When Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower came ‘roaring out of forty years in obscurity’, as Helen Garner put it in the Australian’s 2012 round-up of best books, we didn’t know that we’d go on to republish all of Elizabeth’s work. But in short order we published in the Text Classics series her earlier novels: Down in the City, The Long Prospect and The Catherine Wheel.
Then In Certain Circles, her long-hidden fifth novel, went from the depths of the National Library’s archives to being a BBC Book at Bedtime. For the critic James Wood, Elizabeth Harrower was ‘the great discovery of 2014’.
But that wasn’t all of Elizabeth’s work. Though she considers herself a novelist first and foremost, between books she wrote a small number of short stories—the novels in miniature, with recognisable characters and themes; but also scathing satires and gentler evocations of female friendship.
About half these stories were published in journals and anthologies in the 1960s and ’70s. In the past six months others found their way into the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and, locally, Australian Book Review, Kill Your Darlings and Canary Press. And now most of them are collected in A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories, out later this month in a handsome hardback designed by W. H. Chong.
For Harrower fans, this will be an unexpected, exciting encore. For readers yet to discover one of Australia’s most important post-war writers, it’s a perfect place to start. And for Elizabeth herself, reading stories written four decades ago has felt, she says, a bit like encountering an alien.
Below you can read a quick Q&A with Elizabeth and an exclusive story, ‘The Retrospective Grandmother’, published only on the Text blog.
—David Winter, Senior Editor
‘The Retrospective Grandmother’ is one of your stories not in A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories. (The other, ‘Absent Friends’, is an early work similar to a pair in the collection.) ‘Grandmother’ is wonderful, yet it doesn’t sit comfortably with the rest. It’s more intimate; the narrator addresses the reader candidly, unironically; the piece is structured as a reminiscence. I suppose I am asking whether, unlike your other work, it is closer to memoir?
The story is probably a mixture of fact and fiction about a far different time, when people created their own good times and dramas according to inclination and character. There were warring families in a confined space, almost within sight of each other. Nevertheless there was a lot of singing, music and dancing, and even bagpipes.
The narrator of ‘Grandmother’ regrets the failure to forgive, recognises what her grandmothers did for her when she was a child—sees them at last through adult eyes. Am I right to discern in her a contrast to those characters in your fiction who act in almost predetermined ways: for example, the protagonist of ‘Alice’, forever in thrall to her controlling mother?
An older and wiser narrator can see how two very different grandmothers do their best to handle this cuckoo in the nest. She recalls with some affection the more colourful aspects of their efforts to bring up a recalcitrant child.
You’ve often mentioned the important roles that close friends have played in your life. Do you think about your relations much now, and have your feelings towards them changed over time?
Friends have always been at the centre of my life and I’ve been lucky. Some were larger-than-life and, fortunately, always on my side, with opinionated conversations, practical help and the great affection friends share. Having spent relatively little time with my few relatives, I don’t remember them very well or often.
‘Grandmother’ appeared in the now-defunct Melbourne Herald in 1976. The following year ‘A Few Days in the Country’ ran in Overland. These were your first publications in almost a decade and your last until the novel In Certain Circles was finally published last year. You’ve mentioned that you don’t remember most of your stories, but do you recall this brief re-emergence in the 1970s?
The 1970s were so eventful that I can’t separate fact from fiction.
In 1980 Jim Davidson interviewed you for Meanjin. He asked you about short stories and you replied: ‘I have written a few and feel friendly to some.’ This year many of your stories have been published for the first time, here and in the United States. How do you feel about these distant acquaintances?
Now that the stories are appearing in very diverse publications including, to my great delight, the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, I’m surprised and very pleased to meet them again. Even though I shed tears as ‘Alice’ ended.
My favourite sentence when I reread ‘Grandmother’ was: ‘She made the best of things, because that was her nature, like many another backwoods Cleopatra.’ What stuck out to you?
I liked the backwoods Cleopatra, too.
