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Immortal Memories: The Mysterious Case of Catherine Carswell

Eilidh Whiteford
ScotLit 24, Spring 2001

Some literary characters seem to achieve immortality. In his rooms in Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes contemplates why some make it and others don’t ...

I am a less frequent visitor to Baker Street these days than once I was. Since slipping into a comfortable retirement I have been content to let younger fellows assist the estimable gentlemen of Scotland Yard maintain the fragile semblance of order that prevails against anarchy in our great land and city. Of course, many things have changed since our day – and not necessarily for the better. I should not be surprised because the signs of impending social upheaval were plainly visible for anyone to see – radical new ideas were circulating in books and pamphlets, women were demonstrating in the streets demanding the vote, entry to universities, the professions and what-not, but like most other people I paid little enough attention at the time. Likewise, I succeed nowadays for the most part in ignoring the more disturbing deteriorations I perceive in public life and private morals. I try to be philosophical and accept the inevitability of change, but sometimes I do worry that the world has been over-run by harridans, viragos and blue-stockings. No less now than in the days when Holmes held the scales of justice in precarious balance, change, chaos and confusion threaten to engulf our peaceful existence, endangering the uneasy equilibrium we and our successors have struggled to establish.
      Holmes and I, however, having won our laurels, are ready now to rest upon them, consigning our perilous feats, our grim contests, to the pages of history. Our old adversaries are never quite forgotten, but there are nevertheless times when our adventures seem like a distant fiction. Still, I regularly find occasion to visit Holmes, who remains resident in the familiar rooms we once shared. Over a generous whisky and soda we often reminisce about his more taxing, remarkable and memorable cases. Undoubtedly time casts its rosy glow on our recollections. While Holmes would deny that the accuracy of his memory has been in any way tempered by the years, in truth my Hippocratic oath obliges me to confess that his fondness for cocaine has, with time, taken its toll on his senses. Yet if his memory has clouded, his powers of observation remain as acute as ever they did of old and his deductive methods unimpaired.
      I was surprised, therefore, to receive an urgent summons several weeks ago one afternoon shortly after luncheon. Mrs. Watson gave me a reproachful look as she handed me the envelope, as if to remind me of my promise made after the last dangerous escapade with Holmes that I would engage in no more risky exertions in the pursuit of justice. Yet the words before me, ‘A serious matter has arisen; come at once! Holmes,’ penned in his familiar hand, filled me with such intrigue I was compelled to murmur my excuses and leave at once.
      I was ushered into Holmes’ apartment with the customary courtesies, and noticed immediately a change in my friend’s demeanour; his old investigative energy and single-mindedness had evidently returned.
      “Ah Watson, I am glad you were able to respond to my note so promptly,” Holmes announced as I entered. “ Loathe as I am to shatter the tranquillity of your present repose, a mystery has presented itself which merits and demands our immediate attention.”
      I must admit, I feared the worst. Holmes has been uncompromising in his refusal to accept new cases for years. I surmised that only a case of the utmost consequence and gravity would induce him to cast aside his resolution to entrust cases requiring detection to a younger generation of worthy and eminent successors.
      “This morning,” he explained, “at precisely two minutes past nine o’clock, I received an unexpected call from a woman, a lady whom, by her dress and manner, I took to be a person of educated tastes, discerning style but limited means. She was clearly of a younger generation than you or I, but her exact age was difficult to gauge. She was elegantly attired in garments which, though no longer the height of fashion, were well-tailored and carefully groomed.”
      My heart sank. Had an old enemy returned to plague us?
      “Did you recognise her?” I asked hesitantly.
      “Not immediately.” Holmes paused to measure my reaction. “However,” he continued, “it’s very possible you have heard of her. She introduced herself as a Mrs. Catherine Carswell, novelist, biographer and journalist. Of course,” he added quickly, “I had already deduced she was a writer. My observant eye detected the fading stains of indelible typewriter ink on the hand she extended to me, and the presence of a carbuncle on her third finger confirmed my hypothesis.”
