Shirley Hazzard’s grace abounding

  • Themes: Books, Culture

A new edition of the intimate, decades-long correspondence between Australian writers Shirley Hazzard and Elizabeth Harrower illustrates a deep shared concern with human connection and the quality of grace.

Australian-born writer Shirley Hazzard in Rome.
Australian-born writer Shirley Hazzard in Rome. Credit: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo

Hazzard and Harrower: The Letters, edited by Brigitta Olubas and Susan Wyndham, NewSouth Publishing, £19.99

On 6 May 1978, Shirley Hazzard wrote to Elizabeth Harrower. ‘I am very near the end of my book… It is to be called (this a secret – in case I discover another book has already had the title) “The Transit of Venus”. At this moment it starts to seem like one whole, instead of many aberrant thoughts and feelings… Who knows what the world will make of it?’

It took the world a bit of time, but The Transit of Venus, which appeared in 1980, is now acclaimed as a masterpiece. The editors of Hazzard and Harrower, a selection of correspondence between the two Australian writers, are unequivocal: ‘Transit is one of the great novels of the century.’ Its protagonists are two sisters who emigrate to England, one to settle into marriage with a bureaucrat, the other to fall in unreciprocated love with a playwright while herself rebuffing the love of a young astronomer. The critic Anatole Broyard described it as bringing ‘almost indescribable pleasure. There were sentences that brought tears of gratification to my eyes and raised the hairs on the nape of my neck’. (Little did Broyard know what this volume reveals: that Hazzard, furious over his castigation of a friend, described him as a reviewer of ‘evil… practically insane with vituperation’.)

Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) now teeters on the edge of global recognition as a major writer, and the release, in 2022, of an acclaimed biography by Brigitta Olubas, co-editor of this correspondence, may have secured her reputation. The Transit of Venus, her third novel, was followed, 23 years later, by just one more. The Great Fire appeared to huge acclaim in 2003. Partly set in postwar Hong Kong, it dared to be that unfashionable and very simple thing, a story of true and abiding love shining from the world’s ruin. Despite a great deal of non-fiction and a number of short stories, Hazzard’s greatness rests on those two novels.

Born in Sydney, by the age of 16 she was working for British Intelligence, and by 20, the daughter of a diplomat, she had moved with her family to New York City, where for a decade she worked as a typist at the United Nations. In 1963 she married the biographer Francis Steegmuller, who, privately wealthy after an inheritance from an earlier marriage, funded the ‘lovely life’ that these letters chart and which fellow writers envied. They lived in luxury on the Upper East Side, the walls hung with Picasso and Matisse, and spent a great deal of time in rented villas at Naples or on Capri.

On any alphabetised bookshelf well-stocked with Australian novels, Hazzard’s four brightly coloured paperbacks (my editions have Turner paintings on the cover) will be preceded by a series of lemon-yellow spines that makes up the equally small output of Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020). Born in Australia just three years apart, the two women both spent their youth on the north shore of Sydney Harbour. ‘To me’, Hazzard said, ‘it is as if we had met back in those summers of childhood, a pair of banded panamas above school ties.’ They even wore the same ‘life-enhancing’ scent: Balmain’s Ivoire.

But while Hazzard thought of herself as perpetually in exile, Harrower stayed – despite periods abroad – in Australia, and her books are often about the impossibility of escape. Some of her characters cling almost lovingly to the familiarity of a fearful existence. Four titles of astonishing quality appeared between 1957 and 1966, of which the best is perhaps The Watch Tower (1966), a story, like The Transit of Venus, of two sisters. Hazzard’s novels roam across the world, but Harrower’s are almost unbearable in their claustrophobia. Hazzard writes in a ravishing prose that is in every sense precious; Harrower, her peer, is tarter, tauter, her two sisters shackled to an abusive life with the elder’s violent husband. Only one of her books is set outside Australia, and her terrain, rendered with biting wit, is the psychological entrapment of destructive relationships played out amid the wilful parochialism of suburbia.

The success of The Watch Tower led to a financial grant, which meant the next novel – In Certain Circleswas written to order, under the obligation of honouring it. On 21 April 1971, at page 36 of the letters, an innocuous little sentence puts an end to it all: ‘I decided finally to shelve my novel.’ Harrower was 43, and never wrote another. Her books fell out of print and she was forgotten until an independent press, Text Publishing, reprinted them to huge acclaim in the 2010s, when she was well into her eighties. The shelved manuscript was discovered and finally released; the New Yorker wrote an admiring profile. Hazzard would surely have approved. ‘I like these unauthorised risings of forgotten authors from their supposed ashes.’

