Elizabeth Harrower’s Third Act

This essay originally appeared in issue 93 (Summer 2014) of Brick Magazine. 

Writing, romantic notions hold, is a way of a life, an identity, a state of being. There is a degree of truth to these assessments. It’s also a job, and we’ve witnessed the retirements of three major writers in recent years. In late 2012, when Philip Roth told the French magazine Les Inrocks: “I’m done,” he touched off debate about whether writers can, in fact, retire. The conclusion, per the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch: sort of. Jim Crace’s announcement greeted readers ahead of his final book, Harvest, which was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Alice Munro had tried to quit once before, in 2006. It was one of the very few failures in her literary life. Four months after her most recent retirement announcement, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Scores of one-novel writers sit at the far end of this spectrum. We lament Harper Lee’s silence and the fact Ralph Ellison never finished Juneteenth, but they are outliers. The disappearance of a mediocre novelist is a non-event. It’s harder to gauge the scale of loss attached to a writer who stops producing fiction in mid-career. E. M. Forster is perhaps the most well-known example, but he already had A Passage to India to his credit when he stopped publishing fiction at the age of forty.

Elizabeth Harrower is a more mysterious and ultimately more gratifying case. Between 1957 and 1966, she published four novels. Notable for the unsentimental tone she used to portray bright female characters beset by limited options, she belonged squarely amid Australia’s finest writers of the era, figures like Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant, who enjoyed long, acclaimed careers. Harrower’s first three books were well regarded, but The Watch Tower set a new standard. At thirty-seven, she was poised to build a body of work that would help define her country’s literature in the latter half of the twentieth century. Patrick White, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1973, encouraged her to follow the path she’d started. Instead, as far as readers knew, she disappeared. Years passed, then piled up. The prospect of a new novel grew remote. Reader interest flagged. The four novels went out of print. Harrower slipped into de facto retirement from the literary world, for undisclosed reasons. It might justifiably have been a long pause, a chance to draw a deep breath after four books in less than a decade and marshal resources for a next, major effort. But, with time her name faded into irrelevance. Despite White’s continued encouragement, Harrower opted for a different sort of life.

Imagine if Roth had stopped writing after Portnoy’s Complaint or Munro after Who Do You Think You Are? We would still know their names, but their reputations would be nowhere near so great. If Crace hadn’t written beyond Signals of Distress, he would likely be a marginal figure today. This is not to cast Harrower as a writer of their calibre, not if entire bodies of work are considered. But through four books she showed tremendous promise. And four novels in less than a decade is a consistent output.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether Harrower’s career was a casualty of the gender politics of her time, directly or otherwise. She has declined to identify as a feminist, concluding that, “the sense of grievance doesn’t appeal to me.” This is a surprise in light of her work, which contains ample cause for grievance among its female characters. There’s a temptation to suspect slyness here, to suspect that she’s advancing a grievance indirectly. If so, the choice is stunningly effective. The Watch Tower finds two sisters in a world so proscribed it’s cruel. In the aftermath of their father’s death and their mother’s decision to move abroad, Laura and her younger sister Clare are left to make their own way. They end up beholden to Felix, the man Laura marries in spite of her lack of real attraction to him and the sizable age difference between them. He takes in Clare as well and provides her with the resources to attend a secretarial course rather than finishing high school. Clare then goes to work for Felix, like Laura before her, and the two of them live at the mercy of his whims and moods. It’s a crushing arrangement. Felix’s motives remain opaque, his sulks and rages unpredictable. He builds up businesses and sells them at a loss, without consulting his wife. There is an intimation of repressed homosexual longing in Felix’s desperate desire to impress other men, even at the expense of his own family’s well-being. The possibility never occurs to his wife, though in her defence, there is no offence so grievous as doubting or questioning him.

The sisterly bond gives way to the bond between husband and wife, but the shift feels more like the result of Stockholm syndrome than a new, shared mission. A casual mention of Felix’s likeness to Bluebeard, and his acquisition of a china figurine of the mythic figure, prompts a moment of ghoulishness:

He knew how to treat his women! He knew the stuff to give ’em! Is he like me? Huh?’ He grimaced more horribly than ever into Clare’s face, popping his eyes at her, and she backed away, giggling kindly. She did not really think him funny at all, but she was very obliged that he tried to be.

‘What?’ The source of Laura’s indignation changed. ‘He was the one who had rooms full of murdered wives!’

Felix gave a dreadful roar and rolled his eyes wildly. ‘Aha! You want to watch out!’ He laughed into the smiling, wary faces with glee.

Felix nurtures uncertainty in the sisters, making no exception his wife: “He was rather miserly about any new facts he happened to acquire. He hoarded them in secret as though they were personal wealth, only popping one out occasionally to give Laura a feeling that this poor sample was the very least of all he hid.” Gradually Clare concludes she has “no choice but to resign herself to the unchangeableness of her existence.” Harrower builds hope and longing for change in the reader as well, only to undermine or delay those moments in the women’s lives and heighten the tension still further. It’s the work of a very sure hand. The reader longs to see what the writer did next. But what she did next was draw back from writing and publishing.

In his survey of Australian novelists, The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found, critic Geordie Williamson speculates that “The very success of [The Watch Tower] meant that no further attempts were required.” Williamson’s explanation is credible in the sense that it notes Harrower’s mastery in the novel, but it doesn’t account for the turmoil implicit in her own remarks and actions. She has spoken obliquely to her choice to stop writing, remarking that, “Other people have an interest in your not writing.” She has also taken a portion of blame for herself, saying, “I was self-destructive,” and noting some unidentified irritation she let get in the way of her work. Whatever her reasons, those early works show the emergence of a mature novelist and leave many tantalizing questions in the what-might-have-been range.

“Retiring from writing is not to retire from life,” Jim Crace has said. Elizabeth Harrower would no doubt agree. She has noted that many of the friends she’s made in the past twenty or thirty years have no idea she ever published a word. Of her books, Harrower has said it “does seem like another person” wrote them. The reissue of those books by Text Publishing has brought a new wave of attention from readers in her native Australia, and from abroad. With the rare exception, reissued classics seldom yield big responses. The groundswell of belated recognition for John Williams’s novel Stoner in the United Kingdom last year was as notable as it was improbable. The early results in Harrower’s case are promising, however. Michael Dirda wrote a glowing review of The Watch Tower in The Washington Post. A piece in the Guardian (U.K.) suggested an affinity between Harrower’s novel and the band Portishead’s album Dummy. And 2014 will see Harrower’s first new novel in better than forty years. In Certain Circles was set for publication in 1971, but Harrower withdrew it late in the process. She consigned it to a drawer until publisher Michael Heyward convinced her it belonged in print. It should bring still more attention to Harrower’s past life and perhaps add a triumphant final chapter to her literary legacy.

– John McIntyre

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