      As always, I was impressed by Holmes’ dazzling powers of deduction, but I had deep reservations about the prospect of another mystery.
      “The name does sound familiar,” I said, “but are you sure you want to get mixed up with a lady novelist, Holmes?”
      Years ago when Holmes and I were absorbed in the time-consuming business of frustrating the efforts of the criminal fraternity, Mrs. Watson, abandoned to solitude, took to reading and, having exhausted the classics, she acquired quite a taste for popular fiction. Occasionally I have glanced over the volumes by Mona Caird, Sarah Grand, Mrs. Oliphant and others left at our bedside or beside her favourite chair in the drawing room, and I am not at all sure I approve of these so-called ‘lady’ novelists.
      While most are content to pen entertaining sagas of happy domestic life, I fear that a few are deliberately undermining the moral fabric of the nation, advancing all these ridiculous notions about votes for women, entry to the professions and such-like nonsense. I raised the matter with my wife only to be told I was over-reacting and these books were merely imaginative fictions. However, given all that transpired in the 20th century, I think I am entirely vindicated in my concerns. Unfortunately, at the time I was in no position to argue with Mrs. Watson who, when she is displeased with me, has a habit of serving me loathsome boiled cabbage on successive days until I acquiesce to her wishes.
      Holmes must have read the consternation on my face because he continued,
      “Mrs. Carswell is not just any lady novelist Watson, but one of good connection and considerable repute. She enjoyed notable success as a journalist in London and Glasgow in the early decades of the 20th century. She wrote several acclaimed biographies and two commendable novels. Moreover, she seems to have counted half of London’s literary in-crowd amongst her friends and acquaintances. It all makes for an extremely puzzling case.”
      I started to catch the drift of what Holmes was getting at and anticipated his next sentence,
       “Don’t tell me,” I interrupted, “she came to you because her literary reputation has vanished and she wants you to recover it.”
      Holmes looked at me approvingly,
      “An excellent guess, my dear Watson. You are almost right. But you know, lost literary reputations are not at all unusual – hundreds vanish every year. Some are never very strong to start with, while others thrive for a short time then evaporate leaving hardly a trace; others die more slowly and gracefully, gradually ebbing away until the writer is all but forgotten. Carswell’s is an altogether more unusual case.”
      He drew thoughtfully on his pipe and settled back into his chair ready to elucidate.
      “You see, it’s not simply that Carswell’s reputation disappeared; the really interesting thing is that it has been rediscovered. During the 1980s and 1990s her novels and biographical writings reappeared in print. Soon scholarly articles about her work started appearing in reputable journals; professors on three continents began to reassess her work. Something very strange is afoot and Mrs. Carswell has asked me to investigate.”
      “I must admit, it is perplexing,” I agreed with a tone of irritation, “but why have you been asked to examine the case? If Carswell’s reputation has been restored, what aspects of the mystery remain unsolved?” I resented the impending disruption of my lately established domestic harmony, especially on such a spurious pretext.
      “Come, come, Watson, where’s your sense of intrigue, nay, duty? This is the most interesting case I’ve been presented with in years. There’s no doubt that Mrs. Carswell’s reputation was missing, presumed dead; we need to discover why it disappeared and how it was resurrected. Besides which, we may well also have a stake in this matter,” he continued enigmatically.
      “Is this really our line of business Holmes,” I questioned. “We are supposed to be retired. Can’t you leave it to some of the younger chaps? Hannay might do it if he’s in the country.”
      “Hmm. I suggested him too, but Mrs. Carswell wasn’t keen. Apparently she herself did a similar bit of work for John Buchan after his death – she was friendly with his widow. And bear in mind, Hannay’s none too comfortable around women either.”
      “What about Rebus, or Laidlaw then, or even that woman Lindsay Gordon? They’d be much more suited to this sort of thing,” I suggested vainly, for I could tell Holmes had already made up his mind to pursue the matter himself.
