Archive for the ‘Catherine Carswell’ Category

The Camomile by Catherine Carswell ~ 1922. This edition: Virago, 1987. Introduction by Ianthe Carswell. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-873-9. 305 pages.

I had already told him about my being an orphan, about my music teaching, and about my writing and Mother’s. Of my writing he said, ‘I see. It is like the camomile – the more it is trodden on the faster it grows.’

This rewarding short novel is written in epistolary form, being made up of two long letters, fore and aft, and journal entries made to be shared with a distant friend.

It starts out as the amusing and somewhat self-absorbed account of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, of finding her place in the world, and goes on to discuss some of the larger questions which are still pertinent to young people today: Who am I, really? Why am I here? Do I change to meet the desires of others, or stay true to myself?

Our young correspondent is Ellen Carstairs, just back in Glasgow after spending two years studying music in Frankfurt, writing to her London friend Ruby, whom she had met in her first days at the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music.

Ellen has found Ruby to be a kindred soul, for both soon realize that music is not their true m├ętier, though they have some adequate talents in that area to perhaps serve as teachers of novices. They nevertheless do their best to take in their lessons and improve their musical craft, all the while yearning for a truly satisfying occupation, an “art” which will be their one true life’s pursuit, one which they are suited for and which they will excel at.

After their two years of relative freedom in Europe, the friends return home, and get on with the business of earning their livings while at the same time opening themselves up to finding and developing their true callings. For Ruby the true art – the one which chooses the artist – is that of illustration – drawing and painting. And for Ellen, it is writing. Which is a problem, at least as far as her family and friends are concerned.

For Ellen’s mother was a writer. Not a successful one – far from it! She appears to have been (from the clues we are given) a woman obsessed by the need to write without necessarily having enough mastery of the craft to make her scribblings saleable. She has pursued her interest to the exclusion of all else, spending the housekeeping money on self-publishing of pamphlets of sub-par poetry and the like.

This mother inadvertently neglects her two children, to the extent that her young son Ronald is permanently crippled through her heedless actions. Interestingly enough, when she dies when the children are still young, they and their father sincerely mourn her, harking back at her better qualities, and forgiving her (for the most part) her obsession.

Ellen’s missionary father has been absent for much of her childhood and he too is now dead, leaving Ellen and Ronald in the care of his sister Harriet, an Evangelical Presbyterian of unwavering faith. Neither Ellen nor Ronald share the narrow religious beliefs of their father and aunt, but they go along with Aunt Harriet’s wishes in church attendance and such, not wanting to hurt her feelings, for they love her deeply despite their increasing differences.

On her return from Germany, Ellen begins to teach music at her old school and to private students; she earns enough to be able to rent a room and a piano in a neighbour’s house, ostensibly so she can practice undisturbed and undisturbing. Soon she finds that she is using her retreat for writing more than for piano playing; her true art has chosen her and she gives in with secret relief, though she is wary of admitting it to her brother and aunt, and questions herself on the ethical implications of misleading them as to what she is doing.

Ellen fortuitously finds a mentor in an ex-priest, John Barnaby, a brilliant intellectual engaged in quietly, slowly killing himself by drink and near-starvation. John reads Ellen’s manuscripts and encourages her to seek publication, using his past connections in the literary world to push forward her novice submissions.

Just when things seem set for Ellen to commit fully to becoming a professional writer, she falls in love with Duncan, a friend’s brother who is a young doctor on leave from his practice in India. The two become engaged, but though Duncan gives lip service to his wish for Ellen to not give up her own interests, it becomes increasingly obvious that he is oblivious to the importance of her craft to her very identity.

Added to this building dilemma is the fundamental difference in Ellen’s and Duncan’s views towards sex. Ellen believes that people seriously considering marriage should engage in the ultimate intimacy, in order to make sure that they are compatible for a lifetime of marital companionship. Duncan is shocked by this notion, and condescendingly tells Ellen that she is merely a foolish virgin with outlandish ideas; much better to let Duncan guide her in her sexual initiation once they are safely married.

Can you see where this might be going?

Yes, indeed, second thoughts are in order all round…

No surprise that this novel was chosen by feminist press Virago for republication in the 1980s, for it is all about female self-determination in the face of almost universal societal disapproval.

Ellen documents her personal journey with passion and lucidity and not a little humour. This is not in any way a dreary saga of crushed and downtrodden womanhood. No indeed! For like the camomile referenced in the title, the heavy-footed treading here merely makes the flower find another place and way to thrive.

More on Catherine Carswell here.

The Camomile scores a good strong 8/10 from me.

Carswell’s one other novel, Open the Door! (1920) is now firmly on my wish list, as is her partial autobiography Lying Awake.

 

 

 

 

 

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