IN May 1908 The Times published a court report on a landmark trial, “a wife’s suit for the nullity of marriage on the ground that at the time of marriage the husband was insane and incapable of contracting marriage.” The wife in question would go on to become one of Scotland’s most significant, though relatively under-appreciated writers, one of the few women who made a mark in the 20th century Scottish renaissance, Catherine Carswell.

Carswell would write Open The Door, a ground-breaking and highly-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s sexual awakening and strivings for independence, pen a controversial, landmark biography of Robert Burns – which so upset Burns’ devotees that one sent her a bullet in the post – and write much-lauded arts criticism for The Glasgow Herald, including a daringly positive review of DH Lawrence’s controversial novel, The Rainbow, that would see her sacked. But back then she was Mrs Catherine Jackson, a Glasgow girl, brought up in a middle-class Free Church household, who had plunged into marriage with a man she soon found believed he was being followed and spied upon by a band of mysterious conspirators.

That she then resolved to escape that marriage, through the courts, is one of many bold acts in the course of her life that are worth celebrating on this the 75th anniversary of her death.

The Times report noted that Herbert Jackson was beset by certain delusions – most significant of these were that “a plot or conspiracy existed to ruin him and that he was impotent”, even though Carswell had given birth to his child. He, an artist, 36 years old at the time of their marriage, had, the article described, always been a man of a “silent, retiring mad morbid disposition”, but, notably, no one had observed any “delusions or irregularities” before he served in the Boer war and experienced the trauma of conflict.

The marriage had taken place in a rush, after the two met through Carswell’s academic mentor, Professor Walter Raleigh, who she studied under at Glasgow University. Almost immediately, they had travelled to honeymoon in Italy – a move that was described as part of a bid by Jackson to get away from England at the earliest moment, escaping those who plotted against him and with the protection of his wife. Once they were out there, first visiting Lake Como, Jackson became convinced, as the court report describes, that he was “being watched and spied upon, that signals and signs were being made about him, and that people were laughing about him because he was impotent."

Later, after arrival at Perugia, the delusions became more marked. While they were staying in a house in Sittigano, it says, “he claimed that men were spying upon him from the roof and from the cupboards, and he insisted upon personally searching for them, even suggesting that they were hiding under his wife’s clothes.” Then, when they arrived at Lake Maggiore, “the respondent actually accused his wife of adultery with a complete stranger on board the lake steamer.” The report notes, “Even after she was enceinte, he persisted in the belief that he was impotent.”

What is described sounds like a honeymoon in hell. On their return to England, The Times describes, "The respondent’s mental disease had progressed so much that his lifelong friend, Dr Munro (who had acted as his best man) felt bound to certify him insane, and the respondent, who is still under restraint, has since been pronounced incurable.” He was diagnosed with “Paranoia”, which had “probably commenced soon after the respondents return from South Africa in 1902.” Jackson was committed to a hospital and Carswell went to live in Glasgow with her family, where she had her baby daughter. Hers must have felt like a young life in ruins.


Fortunately, however, Carswell won her case and made legal history. Judge, Mr Justice Bargrave Deane declared that there must be a “decree nisi of nullity with costs, and that the petitioner would have custody of the child". Seven years later, she would marry again, to Donald Carswell, whom she met when they were both students in Glasgow. By that time she, a single mother, had enjoyed an affair with the married artist, Maurice Grieffenhagen. But she had also experienced further tragedy – in the loss of her daughter, Diana, to pneumonia.

This period in Carswell’s life is one that Ajay Close explored in What We Did In The Dark, a chilling and mesmerising novel that was published last year. It was while she had a writer’s residency working on a project was to put together a museum exhibit about the Scottish renaissance, that cultural flowering that took place in the early 20th century, and which included Hugh Macdiarmid, and others, that Close began looking into the life of Carswell, and came across the disturbing story of her first marriage.

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Close is an admirer of Carswell's writing and recalls what a revelation to her when she first read Open The Door. “Carswell was born and brought up as a Victorian and then came of age, was 21 in 1900, and she’s got that energy that comes from realising that the world is different now but the old people are still in charge. And one of the things she’s interested in is sex – not as titillation but as this great engine of human relations. Really nobody in Scotland is talking about that and certainly no women are talking about and she’s open to the idea that you don’t have to be married to have sex. Her writing has that energy that comes with that awareness that she’s living in a new world where anything is possible.”

