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'a wintry day and a weary way is the life of man'
on 16 May 2013
I felt a bit depressed on finishing this. Burns' end may have been miserable and premature, but his work is so full of life that you feel he must have enjoyed himself most of the time. Catherine Carswell's Burns, though, is a man who - having elevated himself by his talent above the simple folk he grew up with - spends the rest of his life desperately battling against loneliness and financial ruin. Caught between classes, terrified of debt, he is unable to find people - particularly women - who are his equals intellectually without considering themselves distant superiors socially. He gradually becomes disaffected with virtually the entire human race, and dies defeated.
Undoubtedly the model for this portrait was Carswell's friend DH Lawrence, who had a similar life in certain ways (although in his case, it was more that he couldn't find anyone he didn't think himself superior to). In reference to Burns, it is a highly conjectural one; Carswell uses a novelist's freedom in relating thoughts, feelings and sometimes even events with complete confidence, even where there can be no way of knowing for sure what they were. She's like a child skipping along a line of posts in a playground. Her footing is firm at the most important points, and the direction of travel is clear; but though she can guess more or less confidently at the nature of the ground between, she doesn't know for sure.
This easy objectification of her writer's instincts is one mark of Lawrence's tutelage; a preoccupation with the sensual - the whole physical side of life - is another. Her comparative frankness about sex would be unusual in a biographer now and must have been deeply shocking when this was first published, especially since it extends as much to her women 'characters' as the male lead. But in this respect she probably does no more than justice to her subject, and it's a corrective to relying too much on words. Carswell appreciates that, though words are the only remnant we have of most lives, they are not the substance of any life as it is lived.
As for those women, who have sometimes been portrayed as his hapless victims: she has no patience with the 'vile seducer' image of Burns. Her attitude is that all his women - friends, lovers and wife - got exactly what they asked for, although not always what they really wanted (her impatience with Agnes McLehose's pussyfooting about - wanting Burns on a string, but without giving him anything - is amusing to see). It's a robust, refreshing view, though you feel that some of his humbler conquests do deserve a lot of sympathy.
If Carswell been writing today - when such books are commonplace - I feel sure she'd have gone the whole way and made this a novel. As it is, she has told a story which rings psychologically true even though its author cannot possibly vouch for every detail. She has a gift for linking the disparate events of his life into a unified consciousness, and - sad to say - this is probably a truer picture of him than those of more rigorous, objective biographies.
The 'dated language' mentioned by one reviewer is, as another said, English. We still await the first textspeak biography of Burns (lol).