El­iz­a­beth Har­rower talks about life as an out­sider and why she stopped writ­ing

Why nov­el­ist El­iz­a­beth Har­rower aban­doned writ­ing is one of the great puz­zles of Aus­tralian let­ters. He­len Trinca searches for an an­swer

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LON­DON in the 1950s and in a rented room, a dark-haired Aus­tralian bends over her Oliver type­writer. She wears a woollen cap and hugs a hot-wa­ter bot­tle. There’s a shilling in the slot for heat­ing but it is bit­terly cold. El­iz­a­beth Har­rower, how­ever, is in a dif­fer­ent space, writ­ing about the heat of Sydney and the fur­nace of mar­riage.

When she is fin­ished, Har­rower looks up ad­dresses in the Writ­ers’ & Artists’ Year­book and posts her man­u­script off to pub­lish­ers.

She has al­ways writ­ten, from long be­fore she could spell. But Down in the City is her first book. Even­tu­ally Cas­sell picks it up. It is 1957, and Har­rower, at just 29, is al­ready well into her sec­ond novel.

This time, she re­mem­bers New­cas­tle where she lived un­til she was 11. The Long Prospect ren­ders the in­dus­trial city well but, once again, it is the back­drop to the ca­sual, mon­strous cru­elty of do­mes­tic life.

It would be vul­gar to see Har­rower’s fic­tion as au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal but it is hard not to think she has lived through a ver­sion of the psy­cho­log­i­cal tur­moil she cat­a­logues. In an in­ter­view 30 years ago she ad­mit­ted that, if any­thing, the emo­tional truth in her books was less ex­treme than the re­al­ity of her child­hood. These days she is more guarded.

‘‘ I’ve un­der­stood more than I want to un­der­stand some­times, and this is why not ev­ery­one is go­ing to like the books be­cause some­times they tell you things you don’t want to know,’’ she says. ‘‘ I am not sure about a lot of things, but there are things I know that I would never, ever let any­one con­tra­dict.’’

Not that she has told us ev­ery­thing she knows. Har­rower, now 84, pub­lished just four nov­els and a hand­ful of short sto­ries, then stopped. Her last novel was The Watch Tower in 1966, and her last short story ap­peared in 1977. She has never lacked ideas and char­ac­ters, but for 35 years has kept them to her­self.

Her lim­ited out­put meant she had all but dis­ap­peared be­fore Text Pub­lish­ing be­gan reis­su­ing her fic­tion as part of its project to re­cover for­got­ten Aus­tralian nov­els. The Watch Tower was re­leased in April and The Long Prospect this week. Still to come are The Cather­ine Wheel, first pub­lished in 1960, and Down in the City.

She is not the only writer to stop but Har­rower does not cite the usual rea­sons such as ill­ness, work and fam­ily, writer’s block — al­though there was a rough patch in the 70s when she won an Aus­tralia Coun­cil fel­low­ship.

‘‘ I was pressed into ap­ply­ing for a grant, and you could see from my his­tory that I was in­ter­ested in do­ing things the hard way,’’ she says. ‘‘ You could see I was not com­fort­able. Be­cause I was obliged to write a book, I wrote a book. Macmil­lan ac­cepted it. It was well writ­ten be­cause once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead nov­els out in the world that don’t need to be writ­ten.’’

She wrote to Macmil­lan and with­drew the man­u­script. She says she can’t even re­mem­ber



what she called it. In fact it was called In Cer­tain Cir­cles. ‘‘ That was not me, it was forced labour,’’ she says. ‘‘ I think it would have dis­ap­pointed peo­ple. Patrick would have been dis­ap­pointed. I was dis­ap­pointed.’’

Patrick, of course, is Patrick White. They met in the 60s when Kylie Ten­nant dropped in on White and Manoly Las­caris at Cas­tle Hill on Sydney’s out­skirts. Har­rower stayed in the car. White came out to meet her and when the cou­ple moved to in­ner-city Cen­ten­nial Park, Har­rower was a reg­u­lar at their ta­ble.

She still can’t be­lieve White has been dead for more than 20 years. She has out­lived most of that circle — Ten­nant, Christina Stead, Jes­sica An­der­son, Richard Hall, Cyn­thia and Sid Nolan, Nancy Phe­lan. Some were much older, but in the 60s they took her in. Her books had been well re­viewed and ex­pec­ta­tions were high. White thought she should win the Miles Franklin for The Watch Tower.

Un­til then, Har­rower had writ­ten un­der the radar. She had worked in of­fices, not gone to univer­sity — only girls whose fathers were judges or spe­cial­ists did that, she says — and she did not have a net­work. In­deed, she is re­pelled by the no­tion of net­work­ing and was pleased pos­i­tive re­views came from strangers: ‘‘ No one did me any favours.’’ Her sense of her­self as the out­sider be­gan early.