      “Mrs. Carswell was most insistent that we were the men for the job. She told me she valued my objective detachment and placed great store by my rational analytical methods. Remember, we were in our heyday when she was a child growing up in that slum-infested city, Glasgow. She seemed to think I might have a better understanding of the times than the younger chaps. We agreed that important clues to this mystery may well lie in the latter years of the 19th century. There’s also a chance, Watson, that we may be looking at a wider phenomena. It does seem that women writers are far more prone to lose their reputations than their gentlemen counterparts; whether this is due to carelessness or has more sinister causes remains to be seen.”
      “Was Mrs. Carswell able to identify any suspects?” I asked.
      “Mmm,” Holmes looked contemplative, “Mrs. Carswell’s fame peaked around the time her first biography The Life of Robert Burns was published in 1930. It caused a great deal of controversy. She was one of the first critics to strip away the mythology surrounding the man and concentrate on the historical facts. Facts, my dear Watson, as you well know, are elementary, and can be a dangerous commodity for a writer.”
      “Did she make enemies?”
      “Oh yes. Her book was welcomed by those with a respect for accurate, honest portraiture and astute critical assessment, but others castigated her endeavours. Burns clubs denounced her, a sermon was preached against her in Glasgow Cathedral, and she even received a bullet through the post.”
      “Clearly she offended some powerful interests. Do you suspect that these incidents are linked to the disappearance of her reputation?”
      “I doubt it. Notoriety of that sort would be more likely to enhance rather than diminish her reputation. Look at what happened with Lady Chatterly.”
      “Carswell wasn’t drawn into that sordid business was she?”
      “No, no, but she and D.H. Lawrence were on very good terms. In fact, Carswell told me she lost her job on the Glasgow Herald for reviewing The Rainbow favourably. But I intend to investigate the whole matter fully, which is why I am catching a train to Scotland. I have a feeling a journey north may unravel other aspects of this mystery too.”
      Holmes and I have strong Scottish connections, but they are rarely a matter of discussion. Mystery or no mystery, I had no intention of leaving my metropolitan comforts for the cold northern outposts of the kingdom. Holmes must have read my mind because his next words were,
      “I leave first thing tomorrow. Meanwhile, I need you to search for evidence here.”
      “Hold on Holmes,” I objected, “I’m not sure I can help you. Mrs. Watson was most insistent last time that ... ” He interrupted me,
      “My dear Watson, you will not have to venture beyond the British Library. Indeed, for once you may find Mrs. Watson a willing and able ally in your investigations. I feel sure there will be clues contained within Mrs. Carswell’s published writings. I want you to gather as much evidence as you can and await my return.”
      With that he rose to escort me to the door and I knew there was to be no further debate on the matter. I left Baker Street in low spirits, wondering just how I would explain these developments to my dear wife.

***

      Much to my surprise, Mrs. Watson, once I had explained the situation, greeted the prospect of this new case with a marked show of enthusiasm. She has read more widely than I ever suspected and her erudition saved several trips to draughty library halls. Consequently, it was with an easy conscience, if a somewhat troubled mind, that I hurried over to Baker Street as soon as Holmes’ telegram arrived. The sight of his old deer-stalker and warmest cape hanging in the hallway informed me he had reached Baker Street before me. I wondered in passing if the poacher’s pocket contained that bottle of finest malt he had promised to procure in reward for my troubles, and hoped he had not forgotten his pledge.
      “Ah Watson, at last!” he exclaimed as I entered the room. “I have much to relate to you. My trip to Scotland was as productive as I had hoped. But first, tell me, how have your enquiries been progressing?”
      “Well,” I began, “I have uncovered some useful material relating to the case, but I feel obliged to inform you that my discoveries are not at all what I had expected to find within the pages of Mrs. Carswell’s novels.” Holmes raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I’ve found incriminating and disturbing evidence, Holmes. The first novel, Open the Door, appears on first impression to be a provincial romance executed in a naturalistic style popular with women readers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. However,” I continued, “closer inspection of the text reveals marked affinities with modern literature.” Holmes looked attentive.
