016


  • Open the Door! 1920
  • The Camomile 1922


  • The Life of Robert Burns 1930 (re-issued by Canongate)
  • The Savage Pilgrimage 1932 (A life of D.H. Lawrence)
  • The Tranquil Heart 1937 (a biography of 14th Century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio)


  • Lying Awake 1950 (An unfinished autobiography that includes some of her correspondence with an introduction by her son John Carswell)


  1. ^ a b Scottish Women's Fiction: 1920s to 1960s: Journeys into Being edited by Carol Anderson and Aileen Christianson. ISBN 1862320829
  2. ^ James T. Boulton (ed), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Part 2, Cambridge University Press, p525. ISBN 978-0-521-01305-5
  3. ^ "Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginning to the Present". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 20 September 2011.

Further reading[edit]

  • Opening the Doors: The Achievement of Catherine Carswell. Anderson, Carol, ed. Edinburgh: Ramsay Head Press, 2001.
  • Catherine Carswell, A Biography. Pilditch, Jan. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007.

External links[edit]