The Retrospective Grandmother
by Elizabeth Harrower
I remember hearing my grandmother—the wild Irish-Scottish one, the one who sometimes referred to herself as Helen of Troy—call one of her husbands a poor fish, another an old woman, and another a dummy, because he had nothing to say on an afternoon when she felt like being entertained.
After my grandfather’s time, I lost track of these extra husbands, which was which, and which was current, and even had to ponder about my grandmother’s surname when I wrote her letters. (Who is she now?) Having spent some vital early years with her I was, I was aware, a broadminded child, a free spirit.
(I announced this one day to my other grandmother, the proper, Australian-grown, old-fashioned one called Grandma. She must have vowed silence regarding her counterpart at some high altar, because in a repressive tone she merely advised against ‘too much broadmindedness’ and looked at me long.)
Just the same, I found something more than the name changing involved in these new marriages troublesome. I never believed in them, somehow. Who were these transients? None could be up to Helen, worthy of her. My mother would tell me the details, wryly. We would stare at each other, perhaps shaking our heads, knowing that she was not as others are, and not to be judged by any standard at present known to the world.
On the whole, I thought the reign of the occasional fancy man much preferable to a new husband. Even at that time legal ties, domesticity, seemed tedious to me. Since no husband was ideal, or even one of half her mettle, I had learned like my grandmother to appreciate change. I say ‘fancy man’, but I doubt if anyone pronounced those words to my grandmother’s face. She used them often enough of other women’s men, but then she was Helen of the lightning Irish temper, Irish tongue, Irish laugh, elemental. Few of her audience meant to cross her, but their simple intentions were demolished by her interpretation of a breath, a flicker of expression. On a bad day she could take anything amiss.
In the list of her husbands, as well as the old woman, the poor fish, and so on, there was the gigolo. Or perhaps that was another name for the dummy, on a different occasion, when he wasn’t sulking, only being spoiled and greedy. How such a worldly shady word, with its overtones of the Riviera, could ever have been applied to Mr Rugby, only someone who knew my grandmother could understand. Words meant what she wanted them to mean, so ‘gigolo’ he was. It was true he took money from her, and presents, but so did all the others. She was, as she used to require of the prospective husbands of acquaintances and friends, ‘a good provider’. She absolutely would give to children, lovers, strangers, if she had to hurl her offerings. And sometimes she did.
If she held men in general in contempt, this was as nothing compared with her feelings about women. Men were worthy of contempt; women weren’t. Towards men, she herself was erratically subservient, erratically tyrannical; from the rest of the female population about her she exacted something like slavishness towards any male creature, including her dog. Child of the Calvinist north as she was, and undisputed star of her circle, she obliged women to act in her presence a role towards men that she herself adopted only spasmodically and dropped at whim—the scurrying serving maid. Dictatorial! Intimidating! Her manner was incredible. She could out-shout and out-pose Bette Davis.
She sounds terrible. And yet she was prodigiously generous. You could have anything. She never turned anyone down or away if they needed money, time or attention. And she made everybody laugh, and feel more alive. She never sulked or moped. Of course, since she had so much of her own way, she hadn’t much to mope about; but that doesn’t always stop people.
Although the life in her would have animated ten ordinary women, it would be untrue to think she had chosen weak consorts deliberately, for the pleasure of overpowering them. They were just there, at hand. Sad for her—except that it would never have occurred to her to think so—she was far from centres of power, places where the strong and the brave congregate. She was in a hot Australian town at a time when few saw the world. A small part of her glamour was that she had come from afar, and could tell her audiences of the world’s existence. She was rarely alone. She made the best of things, because that was her nature, like many another backwoods Cleopatra.
Sometimes I think she might have rejoiced at the arrival of a considerable man and abandoned her walking wounded in an instant. It never happened. She spent her vitality and spirits in efforts to mould her men into something greater than themselves. She had instinctive notions, sprung from her own untapped capacities, of the variety and possibilities of life. And this was her great virtue. Her material was poor. No doubt she had some idea of what her equal partner should be. Hopes, aspirations, imagination, leap out. But life is seldom neat, and rarely just. Real love goes unrequited. Superior energies, intelligences, appear—only to be wasted. Still, it would be fanciful to think of Helen of Troy in such terms. Pragmatic, though she knew it not, she worked at what was closest to her and never thought to bemoan the unworthiness of her lot. By being hers, it was made magnificent.
