Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Camomile – Catherine Carswell

I bought this book just over a year ago on a day out with the blond, only getting round to reading it now is actually pretty good going for me. I know I only picked this book up because I fell in love with the cover although Carswell’s name was already familiar from a previous occasion when I’d picked up ‘Open the Door’ because I liked the cover and because it was apparently a semi autobiographical account of Carswell’s own life set against the background of Glasgow School of Art. The back cover says it’s a roman à clef and based on the cover illustration ‘Ill Omen’ by Frances MacDonald (sister in law of Charles Rennie Mackintosh) I’m hopeful that the Glasgow four (Mackintosh, Margaret MacDonald – later Mackintosh – Frances, and Herbert MacNair who she married) will be in there somewhere. It’s the MacDonald sisters I really want to find some trace of; but all this is in a book to come so back to ‘The Camomile’.

Apparently D.H. Lawrence was a fan and also a great friend of Carswell’s, which almost put me off – a bad ‘A’ level experience has instilled in me a concentrated dislike of Lawrence, it’s not rational and it’s not going away but I managed to overcome my prejudice and read on. Despite that hoary old chestnut about not judging a book by its cover I couldn’t have done better any other way. Carswell’s fiction seems to be mostly either still in print, agreeably cheap second hand, or available for kindles etc so in theory she should be easy enough to discover, in reality it’s harder than it should be. I only picked this book up because of its green spine but I’ve yet to see another copy in any of my many trawls of charity shops and the like, amazon have never suggested her books to me, and my local Waterstone’s certainly isn’t stocking them. It’s a shame because this is a terrific book which deserves an audience.

It’s written in the form of letters and journals sent by Ellen Carstairs to her friend Ruby. Both girls have just returned from Germany where they have spent three years studying music, Ruby to her mother’s house in London and Ellen to her aunts flat in Glasgow. Everything we read comes from Ellen who’s struggling with the curtailment of her freedom. Aunt Harry is a hard line evangelical who takes exception to almost everything – there are scenes when Ellen takes part in a play, attends the theatre, reads Thomas Hardy, or spends too much (of the money that she’s earning herself) on cloths.

The first half of the book is Ellen working out what her life is to be, she has already realised long before that she’s a competent musician but no more – what she really wants to do is write but there are reasons, slowly revealed, why this is such a difficult path to tread. Never the less art and life have to be obeyed and Ellen gets herself a room to work in because:
“Don’t you agree that there must be something radically wrong with a civilisation, society, theory of life - call it what you like - in which a hard-working, serious young woman like myself cannot obtain, without enormous difficulty, expense, or infliction of pain on others, a quiet, clean, pleasant room in which she can work, dream her dreams, write out her thoughts, and keep her few treasures in peace?”

Of course the lack of a room of one’s own to work in is not the only enemy to art and Ellen badly wants to be married, or perhaps more specifically she wants love with all its bodily expressions – she decides at a friend’s wedding that “it is a disgrace for a woman never to lose her virginity. Not a disgrace because of what people say, but for her inmost self. I couldn’t bear not to get married!” And this is the second part of the book – before long a suitable man makes an appearance and pretty quickly the pair are engaged. The problem is that Duncan is a deeply conventional man who quite clearly intends to mould Ellen into the wife he wants instead of accepting the woman she is. He won’t forbid her to write but one way or another he’ll manage to make it increasingly impossible. The question is will Ellen realise this in time, and if she does what decision will she make? To leave Duncan will be to burn her bridges forever, accepting him will give her the physical experience she craves but at a remarkably high price.


  1. This sounds quite fascinating! I must read more Viragos. I agree that I would have been put off by the DHL reference too.

  2. This sounds wonderful. I've downloaded a copy already! I have a couple of other Carswells on the shelves (Open the Door! & Lying Awake, her autobiography) but haven't read either. But I need to read Saki first!

  3. Novel Insights - all it needed to really damn the book in my eyes was something along the lines of "Classic coming of age tale..." which it is, but that's another phrase that fills me with dread. Fortunatly it turned out to be much much better than the omans might have predicted, and absolutly lived up to the promise of the cover.

    Lyn, I think you'll enjoy it, and the Saki - look forward to your thoughts.

  4. I quite liked this and in fact was looking at my copy again only last night!

  5. Never heard of her or the novel but it sounds great. Thanks!