Elizabeth Harrower, The long prospect (#BookReview)

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.

Catastrophic emptiness

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.

Read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week; also reviewed by Kim (Reading Matters).

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Elizabeth Harrower
The long prospect
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2012 (Orig. ed. 1958)
ISBN: 9781922079480

28 thoughts on “Elizabeth Harrower, The long prospect (#BookReview)

  1. Thankyou (again) for your participation in AWW Gen 3 Week, and for your lucid discussion of Harrower in relation to Modernism. I have a few of these republished Harrowers but I can’t remember which ones I’ve read. Which is not altogether bad, it means I can read them again.

    • And they are the sort you can reread I think Bill, aren’t they,

      As for AWW, I enjoy it and the impetus it provides me to go to the TBR pile, not to mention to just read our older Aussie women and engage with others in the process. It’s been a good one this year too, hasn’t it.

      • To be honest, my recall is so bad I can re-read anything. And yes, this year went very well – I don’t keep any sort of count, but we got a good number of reviews again, and the discussion seemed to go deeper. I’m really going to have to do some work to get a proper handle on Gen 4, it’s beyond my ‘natural’ area, and while I might have read it back then, in fact I didn’t. I was reading guys and SF.

        • Gen 4 is ok for me as they’re the writers I read when I really got into reading Aussie literature again, and particularly women – depending a bit on when you see Gen 4 ending! That’s a challenge for you!

  2. Great review.

    You raise an interesting post. We do find dark tales where bad things happen enjoyable. It is one of the real reasons that we read fiction. Stories where only good things happen are usually terribly boring.

  3. I’m only liking the reviewing, not the subject !
    I’ve known women like that, and loathed them. But I’ve also loathed the people who allow themselves to be .. over-run ? – something of that nature.

    • Fair enough M-R. That’s the advantage of reading about people like this – you can try to understand them without having to cope with the emotional response you have on actually meeting them. I find that hard in person, but when I’m reading I can move into a more analytical, reflective zone.

      I guess I don’t loathe the people who allow themselves to be over-run because I can see how it can happen, particularly to those in a vulnerable or powerless position (such as a child like Emily, or a woman with no resources to fall back on like the young wife in The watch tower).

  4. This is without a doubt my favourite Harrower novel, one of the best Australian novels I’ve read. There’s a reason for this, apart from the quality of her writing, the shaping of the story and the bleakness of the lives she portrays. 1958, the year it was published, was the year I came to Australia. I certainly didn’t read it straightaway – I wouldn’t have known to then – but I did come across it after a year or so somehow and it electrified me. This, so accurately depicted I thought, was the country I’d been trying to adjust to. The casually brutal way its people seemed to treat each other. Don’t get me wrong, many Australians were very very kind to me and welcoming (if indeed suspicious of Americans), but Harrower nailed something very important: the casualness that’s deployed to veil resentment or hostility, the kind that makes the racist jokes Indigenous Australians let alone migrants are still subjected to today. Although there’s significant pushback now, with this book and for a settler Australian, Harrower was so ahead of her time.

    • Oh this is so interesting Sara – “the casualness that’s deployed to veil resentment or hostility”. A non-Australian commented with surprise on this blog recently to a reference I’d made re racism here because she thought we were a tolerant society. I was a bit surprised, but I realised that the trouble is that superficially we can seem so – and it’s probably partly because of this “casualness” that you identify.

      In term of the novel itself, I particularly like your comment on the shaping of the story, because I agree that she does that wonderfully. You can see it if you look, but it’s not in-your-face either. Nothing comes out of the blue … it’s all carefully built up.

  5. I’ve read 3 Harrowers and have this one still to read. She seems to specialise in tyrannical relationships and the power wielded over the emotionally vulnerable (needy?).

    • I have no inside knowledge to back this up, and Harrower was a fierce defender of her privacy, but I suspect that the prevalence of these themes in her novels means she was working out some trauma in her past which was somehow alleviated by her mother’s death. If you substitute ‘neurotic mother’ for ‘neurotic aunt with bullying husband’ in the novel she initially refused to publish, In Certain Circles, you can see what I mean.

      • Yes, I think you might be onto something, Lisa. Her mother’s death certainly seemed to have had a big impact … she essentially didn’t publish after that that did she.

        Some say you should only look at the text to understand a writer’s writing, but that seems naive. Of course, the writing has to stand on its own, but there’s nothing wrong either with looking to the life to understand the text, and, more problematic of course because you can only assume and never know, looking at the text to understand the life.

  6. Thanks for linking to my review, Sue. As Guy suggests above, she does seem to specialise in tyrannical relationships, which does make me wonder what her own personal life was like, was there someone in her family that wielded power in a domineering way? Her female characters also seem to be passive – with the exception of the grandmother in this particular novel – which also makes me wonder about her own personality?

  7. “Why is a novel about a cruel, manipulative person wielding power over someone whom they should love so enjoyable? Let me try to explain …”

    Hah. LOL You’ve done a fine job of explaining. I’ve had her on my TBR for a bit now and my interest has swelled once more.

      • I thought I’d checked for her previously and had found only a single title, but now I see there are several here (although not necessarily in libraries currently operating): this one, In Certain Circles, The Catherine Wheel, A Few Days in the Country (stories), Down in the City and the Watchtower (which I think is the most famous?). Is there one in particular that you think would be a terrific match for me? You’re right..there’s a lot of competition for reading time, but maybe I could read just one this year as a start.

        • I’ve not read The Catherine Wheel or Down in the City so can’t comment. I’d suggest either The watchtower because it is the most famous, and is so good I think, or the short stories because you like short stories and they are great. Alternatively, just get which one is easiest to get!

  8. Pingback: Unstoppable AWW Gen 3 | The Australian Legend

  9. Pingback: Classics and Literary Round-up: February 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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