The Camomile by Catherine Carswell

(Middle Child has been so enthused by her reading of this wonderful book, republished as a Virago Modern Classic, that I invited her to share her thoughts again here. I read “The Camomile” myself pre-blog and loved it – Carswell is another writer deserving of our continuing recognition. Over to Middle Child!)

It is a common occurrence in my family to find yourself in some small, tucked away charity shop in a cold town in England, a pile of green-covered novels in one hand and a phone dialling your mother in the other. “Hi Mum, it’s me. I’m in a book shop and they’ve got some Viragos. Yes, I’ll read you the titles…” After a comical discussion about which ones she has, but which ones I ‘must read’, I dump a stack in front of the bored volunteer on the till, who gives me a vague look of confusion. Catherine Carswell’s The Camomile was a result of one such occasion, found in a Loros in Leicester. As exposed in my previous guest post, I am guilty of book-list-anxiety – switching off to the ever-growing MUST READ list and instead retreating to knitting. Therefore, it took me several months to get through the first eighty pages, but mere hours to dash full speed, heart-first through the rest.

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I won’t relay Carswell’s entire life story to you; we all know how to use Wikipedia now (thanks Mum). Instead, I just want to nod to the parts I find fitting. Catherine Carswell grew up in Glasgow and dabbled in art, literature and writing, enrolling for English Literature classes at the University of Glasgow. Although the best pupil, she was denied a degree because of her gender. Carswell made legal history in 1908 when she successfully filed for annulment from her husband Herbert Jackson, who was taken to a mental institution where he remained for the rest of his life. Carswell lived a full life, working as a critic for the Glasgow Herald (a job she subsequently lost after a favourable review of her close friend D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow), re-marrying and having a son, writing her two novels Open the Door! and The Camomile, and winning the Andrew Melrose Prize for the former novel. But now, for our protagonist (and have fun drawing the parallels).

Ellen Carstairs is a young woman in Glasgow in the early twentieth century, who lives with her ‘ridiculous and annoying’ Aunt Harry and her brother Ronald. The first section of the novel focusses on Ellen’s artistic exploits, including a long trip to Frankfurt to study music, and her experimental writing back in Glasgow. Ellen is constantly trying to escape convention, whether it is avoiding her evangelical Aunt’s mood swings or the private pupils that she teaches music to. She rents a ‘frowsty and poor’ room in order to evade her Aunt and write, including her journal-letters to her Frankfurt friend Ruby, now living in London. Aunt Harry practically passes out every time Ellen picks up a pen, Ronald thinks it is a ‘mistake for a woman’, and the women in her circles are all getting married, a predicament that Ellen perceives as like ‘a lamb going of its own free will to the slaughter’.

As the story advances, Ellen befriends a priest-turned-scholar, John Barnaby, who she nicknames Don John. He is several years her elder and mentors her writing ability, sending several of her stories to London publishers. Don John seems to be the only one that supports Ellen’s exploits, but is distracted by his own hunger for literature that veils the fact he is on the verge of starvation. Life brightens for Ellen when Ruby invites her to London for a visit filled with promise, but then there is the passing of a couple of months before we are reunited with our protagonist again (and with less than 100 pages left!).

And something awful has happened. Something terrible.

Ellen is engaged to be married.

At this point I found myself racing through the pages in a panicked frenzy, as the journal entries become shorter, less vivacious, and Ellen’s literary hopes and artistic dreams deteriorate into shopping trips, fancy dresses, and pearl necklaces. Her fiancée, doctor Duncan, is unbearable, not because he is a bully, womanizer, or unfaithful, but because he is the quintessential repressed man. When Ellen tries to discuss the deeper meaning of their relationship, or asks him why they have to keep to convention, he ‘simply laughs’ at her. He is caught between loving Ellen for her individuality, but wants her soul and being to be their ‘delicious secret’ and for her to tone herself down for others:

In India I must not speak of anything abstract or “superior,” or of “high-brow works of art,” unless I am content to be regarded as a bore and a blue-stocking.

In a heart-beat, I felt like I had switched from reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage to D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Suddenly, Duncan’s ‘shoulders blot out all the rest of the world’.

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I will not spoil the ending for you, but instead dwell on a theme that I felt very strongly shined out of the pages. Mental health is an undertone that ominously pervades the book. Suicide occurs before the book begins, and a peripheral character goes to the asylum. Small mentions of peculiar feelings in the initial chapters of the book gave me the impression that Ellen was experiencing depression. After Ellen becomes engaged it seems to worsen; she reflects on those unpredictable days when she awakes only to find the veil on the world has been lifted:

Will anyone ever be able to explain why on some days, though one may feel quite cheerful and even happy, one sees a world without any magic in its outlines and colours? With me, when such days have followed one another in a fairly long succession – say for a week on end – I begin to wonder if this may not be the true and normal vision of life?

She tries to explain to her friend Madge that she is ‘feeling very low’, but Madge does not really believe in ailments unless ‘the other person can show at least a broken bone’, so she ‘simply laughs and says “Never you mind!”’. To me, this seems very familiar to the attitudes of many today, and it is eerie that almost a century later, perceptions of mental health still feel very similar to Madge’s.

At the centre of these themes, Ellen is fierce, unconsciously radical, and organically relays her turbulent navigation of convention, love, and intellectual desire. Carswell is now considered an integral female Scottish writer of the early 20th century, thanks to the republication of her novels by Virago.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this with us, Middle Child. On a lighter note, MC has also rather cleverly tracked down a nail varnish that matches the Virago green of these early books and here it is:

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It’s from Models Own and the picture is courtesy of http://marinelovespolish.blogspot.fr/2014/12/mon-beau-sapin.html. So if you want Virago nails, this is the polish to go for! :)))

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