If you are familiar with the writer Catherine Carswell there is a good chance it is for her work as the biographer of D.H. Lawrence, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, and most famously, and for some controversially, of Robert Burns. Her 1930 book The Life of Robert Burns prompted protests and death threats, including a bullet in the post, with many Burns’ fundamentalists accusing her of damaging the poet’s reputation.
Aside from her non-fiction Carswell also wrote two excellent novels, Open The Door and The Camomile, both of which were largely overlooked at their time of publication but are now seen as important texts from the Scottish Renaissance of the early-20th century. Also a renowned journalist and critic, (for the Glasgow Herald and later the Observer), hers was one of the very few women’s voices which were part of the cultural conversation of the time. Catherine Carswell’s was an extraordinary life, one which still too few are aware of.
Hopefully Ajay Close’s latest novel, What We Did In The Dark, will go some way to changing this. It is described as “A fictionalised account of Catherine Carswell’s first marriage […]” which was to the artist, and veteran of the Boer War, Herbert Jackson. You may initially wonder why Close would decide to concentrate on this short time in Carswell’s life (the book is mostly set between 1904-1908), when there is so much to tell, but the story, and how it is told, is so compelling that any questions you may have are soon forgotten.
It is important to remember that this is fiction, not biography, and Close takes the outline of an extraordinary true romance and uses it to examine the complex nature of relationships, how quickly they can take hold (and why) and how quickly they can begin to end (and why). Just as Catherine and Herbert’s romance begins, and then unravels, at whirlwind speed so you too are swept along with events as Close perfectly captures the range of emotions Catherine experiences.
Initially Cathie (as Catherine is known by those close) put me in mind of ‘Joan Webster’ as played by Wendy Hiller in Powell and Pressburgers’s classic 1945 film I Know Where I’m Going. Both Joan and Cathie’s desire to get married is in no small part to escape what they view as the confines of their life to date, and each “knows where she’s going, or at least she thinks she does”. However, Cathie realises almost immediately that she has married in haste, and is not overly willing to repent at leisure.
Between the newly-weds there is love and longing, but there is also jealously, cruelty, and eventually violence, hate and heart-break. At one point Cathie says to Herbert, “I sometimes think everything in me you fell in love with threatens you now we’re married” which doesn’t just get to the heart of their situation, but the failure of many relationships, when the very thing which attracts an individual produces the fear that it may do the same for others, a contradictory and all too real negative-empathy.
Herbert quickly proves to be not just a jealous guy, but one who is clearly delusional which is revealed through the allegations he throws Cathie’s way. He accuses her of multiple affairs, including with George, the then Prince of Wales and future King. As with most relationships nothing is straightforward on either side, and Cathie feels a mixture of guilt (for more than one reason), shame, responsibility, and even liability, for what unfolds. As such she initially forgives and attempts to justify Herbert’s actions, and non-actions, willing this marriage to work and confused to how this situation arose.
However, it is Herbert’s past that increasingly begins to encroach on their relationship, even if Cathie doesn’t yet know it. As readers we get access to letters between Herbert and his friend Arthur in South Africa which make telling reference to his previous life there. When the unhappy couple return to Britain it becomes clear that things will never be as either initially imagined, and a ground-breaking, history-making, court case eventually leads to a conclusion which is as necessary as it is remorseful.
What We Did In The Dark is an engrossing novel, one which is both insightful and moving. A mix of the romantic and the rational, it is where heart meets head with the understanding that in life we are slaves to both. Ajay Close has long been one of SWH!’s favourite writers, but I would say she has never been better than here, with writing which at times takes your breath away.
It’s not only the language, it is everything. Every description, emotion, explanation, and idea are expressed with thought, care, and artistry. If the narrator was anyone other than Catherine Carswell it might seem overly-eloquent, but these words in her mouth and mind are perfect. Fictionalised accounts of real people are tricky to get right, but Ajay Close shows what can be done, taking this little known story from history to comment on universal themes, and even fiction itself. Are you ready to be heartbroken?
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