Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower
Contemporary is an odd word isn’t it? I like using it, but worry about ambiguity, given it can mean either “living or occurring at the same time” or “belonging to or occurring in the present”. So, when I say “contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower”, how do you know which meaning I intend? Well, to put your minds at rest, in this instance I’m intending the former.
Many of you know who Harrower is, but for those who don’t, she’s an Australian writer who was active in the 1950s to 1970s, and then largely disappeared from view. She was born in 1928 and is still alive. Four of her five novels were published in the 1950s to 1960s. The fifth novel, In certain circles, was written in the late 1960s to early 1970s, but not published until 2014, because she withdrew it from publication at the time. Her short story collection, A few days in the country, and other stories, was published last year, but includes stories dating back to the 1960s. (I have reviewed three of her books.)
So, she was an unknown to many of us when her books started appearing in Text Publishing’s Classics series. What a find she’s been, but what, I wondered, was thought about her in her heyday, and where did she fit in that literary world. To Trove, therefore, I went – and found the snippets I’m sharing today.
The first comes from “Your bookshelf” by Joyce Halstead in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1961. Halstead writes briefly about Harrower’s third novel, The catherine wheel, which was published in 1960. She describes the plot, and concludes with her assessment:
An intense, probing study of human relationships, intricately and interestingly resolved, and deserving of high literary praise.
That certainly accords with my experience of Harrower’s writing, though I haven’t read this one – yet.
Next comes another article from The Australian Women’s Weekly, this time in 1966. (Why was this very literary writer mainly featuring in a women’s magazine?) The article is titled “Op art? … Commas caused full stop” and is about her fourth novel, The watch tower. It conveys a lovely sense of Harrower’s down-to-earthness:
We mentioned the publishers’ description of her as “one of Australia’s most sensitive and psychologically perceptive novelists.”
“You know, you shouldn’t blame writers for what other people say about them,” said Miss Harrower.
She says that she had never studied psychology, and that:
“Because I am interested in people, it doesn’t mean that I go around consciously analysing them … Sometimes it is years afterwards that you remember an occurrence which, when it happened, just flowed past you.”
She then describes “having words” with her publisher (for whom, in fact, she worked herself, because writers, she said, need to have a job unless they are “a Morris West or have a private income”):
“When the publishers sent me the proofs I found they had altered all my ‘whichs’ to ‘thats’ and had taken out a lot of commas. I didn’t like it — so I changed them all back.”
I love this. I much prefer “whichs” to “thats”, regardless of what grammarians say about nonrestrictive and restrictive clauses, and I’m inclined to use more commas than less, despite modern style!
My city’s newspaper, The Canberra Times, also wrote about The watch tower, in early 1967. The reviewer, John Laird, admires Harrower’s writing, saying she:
employs a style distinguished by its sensitivity and subtlety, and displays considerable ability in capturing the flow of thoughts, emotions, and sense impressions in the minds of her two main women characters.
But, he concludes that
What is not so convincing is the portrait of Laura’s misogynic husband. To me he seems a specially concocted figure, largely an embodiment of the malevolent and destructive forces that constantly menace the women characters in Elizabeth Harrower’s novel world.
I wonder how many women would find him “not so convincing”? Seems like Mr Laird wants to underplay the gender aspect of the “malevolent and destructive forces” menacing the women?
The next two articles* also come from The Canberra Times. One, in 1967, announces that Harrower (along with George Johnston and Thomas Keneally) had won a 12-month Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship, which is, I expect, the Fellowship that led to In certain circles, the one she withdrew from publication.
Second time around …
The other article comes from 1979, and we are now getting into re-issues of her work. The article, written by Lyn Frost, is titled “Fine Australian writing new and rediscovered”. It announces a new imprint, Sirius Quality Paperbacks, by Angus and Robertson. “The first six books”, Frost writes, “are by women and some have been out of print for far too long. Teachers of Australian literature must be grateful for their appearance.” I sure hope they were! The authors include Henry Handel Richardson, Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and, of course, Elizabeth Harrower. In fact, the six books include two of Harrower’s, The Catherine wheel and The long prospect (which Stead called Harrower’s “masterpiece”). Frost is impressed by Harrower’s writing, saying:
I can’t think how I’ve missed reading Harrower’s perceptive work before this.
How embarrassing is it that this was exactly the response many of us had over 30 years later when Text started republishing her!
Then, along similar lines, comes critic Peter Pierce in 1988 reviewing Murray Bail’s The Faber book of contemporary Australian short stories in The Canberra Times (again). It’s a “real” review which discusses the anthology at some depth, including reference, naturally, to some of the works included. One is Elizabeth Harrower’s “The cost of things” (which also appears in A few days in the country, and other stories). Pierce describes Harrower as “Too little celebrated and too long silent in Australian literature”. (I had to laugh at Pierce’s comment that the anthology is “misleadingly titled” but that “Bail is unapologetic about including stories written nearly half a century ago”. “Contemporary” by any other name!)
There are other brief references to Harrower – including to her being a National Book Council Award judge in 1981 – but I’ll conclude with another article from The Canberra Times. It’s one of those weekly new-paperback-releases columns, and this particular week’s bunch, in 1995, included Harrower’s The long prospect (ETT Imprint). Columnist (and local English teacher) Veronica Sen calls it a “determinedly unsentimental novel”, and says that it treats “suburban small-mindedness and the pain of growing up … with panache”.
If you haven’t read her yet, I hope my post has pushed you a little further in her direction.
* The Canberra Times has been digitised, to date, by the NLA, up to 1995, whereas the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, has been digitised to 1954. Disparities like this are primarily due to what permissions are granted by the respective rights holders.