Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Camomile: An Invention by Catherine Carswell

I picked this up in an Oxfam bookshop in Suffolk because it was a Virago, and, as it turned out to be a diary novel, I bought it.  After studying the piano in Frankfurt, Ellen, a young woman of twenty, has returned to her family home in Edwardian Glasgow, where she is beginning a career as a music teacher.  She lives with her deeply religious Aunt Harry and her brother Ronald who is disabled in some unspecified way, although able to work as an architect,  and to envisage travel to America.  Her diary is actually a protracted letter to her friend Ruby who has also studied in Frankfurt and is now making a living as a teacher in London.  Ellen's mother, now dead, was also a writer of some sort, although the only reference to her output describes her work as 'pamphlets' and Ellen is very disparaging about her talents; her mother's writing is seen by the family as responsible for Ronald's disability, which came about because he was left in wet clothes by their mother while she was working.  Aunt Harry is very suspicious even of diary writing, and Ellen's desire for privacy in which to write and to practice the piano leads her to rent a secret room at a neighbour's house.

Ellen's diary is concerned with establishing her career, the emotional lives of her friends as they begin to marry, and her own desires for marriage and fears of becoming an old maid.  Her spinster exemplars are problematic: Aunt Harry's religious discipline and disapproval irritates Ellen, although she recognises that her aunt's love for her underpins this strictness; her former teacher, Miss Hepburn, moves from emotional eccentricity into madness, and is sent to the asylum.  Ellen eventually becomes engaged to the brother of a school friend. He is back, briefly, from India, but their courtship is not smooth; Ellen's desire is frustrated by the trappings and delays that an engagement at that time provides.  Alongside the narrative of her developing career and love affair runs the story of her friendship with an impoverished scholar: the man she calls Don John haunts the public library and helps inspire her to write more than the diary-letters she sends to Ruby.

Ellen is not really rebellious, but she still runs up against the constraints of acceptable behaviour all the time.  As well as chafing against the limitations placed on expression of her sexuality, she is forced to hide her writing from all but her confidants Ruby and Don John.  Social life in Glasgow can be limited, and offence easily caused; the influence of the church remains strong.  Ellen debates the rightness of her challenge to some of these conventions in her diary; should women write? should they marry? where should the boundaries of class be drawn? how awful would it be to be an old maid? Glasgow is always compared, usually unfavourably, to cosmopolitan Frankfurt, where the expression of sexuality and creativity was more possible, and conventions could be set aside in the pursuit of love and art.  Compared to her literary peers, however, Ellen has a degree of freedom; E M Delafield's young Edwardian women cannot travel about by themselves, make friends that their mothers do not know, or frequent the public library.  This freedom may derive from a difference in class, or the conventions of Scottish life at the time.

Ellen's voice is consistent and she is often humorous; her letters are written to entertain Ruby and to prolong the emotional intimacy of their friendship.  For most of the novel Catherine Carswell avoids the sort of explication which would disrupt the form by telling Ruby things she should already know; however, there are a couple of awkward places where Ellen announces she wishes to tell Ruby more about something previously mentioned in passing, so that back-story can be conveyed.  The ideals and conventions Ellen tests in life and in her diary seem to me to be authentic and very much of their time; this gives the text a slightly dated quality, like reading historical fiction.

Catherine Carswell wrote another novel, Open the Door! which seems worth seeking out, and a number of literary biographies, as well as working as a literary critic.  This role brought her a productive friendship with D H Lawrence, and his influence is detectable in Ellen's musings on female sexuality; Carswell was later to write his biography and completed most of her own autobiography, Lying Awake, published after her death in 1946.

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