I am ashamed to admit that it took an American literary critic, James Wood, in a long, detailed, and inclusive article in The New Yorker dated October 20 2014 to inform me of an Australian writer who is not only still alive, but has always lived in Sydney in a suburb next to a suburb where I lived for twenty-five years. I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower; and as if to make up for lost time, or as an urging to put things right, I found a book of hers, this book in the Text edition, praised by the New Yorker for re-discovering her, in a second-hand book shop on the little tropical island in Indonesia where I live. But to rub salt into the wound of my ignorance, when I mentioned her to my book-loving sister in the Barossa Valley Sis said, “Oh, yes! I read her years ago.”
Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928, spent her childhood in industrial Newcastle, New South Wales, north of Sydney, but lived in London from 1951 to 1959 where she wrote her first two novels, Down in the City (1957) and this one, The Long Prospect (1958); the latter was highly thought of by Christine Stead, a champion of Harrower’s work. When she returned to Sydney she worked in publishing and wrote three more books, The Catherine Wheel (1960), The Watch Tower (1966), considered her best, and In Certain Circles, which she withdrew from publication, sent it to the National Library and gave up writing. It was finally published in 2014 when Michael Heyward of Text Publishing re-discovered her and ultimately re-issued all her work. In 2015, a collection of stories, A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories was published.
Her major themes are somewhat repetitive: a naïve woman, or women, trapped in their parochial and/or stifling circumstances come under the spell of a bully, usually a man, but in The Long Prospect, a woman: Mrs Lilian Hulme is particularly unpleasant, manipulative, and selfish, especially to her granddaughter, Emily.
Harrower’s women characters can be adequately summed up by this, said about Paula, Lilian’s daughter and Emily’s neglectful mother: “And there, in the city, as far as one could tell, she had been content in her own quiet humourless way to sit with the resignation of a decoy duck in a fun-fair allowing things – life in this instance – to be thrown at her.”
Men were hated, described as old women or letches, but useful to humiliate. Girls thought they drowned little girls in sacks or pursued them through mulberry bushes, wanted more than they could get, had slippery hands and shiny foreheads, slapped other men on the back for just being men and trying to get what they wanted which was always what they couldn’t have.
“… she hates all men. So do I, so do you, eh, Thea? Still you’ve got to have some around.”
Yet women read magazines of true love stories where heroines, after much trouble, get the men they want, but such men never seem to be anywhere around where such women readers live; and others read real-life murder stories where men are fiends on the prowl just waiting for a young girl to be left alone when they leap through carelessly closed windows and do what everyone knows men do. All this causes little girls to dream that they are orphans or that their mothers are not theirs, especially when those mothers return from partying having left little girls all alone and frightened; those little girls run back up to bed and listen to giggles and someone being sick and it is all normal again and nothing is ever said: bad mothers know nothing of little girl’s fears and if they did, so what, it had happened to them, and they turned out alright, didn’t they?
And on these men and women, lay an attitude of “humourless endurance” which “had been imposed on most by parents like themselves, surroundings of monotonous ugliness, participation in wars the young could not remember, and by a brief education delivered with so little relevance to circumstance and ability as to be incomprehensible.” And where female friendships, at best, are full of nothing but silent, sad contempt interspersed with moments of need disguised as affection.
Lilian – “dyed blonde hair and grey eyes” stated at her friend Billie – “dyed black hair and great cow eyes.” So ageing, they thought.
Such is the social landscape of Harrower’s characters in the late 1950’s Australia. In the muddle of all this Emily Lawrence grows up and one Christmas holidays she turns twelve and “made capable of objectivity. Overnight she had become all-seeing and all wise … which she incredibly, sometimes shockingly, and often to the dismay of her heart, knew what was true and what was not.”
Then Lilian takes in a boarder, Max. He not only looks at Emily, he sees her, “No one ever looked as if they saw her” and what excited her most was not all his books, or the gramophone, although that was indeed exciting, but that she was “conscious of his unconsciousness of her…and felt a small physical reaction on her spine to the suddenly strange, living humanity of the man…” In a world of men who had no control over their vices, tobacco, alcohol, pride, and the pity of women, here was a man who talked to her as if she was a grown-up and “she knew she would always have to be what he expected her to be.” Was it possible that there was such a thing as a good man?
The adults thought he taught Emily “high-falutin’ rubbish,” but “he was deep; he could do all that without looking silly or soft.” Max is indeed a very different kind of man. Can a genuine friendship between a grown man and a twelve-year old girl flourish in an atmosphere of gossip, small-mindedness, and stifling conformity?
Harrower is a master of language sometimes surprises you with her choice of words:
“His physical presence among them was a phenomenon, to which they accustomed themselves with the ease of savages”.
“The mild flowery smell preceded her into Max’s room, beginning another day in which he would be.” But her choice is always apt and enlightening.
There is little free indirect discourse (sometimes called close writing) here: the prose seldom reflects the language that each character would use – Emily sounds much older than she is, more like the narrator; but this was written in the 50s where such techniques were only sparsely used, but are now a common factor in contemporary fiction. However, The Long Prospect is still an effective portrayal of the narrow minded 50s of semi-urban Australia; no wonder most intelligent and ambitious people, like Harrower, left for London where civilisation and creativity dwelt, and a chance to be someone other than the person one was born as.
The Long Prospect is an intriguing read and recommended as an important work from an important ‘re-discovered’ Australian writer.