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, and unable to find people - particularly women - who are his equals intellectually without considering themselves distant superiors socially, he gradually becomes disaffected by 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, maybe, and the direction of travel is clear; but the exact nature of the ground in between could as easily be rock or quicksand, according to how she imagines it.
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. Right or wrong (and some were clearly in a better position to call the shots than others) it makes a refreshing change.
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. It would have told a story which was readable, sympathetic and all too plausible; you feel she does have a rare understanding of his personality and talent. Even so, if you really want to know about Burns - as opposed to just reading an enjoyable book - it would have to be accompanied by study of his own writings, plus a more rigorous biography like Iain McIntyre's.
The 'dated language' mentioned by one reviewer is, as another said, English. We still await the first textspeak biography of Burns (lol). That said, it is a shade more formal and stilted than the Lawrence book, which is a pity.