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Presenter Cathy MacDonald reveals 1920 novel in new BBC ALBA documentary

19 September 2023

Catherine Carswell’s sadly neglected novel reveals the life of a strong-willed and free-thinking young woman brought up in a bourgeois, strict and Presbyterian Glasgow family in Sàr Sgeòil – Open the Door.

The documentary, which is produced by Caledonia TV, focuses on main character Joanna Bannerman, who is born a prisoner of Victorian and Edwardian values, but into a time of possibilities.

Artistic, idealistic and passionate, she breaks free from middle-class, Presbyterian values to pursue love and fulfilment.

However, this story was not just Joanna Bannerman’s, it also belongs to Catherine Carswell, who used the 1920 novel to explore female desire – a taboo subject at the time, especially for a female writer.

Born Catherine Macfarlane in Glasgow in 1879, Carswell was the daughter of two devout Presbyterians who met at an evangelical meeting. George Macfarlane, her father, was an affluent merchant trader and became a town councillor, and both he and his wife Mary Anne were pillars of the church.

In her novel, Catherine’s alter-ego Joanna studies at the Art School, has talent and dreams of earning her living in London. She has a wide circle of friends, one of whom was with writer D.H Lawrence.

In the programme, Cathy spoke to Gerry Carruthers, Professor of English at the University of Glasgow. “This is a new time of frankness,” he said.

Cathy and Gerard Carruthers with a copy of the novel

“It’s a new time of explicitness. Not in a prurient sense, but in the sense that people want to begin to tap in both psychologically and sensually to the body as well as the mind.”

Catherine eventually did move to London, where she supported herself as a journalist and married Donald Carswell, who had loved her from afar for a long time.

Much like Catherine, main character Joanna also followed her dreams in London, using her artistic talent to get by. Her life, like her creator’s, had been very different from the one of a young middle-class woman born at the end of the 19th century.

Catherine Carswell experienced a critical time in the lives of women. Her novel, Open the Door gives a remarkable insight into that changing world, and Cathy MacDonald tells the story in Sàr Sgeòil – Open the Door.

Sàr Sgeòil – Open the Door airs on BBC ALBA on Tuesday 19 September at 9pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after first airing.