      “Do explain yourself, Watson,” he enjoined.
      “There is a notable shift towards interiority, a distinctly psychological complexion to the novel. You would probably approve.” If Holmes detected the slightly accusing tone in my voice, as I fear one of his superior observational skills must, he chose to ignore it. “Through a subtly executed portrait of familial disintegration, Mrs. Carswell seems to suggest that church authority is waning, the glory of the empire is fading, that old social stratifications are crumbling – in other words, she asserts that the world- our world – is changing irrevocably!” I exclaimed.
      “Do calm yourself Watson. You’ve not yet told me anything of its narrative substance.”
      “The novel demonstrates a sizeable shift in public and private morals, Holmes. The heroine, Joanna Bannerman, works her way through an array of suitors. After dispensing with her childhood sweethearts, she takes up with a perfectly satisfactory fellow called Bob whom she dismisses unceremoniously when she tires of him, only to have her head then turned by a rather exotic foreign chap. He marries her and takes her to Italy where he proves to be rather a jealous, possessive type. He dies – rather fortuitously for the heroine.” Holmes raised an inquisitive eyebrow again, causing me to add quickly, “-a nasty accident, but no suspicious circumstances. Anyway,” I continued, “one might have expected Miss Bannerman to learn a little decorum from these dramas, but instead, on her return to these shores she takes up with a married man called Pender, an artist substantially older than herself. Such unseemly and reprehensible behaviour appears to pass without overt authorial disapproval, and when Joanna loses interest in the old man, she simply moves on, finally settling down with a genial and, in my view, exceptionally tolerant chap called Lawrence – of all the inappropriate names! I can’t believe he’s realistically portrayed. He seems to indulge all her wild emotional fancies and advanced ideas about art. I can’t think what I’d do if Mrs. Watson started espousing such strange notions, or started taking all this talk about women’s emotional, artistic, and professional fulfilment seriously,” I concluded.
      “Please don’t distress yourself Watson; you’ll find it helps to exercise professional detachment when confronted with unusual circumstances of this nature,” Holmes advised. I confess there are times when Holmes’ impassive air makes me wonder if he fully appreciates the significance of such startling breaches of social propriety. Sometimes I fear he does not inhabit the sphere of mere mortals.
      “Holmes, even you must acknowledge that the whole scenario is completely untoward, not to say utterly unacceptable! I am reliably informed that wanton behaviour of that sort usually spells disaster for literary heroines – despair drives them to suicide, or they die giving birth to their illegitimate offspring, or they succumb to terminal illness or incurable venereal disease. A lucky few merely go mad and end their days in Bedlam. Joanna Bannerman flouts poetic justice! Instead she emerges older and wiser from the storms of her scandalous life, and faces no censure or long term ill-effects. It’s quite outrageous.”
      “ I don’t doubt the sincerity of your assessment, Watson, but try not to let your opinions and emotions impinge on your account of the facts. Did you dig-up anything to substantiate your interpretation? What did other writers and critics have to say?”
      “It’s interesting you should bring that up. You say that awful fellow D.H. Lawrence was a well-known friend and associate of Mrs. Carswell. I’m sure his malign influence can be detected in the novel. They exchanged the manuscripts of Open the Door! and Women in Love. He urged her to refine her style, but told her ”nearly all of it is marvellously good“. That speaks for itself! Katherine Mansfield, one of her reviewers, was less enthusiastic, but not apparently on moral grounds; rather, she seems to finds Carswell deficient in detaching herself from her characters and their cultural background. Nevertheless, the book won the Melrose prize in 1920; I cannot imagine why.”
      “Excellent work, my dear Watson. Did you find any more recent assessments?”
      “Recent commentators have been divided. Quite a few disapprove of Joanna’s reliance on a string of men as her main source of happiness and personal fulfilment. However, others have been struck by the unconventional treatment of romance and by the artistry with which Mrs. Carswell depicts social changes and far-reaching shifts in artistic and cultural values. It has also been argued that Carswell offers insightful commentary on the role of women as artists and the role of art in wider society.”
