Oppression and tyranny, power and manipulation in human relationships are the stuff of Elizabeth Harrower’s writing, at least in my experience of it, and so I found it again in her second novel The long prospect. Unlike The watch tower (my review), however, which explores the more traditional domination of women by a man, The long prospect’s tyrant is narcissistic grandma Lilian who makes pre-pubescent granddaughter Emily’s life a misery. Why is a novel about a cruel, manipulative person wielding power over someone whom they should love so enjoyable? Let me try to explain …
The long prospect, which was first published in 1958, is set in postwar Ballowra, a fictionalised industrial town based on Newcastle, just a couple of hours’ drive north of Sydney. The major part of it takes place in the home of forty-seven-year-old Lilian who wields sadistic power over all who come within her purview, including but not limited to the aforesaid granddaughter Emily. The novel starts, in fact, with Lilian visiting her ex-tenant and apparent friend, thirty-something Thea, in her new apartment in another part of Ballowra. Lilian walks into the apartment, without being invited, “her eyes on swivels”, and very quickly we realise that this friendship is one in which Lilian has assumed power but is now feeling put out. Words like “disapproval”, “frowning” and “affronted” leave us in no doubt that Lilian’s visit is not the sort of generous one you’d expect from someone visiting their friend in their new home.
This controlling, self-centred, unaffectionate behaviour of Lilian’s, as I’ve said, is not limited to Thea and Emily but extends to all her relationships, including to her daughter Paula, and to the various men who populate the novel, such as the hapless “boy-friend” Rosen and the tender, thoughtful but powerless boarder Max.
At the heart of The long prospect is Emily’s desperate search for affection and attention, which she finally finds in this thirty-something Max, who had been introduced earlier, by name only, as a past lover of Thea. Max warms to the intelligent – but clearly neglected – young girl, and starts spending time with her, mentoring her intellectual and emotional development. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go unnoticed by Lilian’s self-centred and jealous entourage, and eventually insinuations are made that bring about the novel’s denouement. Before that, though, Emily’s blossoming enthusiasm for life and learning is a delight to see.
Harrower constructs her novel and builds up the tone and tension beautifully. She introduces Lilian’s character via her opening visit to Thea. She sets up Emily’s need for affection and her subsequent bond with Max through her previous attachment to Thea and her desperate crushes on teachers. Harrower’s word use is precise, from the recurring appearance of “grey”, describing people and place, to the plain spare language that pares relationships and actions down to their essence. Here’s the desperate Rosen, trailing after Lilian into the kitchen, still hoping she will keep him:
There, catching her, he chances a reproachful expression, seeing that, anyway, her grey eyes were no longer hard, but mild and blank. She had quite abandoned her fiery mood. He was reassured, and smiled at her sheepishly. Her new look must mean apology. In fact, Lilian thought about salmon sandwiches. She filled the kettle.
But, now, here’s the thing folks. I finished this book, and half-wrote this post, just before my Dad died three weeks ago. I am having trouble remembering all the thoughts I had while reading it, thoughts that particularly related to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Realism vs Modernism discussion we were having – but I’ll try. Harrower falls primarily into the Modernist tradition. She reflects the ills of the time through individual psyches, rather than exploring causes and social impacts as we find in Realist books like Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961) (my review).
Both Emily and Max feel the psychological impacts of their environments. Early on Emily, desperate to belong, finds herself an outsider yet again:
There was a chill lack of desirability about the room she had left, and about those she might enter – a bleak and rigid lack of warmth that penetrated the future as well as the present and the past.
Max recognises that he had responded to “the catastrophic emptiness of the past few years” by settling for:
Comfortable resignation. He looked at the idea of it. It had not always been that, but the change had been slow and subtle, worked in him secretly. Now the metamorphosis was complete, surprising, disagreeable. (p. 150)
Disagreeable, particularly now that a crisis involving Emily, whom he had wanted to nurture and protect, had come:
Max fought down a sense of alienation … (p. 150)
And yet, in The long prospect there is also a subtle backdrop of the industrialisation that is one of the drivers behind Modernism’s theme of alienation and the individual. Emily’s father Harry Lawrence, on his way for a rare visit with her, considers his old home town:
After years in the country, this subjection to industry, the smoky sky, the matured deterioration immanent at the birth of such towns as Ballowra left him oppressed and indignant. He was unwilling that it should be so bad.
The overriding sense in the book – from all the characters – those we like, and those we don’t, is one of disappointed lives. Max is one of those we like, for his warmth and his capacity for mature reflection:
No external excuse, not lack of this or that fine feeling could be counted as justification. Nothing could undo the harm these casual people had done. Yet, Max argued, they were themselves and lived as they could, and had not been wisely treated either, very likely.
I like the “very likely” qualification! I also like this fundamentally non-judgemental attitude, that doesn’t then follow through to excusing poor behaviour. Max goes on: “it was too easy to exempt from responsibility those who felt no responsibility for their actions. Too easy, reductive, wrong.” In other words, understand but don’t excuse!
The long prospect is thoroughly engaging, despite its overall depressing subject matter. The perfection of Harrower’s insight into human psychology combined with the delicious precision of her writing make it, yes, a joy to read, even though Emily’s plight is heartrending. It’s no wonder, really, that Patrick White was disappointed when Harrower stopped writing. He knew a good writer when he saw one.
The long prospect
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2012 (Orig. ed. 1958)