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.

Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the countryMany 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.

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerNext 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 Harrower 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.

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower

  1. Elizabeth Harrower seems like the archetypal “midlist” author whose work is always in danger of being unfairly forgotten. Excellent that such a fine writer is being rediscovered. I am fairly sure that I have that Murray Bail anthology. Its in the IMBS (It Must Be Somewhere) pile subsection BIMHTIA (But I Might Have Thrown It Away). I hope not!

      • I saw apiece in the Guardian about Elizabeth Harrower (from 2014) and her eminence as an Australian writer was made very clear. The question arose as to whether Australian publishing had allowed classic writers of Australian literature to go out of print too easily. Do you think that has been true?

        • “Too” easily is a tricky thing to answer, Ian. In my heart, I’d say yes, but in my head I guess I’m aware of the smallness of our market and the fact, unfortunately, that Australians have traditionally often looked out of the country for their entertainment/culture. Even today, I know from personal anecdotal experience, more Australians could name classic English or European authors than Australian ones. Makes it hard for publishers to make money I’d say.

          Text is doing a great job republishing works out of copyright or for which they have the rights so they can publish them at an appealing price. I’m thrilled that 4 years in they are still publishing the series. I really hope the tables are turning on this issue.

  2. It’s certainly astonishing that Harrower remained ‘unknown’ for so long. I’ve read a couple and it’s pretty powerful writing. I think the Sirius HHR you mentioned in passing was the Cuffy Mahony short stories I reviewed the other day.

      • If publishers believe an author isn’t being read (and figures can prove this), they stop publishing his/her work and so that author is lost for some time or permanently unless rediscovered. I am much the same age as Harrower but was not aware of her until you, WG, introduced me to her.

        • Yes, I noticed the closeness of your birthdates LL. What you describe is, I guess, particularly a problem for more “literary” authors, particularly, back in the 1960s or 70s, if those authors were women, I think.

  3. Sue, I have been missing your posts for so long because of a problem with WordPress. I changed the email address associated with it and that seems to have solved the problem. YAY!

    I have never heard of Harrower but may indeed search her out. Thank you so much for your research to bring us contemporary accounts of this author.

    And I, too, use lots of commas!

    • Oh, it’s irritating when that happens Debbie, isn’t it, because you aren’t always aware of it.

      Anyhow, yes, Harrower is really up there with the best.

      Glad you’re a comma person too!

  4. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower | picardykatt's Blog

  5. Harrower’s The Long Prospect (recently reread) was one of my earliest introductions to Australia. How it resonated with me then. I had no idea that the city she set it in was Newcastle or even where it was. But boy did I recognise the characters. Her other two from that time I remember less distinctly and I’ve never read (that I can recall) any of her stories. I recently read In Certain Circles and found it disappointing, the claustrophobic atmosphere that worked so well in the earlier novels didn’t seem to do so in this one. Maybe she was right to withdraw it?

    (And just for the hell of it, on the whole I prefer that to which.)

    • Ah-ha, Sara, that’s because you’re American! I’ve noticed that Americans use “that” a lot more than Aussies traditionally have I think. Americans seem to abide more strongly (I see it in the grammar-spell checks too which are American-based usually) to the restrictive/non-restrictive delineation.

      Thanks re The long prospect. I must make it my next one. You, Stead and others praise it highly.

      • It wasn’t so much the grammar – though Fowler too preferred that. It was/is that American writers found the overuse of ‘which’ too pretentious, too laboured, and straining. The stricture stuck.

        • Fascinating Sara, I find “that” harsher on the ears. The other thing that Americans tend to do is use “that” for people. It shocked me when I first engaged in online book discussions with Americans. For us, as I’m sure you know, it’s always “who” (or “whom”) for people and “that” or “which” for inanimate objects (and usually animals). I understand that “that” for people is taught in the US as totally acceptable?

        • Not really, WG. But I did find that I used that instead of whom once in a book of mine and didn’t pick it up in the proofs. So it may come more or less naturally. I’ve found that English English students often attribute bad grammar to Yanks, e.g. ‘try and’ etc. but we were also taught it was ‘try to’. Then again, the language is always changing, what is unacceptable in one generation is natural to another – it grates on me to hear ‘me and Jane went to the pictures’ but this is normal for millennials, as is ‘I love that you are coming with me to the pictures’, as is ‘between you and I’ or ‘Jane took you and I to the pictures’, or ‘Listen to we women for once” …. These are all commonplace now. Also ‘none… is ‘ when Fowler had it as none … are’, and how it seemed natural to us once.

        • Haha, Sara, love all this. I had never thought “try and” (this is one which really annoys me because if you are going to do whatever it is, which the “and” implies, then the “try” is superfluous) was particularly American. I try not to be a purist (but “try and” just isn’t logical!!) about changing language, recognising that some things WE think are right were once deemed incorrect.

          Still, the “me and” does irritate me a little – but I guess it just signals our increasingly “me” focussed world. We were always taught to put ourselves last (regardless of whether we are talking subject or object). When our son calls to check this one we say take away the other person’s name or pronoun and see if it sounds right – “me went to the pictures” or “Jane took I” to the pictures. It’s very clear then what’s right (or should be.)

          As for “none is” I had that very question in a recent post. I wrote “none are” and then had doubts. Apparently both are acceptable – depending sometimes on circumstances – but I decided my first instinct was right. The trouble in this fluid world is that we start to second guess ourselves – at least, I find that.

  6. Thank you so much for this post, Sue. I am one of those who discovered Harrower thanks to TEXT and then managed to hunt down some of her other novels in second-hand bookshops. The newspaper quotes you supply made me smile as almost all of them spell out my reaction/s exactly. I think she’s one of the greatest Australian writers. Her ‘new’ novel, the manuscript Michael Heyward dragged out of her, and the short story collection were both in my best ten reads of the year, 2014 and 15 respectively.

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