      “Does the second novel shed any further light on the matter?”
      “It’s just as reprehensible, if that’s what you mean. The Camomile features a young pianist, Ellen Carstairs, who rejects several decent suitors to become a writer in London. It displays an unusual and ambitious epistolary form and quite self-consciously plays with literary conventions. Where Joanna Bannerman is pre-occupied with passionate affairs of the heart, Ellen Carstairs exhibits a greater – frankly, unnatural and disturbing – concern with artistic freedom and economic independence. She even insists upon hiring a private room in which she can work and attempts to earn her own living.”
      “Mmm ... quite the New Woman. When did you say it was published?”
      “1922, I believe.”
      “Goodness, that’s seven years before Virginia Woolf popularised the notion even further in A Room of Ones Own.” He added, “You really should try to divest yourself of your old fashioned prejudices, Watson. They may have held some currency in the 1880s and 90s, but their wisdom was always disputable. They are quite indefensible in this day and age. And at your age you really ought not get so agitated about politics; it’s bad for one’s blood pressure.”
      “Tell me about your trip,” I demanded, changing the subject. “What have you uncovered?”
      “I had a most interesting journey,” Holmes reflected. “It began highly inauspiciously. As you know, I’ve not left London for many years and I was perturbed to discover that even first class passengers on trains are no longer afforded the privacy of a carriage. And just to compound the inconvenience, the guard informed me before we had even left Kings Cross Station that smoking was strictly forbidden on this service and insisted that I extinguish my pipe. Worse still, the train was packed, and I found myself facing backwards, cramped around a small table with three other rather odd-looking characters.”
      I resolved to myself that if Holmes aimed to elicit sympathy by this catalogue of complaints, he would search in vain. He continued,
      “Yet, as luck would have it, two of my fellow travellers turned out to be prime suspects. I never cease to be astounded by literary coincidence. My first suspect was a most irritating woman. As yet I have no concrete proof linking her to the Carswell mystery, but the circumstantial evidence is incriminating.”
      “Who is she,” I asked, my curiosity aroused. It was unlike Holmes to voice unsubstantiated suspicions.
      “Actually,” Holmes continued, “this woman was hard to avoid. She talked incessantly from the moment she boarded the train, exchanging all kinds of gossip and ill-founded opinions. I have since been informed that she haunts the public transport networks of Scotland, as well as most local associations, Kirk sessions and management committees. She assumes numerous disguises and has several aliases; I think you know her well.”
      “An arch-criminal?”
      “Of the most insidious kind,” he assured me. “She knows everybody and everybody seems to know her, although most are eager to avoid her company. The woman is completely incapable of minding her own business and makes it her business to know everyone else’s.”
      “You don’t mean Mrs. MacGrundy, do you?” I whispered in horror.
      The thought of being trapped on a train next to Mrs. McGrundy for six hours plus any likely delays incurred finally drew my sympathy. I looked at Holmes with awe.
      “The very same!” he announced with triumph.
      “What is her acquaintance with Carswell?” I asked.
      “Not surprisingly, MacGrundy has wanted little to do with her in recent years. She had some very caustic things to say about Joanna Bannerman and Ellen Carstairs – incidentally, expressing sentiments not so very far removed from your own, my dear Watson,” he added in a reproving tone. “She reserved her most severe reproach for Carswell herself, though. She became quite intense about it and got her knitting in a dreadful tangle ... kept talking about bringing the nation and the fairer sex into disrepute ... She bears an enormous grudge against Carswell’s friend Willa Muir too, for some reason. In all, a most unpleasant travelling companion.”
       “Were you able to glean any useful information about Carswell – details the lady herself might have omitted to mention?” I enquired.
      “Certainly, in fact it was impossible to stop Mrs. MacGrundy talking once she’d started, and she provided lots of relevant information about Carswell’s life, amidst the salacious gossip, most of which accords with what Carswell told me herself. MacGrundy disapproves of her behaviour and attitudes most wholeheartedly though.”
