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The Life Of Robert Burns (Canongate Classics) Paperback – 1 Jan 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Classics; Main edition (1 Jan. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0862412927
  • ISBN-13: 978-0862412920
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 12.7 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 320,334 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From the Back Cover

Carswell deliberately shakes the image of Burns as a romantic hero--exposing the sexual misdemeanours, drinking bouts and waywardness that other, more reverential, biographies choose to overlook.

About the Author

Catherine Carswell (1879-1946) was born in Glasgow, one of the four children of George and Mary Anne Macfarlane. On leaving school she attended courses in English Literature at Glasgow University but could not, in those days, be admitted for a degree. In 1904, after a brief engagement, she married Herbert Jackson. When in 1905, she told him of her pregnancy, he tried to kill her. Declared insane, he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. Catherine returned to Glasgow where her daughter was born, and worked, first in Glasgow and then in London as dramatic and literary critic for the Glasgow Herald. In 1907 she began legal proceedings for the anulment of her marriage. She won the case, making legal history.


Her friendship with D.H. Lawrence was kindled by her favourable review of The White Peacock (1911). They met in 1914 and their relationship lasted until Lawrence's death in. In 1915 she married Donald Carswell, with whom she had one son. In the same year, she lost her job at the Glasgow Herald for praising The Rainbow. Soon after that the Carswells moved briefly from London to Bournemouth. in 1916 she and Lawrence exchanged manuscripts of Open the Door! and Women in Love. Her novel was completed in 1918 and won the Melrose Prize on publication in 1920. Her other novel, The Camomile, was published two years later, after which she devoted herself to The Life of Robert Burns, which made her name in 1930. This was quickly followed by a biography of Lawrence, The Savage Pilgrimage (1932).


After her husband's death during the black-out in 1940, Catherine Carswell lived alone in London. She worked with John Buchan's widow on his memorial anthology, The Clearing House (1946) and on her own autobiography, which was published, incomplete, as Lying Awake in 1950. Carswell died in Oxford at the age of 66.


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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.
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Format: Paperback
An excellent read, with just enough references to make it feel convincing. The author has created a credible story of his life, which may use authors licence in places, (I am no Burns Authority). It gives good insight into the period and the lives of many sections of society at the time. I don't understand the above comment that is is unreadable - it is standard English. Thoroughly recommended.
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It is astonishing that this book was first published in 1930. Its frank and unblinking assessment of the virtues and glaring faults of a great man make it one of the most impressive biographies to come out of the 20th century. Burns' dilemma as impoverished peasant ploughman and (temporary) darling of the polite salons of Edinburgh is beautifully brought out, perhaps because Catherine Carswell was aware of parallels in the life of her friend D.H.Lawrence. Her explicitness about Burns' promiscuous sex-life makes it no surprise to learn that she was fiercely attacked by the 'unco guid' of her day, just as Burns was. Then, as now, people with a distorted understanding of religion turn it into an instrument of condemnation.
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A refreshingly new approach by the author on Robert Burns and his relationships with, and treatment of women created unwarranted controversy when the book was first published in the 1930s. Written in a novel-like style, it is both readable and informative and the way in which the author deals with controversial issues is done with accuracy and sensitivity. An enjoyable read that sheds a new light on a very complex individual and how his relationships clearly influenced his writing.
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Through the past two centuries there have been very many high level reviews of this Burns biography by Sir Walter Scott's son-in-law JG Lockhart, so I am hardly going to add anything original. What I will say though is that I found this extremely readable, and a very enjoyable book. I have one minor criticism in that Lockhart seems to rather uncritically follow the line that Burns in esse3nce had a drink problem. Burns was a man of his place and time, and enjoyed a drink in company, but certainly did not have a problem - his problem was that his ailing stomach would not let him drink much. Otherwise, Lockhart is very good, for its time, on many aspects of Burns' life.
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