The editors have whittled down some 400,000 words of correspondence into a book as gripping as any novel, charting the political pendulum-swings of Australia, America and Italy across 60 years. The letters begin in 1966. Hazzard’s difficult mother (‘MM’ – my mother) was cared for in her daughter’s absence by Harrower, who dealt with the neuroses and illnesses of YM (‘your mother’). Thrown together by this curious circumstance, the two women do not meet until page 44, in the gap between letters that is the spring of 1972, but distance necessitated a mainly epistolary friendship. The book ends in 2008, by which time Hazzard, widowed but enjoying the success of The Great Fire, was soon to decline into the dementia that, a decade on, would afflict Harrower, too. It is a rich span, populated by figures such as Graham Greene and Lillian Hellman, but dipping a toe into the world of Harry Potter, Tony Blair and Cate Blanchett (‘unaffected, beautiful’).

Hazzard’s letters complement her recent biography. In the absence of an equivalent for Harrower, the reader is left with something incomplete, a series of documents that covers neither the period of her novel-writing nor her late rediscovery. It is both pleasure and frustration to trawl for clues as to the abandonment of her writing, the way she filled her days or how she earned money (she died more prosperous than she let on, with a small property portfolio). The letters contain cryptic dots of information, which will make autobiographical readings of her novels, however foolhardy, irresistible: ‘As one whose life has been affected by an alcoholic grandfather, step-father (possibly also mentally ill), and lover…’ Or: ‘a great friend set out to stop me writing and succeeded moderately well’. Harrower, it seems, was a taker-on of the broken, bound into doing good without being a do-gooder, giving over her days to others, and suffering (the right word) from a ‘strange obligation to save people’s lives’. Hazzard watched from afar. ‘Oh God Elizabeth’, she urged, ‘don’t take on the upset ones; steel your heart, please!’

Reading these letters in a vacuum gives a sense of a long and uncomplicated friendship, but the editors step in, their helpful introduction a model of clarity and nuance, to say that prickliness reared its head beyond the written world of typewriter and envelope. Harrower’s care for Hazzard’s mother, which freed the latter to live and work in another hemisphere, is constantly thanked and praised, an ‘unknowable and unponderable goodness’. But there is never an offer to alleviate the transferred burden, and Hazzard – perhaps to Harrower’s irritation – continued to write happily of and against the sunlit backdrop of Capri, ‘this chunk of limestone in the sea’. Her accounts of her silk-lined days, and her rarefied way of looking at the world, teeter on the edge of something one might almost laugh at, were it not done with such a lack of guile or self-consciousness: ‘One is always speaking of the light being “just like that of the Neopolitan gouaches”.’

The rarefied is spliced with the pleasingly schoolgirl – ‘we are both agoggers for this’, ‘what a joy to hear you on the blower’ – as if Shirley Hazzard the novelist cohabited with someone she often refers to as ‘old Shirl’, the Barry Humphries character that, without money and intellect, she might have become. Sometimes she combines the high-flown and the jolly-hockey-sticks in a single sentence: ‘Did I tell you that F and I read Gibbon for about 45 minutes each morning with our brekkie here?’ The Queen Mother comes for ‘tea (champagne and mozzarella di bufala) at our landlords’; the next day there is another gathering with a neighbour, ‘again for champers and mozzarella (he has his own buffaloes north of Naples)’.

Where Hazzard’s letters are airborne, exquisite, precise, Harrower’s are plainer, vigorous and prophetic with political outrage, as in 1989, ‘have we been going through the threatened change of climate?’, or in 1990, ‘this breaking-up in Europe into smaller and smaller groups… is not cheering’. But there is delightful trivia here, too. Off Harrower goes to watch Last Tango in Paris. (‘There were good Aussie ladies eating Minties behind us, tutting and talking all the way through. At one point Brando was lying alone on the floor… and he simply leapt to his feet. Those ladies said, ‘Isn’t he agile?’) Pen portraits of other writers – Nadine Gordimer, Gore Vidal – are delicious, and not without a bitchiness that pleases in the way it humanises, in Hazzard’s case especially, a mind that appears often to exist within literature rather than on the gossipy surface of real, unimportant, life. ‘What a clever little creature Muriel Spark is’, Hazzard wrote, ‘when she can cut away all the rubbish.’ Best of all is her anecdote of Elizabeth Bowen standing at a supermarket checkout in the King’s Road, ‘and realising that she had been looking about her and saying out loud, “O the squalor, the squalor”’.

Patrick White accused Hazzard of not knowing, from within her ‘charmed life’, what real squalor was. White remains the only Australian to be given the Nobel Prize in Literature, and for me as for Hazzard is among the mightiest novelists of his or any time. Cantankerous and formidable, he bestrides these letters like a colossus, even appearing in Hazzard’s dreams. Where Harrower was loyal to White until the end, seemingly honoured when he urged her to write, Hazzard was wounded by his jibes and temper. (The sections on White are among many references and allusions that would benefit from greater editorial annotation. ‘Mrs Jolley and Mrs Flack are everywhere’ Hazzard says, impenetrably to any reader unfamiliar with White’s Riders in the Chariot. Explanatory and source notes are combined into a paltry five pages, aggravatingly banished to the back rather than given on the relevant page.)

