Wednesday, 24 October 2012

ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)

The Text Publishing Company Australia, 2012

Anyway, the obstacles were unarguably too great.  Who could break out?  Who could do more than marvel dully at survival?  Who had energy and initiative now to spare for what was merely reasonable?  What promise had the world held out ever that there was anything to escape to?  What was there to desire in this nightmare but the cessation of strain?  On the other hand, what sensible kind-hearted citizen would not scoff at the suggestion that there could exist in a charming white colonial house in the suburbs a human situation slightly beyond the powers of commonsense to mend?  Sydney was such a pretty, ordinary city!  Women are notoriously neurotic, of course!  What's the harm in a fellow having a few beers at the end of a day's work?  If his women are gloomy, no wonder he drinks!  Good luck to him!

The Novel:  The sudden death of her husband causes Stella Vaizey to remove her daughters –– Laura and her younger sister Clare –– from their country school so they can come to live with her in Sydney.  The blow is a doubly harsh one for Laura, a bright girl who, according to her headmistress, is certain to earn a scholarship that will allow her to follow in her dead father's footsteps and study medicine one day.  But the beautiful, elegant, rather remote Mrs Vaizey refuses to be swayed.  She needs her daughters with her, she explains, so they can help each other through this difficult time in their lives a time certain to be made more difficult by the outbreak of World War Two.

For Stella, 'helping each other' means having her daughters wait on her hand and foot while she lounges around their flat, smoking exotic Abdulla cigarettes and pretending to be 'recovering' from her late husband's unlamented death.  The day-to-day running of the household is left entirely to Laura – a kind-hearted, self-sacrificing girl who loves her mother enough to abandon her scholastic ambitions and, in time, take a dull job as a secretary in a box factory to support her and Clare.  But this doesn't satisfy Stella, who yearns to return to England, where she was considered a great beauty in her youth, before the spread of the war makes travelling there impossible.  When Laura's boss –– an older man named Felix Shaw – unexpectedly proposes to her, Stella spots her chance and takes it, gladly leaving Laura and Clare to take up their new life with Felix while she sails for 'home' without them.

Felix is an entrepreneur, a restless man always on the lookout for a floundering business he can buy, build up into a successful enterprise and sell on to one of his friends –– men who, after their business has been transacted, rapidly lose all interest in retaining his friendship.  At first, Laura feels flattered to be the wife of such a clever man, to receive his generous gifts and become the mistress of the fine house in Neutral Bay, with postcard views of Sydney Harbour, that he takes her and Clare to live in.  Yet things aren't as idyllic for the newlyweds as they ought to be.  'If Felix teased her a little strangely, almost unkindly, it meant nothing in particular.  Against the teasing and the employer's look and tone, she had to weigh the lovely house, the garden and water-views, and the fact that she and Clare were to be taken care of.'  Being taken care of, Laura tells herself, must surely serve as adequate compensation for any little quirks her older, rather fussy new husband might have developed during his bachelor days.

Although Felix strives to give his employees and everyone else he knows the impression that he's a contented if occasionally henpecked husband, the truth is that he's a violent control freak, an aggressive, dictatorial alcoholic who insists upon complete unresisting devotion from his wife and sister-in-law and expects them to work for him, at home and in his various businesses, for little or no pay.  His bullying even extends to making them spend every evening at home, listening in respectful silence while he rants about the government's inept conduct of the war or belittles another lost 'friend' who had the wisdom to turn his back on him.  He's a lonely, unhappy man whose loneliness and unhappiness can only be borne by keeping those closest to him in a continual state of suspense, never sure from one day to the next if he's going to explode into another easily-provoked rage or unexpectedly shower them with gifts.

Laura and Clare soon teach themselves to accept the consistently inconsistent nature of Felix's behaviour –– they have no money and nowhere to go and their mother, whom they hardly ever hear from, is still far away in England –– developing a strategy of mutual but terrified complaisance that allows them, and him, to treat his drink-fuelled rages as if they simply haven't happened.  This habit of voluntarily burying their heads in the sand has a profound affect on the sisters as the years slip by, making Laura ever more masochistic in her devotion to their manipulator ('Poor Felix!' becomes her nightly mantra) while Clare finds herself becoming completely detached from her fellow human beings, unable to connect with them in any lasting or meaningful way because his mindgames have robbed her of the capacity to believe in human goodness.  A pattern has been set that can't easily be broken, not even by the war ending and Clare taking a new 'outside' job with the government.  The emotional and sometimes physical abuse Felix subjects them to is no longer something they've trained themselves to tolerate merely in order to prevent their precariously-balanced household from disintegrating.  Like Felix himself, it's become the governing factor of their stressful, joyless, completely compromised lives.

