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Elizabeth Harrower Biography

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Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 1928. Career: Lived in London 1951-58; worked for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, 1959-60; reviewer, Sydney Morning Herald, 1960; worked for Macmillan and Company Ltd., publishers, Sydney, 1961-67. Awards: Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1968; Australian Council for the Arts fellowship, 1974.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Down in the City. London, Cassell, 1957.

The Long Prospect. London, Cassell, 1958.

The Catherine Wheel. London, Cassell, 1960.

The Watch Tower. London, Macmillan, 1966.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Cost of Things," in Summer's Tales 1, edited by Kylie Tennant. Melbourne and London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1964.

"English Lesson," in Summer's Tales 2, edited by Kylie Tennant. Melbourne and London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1965.

"The Beautiful Climate," in Modern Australian Writing, edited byGeoffrey Dutton. London, Fontana, 1966.

"Lance Harper, His Story," in The Vital Decade, edited by GeoffreyDutton and Max Harris. Melbourne, Sun, 1968.

"The Retrospective Grandmother," in The Herald (Melbourne), 1976.

"A Few Days in the Country," in Overland (Melbourne), 1977.

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Critical Studies:

"The Novels of Elizabeth Harrower" by Max Harris, in Australian Letters (Adelaide), December 1961; Forty-Two Faces by John Hetherington, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1962; "Elizabeth Harrower's Novels: A Survey," in Southerly (Sydney), no. 2, 1970, and Recent Fiction, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1974, both by R.G. Geering; The Directions of Australian Fiction 1920-1974 by D.R. Burns, Melbourne, Cassell, 1975; "The Novels of Elizabeth Harrower" by Robyn Claremont, in Quadrant (Sydney), November 1979; Nola Adams, in Westerly (Nedlands, Western Australia), September 1980; "Deep into the Destructive Core" by Frances McInherny, in Hecate (St. Lucia, Queensland), vol. 9, nos. 1-2, 1983; "Down in the City: Elizabeth Harrower's Lost Novel" by Rosie Yeo, in Southerly (Sydney), no. 4, 1990; "The Watch Tower: Bluebeard's Castle" by Deirdre Coleman, in (Un)common Ground edited by A. Taylor and R. McDougall, Bedford Park, South Australia, CRNLE, 1990.

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An ideal introduction to Elizabeth Harrower's work is the short story "The Beautiful Climate," since it provides a paradigm of her fictional universe. It is a world in which selfish men manipulate their women and material possessions in a vain attempt to achieve happiness; frustrated by their blind male egotism, they become subject to fits of smoldering violence and frequent relapses into bouts of alcoholism and morbid self-pity. The woman's role is to suffer, to pity, and to provide the innocent seeing eye for the narrative. In "The Beautiful Climate" the paranoiac male is Mr. Shaw, who secretly buys a holiday island, reduces his wife and daughter to domestic slavery there, then sells the place behind their backs. The consciousness that develops from innocent passivity to partial sad wisdom is the daughter's, who reflects her creator in turning from psychology to literature as a guide to truth. The same basic situations and characters recur throughout the novels; and the tormented relationship between father and daughter in this short story might seem to offer a psychological clue to the novelist's preoccupation with male domination.

In Down in the City, a very remarkable first novel, Harrower traces the disenchantment that follows when the heroine exchanges the empty security of her wealthy bay-side suburb in Sydney for the puzzling ups and downs of her husband's shady business world. In describing the characteristic claustrophobia of the flat-dwelling city wife, she succeeds wonderfully well in evoking the typical sights and sounds of Sydney and in establishing a connection between climate and states of mind. And the hero, who oscillates between his classy wife and his obliging mistress, reflects the conflicting drives and split personality of many an Australian business man.

What distinguishes Harrower's second novel, The Long Prospect, from all her others is that the malevolent main character is a woman not a man. But once again the viewpoint is through an innocent seeing eye; in this case, it is a child's. By the end of the novel, she has plumbed the seedy adult world to its depths. The scene in which four irredeemably corrupt adults spy on the 12-year-old and her middle-aged friend, transferring their own "atmosphere of stealth" onto the innocent pair, is only one of many pieces of superb psychological drama in this accomplished novel.

While the third novel, The Catherine Wheel, laudably attempts to extend the range of the fictional world by having its setting in London bed-sitter-land, it is a somewhat disappointing work that hardly prepares the reader for the splendid fourth novel, The Watch Tower. The conspicuous success in The Watch Tower lies in the creation of Felix Shaw, the Australian business man, who climaxes a series of similar portraits and shares the surname of the father in "The Beautiful Climate." But equally subtle is the analysis of pity, through the contrasted characters of Shaw's two victims, who show that pity may enslave as well as ennoble (this a continuous preoccupation in the novels). Shaw's capriciousness, his bursts of petty pique and rage, his resentment at others' success, his dark nihilism, brutal aggression, unrecognized homosexuality and alcoholism, all point to a profound psychic disorder. But it is the novelist's triumph to suggest that this disorder is at least partly the product of a society that worships materialism and masculinity.

In most of her work, Harrower combines sharp observation of individual life with a searching critique of Australian society. Although she lacks the resilient vitality of such English novelists as Margaret Drabble, her vision of a male-dominated society is depressingly authentic. She has been highly praised and compared favorably with Patrick White, but her unflattering, somewhat drab and disenchanted view of Australian life is now winning her the wide local readership her work certainly deserves.

—John Colmer

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