White’s admiration for Harrower surpassed his circumspective but genuine regard for The Transit of Venus. And when Francis Steegmuller first read her, he said simply ‘this woman is incomparable’. She is greater at dialogue than Hazzard, I’d suggest, too many of whose characters speak in their author’s exquisitely formed voice (one of these letters’ surprises is her admission that ‘dialogue is what I like to write’). But The Transit of Venus contains stretches of prose so gravely beautiful, in the truth of its perception, as to be among the more perfect creations of world literature. It may be this very perfection that her detractors resist, for even the ugliness is beautifully turned. Only the novel’s ending – almost impossible to write about without spoiling its surprise, which in itself bespeaks crudity – strikes me as a false move and a loss of nerve, a pasted-on catastrophe that the reader must solve via a series of tiny clues hidden in the text, a technique that seems to demand admiration at the authorial sleight-of-hand. Harrower’s bleak and enclosed visions are rarely alleviated by mere melodrama.

By contrast the gorgeous, perfect-cadence, major-chord ending of The Great Fire thrills the heart in its authorial kindness, the naïve bravery of its goodness, the ravishing skill and music of its economy. A British war veteran and an impossibly radiant girl half his age are permitted their improbable and untarnished love in spite and because of global tumult: ‘Many had died. But not he; not she; not yet.’ That ‘not yet’ has nothing in it of foreboding; it simply holds off the future, as great love can. (Juliet, to Romeo: ‘It is not yet near day.’) The soap-opera ending to The Transit of Venus is outflanked by the improbable survival of happiness, and the pure literary courage, that concludes The Great Fire. It’s a happy ending that makes tragedy look a cheap trick.

Literary and moral courage, how to muster it, whether the two are one and the same: these are the topics that make this book so stimulating. There is not a page that, directly or indirectly, does not struggle with the quandaries of how to be a writer, how to write, and how easy it is not to write. It shows two formidably gifted women grappling with, and occasionally subsumed by, what Hazzard calls ‘this strange caper of modern life lived in the constant presence and awareness of poverty and war’. How can those who live in the mind engage with the world without wounding themselves or their art? Hazzard admitted that ‘daily attention to the state of the world can be paralysing’, but kept going, as Harrower, her heart unsteeled, did not.

One of the blurbs on the back-cover suggests that only Hazzard had the discipline and strength to put her art before anything else, as if Harrower’s silence were a retreat, a faltering, a lack of courage, even something so simple as lifelong writer’s block. But Harrower’s bibliography, of fiction at any rate, is longer than Hazzard’s, and perhaps there is something admirable and brave in a writer’s stopping because she has said what was needful, and what she had it in her to say, rather than clinging officiously to a literary career. Future study may yet reveal in more detail how she afforded her long silence. To write only when the muse is near may be integrity; it may also be luxury. Or is it simply a dereliction of responsibility, her talent not hers to ignore? White thought it ‘a sort of crime not to work at what you can do’.

It is greedy and inevitable to want more from both writers, but here are their letters to satisfy the appetite. May there be many more volumes. Hazzard’s, in particular, have a quality of genius that they share with Virginia Woolf’s diaries, namely the ability, almost without seeming to, almost without realising it, to impart an exquisitely wrought chain of wisdom that arrives, unbidden, within a dashed-off document of news and trivia, the truer for arriving in passing, free from the novels’ weightiness. She inspires consideration of how to live, and how to be.

You say you never cared for [remorse]. That is very strange to me. I suppose psychiatry has made us (or tried to make us) suspect remorse as being invariably a manifestation of ‘guilt’. What abt sense of responsibility, which is the rightful source of ‘guilt’ or remorse? One can’t wallow in regrets, one doesn’t have time for one thing; but the adult ability to question oneself, to try to find out what sort of character one truly has, to feel more than a passing pang for wrongs one has done to others – that seems to me a form of grace, the central civilising factor, perhaps. How difficult and beautiful to be able to say, as one is older, ‘I’m sorry’, ‘I was wrong’. […] I don’t enjoy remorse, but I need it. Otherwise, it wd be in my case a disinclination to consider.

Shirley Hazzard and Elizabeth Harrower shared an understanding of the human soul, and both were concerned with human connection, another form (among the many, social, physical, divine) of grace. One of Hazzard’s characters is called, inevitably, Grace. And trapped Claire Vaisey, heroine of The Watch Tower, puts a coin into a Salvation Army collection box proffered by a soldier.

‘God bless you,’ he said simply, looking at her like a child. Oh! – Clare relaxed. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured. She was blessed, who was most in need of blessing. Blessed. Having received what she had paid for, she moved on.


Oliver Soden