      “Did Carswell get mixed up in all that suffragette nonsense?” I asked. My suspicions on this front had been aroused after reading the novels.
      “She seems to have avoided political action as such, but as you already know, her work advocates greater social and economic freedoms for women. Her family also attest to her support of many ‘progressive’ causes,” explained Holmes.
      “She was a Bolshevik then? Or was she one of those infuriating Scotch nationalist types?”
      “She claims to have been a lifelong socialist and certainly she was friendly with Hugh MacDiarmid, but on the whole her concern with Scotland appears to centre around cultural and social, rather than constitutional, issues.”
      “Look here, Holmes, how can I put this delicately? Are there any, em, er, unsavoury episodes in her life that could have destroyed her reputation?”
      “Actually, MacGrundy told me a few things. Carswell had a disastrous early marriage, annulled in 1908. The first husband allegedly tried to kill her while she was expecting his child. The fellow ended up in an institution – quite mad, apparently. MacGrundy tried to tell me Carswell had driven him to it, but provided no medical evidence to sustain such a fanciful notion. The whole affair caused quite a stir in the courts at the time and became a leading case in matrimonial law.”
      “I guess no other chap wanted anything to do with Carswell after that! What a trial for her family. I presume she went off to London to live down the disgrace?”
      “On the contrary, Watson, she continued to live in Glasgow for several years, writing for the Glasgow Herald until that trouble I mentioned earlier arose over The Rainbow. She enrolled in classes at the art school and soon embarked on a passionate affair with the renowned painter Maurice Greiffenhagen who was then teaching at the Glasgow School of Art. She went to London only after her mother’s death and shortly after Greiffenhagen’s relocation there.”
      “Did she marry Greiffenhagen?”
      “No, he was already married. Frankly it would have been an undesirable match; he was much older than her and had a family. Instead she married Donald Carswell, a barrister and journalist she’d known in Glasgow before the 1914-19 war. He was much more suitable.”
      “He sounds like an exceptionally forbearing fellow, Holmes.”
      “Even Mrs. MacGrundy admitted they seemed very compatible. Never wealthy though. They had a son, John Carswell, who proved to be a conscientious and insightful literary executor.”
      “So we can’t attribute the demise of her reputation there either. Did you gather any more useful information from MacGrundy’s apoplectic ramblings?”
      “Oh indeed. It transpires that McGrundy regularly attended prayer meetings at the Macfarlane household during Catherine’s childhood. In fact, the woman harbours a suspicion that Miss McRaith in The Camomile is a cruel portrait of her and she’s quite unforgiving about Carswell’s mocking tone.”
      “So MacGrundy has motive and opportunity!” I deduced.
      “Yes, but not quite the influence she once held in Scotland, I’m happy to say,” replied Holmes. “She could not possibly have acted alone.”
      “Have you any thoughts of who her accomplices might be?”
      “Indeed I do, but again, I lack concrete evidence.” I reflected on how frustrating this must be for Holmes who values the verifiable above all else.
      “I suspect another fellow passenger. At first I assumed that the odd looking little man sitting opposite refused to make eye contact because he was intent on avoiding conversation with Mrs. MacGrundy. That was perfectly understandable under the cirumstances, but I quickly found cause to revise this judgement. I am now convinced they are in league with each other, wittingly or unwittingly.
      “He was a small elderly gentleman, scholarly looking, balding, dressed in traditional morning attire, but with the trousers strangely rolled. He was assiduously reading a book entitled The Caledonian Antisyzygy and was underlining portions most emphatically.”
      “Did you recognise him too?” I asked eagerly.
       “I’m quite certain he recognised me,” said Holmes affecting a look of hurt pride, “but he was not remotely interested in making my acquaintance. Indeed, he turned back to his book with an expression of extreme disdain.”
      “Perhaps he failed to recollect your name and was embarrassed?” I suggested in a placatory tone.
