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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Elizabeth Harrower (1928–2020)

by Amy Ripley

from Sydney Morning Herald

Elizabeth Harrower was one of Australia’s most important postwar writers, one who was very nearly forgotten by the literary world. After enjoying success as a novelist in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, she abruptly withdrew from public life in 1977.

Her silence lasted four decades; her books went out of print and many of her writing contemporaries and friends, such as Patrick White, Kylie Tennant and Christina Stead, died.

However, thanks to a curious publisher, Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, her work was rediscovered in 2012 as part of Text’s revival of lost Australian literature.

A forgotten manuscript, languishing in the vaults of the National Library, became the novel In Certain Circles, which won the Voss Prize in 2015, was nominated for a 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award and was a BBC Radio Four Book at Bedtime.

A collection of her short stories — A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories — appeared in 2015. Some of the stories, which had originally been published in Overland and the Melbourne Herald, ran for a second time in American magazines Harper’s and The New Yorker. Her four novels — Down in the City, The Long Prospect, The Catherine Wheel and The Watch Tower — were republished, bringing them to a new generation of readers.

Harrower’s spare, elegant novels and stories were centred on the timeless themes of gender, power and class, often featuring women and girls living in the shadow of controlling and psychologically damaged men.

Her reappearance sparked praise for her work both in Australia and internationally, including from James Wood of The New Yorker, who said: “Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking and completely polished”.

This late acclaim was something that both delighted and bewildered Harrower — she said she always believed that her books might find a new readership after her death but couldn’t remember what they were about or why she gave up writing.

Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney on February 2, 1928. Her mother, Margaret, was just 19 when she was born and her father wasn’t on the scene for long.

In later interviews, Harrower batted away questions about her parents’ separation and its impact on her upbringing, merely saying that other children can be very cruel to those who are different.

After her parents separated, Elizabeth and Margaret lived with Margaret’s mother in Newcastle, returning to Sydney when Elizabeth was 11. She was a bookish, intensely curious child, reading her way through everything in the City of Sydney Library in the Queen Victoria Building. She loved writing, especially letters and diaries, and taught herself to touch-type, something she later told the Herald was “the most useful thing I did”.

Harrower didn’t go to university after school. That, she said, was something that the daughters of judges and specialists did. Instead, she lived with her mother and stepfather in Manly and took a series of what she called “little jobs” including as a clerk and as a fit model in a garment factory.

World War II ended when Harrower was 17, and it was an exciting time to be in Sydney. Everything seemed glamorous and intoxicating − the blackout had lifted, the city was bathed in neon lights and the harbour had come alive with ships as the troops returned. The Australia Hotel was a gathering place, the influence of European migration was starting to be noticed and life suddenly felt full of promise.

In 1951, aged 23, Harrower left all this behind to visit her mother’s relatives in Scotland. It took six weeks and three days to sail to the docks at Tilbury, and her journey made a lasting impression. The ship made several tropical stops along the way, and Harrower was entranced by the Buddhist monks and scent of cinnamon in Colombo. After spending a day in Bombay, she decided she was never going back to Australia.

Harrower loved the beauty of Scotland, staying with family in Edinburgh and visiting the Borders. Afterwards, she headed to London. England was on the brink of the Cold War and felt like a serious place, shattered by World War II and a world away from Australia. She took a string of clerical jobs, including at an undertaker's, and took the entrance examinations to read psychology at the University of London.

'She later struggled to explain why she stopped writing.'

It was in her chilly Bayswater bedsit, just opposite Kensington Gardens, that Harrower, hugging a hot water bottle and periodically feeding a shilling into the gas meter, began to write on her Oliver typewriter, looking back to the heat and light of Sydney.

She didn’t take up her place to read psychology, preferring to concentrate on writing. Her first book, Down in the City, a ruthless examination of a dysfunctional marriage set in a claustrophobic flat in Kings Cross, was published by Cassell in 1957. It was followed by The Long Prospect in 1958, a painful psychological drama set in a town very much like Newcastle, about an innocent friendship between a neglected child and a middle-aged man that is sullied by the tawdry suspicions of others.

Her time in England was also a time of political awakening, and she converted to the British Labour Party after hearing Clement Attlee giving a stirring speech on the radio. She marched at the anti-nuclear demonstrations at Aldermaston and went to listen to Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling rail against war and the extinction of civilisation.

Harrower returned to Sydney in 1959, mainly to be closer to her mother, and lived at Balmoral. She continued to write, and The Catherine Wheel, her only novel set in London, was published in 1960. Published in the same year as Lynne Reid Banks’ influential The L-Shaped Room, the novel observed the unhealthy romantic entanglement between an Australian law student and her ne’er-do-well neighbour in a shabby boarding house.

The Watch Tower, set on Sydney’s leafy north shore, was published by Macmillan in 1966. Widely acknowledged to be Harrower’s masterpiece, it introduces readers to one of the great villains of Australian fiction, Felix Shaw. Shaw takes two vulnerable sisters under his wing after their mother abandons them, going on to marry one and terrorise them both.

Harrower worked briefly for the ABC in 1959 and 1960, and as a book reviewer for the Herald in 1960. She worked at Macmillan from 1961 to 1967, when she met Harold Macmillan and Edith Sitwell and made friends with Sidney and Cynthia Nolan.

She continued to write in the evenings after work and was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fellowship in 1968 and an Australia Council for the Arts Fellowship in 1974.

In 1970, Harrower’s mother died, age 61, from a stroke. Harrower was devastated. She finished the manuscript of In Certain Circles in the mid-1970s but suddenly withdrew it from publication at the last minute, saying she was unhappy with it.

She later struggled to explain why she stopped writing, variously citing grief and disappointment that she did not win the Miles Franklin Award for The Watch Tower. Her friends, especially Patrick White, urged her to continue, but she stuck to her guns.

After she stopped writing, Harrower continued to live a rich life. She was very sociable and made many friends, many of whom had no idea she was a writer. She lived in a modest flat in Cremorne, took classes in Italian and Buddhism and regularly attended the opera.

She continued to read widely, take an interest in politics and was a regular customer at Pages and Pages bookshop in Mosman. She also spent time caring for her older cousin, Margaret Dick, who died in 2014.

Harrower remained intensely private and always waved away suggestions that any of the emotional turmoil in her books was autobiographical. In 2014 she told an interviewer that she recently shredded 300 pages of diaries, notes and letters, including those she sent to her mother from London.

“I always thought one day someone will find that very interesting and then I thought, ‘Why should they?’ … the idea of being misinterpreted is very annoying.”

Elizabeth Harrower never married. She is survived by her friends and her work.

*reproduced by permission of Sydney Morning Herald

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Citation details

Amy Ripley, 'Harrower, Elizabeth (1928–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

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