I normally love a Virago book but have I read too many written in the early 1920s about women trying to escape their bounds?

Catherine Carswell – “The Camomile”

(20 August 2019)

Apparently named because the plant flourishes however much it’s trodden on, I couldn’t unfortunately really engage with this tale of a woman who returns to Glasgow after two years at music school in Germany (shades of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” here and also in the constant unending meanderings about her internal narrative and musings over whether/what to write) and frets against her bonds and boundaries which actually, although having lost her parents, that trope enabling a more interesting story for a character, has quite a free life, with a room of her own to write and play the piano in, a job, and the freedom to associate with a penniless writer she befriends. She’s not a New Woman as such and never gets round to even proposing Free Love to her fiancé.

Her life changes when she suddenly becomes engaged to  her friend’s brother, off stage during a break in the journal she’s writing to her music-school friend. Very irritatingly, she claims she can no longer write the journal:

Shall I ever be able to write any more in my journal to you? I don’t think so. Now that Duncan and I are engaged, the poor thing’s back is broken for good. Now that my thoughts are centred round him, I cannot set down a record of them for anyone else to read, not even my dearest friend. (p. 212)

But she does, of course she does, in the journal and then going over the plain facts in another letter to he friend. She does at least rail against Duncan’s racism, but she does this while being gigantically anti-Semitic and plain snobbish and mean, then agonises about what engagement means and what she can do. I wasn’t really able to whip up any sympathy for her and was glad when this book was finished.

I’d love to hear from others who got more out of this or “got” what I clearly missed! The portrait of early 20th century Glasgow was interesting, but that feels like when I said I was glad to learn more about Czech history after reading “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”!


I’ve been reading the fascinating “Kitted Out”, about youth culture and fashion during the Second World War, have a depressing book about bullying in the police force to review later in the week, and am currently reading about the sea.