In 1980, Har­rower told Jim David­son in an in­ter­view for Mean­jin, now in the Oral His­tory Col­lec­tion at the Na­tional Li­brary, that ‘‘ peo­ple don’t un­der­stand what a fan­tas­tic amount of en­ergy sur­viv­ing takes if you have had a re­ally tur­bu­lent child­hood ... It’s an­other world.’’ She told David­son The Long Prospect was not a fac­tual ac­count of that time, in­deed none of her nov­els were.

But she said that ‘‘ you would have to say that the emo­tional truth is there in all of the books’’. If any­thing, it was ‘‘ less ex­treme than re­al­ity be­cause re­al­ity is so un­be­liev­able’’.

Now, she will not talk about that time. ‘‘ All I can say is that I was a di­vorced child. I was the only di­vorced child re­ally. It was just un­heard of, and chil­dren can be very, very mean to other chil­dren if they are not ex­actly iden­ti­cal. Very mean.’’

Her fa­ther was in the pic­ture only briefly. She blocks ques­tions about her mother, who died ‘‘ too young’’ at 61 in 1970. Mar­garet Har­rower was only 19 when her daugh­ter was born in 1928. Af­ter the di­vorce, they lived with Mar­garet’s mother in New­cas­tle un­til they moved back to Sydney when El­iz­a­beth was 11. Like Emily in The Long Prospect, the young El­iz­a­beth hun­gered for knowl­edge and learned from books, de­spite con­stantly chang­ing schools. ‘‘ Like all di­vorced chil­dren, you move around a lot,’’ she says. Later she read her way through the Sydney City li­brary housed in the Queen Vic­to­ria Build­ing. ‘‘ There was noth­ing any­one could men­tion that I had not read, it was food and drink to me.’’

Life was very tough at times, but her nat­u­ral cheer­ful­ness ‘‘ kept break­ing through’’ — some­what to her sur­prise. ‘‘ It is not to say that I have not been very un­happy. I have felt des­per­ately un­happy about some things, but you choose, you come to a point. I al­ways chose to re­cover and go on liv­ing.’’

Har­rower never mar­ried. ‘‘ I have to say that I was very con­scious that I did not want to have chil­dren.’’ Why? ‘‘ I just didn’t be­lieve in happy marriages and all of that. I could never pic­ture my­self in that sit­u­a­tion. I had seen an aw­ful lot of un­happy marriages when I was quite young. I can re­mem­ber the first, sort of, happy mar­riage I wit­nessed, and it was a reve­la­tion re­ally.’’

Un­happy marriages, with all their power to hold peo­ple to­gether, are at the cen­tre of her books. In The Long Prospect, Emily’s par­ents can­not live to­gether yet can­not sep­a­rate.

Dis­like, warped pas­sion, non-com­pre­hen­sion — noth­ing could out­weigh the in­ner, un­con­scious, fab­u­lously ro­man­tic idea of mar­riage — them­selves the hero and hero­ine: to part would have been to live life de­prived.

Har­rower never wanted a subur­ban life. ‘‘ At one point I lived in a rental place in [Sydney’s] Hunters Hill and when I was out walk­ing, I loathed know­ing there was a sav­age dog at end of the street pro­tect­ing some­one’s place and a ter­ri­ble smell of roast cook­ing. I would want to flee. I just loathed that im­pris­on­ing do­mes­tic­ity.’’

She chose a dif­fer­ent route. Post-war Sydney was glam­orous, lit up with neon lights, and Har­rower was ex­cited by the influence of Euro­pean mi­grants. The Aus­tralia Ho­tel was a land­mark. ‘‘ You surged in there, ev­ery­thing was avail­able to ev­ery­one,’’ she says. Sud­denly, life was ac­ces­si­ble.

Anx­i­ety about class and in­clu­sion run through Har­rower’s nov­els. In an essay in 1975, critic D. R. Burns noted her loathing for the ‘‘ well-ad­justed, the snugly mar­ried, the smart and suc­cess­ful, the fash­ion­able’’.

Two of her most fal­li­ble male char­ac­ters — Stan in Down in the City and Felix in The Watch Tower — are self-made men who marry up and Har­rower is re­lent­less in her de­pic­tion of the havoc cre­ated by this des­per­ate search for ac­cep­tance.

She is hum­ble, too, about how far ra­tio­nal anal­y­sis of hu­man na­ture can take us.

In his essay on Har­rower in his re­cent work The Burn­ing Li­brary, Ge­ordie Wil­liamson quotes Clare in The Watch Tower as she ques­tions the value of psy­chol­o­gists:

Their work con­tained many stock so­lu­tions, but no awe; many clas­si­fi­ca­tions, but no re­spect; many judg­ments, but no love.

She loved Sydney, but at 23 Har­rower left to visit her mother’s rel­a­tives in Scot­land. In Colombo, she was as­ton­ished by the ‘‘ Bud­dhist monks, um­brel­las, rain, cin­na­mon’’. In Bom­bay she de­cided she was never go­ing back to Aus­tralia. Af­ter Scot­land she went to Lon­don. ‘‘ In those days if you could read and write and spell and add up and were quite bright it wasn’t dif­fi­cult to get all sorts of dif­fer­ent jobs,’’ she says.