Over time, Felix's behaviour grows more and more erratic.  He sobers up, only to fall spectacularly off the wagon any time he feels his role as breadwinner and head of the house is under threat or is even being questioned.  He screams at Laura, vowing to sell everything they own and leave her penniless, only to give her a diamond ring or take her on a longed-for outing a few days later, reviving the false expectation that things might somehow be 'different' between them from now on.  They never are, yet Laura stubbornly refuses to leave him, clinging to her baseless belief that changing him is something that may still be possible if only she doesn't lose heart.  Any time Clare raises the notion that there might be more to life than serving as Felix's uncomplaining victims, Laura quickly invents some excuse to justify their ongoing acceptance of his abuse, blaming his anger on overwork or the fact he has no close male friend to share his many business worries with.

The arrival of Bernard – a young Dutch war refugee who works in Felix's newly-purchased clothing factory –– introduces an unknown element into the sisters' emotionally stunted lives.  Bernard, who's been working night and day in two jobs so he can afford to bring his family to Australia and study for a botany degree, is close to death and in dire need of rest.  Felix and Laura, seeing him perhaps as the child they never had (and thankfully never wanted), take him in, pressing Clare to deliver food and medication to his room even though she displays no interest in meeting or befriending him.  But something about Bernard –– his lack of guile, the many hardships he's uncomplainingly endured both prior to and since his arrival in Australia –– gradually reawakens something inside her, prompting her to do whatever may prove necessary to help him achieve his goals.

Felix, however, has other ideas.  Consumed by jealousy, he undermines Clare's efforts to find Bernard a university scholarship by cunningly offering to pay for the boy's education himself.  Bernie can be trained to do the books for the factory, he tells Clare.  By the time he's been doing that for a few years, he'll have given up all this nonsense about studying botany and be reduced to the status of another 'guzzler' that he, his debt-collecting benefactor, can browbeat, ridicule and victimize any time he feels like it.

But will Bernard cooperate with his plan?  And if he doesn't, what will the consequences be for Clare and Laura?  Can they ever really escape this prison they've created for themselves or will it eventually turn out to be their grave? 

The Watch Tower has the pace and energy of a thriller but it's much, much more than that.  It's a brilliantly observed psychological novel, a chilling exploration of what drives some human beings to become tyrants and others to become their masochistic, pain-attracting victims.  Harrower depicts life as a power struggle, a contest between unevenly matched egos in which the poor, weak and obliging never stand a chance against the wealthy, strong and selfish.  Its setting – Sydney during World War Two and the early 1950s – only highlights the tragedy of Laura's situation.  This was not a time when good but weak-willed wives had the option to walk away from their consistently abusive (or just plain crazy) husbands.  Laura is kind, she invariably means well, but that doesn't prevent her and Clare from being passed from one sociopath (their mother) to another (Felix) as though it's only fitting they should have no say whatsoever in how their lives are run.  The cruelty they're subjected to is casual, even mundane, but all the crueller for being something they teach themselves to accept and continue to accept because to do anything else would be 'wrong' and, even worse, socially unthinkable.  Prisons, Harrower suggests, aren't only places constructed of bricks, bars and cement.  They're also places we create inside us, places we often choose to inhabit willingly because we lack the courage required to face the realities that might one day allow us to break free of them.

The Writer:  Why does a writer stop writing?  Give up in the middle of what, in the eyes of their contemporaries, ranks as being a successful, still promising career?  There can be many reasons for this – ill health, substance abuse, a string of damning reviews, a succession of impenetrable creative blocks or, in the case of Elizabeth Harrower, the feeling that she 'just can't be bothered anymore.'  After publishing The Watch Tower in 1966 she never published another novel, prompting her friend Patrick White to inscribe the following observation on the flyleaf of a book he once gave her: 'To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don't also WRITE.'

White's dismay isn't hard to understand.  That a novelist as gifted, as genuinely original, as Elizabeth Harrower should choose to turn her back on literature isn't just a shame, it qualifies (in my view, anyway) as a major literary tragedy.  Now aged eighty-four, it's unlikely if not impossible that she'll ever start publishing again.  I for one believe – and it's a belief shared by everyone who cares about good writing –– that Australian literature lost something very precious when she chose to lay her pen down.

Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928.  Her parents separated soon after her birth and she moved, with her mother Margaret, to the industrial city of Newcastle in northern New South Wales.  (She would later use her childhood experiences in Newcastle as the background for her second novel The Long Prospect, changing its name to Bellowra.)  She lived in Newcastle until the age of twelve and then returned to Sydney, which she left again in 1951 to visit relatives in Scotland and London, fully expecting never to return to her homeland.