She considers Carswell’s depiction of a woman, central character Joanna Bannerman, exploring sexuality and sexual power, is relevant still today. “In Open The Door,” she observes, “what she says about being a young woman, I think is true of all young women and it still feels radical. These days Hollywood stars are praised as being brave for saying things like, 'They’ve retouched my photos, really my thighs are fat.' But what Catherine Carswell was doing was saying this is what it’s like to be a sexually narcissistic young woman and that really was brave. At the time she was writing, necessarily women’s power came from the effect they had on men – so Joanna Bannerman is flirting with boys she’s not interested in, or convincing herself she is interested just for the gratification of having them fall in love with her. It’s wince-makingly truthful.”

The newspaper reports on the trial were, for Close, a rich source of detail. “If she hadn’t gone to court to get that marriage annulled,” she observes, “I’m really not sure how much I would have had because she didn’t want to write about that marriage afterwards. She didn’t want to think about it. Bear in mind there was the extra trauma of the fact that the child they had together died of pneumonia when she was only eight. I was told by her granddaughters that among her papers, some of the photos which had been taken with her and the child were torn in half, to separate the two of them. Though she survived the marriage which was a triumph there was some terrible tragedy in that life. To go through that awful marriage and to get free of Herbert and then to be a single mother with an illegitimate child, who you have made illegitimate yourself, and then to have lost the child, would have just awful.”HeraldScotland: Herbert Jackson, front left

Herbert Jackson, front left

As Close points out, Carswell, an author whose works were chiefly autobiographical, never fully explored in her own writing what it was like to live for all that time with a man who was not only jealous and controlling, but also delusional. In Open The Door, Joanna's first husband, the character Mario, appears loosely inspired by Jackson – his jealousies perhaps inspired by those of her own first husband – but he has none of the mental illness, none of the delusion, and is, unsatisfyingly, too quickly dispatched from the narrative, in a motorcycling accident. At one point, on their honeymoon, after she has been out for a rare morning walk on her own, he accuses he of being "unfaithful already". “Never do that again,” he says. “But you shall not have the chance while I live, for not again shall you go out by yourself.”

In her autobiography, Lying Awake, all Carswell says on the subject of Herbert Jackson is, “My first marriage as the result of one such offer may have seemed the extreme of irrationality to those who looked on. In in fact did, as I was made fully aware. I made what may truly be called a rash and foolish marriage to a man I scarcely knew. In reality – the reality that is oneself in so far as this at any moment can be termed real – it was a desperately rational act, and though of course, informed by hope, it did not partake of that hope of which I have mentioned.”

Carswell’s own first marriage was far darker than the one Joanna Bannerman experiences in her novel – and more traumatic even than is indicated by The Times court report. Not only had Jackson suspected that people were following him and conspiring against him, but, as Carswell’s son wrote in the introduction to her autobiography, Lying Awake, "when in 1905 she told him of her pregnancy, he tried to kill her." Close learned from Carswell's family that this attempt was made by strangling.

What We Did In The Dark explores just how difficult, bewildering and frightening that experience might have been. She describes first how Carswell is introduced to Jackson when she is invited to stay, by Walter Raleigh, the University of Glasgow mentor who held her in high regard – though notably, at that time, despite being a star pupil, as a woman, she could not even be awarded a degree. Raleigh was a married man who was part of a Bohemian circle, in the habit of having lovers, and the atmosphere of increasing sexual freedoms that generated around that milieu is conjured up.

Close echoes the physicality of Carswell’s own writing and also takes the reader step by step through the author's dawning awareness of her husband's state of mind – her discovery, first, that he keeps a pistol under his pillow, his accusations that he has heard the voice of a man while she was there in the toilet, his attempts to keep her cooped up away from all other men, and his attempt ultimately to strangle her. She also illuminates Jackson's own story of the ghastly trauma he might have experienced in the Boer war. It is fiction based on fact and meticulous research.

