Special Post: Discovering the long prospect: Elizabeth Harrower and Christina Stead

To celebrate the Stead-Harrower symposium at the University of New South Wales this week, please enjoy this excellent piece on the literary connections between Christina Stead and Elizabeth Harrower.

by Brigid Rooney and Fiona Morrison

Stead UNSW

In 1969, travelling light during her first visit to Australia in forty years, Christina Stead carried very few books in her luggage. But one book she did carry, for a time, was Elizabeth Harrower’s The Long Prospect (1958). This was the first time Stead had read any of Harrower’s books. Though written in a different key, Harrower’s novel about a sensitive young girl trapped in a loveless family uncannily echoes Stead’s own masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children (1940).

Impressed by The Long Prospect, Christina wrote warmly to Elizabeth (the women would soon become close friends) saying she hoped to read another of her books before departing for London:

You have a remarkable, sober acerbity, an almost historical view (the long prospect – I wonder) and the fragrance and nuttiness of the kernel, with the nutshell dispensed with … You are unique, a writer on your own and your future is no doubt, a long prospect.[1]

Stead’s words were apt and incisive. Between 1957 and 1966, Harrower produced four marvellously-wrought novels, including her masterpiece, The Watch Tower (1966). Her works were favourably reviewed. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Harry Kippax proclaimed The Watch Tower a triumph, rivalling Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala (1966) as the year’s best book. White himself keenly supported Harrower’s writing; he too was a firm friend. Despite these champions, beyond publication of The Watch Tower Harrower elected literary silence. Some time in the early 1970s, having laboured over her fifth novel, she took what must have been a tough and radical decision. Withdrawing her fifth manuscript from her publisher, Macmillan, Harrower ceased her writing altogether. A mystery attends this decision. Even today, when she speaks of it, her words quickly peter out into perplexity, and we sense the remembered pain of that irrevocable turn.

Stead’s words about Harrower’s future long prospect, travelling down the years, chime remarkably with the present moment. At the age of 87, Harrower is in the process of being rediscovered. Thanks to the reissue of her novels by Text Publishing – and Text’s publication of that languishing fifth novel, In Certain Circles (2014) along with a brilliant collection of short stories, A Few Days in the Country (2015) – Harrower’s star is rising. She is now, albeit tentatively, emerging to the enthusiastic acclaim of readers.

Stead never doubted Harrower’s future prospect. But it was long in arriving. Even so, the decades-long interval that has elapsed means that Harrower’s novels bring ‘the long prospect’ with them. For, broken open, these books are time capsules, summoning mid century Newcastle, Cold War Sydney and hungry post-war London. They conjure the pattern of the modern world before the advent of mass tourism, before the rise of second wave feminism, before neoliberalism, and before the Whitlam government’s concerted boost to Australia’s literary infrastructure. In her fiction, we see the seismic cracks appearing in that mid-century world. Her characters move between torpor and passivity, and towards the shock of awakening. Are similar seismic cracks appearing in our own contemporary world? Is this what draws readers back to the long prospect of mid-century fiction?

For Harrower’s readers, there is the added pleasure of witnessing the author’s late-in-life ventures into public conversation. Around her novels an intimate public sphere is forming. From occasional interviews, Harrower has now graduated to her first-ever public appearance as an author, at Mosman Library in Sydney, in November this year. Before a rapt crowd, Harrower conversed with her trusted publisher, Michael Heyward of Text Publishing. For the first time ever she read aloud, in public, some excerpted passages from her books – books she claims never to have re-read since they were first published. ‘This is not familiar to me’, she says laughingly, on reading a passage from The Long Prospect. And how happy she is, she reiterates, to have lived long enough to enjoy the revival of the books. She wrote, she says, because she had something to tell the world, and to these books she gave her very best.

The world in turn is recognising her gift. In 2014, American critic James Wood published his long, appreciative review of Harrower’s work in the New Yorker. This year, In Certain Circles was either long- or shortlisted for half a dozen major Australian prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award. On 25th November, Elizabeth Harrower braved the University of Sydney’s Woolley Building where she was awarded the Voss Literary Prize for In Certain Circles. Dedicated to the memory of historian Vivian Robert de Vaux Voss, the prize is given by the Australian University Heads of English to the best work of fiction published in Australia in the previous year. Noting the interest generated by its long-delayed publication, and the fascination of a novel both ‘in and out of its own time’, the judges praised In Certain Circles for its portrait of ‘the fragility and tenuousness of human interconnection as a figure for the postwar world’, for its ‘incisive and stately prose’ and for its ‘subtle interweaving of perspectives in the drawing of its circles of sociability and seduction’.

Encircled by university teachers of English from around Australia – both new and longstanding admirers – Elizabeth Harrower spoke again of her joy in having lived to this time. She later remarked what a unique moment it was for her: ‘I think it’s probably not easy to realize how unaware I was of the support and appreciation that has existed out there in the academic world.’

Harrower has only ever received one other literary award. Her works, after all, arrived in the era before the proliferation of literary prizes and festivals, before Goodreads and Twitter and Facebook, before all that authors now do to engage with readers about their works. In 1996 Harrower received the Patrick White Award for her significant contribution to Australian literature. It seems an elegant symmetry that in 1974 it was Elizabeth Harrower who brought the news to Christina Stead, then in London, that Stead had been chosen by White as the inaugural winner of the Patrick White Award.

But why are two such immense talents in Australian writing always being re-discovered? Why do major writers and critics – like James Woods (New Yorker), Jonathan Franzen (New York Review of Books), Angela Carter (London Review of Books), Jane Smiley (The Guardian) and, further back, Randall Jarrell (who influentially introduced the 1965 reissue of The Man Who Loved Children) – write long and passionate essays of acclaim about Stead and Harrower while we in Australia are hard pressed to find them in bookstores, in literary conversation or public memory?

In this 50th anniversary year of Jarrell’s ‘rediscovery’ of Stead, the serendipitous intertwining of the lives and writings of Stead and Harrower are the focus, next week, of two exceptional writers’ panels. Open to the public, the panels flow on from a two-day symposium at the University of New South Wales exploring the works and the rediscoveries of both Stead and Harrower. On Thursday 3th December, Delia Falconer, Gail Jones and David Malouf will engage with Christina Stead, and on Friday 4th December Ivor Indyk, Michelle de Kretser and Fiona McFarlane will speak about Elizabeth Harrower (to register for the symposium and/or for the free public writers’ panels see ‘Rediscovering Again: Christina Stead and Elizabeth Harrower‘.)

Stead and Harrower share a history of warm and sometimes astonished early reception of their work, followed by gradual neglect and later obscurity. But their careers are also marked by the vigor and pleasures of rediscovery and the renewal this brings. Together, they occupy vital positions in the ‘long prospect’ of Australian literature.

Harrower UNSW

Brigid Rooney (University of Sydney) and Fiona Morrison (University of New South Wales)

[1] Letter to Elizabeth Harrower, 6 November 1969, in Christina Stead, A Web of Friendship: Selected Letters (1928-1973), ed. R. G. Geering (Pymble NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1992).