The Camomile – Catherine Carswell

Ellen Carstairs is a young woman living in Glasgow in the early 20th century. She’s an orphan & lives with her brother, Ronald, & their evangelical Aunt Harry. Ellen is ambitious. She longs to write but her mother was a very unsuccessful novelist & Aunt Harry is alert for any signs of the same unsuitability in Ellen. She did manage to escape to Frankfurt for several years to study music & returns to Glasgow to earn her living as a music teacher at her old school. She also takes private pupils although it’s not music that stirs her soul but writing. She rents a cold, miserable room from a neighbour just so that she can work without Aunt Harry interrupting her. The Camomile takes the form of a letter-journal Ellen writes to her friend Ruby, a fellow student in Frankfurt now living in London.

Ellen hasn’t much in common with her old school friends in Glasgow or with her fellow teachers. She spends time in the Mitchell Library just so that she can be free to read what she wishes without enduring Aunt Harry’s disapproval. There she meets a man she nicknames Don John, John Barnaby, an ex-priest & scholar who lives on the edge of poverty, sustained only by his love of books. John Barnaby encourages Ellen’s writing & sends her stories to a London editor. It’s John who explains the title of the book when he likens Ellen’s writing to the camomile. “I see. It is like the camomile – the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows.” And when I asked him who had said that, he smiled again and said, “An observant fat man called Falstaff.” Ellen is conflicted about her writing. She feels compelled to do it but also knows how Aunt Harry & conventional Glasgow society feels about it.

There is no doubt writing makes me more irritable with her. Today I have felt quite desperate whenever she came near me. Now is this a sign that writing is wrong for me? I am deeply worried these days about this old question. Is writing – serious writing – simply a mistake for a woman? Ronald, as you know, thinks it is. But Ronald, I do think, is influenced here by Mother’s unfortunate example. The worst of it is I know so terribly well what people mean when they say it is “a pity” that a woman should write. I can feel why it is so different from, for instance, a woman’s singing or acting. Because, however severe the technique of these arts may be, they are in their effect womanly. But writing!

Ellen becomes engaged to Duncan, the brother of an old school friend. He’s a doctor, on leave from his post in India. They’re instantly attracted to each other & Ellen gradually finds herself swept up in the excitement of her first love affair. Once they’re engaged, however, she begins to consider what marriage to a conventional man like Duncan will mean. They have lunch with a couple Duncan knows from his Indian station & it’s a disaster. Duncan is desperate to impress them & encourages Ellen to look sophisticated, even buying her pearls for the occasion. Ellen realises that only a girl who will be sociable, go to parties & dances & not be “too intellectual” could be a suitable wife for Duncan in the middle-class hidebound colonial society he lives in. When the wife asks her if she’s fond of reading, Ellen struggles to hide her real tastes because she knows they are too intellectual for this woman who despises trash & only pretends to know the authors Ellen mentions. Duncan doesn’t share Ellen’s misgivings,

He thinks I have grown “just a wee bit morbid,” being too much alone with my thoughts, which is “bad for women.” He believes the life in India, with its tennis and riding, jolly, rather superficial chatter and determined suppression of serious talk, will be the best possible antidote for me. How I hope and try to believe that he is right!… But he warns me to beware of one thing as of the devil. 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.

Ellen’s doubts only increase as she attends the conventional weddings of her friends & then when Duncan has to return to India early & refuses to marry her immediately so she can return with him. Duncan’s complacent assumptions & the disapproval of a few people like Don John who Ellen respects, gradually lead her to realise that she has to make a decision. Does she have the courage to follow her dream of being a writer at the expense of the conventional happiness that society expects of her?

The Camomile is a very engaging novel. Written in 1922, Ellen is a radical misfit in the conventional world of narrowly religious Aunt Harry. Ronald is sympathetic but his sights are set on going to America. Her school friends follow the expected path to marriage without ever feeling the need to express themselves. Only her former music teacher Miss Hepburn is outraged by her decision to forego a career for marriage. Don John is quietly disappointed & retreats from Ellen’s life. I enjoyed Ellen’s determination to write & her descriptions of her great plans for the future & her struggle to find somewhere congenial to work & read. Ellen wants experience but marriage to Duncan may be too high a price to pay. It would also mean the end of her writing as Duncan’s assurances that Ellen could continue to write have a a very hollow ring.

Catherine Carswell (photo above from here) wrote only two novels, this one & Open The Door! Both were reprinted by Virago in the 80s. She was a friend of D H Lawrence & lost a job at the Glasgow Herald when she praised his novel, The Rainbow. She later lived in London with her husband & son & was friends with writers including Storm Jameson & Rose Macaulay (of whom I’ll have more to say soon). Canongate have since reprinted Open the Door! as well as Carswell’s unfinished autobiography, Lying Awake. I downloaded The Camomile for free from Open Library. I was inspired to read The Camomile by Desperate Reader’s review.

4 thoughts on “The Camomile – Catherine Carswell

  1. I really enjoyed this book, it seemed to have it's finger on many of the choices women had to make – and still have to make between career and family life although now I think the balance has shifted somewhat in the other direction.

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  2. I read this (and reviewed it on my blog) about 18 months ago, and it has stayed with me – Ellen's character is very fresh and individual, and the narrative is both happenstance and compelling. When I think of it now, I think how brave Ellen is to challenge convention when the more extreme non-conformists in the story pay such a heavy price. I have Open the Door! hanging about unread, so I must give that a try soon.

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  3. Tanya, I have Open the Door! toio & would like to read it soon. I agree that Ellen is very brave in expressing her needs so strongly at the period the book was written. Especially the choice she makes at the end.

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