Catherine Carswell - Open the Door! (1920)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
In Alasdair Gray's Lanark, Duncan Thaw claims that 'imaginatively, Glasgow exists as a music hall song and a few bad novels. That's all we've given to the world outside. It's all we've given to ourselves.' Open the Door!, whose author is probably best known for her 1930 biography of Robert Burns, is one of those novels that Gray's young hero seemed not to have got round to yet. Catherine Carswell's first novel is the story of Joanna Bannerman's attempts to find the freedom denied by her religious upbringing. It is also a fascinating portrayal of genteel society in Glasgow at the beginning of the 20th century, when the fortunes of the Empire's Second City were bound up in colonialism overseas.
Joanna emerges as the most individualistic of her family, the children of Sholto and Juley Bannerman. Her mother is portrayed with great subtlety, saddled by an evangelical zeal wedded to feelings of guilt about having married and she becomes increasingly tormented by Joanna's apparent lack of spirituality. Meanwhile, Joanna struggles to reconcile her bookish, idealised notions of love with the realities she encounters in her relationships with men. As a young woman, she goes to Glasgow's School of Art before marrying and moving to live with her new husband near Florence. Soon widowed, Joanna later moves to London where she defies her mother's conventionality by pursuing a relationship with a married man.
Carswell's portrayal of a journey from girlhood to adulthood is full of nuanced observation; Joanna's love affairs are embarrassing and illicit, unfulfilling and life-changing. Open the Door! shows a woman struggling with society's conventions and family expectations, both of which prove unable to meet her aspirations, and finding happiness on the road of her own experiences.
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