First published in 1930 to an unprecedented storm of protest, Catherine Carswell’s The Life of Robert Burns remains the standard work on its subject.
Carswell deliberately shakes the image of Burns as a romantic hero - exposing the sexual misdemeanours, drinking bouts and waywardness that other, more reverential, biographies choose to overlook.
Catherine Carswell’s real achievement is to bring alive the personality of a great man: passionate, hard-living, generous, melancholic, morbid and triumphant … the very archetype of the supreme creative artist.
“Catherine Carswell’s The Life of Robert Burns is still, apart from Burns’ own account, the best.”
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“It is not only an outlandishly good book, but one which raises questions about the nature of Scottish culture and cultural change.”
“This is a book which makes you feel better for having read it. I only wish a few contemporary biographers wrote as well as Catherine Carswell did.”
Catherine Carswell (1879-1946) was born in Glasgow, one of the four children of George and Mary Anne Macfarlane. On leaving school she attended courses in English Literature at Glasgow University but could not, in those days, be admitted for a degree. In 1904, after a brief engagement, she married Herbert Jackson. When in 1905, she told him of her pregnancy, he tried to kill her. Declared insane, he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. Catherine returned to Glasgow where her daughter was born, and worked, first in Glasgow and then in London as dramatic and literary critic for the Glasgow Herald. In 1907 she began legal proceedings for the anulment of her marriage. She won the case, making legal history.
Her friendship with D.H. Lawrence was kindled by her favourable review of The White Peacock (1911). They met in 1914 and their relationship lasted until Lawrence’s death in. In 1915 she married Donald Carswell, with whom she had one son. In the same year, she lost her job at the Glasgow Herald for praising The Rainbow. Soon after that the Carswells moved briefly from London to Bournemouth. in 1916 she and Lawrence exchanged manuscripts of Open the Door! and Women in Love. Her novel was completed in 1918 and won the Melrose Prize on publication in 1920. Her other novel, The Camomile, was published two years later, after which she devoted herself to The Life of Robert Burns, which made her name in 1930. This was quickly followed by a biography of Lawrence, The Savage Pilgrimage (1932).
After her husband’s death during the black-out in 1940, Catherine Carswell lived alone in London. She worked with John Buchan’s widow on his memorial anthology, The Clearing House (1946) and on her own autobiography, which was published, incomplete, as Lying Awake in 1950. Carswell died in Oxford at the age of 66.