While living in London she wrote her first novel, Down in the City, which was published in 1957.  The Long Prospect –– the story of an intellectually curious girl who becomes the misunderstood victim of small-town snobbery –– followed in 1958, with one reviewer naming it the best Australian novel since Patrick White's Voss.  Harrower, who was always close to her mother and disliked being apart from her, returned to Australia in 1959, where she soon found work with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and as a book reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald.  These were to be her main occupations until she took a job with the publishing firm of Macmillan in 1961, the year her third novel The Catherine Wheel appeared.  Her only novel not set in Australia, it disappointed the critics but made her determined that her next book, The Watch Tower, would be as perfect as she could make it.  For the next five years, she spent every night and weekend doing little else but writing it.  'I didn't care how long it took,' she stated in a recently published interview.  'I just thought, I have to get it right.'

Her dedication paid off.  The book was hailed as 'a dense, profoundly moral novel of our time' and earned her the admiration and friendship of other well-respected Australian novelists like Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant.  But the emotional toll the writing of it took on her may have been too high.  Although she completed a fifth novel, she refused to publish it, angering White and other friends who felt she was betraying her talent by choosing to remain silent.  Her thirty year silence didn't prevent her from winning the Patrick White Award in 1996, an annual $25,000 prize given, since 1974, to a writer who has made 'a significant but inadequately recognized contribution to Australian literature.'

Elizabeth Harrower now lives in a small flat in suburban Sydney, where she continues to pursue her lifelong interests in reading, foreign languages, music and politics.  To many people she still ranks as one of the greatest Australian novelists ever, a creator of work that's succeeded in passing the toughest test of all –– the mercilessly unforgiving one of time.  The uncompromising bleakness of her vision may not be to everybody's taste, but then true greatness, like true genius, seldom is. 

Click HERE to visit the ELIZABETH HARROWER page at the Text Classics website.  You can also click HERE to read an article about her by GAY ALCORN, published in The Sydney Morning Herald in May 2012 to celebrate the May 2012 re-release of The Watch Tower.

To read a short post about The Watch Tower by JULIE PROUDFOOT on her interesting WordPress blog Passages of Writing, please click HERE.  You can read a longer post about it on the amusing literature blog His Futile Preoccupations by clicking HERE. 

You might also enjoy:
DAWN POWELL Come Back To Sorrento (1932)
SINCLAIR LEWIS Babbitt (1922)


  1. Harrowing by Harrower.
    Thank you for bringing this great woman to my under-educated attention, but 'uncompromising bleakness' would not normally make me rush to turn to p1, except in this case I recognise everything.
    Felix** has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and the sisters have replaced their awful mother with him -"places we often choose to inhabit willingly" used to be called in the 70's 'finding your comfort zone' ie children of awful childhoods find arseholes to marry because feeling bad is what they know.

    ** and oh the drollery of giving a vile character the happy name. I am sorry this woman does not have the wealth and accord she deserves.

    It's nice here - I like your links. fell in here by searching to discover if Percy Grainger ever met Django Reinhart in Paris (or anywhere really). Now leaving via French Chicks in the 60's blog, to see if they feature Francoise Hardy
    a bientot

  2. Thanks for the comment, Marshall. Everything you say re: "finding your comfort zone" rings absolutely true in the case of Felix, Clare & Laura. I guess this is why I found the book so bleak - I've known too many people who settled for misery in their personal lives because misery was all they'd known (or ever expected to get) as children. Do read "The Watch Tower" if you haven't. It truly is a masterpiece.

    Thanks also for saying you like my links. Does me good to know that someone out there actually notices & uses them. Your curiosity re: Grainger meeting Reinhardt sent me to John Bird's Grainger biography & to "The Farthest North of Humanness," the selection of PG's letters edited by Kay Dreyfus, to see if it's mentioned. Neither book mentions anything about them meeting in Paris or anywhere else. I do know that Reinhardt met Andres Segovia once. Segovia came to see him play & went up to him afterwards, said something like "Can you teach me to do what you do?" Apparently Django just smiled & shook his head.

    Please stay tuned. I plan to write about Francoise Hardy some time in the hopefully not too distant future.

  3. oh thanks for response.

    "just smiled and shook his head. Take a load off Annie, take a load of me ..." Bob's pals The Band.
    Bob Dylan was hot for Francoise, and his dear friend Brian Jones also.
    (at the time Brian was murdered, he and everyone thought he was broke, so Dylan sent from the US a handsome casket for the burial).
    Do check John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix movie (I haven't seen since the week it opened) which has opening scene of FH on the beach in double denim, and also at the close. This unique look had a profound and lasting effect on me.
    A friend is having a Django in Paris theme birthday party v soon and I want an excuse to wear a Percy G towels suit. X X

  4. You're very welcome, MS. I'll certainly look out for "Grand Prix." Sounds very interesting. Have fun at the party too. "Perks" will be proud of you for wearing one of his towel suits.