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
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
I JUST DIDN’T BELIEVE IN HAPPY MARRIAGES AND ALL OF THAT
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.
Harrower in the 1970s