      “Hmmph, perhaps,” replied Holmes sounding unconvinced. “He did look a very absent minded fellow,” he conceded. He went on, “This chap ignored me, quite pointedly, for the entire journey. However, when MacGrundy and I were talking, I detected a faint glimmer of recognition in his face when I mentioned Mrs. Carswell’s name, before he hunched his shoulders even further into his coat and buried his nose yet deeper in his book. No wonder he suffers from myopia. He was of a nervous disposition too and became quite flustered when the trolley attendant served him coffee – he made a terrible mess with the sugar. Mrs. MacGrundy told me he’s an academic, a great authority on modern literature. Very high.”
      “So you think this absent minded professor might be to blame for the neglect and demise of Mrs. Carswell’s reputation?”
      “I am sure he must shoulder some of the responsibility. I’m more concerned about how rude he was to me, though. And very worried. If he can forget Mrs. Carswell so easily, is anyone’s reputation secure?”
      “Everyone has heard of you, Holmes,” I assured him.“ Your memory will linger in the public consciousness long after he’s hung up his hood and gown – no matter how disdainful, or forgetful, he and his colleagues become. It’s different with romance. Romance is still popular, but it’s hardly ever taken seriously by scholars.”
      “You may be right Watson. Carswell has a problem there. On the surface her novels look like conventional romances, so occasionally readers are blinded to their intellectual and artistic qualities.”
      “And it doesn’t help at all that she insists on writing about Scotland,” I added. “It’s all very well for a holiday, but who would want to live there? It’s just so peripheral to the mainstream, don’t you think?”
      Holmes didn’t answer. “You know, Watson, this case has given me a lot to think about. No single culprit can be identified.”
      “You fear a conspiracy?”
      “No, I can’t say there was a deliberate attempt to destroy her reputation, but given the cultural climate in which she lived and worked, her reputation was unlikely to flourish. There were many competing interests around and Mrs. Carswell’s subject matter, her gender, even her associates and personal circumstances probably worked against her. Add to that the problem that her chief concerns are somewhat tangential to those of fashionable metropolitan culture, and that, conversely, the Scottish cultural agenda at the time is predominantly concerned with issues of language and national identity which are peripheral to her work, throw in some misconceptions about what she is trying to do, and you start to understand why it was possibly for her reputation to sink almost without trace after World War Two.”
      “If what you say is true, Holmes, it seems to me that the disappearance of Carswell’s reputation defies purely rational explanation.”
      “Indeed, my dear Watson. There is rarely anything very rational about injustices of this sort – only a certain degree of circumstantial logic. While I am delighted that Mrs. Carswell’s reputation has been revived in recent years, I cannot say with confidence that literary worth will be established in any less arbitrary a fashion in the future. If we have been partly successful in solving this particular case, there are many of a similar nature that remain outstanding. We leave far bigger questions quite unresolved.”
      At that moment the door-bell rang.
      “Are you expecting company, Holmes?” I asked.
      “Ah, that will be Mr. Renton. He was the other gentleman I met on the train. He’s a most personable young fellow and he offered welcome relief from Mrs. MacGrundy. We spent most of the journey conversing about this and that. It seems he’s in the confectionary business and makes regular trips to London; he’s an intelligent fellow who exhibits all the entrepreneurial flair one associates with the Northern Britons. I invited him to call next time he was in town and he telephoned this morning to make an appointment. We have a number of common interests.”
      “In that case, Holmes, I’ll be on my way. I have persuaded Mrs. Watson to accompany me to dinner in town this evening. She seemed somewhat reluctant at first, but when I assured her my invitation would not intrude upon her planned afternoon engagement with her sewing circle, she became more amenable to the idea.”
      Holmes smiled knowingly as he showed me to the door. We have both mellowed with age; in the past neither of us would have rested content with such inconclusive findings. Nevertheless, it was with a pleasant sense of calm assurance that I descended the stairs, glad and honoured to have been of service to Holmes once again in his valiant efforts to restore order to this, our troubled world.

 

Copyright © Eilidh Whiteford 2001

 

Last updated 18 August 2010.