This month a small group discussed Elizabeth Harrower's In certain circles set in the 1960s/early 70s. We all enjoyed it although there were one or two issues, especially with the ending that some of us found baffling.
It is an interesting story of how a book written in the 1950s/60s was not published until 2014. This is the last novel written by Elizabeth Harrower. You can read more about it in this Guardian review.
In the beginning a few members talked about Harrower’s better known novel called The watch tower. It has a ‘harrowing’ intensity and members thought there was a similar feeling in In certain circles. The tone also has similarities with Anita Brookner's work possibly.
One member read the novel as a three-part movement -- like music -- introduction/story/climax. The main character is set up for a fall in the first movement. Zoe is a confident young ‘princess’ when the novel begins but through the story, which tells her life from her teenage years through to about 40, she changes in many ways. Her experiences and knowledge of others and her husband’s personality see to it. There is a highlighting of this knowledge that is to come to Zoe on page 44:
suffering, endurance, were things Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art …
There were many strong and well written aspects of this book – the author’s style, strong characters and her understanding of human nature. We liked the way Harrower describes the relationships between the two sets of siblings – Russell and Zoe, and Anna and Stephen, as young people. Then their relationships when older when they are husband and wife (Zoe and Stephen) and friends, Russell and Anna.
The character of Stephen was discussed at length. He is a difficult person but he doesn’t realise how much until the ending. We know a lot about Stephen as he is the subject of both Zoe’s and Anna’s thinking. Zoe and Anna are very human and vulnerable in this stylized version of Sydney in the period. Russell is defined by Zoe and by his wife Lily. He is a man who wants to see social justice for the less well off. We all appreciated Zoe and Russell’s mother – she is good role model for her daughter especially believing that women can do anything. She is emancipated in work but we didn’t think she was socially or domestically – still waiting on the boys in the family even when she knew she wasn’t well.
The ending was the major flaw in the novel most of us thought. A letter written by Anna and later accidentally posted causes havoc unnecessarily and resolves a few issues just a little too easily. When the letter is received by Zoe, immediate angst is felt by the other characters (page 212). We felt it was ‘Hardyesque’ in this twist to the story. Is this novel really about internal angst? Is it tragic? We didn’t have any answers to these questions.
It is interesting the way each major character has a separate focus – Zoe on Stephen (or herself when young), Anna on Stephen and later her art, Russell on humankind and Lily on her family. Stephen’s focus is on making enough money to support Zoe in the manner to which she was accustomed. (I think he was so damaged by his early life that he can’t think outside that box.)
A major theme is ‘waste’ – as in life or opportunities -- it is often mentioned and bothers the main characters. We are told this when the young Russell and Zoe are spending time with each other – ‘maybe one day people won’t be wasted; talents won’t be wasted’ (page 26). This is particularly true of Zoe’s wasted life in Stephen’s opinion but in her own opinion as well – her film career was not regarded highly by her husband and he is either jealous of her life in Paris or dismisses it. By the conclusion, Zoe loses confidence in herself to the extent that she can’t even read Stephen’s moods at times. This tone seems quite dated in today’s society’s mores.
Waste can also be a subject of life in general – ‘the morning hadn’t been wasted, she reflected’ (page 33).
Their occupations take up considerable space in this novel although they all happen ‘offstage’ so there is Anna’s pottery, Lily’s science career, Zoe’s photography and film making which we only hear about indirectly. Also there is Russell and Stephen’s publishing company (apparently complementing each other nicely in talents for separate parts of the role). As a young man Stephen was a salesman and Anna worked in an office. Zoe couldn’t understand either of these roles for her friends.
Pity is strong emotion often mentioned in this book. There is pity by the rich kids for Anna and Stephen especially in the beginning of the story but it is also felt by Russell and Zoe’s parents for the orphans. Russell feels pity for people: ‘What have you got against it ?’ he says to Anna, who can’t stand being pitied (p. 132). Russell has never had to be a receiver of pity apparently so can’t understand her reservations. Their relationship and Russell’s relationship with his wife Lily complicates the intrigue. The final resolution of Russell going off with Anna after a life with Lily certainly surprised most readers. It was a chance of happiness for these two.
The cover of the Text publishing volume quotes from a New York review saying witty, desolate, truth seeking’ – we don’t think it was very witty but we can see some ‘desolation’ in the setting. When this novel was written Australia was still an isolated place in the world so the story revolves around the interior space of the characters rather than the exterior. However Harrower does portray Sydney Harbour well – and the two houses on the beautiful beach. It is significant that Zoe goes overseas when young as most rich young Australians did in those days to acquire experience. She obtained this opportunity through friends. (See page 59).
Many of us decided that this author was well worth reading – and we would like to read her short stories and The watch tower. Elizabeth Harrower is still alive at 88.
(References to the Text publication 2014).