May 2014

Arts & Letters

The return of Elizabeth Harrower’s ‘In Certain Circles’

By Geordie Williamson

A long-lost novel sees the light after 40 years

Martin Amis recently said something surprising. In an interview for the Guardian newspaper, the incorrigibly controversial novelist was recounting years of teenage alienation and educational underachievement. He concluded by explaining that the writer who first wakened in him an interest in and a care for literature was Jane Austen.

Amis observed that Austen’s characters were made for one another, quite literally. She willed them into being and then shaped them so that, say, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy might come together as two parts of a whole. Their marriage, for Amis, was dynamic in its potential.

Meanwhile, a century and a half later, another woman, possessed of Austen’s psychological acuity but not her romantic strain, took the opposite tack. Over the course of four novels published between 1957 and 1966, the Australian author Elizabeth Harrower created a cast of men and women designed for mutual destruction. These she situated in blameless suburban domesticity, London flats or bungalows in her home town of Sydney, before pitting them against one another the way Julius Caesar did his gladiators. These novels were graceful, intellectually acute and possessed of the unrelenting quality of nightmare. What made the violence of Harrower’s fictional universe all the more appalling was its workaday nature, its bloodlessness – there was no catharsis in her work, only collapse.

The Watch Tower was the fourth and final of Harrower’s novels to be published. Its story of two young sisters taken up by a middle-aged businessman who turns out to be a monster is widely regarded as her best. When Patrick White withdrew The Solid Mandala from Miles Franklin contention in 1967, it was The Watch Tower he recommended in its place (it didn’t win).

Harrower spent the following years working on a fifth novel. She submitted the manuscript to her publisher in 1971, then asked for it back. Her dissatisfaction with the book was reflected in the fierce winnowing to which she then subjected it. Harrower resubmitted the novel in significantly abbreviated form, before pulling the plug entirely. She retrieved the manuscript, set it aside and published nothing more than a scattering of short stories.

Harrower’s works eventually went out of print, though battered copies of The Watch Tower never stopped being passed from hand to hand. One of the great literary talents of her era, lauded by White and Christina Stead, spoken of in the same breath as Randolph Stow, took what amounted to a 40-year vow of silence.

In Certain Circles is that fifth novel, the work over which Harrower, now 86, faltered. Its long path to publication ends here, in a hardback edition by Text, the publisher that has recently brought all of Harrower’s published books back into print via the Text Classics series. And while the cover art and typography are elegantly and self-consciously retro, the work feels anything but.

The novel opens beside a tennis court at a harbourside home on Sydney’s North Shore. With its privileged, perfectly manicured location and bell-jar atmosphere, the scene recalls the opening of the 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. A young man, Russell, the son of the house, recently back from the war (though which one, exactly, is never made clear), has invited two orphans of his acquaintance, Stephen and Anna, to play tennis, much to the annoyance of his beautiful and gifted sister Zoe.

Russell is a great collector of lost souls – there is something saintly in his decency – but his sister is less evolved: “She was too young to be thoughtful, or interested in someone else’s problems. She felt a huge impatience at this unwarranted check to her self-absorption and happy conceit and ambition.”

Zoe dislikes Anna for the dull domestic tragedy of her early life (raised by an indifferent uncle and a neurasthenic aunt in some “droughty” outer suburb). Stephen is another thing entirely: stubborn, socially awkward, grimly determined to make his way in the world in spite of poverty and limited education. Zoe cannot stand Stephen, though the vehemence of her responses suggest an attraction she is unwilling or unable to countenance.

Russell and Stephen become close friends and, as a result, Zoe has no means of escape from Anna. Early pages are given over to Zoe’s perspective, quick-witted yet naive, shaped by inherited hauteur and teenage unworldliness: “It was not as though she were a trashy or frivolous person. Or not only trashy or frivolous. She was almost certain her heart was in the right place. It was simply that circumstances had not called on her to produce it very often.”

There is a masterful economy in Harrower’s sketches of people and place, and there is a swiftness in the way she moves her characters through time and space. Zoe grows up and moves to Paris, where she becomes a photographer of some renown. Her older lover, a film director, is adoring, already married and past his professional prime. She cannot forgive his excessive affection. “To love more than you were loved in return,” she considers, “how little character that showed!”

It is the unexpected death of her mother that draws Zoe home. The grief she feels is the first significant blow she has been dealt, and Harrower, who lost her own mother during the writing of the novel, presumably lends Zoe some of her own loss. Certainly the motions of her grief have an awful verisimilitude.

But Zoe is not the only one who has suffered. Anna has lost her brother to a job in Melbourne, and the likeable musician she had married died at the age of 33. The young widow’s attentions have returned to Russell, long-married to a rather dry academic named Lily, and to the realisation that the two of them have always been in love: “Now, it seemed that the very impossibility which had been the basis of the light-heartedness, the freedom spun between them, was what made watchfulness so essential.”

Harrower is powerfully fond of paradoxes like these, though she reserves the kicker for Zoe, who in turn realises that she has always been in love with Stephen. They quickly marry, and the headstrong young woman feels that she has “fallen through him into the universe, into her real self” and that “she lived always now at two levels – the practical, visible one, where she performed deeds in the world, swiftly, without effort, and the other real level, where she lived with Stephen in a state she could not describe even to herself, only experience, a flawless now”.

Having established this circle of affiliation and affection, Harrower draws it ever tighter as the decades go on. Her insights into the nature of love, the role of women and the torsions of power in even the most ordinary relationship are bitter and sometimes cruel, wielded in the way that acute honesty may be, like a whip. Yet they are always delivered via the honeyed dipper of her prose.

What makes In Certain Circles different from the rest of Harrower’s work is the possibility of the presence of human happiness, even if she makes happiness work on the page in the knowledge that it will soon be repealed. The world of this novel is more ventilated than that of its predecessors, as if the blinds of a shuttered room had been opened a crack.

It is impossible not to welcome this lightening. And it in no way detracts from the quality of Harrower’s novel to acknowledge its presence. If there is something about the author – the analytic remove of her intellect, the thrift of her manner – that renders her finally an enigmatic absence, we are at least granted warm intimacy with Harrower’s creations, rather than the appalling ringside proximity of The Watch Tower. Writing that Austen’s life had been distilled into her books, Virginia Woolf wondered, “Are those Jane Austen’s eyes or is it a glass, a mirror, a silver spoon held up to the sun?” Harrower shares that impersonal perfection. In Certain Circles is a mirror held up to Sydney’s skies, reflecting their endless, incomparable blue.            

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.


Photo courtesy of Text Publishing.

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