Chosen by Kate Hopkins
I discovered the novels of Catherine Carswell (1879–1946) ten years ago when I started collecting Virago Modern Classics. I was drawn to The Camomile (1922) because I empathized with the narrator Ellen, like me a former music student who realizes she prefers literature. I really enjoyed it, and found Carswell’s art-themed first novel Open the Door! (1920) even better. However, I knew little about Carswell’s life until a browse through Sandstone Press’s excellent website inspired me to buy Ajay Close’s novel about her.
‘Cathie’ (as friends called her) was a remarkable woman: a talented pianist who became a well-regarded literary critic, a prize-winning novelist and a biographer of Burns, Boccaccio and her friend and mentor D.H. Lawrence. What We Did in the Dark, however, focuses primarily on her disastrous first marriage to the painter and ex-soldier Herbert Jackson. The pair meet when Cathie is trying to extract herself from an affair with her former literature professor. They have a whirlwind courtship, marry and set out for a new life in Italy. There, Herbert’s increasingly violent behaviour leads Cathie to realize that he is mentally ill. Back in England, she embarks on a momentous legal battle to get her marriage annulled.
This is a hugely impressive novel. Close’s dialogue is always convincing, and she manages to evoke her period (1904–8) without ever sounding anachronistic. Her prose has a lovely clarity, reminiscent of both Carswell and D.H. Lawrence at their best. The descriptions are particularly striking: afternoon sunlight pouring across the Berkshire Downs ‘like chamomile tea’; Perugia’s buildings, ‘Etruscan, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, rococo, all hugger-mugger on the same small hilltop’; a Glasgow newspaper office whose machines make ‘a noise like an express train’. Her plot is well-paced and at times breathtakingly exciting.
Best of all are the characters. Even secondary ones like the loveable ‘pale and donnish’ Don Carswell (who Cathie married in 1914) and Cathie’s charismatic artist-lover Maurice Greiffenhagen linger in the memory. Herbert is terrifying in his irrationality, but Close’s thoughtful writing about his Boer War experiences (the only bit of pure fiction in the book) helps us to understand and even sympathize with him. And Cathie, the narrator, is a wonderful creation. She is never idealized – she can be extremely reckless, not least in marrying Herbert – but her passion for the arts, her kindness and her deepening self-knowledge make her very loveable.
If you’re looking for an absorbing novel to read over Christmas and are interested in 1900s literature and culture, What We Did in the Dark would be a great choice. (So would Carswell’s novels, which are still available secondhand via Amazon.) I loved it, will be recommending it to friends and family, and am looking forward to exploring more of Ajay Close’s fiction in the New Year. If her other books are as good as this one, I’m in for a treat.
Publisher: Sandstone Press
Date of Publication: 13 February 2020
ISBN 13: 978-1-912240-89-0
Edition: First (paperback)