What We Did in the Dark

Ajay Close

Sandstone, £8.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Catherine Carswell was a Scottish journalist, critic, biographer and novelist who lived from 1879 to 1946, closely associated with what became known as the Scottish Renaissance. Cutting her teeth as a theatre critic for the Glasgow Herald, as it then was, she blossomed into a provocative writer, receiving a bullet through the post for her biography of Robert Burns and lawyers’ letters in response to a book about her close friend D.H. Lawrence (who sought her advice when writing Sons and Lovers).

But Ajay Close’s highly engaging fictionalised memoir finds its inspiration in Carswell’s earlier life, when, after a whirlwind romance, she was trapped in a bad marriage with a man she barely knew. What We Did in the Dark is an exploration of the limits of a woman’s love with all the ingredients of a spine-chilling gothic thriller: the interior of an Edwardian asylum; Catherine’s isolation on an extended honeymoon in Italy; even an episode high in the Alps where she faces the twin hazards of a madman and a plunging ravine.

Born in Glasgow as Catherine Macfarlane, Carswell attended the Frankfurt Conservatory long enough to realise she would make only a mediocre pianist. Subsequently, she enrolled at the University of Glasgow, where she was inspired by the improbably named English Literature professor Walter Raleigh. Whether she and Raleigh were ever lovers in real life is open to question, but Close’s book opens with her visit to Raleigh and his wife in Berkshire in 1904, where a group of friends has gathered to play parlour games. The sexual tension between Catherine and her former tutor is what has lured her there, and the last thing she expects is to meet her future husband, Herbert Jackson.

Dark, moody and artistic, Herbert is just back from fighting the Boers in Transvaal, and has clearly been emotionally scarred by the experience. The horrific events he’s lived through are gradually revealed by his letters, but at this stage Catherine has no idea why he’s so suspicious and jumpy. Only after their marriage does she see the extent of his paranoid delusions, and how deeply and dangerously he’s suppressing his memories.

While what follows is a matter of public record, Close has filled in the unknowable gaps of Catherine Carswell’s life with all her skills as a novelist. Her Catherine is caught up in a maelstrom of tension, drama, forbidden passions and her idealistic refusal to give up on her marriage vows. That the whole book is addressed in the second person from Catherine to Herbert shows how unwilling she is to let him go, even as late as 1939. And Close has placed sex at the heart of the story – variously passionate, tender, adulterous and terrifying – without ever being so explicit as to trouble the Bad Sex Award shortlist. With appearances from real-life academics, painters and writers of the period, Close’s addictive, cleverly crafted novel illuminates an almost forgotten writer and the circles she moved through.