She stayed on for years, work­ing and writ­ing and ‘‘ be­ing po­lit­i­cal’’. She marched for nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment, lis­tened to Ber­trand Rus­sell and Li­nus Pauling, wrote to The Sun­day Times over Suez. It was the brink of the Cold War and pol­i­tics was ‘‘ elec­tri­fy­ing’’.

In 1959 she came home to Sydney largely be­cause of her mother, lived in rented places and took a low-level job at the ABC to avoid be­ing side­tracked by a ca­reer. She saved her small salary and left at the end of a year to write. ‘‘ I lived dan­ger­ously, I went with­out things, I was ac­tu­ally hun­gry.’’

She got a job at Macmil­lan in Pitt Street in Sydney and started meet­ing writ­ers. One day Judah Waten sent the Nolans in to meet her. ‘‘ They both came in and I took a hand of each of them,’’ Har­rower re­calls. Later she spent eight months with the Nolans in their house in Put­ney, Lon­don. An in­her­i­tance from her mother meant she did not have to work.

By now, she was an out­sider ‘‘ with some

very good other out­siders’’. ‘‘ I found some very good friends and we un­der­stood each other and you were in tune and this was a huge plea­sure,’’ she says. ‘‘ I was inside this im­por­tant, in­ter­est­ing and lov­able and loved group of friends.’’

They urged her to write but for a host of ‘‘ bad rea­sons’’ she did not. She ad­mits she was dis­ap­pointed when she did not win the Miles Franklin af­ter such high ex­pec­ta­tions were raised. ‘‘ I think I prob­a­bly made a de­ci­sion some­where along the line and I think I was pun­ish­ing some­one [by not writ­ing],’’ she says. ‘‘ Not quite sure who ex­actly I was pun­ish­ing ... I think I thought. ‘ You don’t want me, I don’t want you.’ ’’

But that de­ci­sion was self-de­struc­tive. If she had her time again, she would do it dif­fer­ently.

Not that Har­rower lives in the past. She feels ‘‘ as lively as a cricket’’ and goes out ev­ery day from her mod­est flat with a view of Sydney Har­bour, to con­certs and to meet friends for lunch. She’s a ‘‘ print junkie’’ and loves news­pa­pers but has not read her nov­els since she wrote them. She al­ways had con­fi­dence in the books and thought they would ‘‘ come again’’, but read­ing them now would serve no pur­pose, she be­lieves.

Look­ing back, she is not sure what to make of her char­ac­ters. ‘‘ I sus­pect that if I read some of them now I would think they were in­cred­i­bly high-minded, which I think would ir­ri­tate me now — ex­cept that you should never pa­tro­n­ise your younger self. I re­ally couldn’t do any of those books now.’’

Her hero­ines strain for in­tegrity, yet their fates are of­ten de­cided by what D. R. Burns termed a ‘‘ cos­mic hope­less­ness’’.

Here’s Laura in The Watch Tower, watch­ing her hus­band with the ‘‘ word­less per­cep­tion that in hu­man af­fairs in an ab­so­lute sense there can never be any vic­tors, there is no such thing as self-in­ter­est, and no way of be­ing right’’.

What does Har­rower think these days of hu­man na­ture? ‘‘ I think we are very, very faulty and I think it is such a pity — that we are not up to some­thing as great as we could be.’’

She had been pro­foundly dis­ap­pointed by oth­ers but also ad­mits there are many things she has done she would love to change. ‘‘ You just have these un­rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions of your­self and ev­ery­body else,’’ she says.

Cyn­thia Nolan’s daugh­ter Jinx says Har­rower is like a leaf on a tree — the slight­est wind and she re­sponds. ‘‘ She feels other peo­ple’s pain, she knows their pain be­fore they do,’’ Jinx Nolan says from her home in the US.

Har­rower says: ‘‘ I can re­mem­ber my mother say­ing to me in my teens, ‘ You are so in­tense’, and I thought, my good­ness, what does that mean? I do un­der­stand life — and gen­er­ally, with in­ten­sity. No won­der I take a lot of drugs for high blood pres­sure. Even now, ev­ery­thing im­pinges.’’

Once, writ­ing was more im­por­tant than any­thing. The other day she re­alised she could not even be both­ered writ­ing a post­card: ‘‘ I thought, I will just keep it to my­self.’’

Even so, she says: ‘‘ I would love to have writ­ten more books. I knew more, I should have put more down. I knew more in­ter­est­ing things. I knew more ex­cit­ing things. I feel guilty be­cause this is some­thing that I can do. For a lot of bad rea­sons, it didn’t hap­pen.’’

The Long Prospect (Text, $12.95) is now avail­able. For an ex­tract, go to theaus­tralian.com.au/re­view.

He­len Trinca’s bi­og­ra­phy of writer Madeleine St John will be pub­lished by Text in April.

El­iz­a­beth Har­rower in the 1970s

Har­rower in the 1970s

El­iz­a­beth Har­rower

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