Catherine Carswell lived from 27 March 1879 to 19 March 1946. She was a novelist, biographer and journalist and one of the few female writers of the Modern Scottish Renaissance movement. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Born Catherine Roxburgh Macfarlane, Catherine was the second of four children born to George and Mary Anne Macfarlane, and she grew up as part of a deeply religious, middle class family in Glasgow. She was educated at the New Park School for Girls, before spending two years studying music at the Frankfurt Conservatorium. After returning to Scotland she attended Glasgow University, where she studied English literature.
In September 1904 she met Herbert Jackson, a Boer War veteran and artist, and within a month had married him. On hearing she was pregnant in March 1905, Jackson tried to kill Catherine: and was committed to a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life. Catherine made legal history in 1908 by successfully annulling her marriage with Jackson on the grounds he had been mentally ill before meeting her and could therefore not have known what he was doing in marrying her.
Catherine made her living working as a critic on the Glasgow Herald, meanwhile developing a wide range of literary connections. Her daughter died of pneumonia in 1913, and in 1915 she married Donald Carswell, who she had known at Glasgow University and on the Herald.
It was also in 1915 that Catherine lost her job on the Glasgow Herald after writing a favourable review of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rainbow" against the wishes of the editor. She went to work instead for the Observer. Her own first novel, "Open the Door!" was published in 1920 and had autobiographical overtones, being about a young woman making her way in Glasgow. Her second - and last - novel, "The Camomile", was published two years later.
It was when she moved into biography that Catherine Carswell began to make her name. In 1930 she published her "Life of Robert Burns", a book based almost entirely on original source material and owing nothing to the almost saintly image painted of him by most other writers at the time. The result was outrage and uproar as Burns' many fans were confronted with a much more accurate portrait of their hero that revealed his many blemishes as well as his finer qualities. Almost as controversial was her biography of D.H. Lawrence, published in 1932. Her subsequent works on Giovanni Boccaccio and John Buchan were considered more mainstream at the time.
By the late 1930s the Carswells were living in London. In 1940 Donald Carswell was killed in a traffic accident caused by the blackout during London's blitz. Catherine Carswell continued to live and work in London until her death in 1946 at the age of 67. In 1950, her son John published her collected autobiographical notes as "Lying Awake: An unfinished autobiography."