In Certain Circles: The Last of Elizabeth Harrower

It’s strange to say so about the work of a living writer, but In Certain Circles is a fitting epilogue to Elizabeth Harrower’s literary career. Her fourth and presumably final novel, The Watch Tower, was released in 1966. It was out of print, as were her three other novels, until Australia’s Text Publishing began reissuing lost classics of Australian literature in 2011. Shortly thereafter, In Certain Circles turned up in the archives of the National Library of Australia. It had been there since 1971, when Harrower made an eleventh-hour decision to pull it from publication. It hadn’t attracted much attention in the intervening decades. Harrower had made no subsequent move to have it published. It belonged to another life, one she might regard fondly but felt no urgency to revisit. If not for the admiring notices the reissues of her previous books received, and the gentle but persistent enthusiasm of her new publisher, it might’ve languished there indefinitely amid the artifacts.

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National Library of Australia

Her reasons for choosing to stop publication remain a mystery. What’s clear is that In Certain Circles is a fitting final entry in the Harrower catalog. The novel is concerned with two pairs of siblings whose lives unfold over more than twenty years, beginning in post-WWII Sydney. Russell and Zoe are children of privilege, relatively speaking. Their parents are “well-known identities” in the press. With their creature comforts and lush surroundings, Russell and Zoe’s family might live in an idyll, but for the war’s shadow still hanging over him. The entry of a pair beguiling orphans, Stephen and Anna, into their orbit upsets the balance of things as well. He’s darkly serious and she, when we’re first introduced to her, is a “fifteen-year-old orphan with the grave eyes suitable to her fabled position in life.” They’re unlike anyone Zoe has known, though if we’re to trust her mother, Zoe has led a sheltered life at that point.

Their lives grow gradually more intertwined, progress Harrower charts deftly, allowing much to happen off the page. Zoe marries Stephen. Russell and Stephen go into business together. Anna and Russell carry on an affair. All the while, Harrower has firm command in narrative terms. She uses leaps to mark the passage of time, covering better than two decades in 250 pages. It’s also apparent she understands fully the events she chooses not to portray, both their specifics and emotional weight, thanks to a series of well-placed allusions to the intervening years, and the fact these characters feel as whole at forty as they did at eighteen. Readers who missed Harrower the first time around may find themselves thinking of Anita Brookner’s mastery here, but that’s technically an inversion. There’s clear common ground – both are enviably good on the weight of attractions and social slights, for instance – but Harrower’s work as a writer ended well ahead of Brookner’s debut as a novelist.

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In Certain Circles also feels more tightly written than Harrower’s previous work, on a line by line basis. She may not have mulled over Isaac Babel’s observation that, “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place,” but there are instances here which would make the great Russian proud. When Zoe’s friends visit, shortly after she’s met Stephen and come away puzzled and flustered, Harrower writes,

The young men were law students, and famous as football players. Zoe heard Russell explaining this to Stephen as she joined them again after a swift change of clothing. Certainly, their physical splendour needed some explanation. Inches over six feet, with heavy faces, heavy locks of hair – Zoe saw them as Greek warriors, or lovers, or athletes, on the frieze of some Ionian temple. Her esteem reached its peak when they were out on the field. Her eyes could never decide whether their running or their standing, poised to take a goal, thrilled her more.

Off the field, well, they still looked like heroes, but were as complex as a comic strip. Conventional. Ordinary. In spite of their looks. (She had just realized it.) They had the usual predatory view of Zoe, and no strong hold on her affections. She had never thought of them so coldly as today, yet today she would willingly have gone to live with both of them at the same time.

Zoe’s attitude also serves as early notice of the social and cultural changes that unfold over the course of the novel. Harrower deals with these in a restrained fashion. She doesn’t trouble herself to make reference to landmark events, but a new permissiveness is apparent later in the novel. It better suits Anna, whose life is not quite dissolute, but certainly not conventional either by the standards of the day. She’s lived abroad, taken lovers, foregone the chance to have children. The seriousness with which she considers suicide during the intervening years suggests hers was not an easy passage through that restrictive period, but she’s strong and self-reliant by the end.

That potential suicide also emerges as a climactic moment. Its resolution suits the novel, Anna’s character, and the contours of Harrower’s body of work equally well. Anna offers an explanation for her change of heart – it was a complex time, she says – and concludes, “But it’s ancient history. It’s a story about someone else.” It’s not hard to picture Harrower, who parted ways with the literary life so definitively, so many years earlier and started anew, nodding her approval.

— John McIntyre

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