We have words now for some of the things that Carswell went through – and one of the terms might be coercive control. Close observes that this is not always helpful when it comes to describing what an experience in the past might have been like, before those terms were is use. “Even in the space of me researching and writing What We Did In The Dark, the phrase coercive control entered the statute books. It’s now illegal. I, in my own small way, had a relationship in which I experienced coercive control, but again, because I went through that experience decades ago, before that was a thing that had that handle attached to it, it was very hard to explain quite what was so intimately undermining about what I was going through. In a way it's now easier to write about those things, but in another way it’s very hard to convey quite how bewildering and terrible they were before they’ve got a label.”

HeraldScotland: What We Did In The Dark by Ajay Close

One of the things Close admires about Carswell is her “recklessness which is half courage, half complete foolhardiness”. That spirit is there in the way she plunged into that first marriage with Herbert Jackson. It’s there when she writes a positive review of DH Lawrence’s controversial novel, The Rainbow, and, knowing that the newspaper will not publish it, bypasses the editors and sends the copy straight to the compositors. She then – at a point when she would have needed the money – is sacked.

Lawrence, notably, would become a close friend of Carswell, each helping each other with their writing, and on Lawrence's death, Carswell would write a biography of the author, The Savage Pilgrimage.Whatever sexual chemistry there may have been between them appears not to have been acted upon. They both married their partners – she Donald Carswell, he Frieda von Richthofen – around the same time, and would spend time staying at each other's houses as couples. As Jenni Calder described in an article for the Scottish Review Of Books, "Catherine was a staunch ally of Lawrence’s outspokenness on sexual matters, and in her own novels explored young women’s creative and sexual awakening in ways that challenged convention."

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There were other acts of daring too. “That same sort of principled courageous recklessness,” says Close, “made her go for Robert Burns.” At the time of publication of her biography, The Life Of Burns, the bard was revered, but the reality of the man, his sexual life, promiscuity and complexity was barely discussed – and Carswell brought that into the light. One reviewer in The Daily Record declared, “Poor Burns! Imagine his character and reputation in the hands of an irresponsible woman." Famously, one Burns fan sent a bullet in the post, accompanied by the note, “leave the world a better, brighter, cleaner place”.

That bravery is a thread that runs through most of her life. It seems to have been an element of her character from the start, but also, it was perhaps enhanced by having emerged from this traumatic early marriage with little to lose. “I think probably after that awful first marriage to Herbert Jackson," says Close, "there was something in her that said, 'Well, I’ve been through the worst and, whatever society thinks, I’m going to for it and make my own life now.' Going to court to have that marriage annulled involved such exposure and she knew that it would – the most horrible things were brought out in that trial. But she went ahead and it wasn’t even as if at that point she wanted to marry anyone else. She just wanted out, but she wanted out cleanly and honestly and she put herself through that. I think that’s quite feminist.”

Close believes that she is underestimated “in terms of Scottish letters”, but also that the writers of the Scottish renaissance are generally under-appreciated. “It’s interesting, I bang on about this all the time, but when you say Bloomsbury Group everybody thinks, ‘Ooh lovely, nice frocks.’ But when you say the Scottish Renaissance, which is roughly the same sort of period of time, everybody thinks, ‘Ooh, horrid, tweedy pipe smokers.' But they are really interesting and it’s a really interesting movement."

Many have expressed sadness at the fact that Carswell did not write further fiction, her only other novel being The Camomile, also semi-autobiographical, but she nevertheless had a significant cultural impact through her biography and criticism, while at the same time struggling to look after and provide for a family.

Was Carswell a feminist? Close ruminates, “I’m not aware of her being interested in the suffragettes. She also had, in her head, this block that only men could be geniuses. Yet in her day to day dealings with men and the way she lived her life, I think she was a feminist. She was the artist Maurice Grieffenhagen’s mistress and he was married, so that wasn’t sisterly to his wife, but at the time it was quite brave. For a woman who had been brought up in a evangelical household, the ultimate Calvinist household, it was brave for her to say, 'Well I love this man and I’m going to have some pleasure out of it.'”

If feminism is about opening doors, then certainly Carswell set an example of that. Through her life, she threw them open, sometimes barging through as if they weren't closed at all. Hers was a recklessness to inspire.

What We Did In The Dark by Ajay Close is published by Sandstone Press