Sometimes in desperation she must have imagined that her true mate, even her master, had turned up at the door. She always welcomed him. She had a ferocious will. She was so used to bullying and getting her way that it must have seemed inconceivable that she should never ever be able to force circumstances to yield what she needed. She did idolise her youngest son. He was like all the men she’d ever known: he leaned heavily, demanded, flattered. But he was naturally younger than the husbands or fancy men, and his good looks—provided by luck, nurture, and the absence of toil—and the fact that he was hers, put him quite beyond criticism, no matter what. She never called him names, except of a doting kind. Endearments sounded strange from her.
Once, while I was living with her, someone loved me—a stranger, for no reason except that I was myself—and I loved him. My grandmother sent him away, in an unusual, even unique, access of common sense or propriety. It was dreadful. I was put on a train to another city, to return to my mother, and I said in my head, and possibly, though I can’t be certain, out loud to her: I’ll never forgive you.
To our common loss, I never did. As a child, I recognised that there was absolutely no one like her. She was a one-woman explosion of gaiety, hilarity, irrationality, a whole opera in herself. When I say I never forgave her, all I mean is that along with the love for the man, which vanished in time, my feeling for her just went away—the admiration, that lovely partisan adherence to her causes. There was no hatred, no dislike, even quite shortly afterwards, just no feeling at all. I almost never thought of her for any length of time again, although, to please my mother, I wrote letters and sent Christmas and birthday presents, and none of that was reluctantly done or a real effort. Perhaps she noticed something, but possibly not. She did not reflect much in a true way about other people, even those nearest to her. She was possessive, but not really affectionate by nature. Once upon a time, when I first noticed this, I blamed her, judged her, with what I later came to regard as the ignorance of youth, as though she had chosen herself, chosen to be thus. And now, again, I return to that early thought: perhaps she did choose to be possessive but not affectionate.
In the end she outlived all the husbands—the first, who was my grandfather, then the poor fish, the old woman, the gigolo, and the forgotten others—her entire court. There was still my uncle, her youngest son. Even an exceptional boy might be corrupted by worship: Uncle Aston, of the strong muscles and wavy character, just learned to his profit that being quite unable to live up to his mother’s claims, growing older, losing hair and looks, taking wives and producing children, being supported by his by this time quite elderly mother, made no difference at all to her estimate of him. ‘My son,’ she called him almost always, in the most casual conversation with intimates, almost never giving him a name that others, too, might use.
There was a day when all fell apart. She fled her old town, old home, associations, and in all senses flew to her son across the continent. Overnight, almost, she was really too old, too ill, too frail, to live alone any longer. The audience, adherents, had all died or gone to homes, or to their adult children long ago.
I went by train to her house, to pack and send cases after her, and to have the furniture auctioned. Neighbours stood about outside. ‘It’s the granddaughter,’ they told each other. ‘What is she asking for the big clock?’
There were military medals, and musical instruments, and false teeth from the days of the husbands and fancy men. Even though she had sent away someone who loved me, teaching me terrible lessons too early in life, I could see that this was sad—sorting through her private things in her absence, tidying away her life. My own mother, her daughter, still cared for her devotedly, passionately. But she herself was ill. I was glad to spare her this act of civilised vandalism.
Quite quickly it seemed to me, but perhaps it was long for Helen of Troy, she fled from her son (faults now cruelly exposed to her eyes) to a hospital for the aged. From there she wrote me short letters, in handwriting that became, in the two or three years of her residence, progressively tinier as her eyesight deteriorated.
‘They are all so old,’ she wrote. ‘And I don’t count as old.’
I sent letters back, not knowing what she would want to hear, or if the fact of receiving post in itself was enough to give her some pleasure. I hoped so. Her heart was worn out. She said old age was horrible. Remembering the heroine of my childhood, I wished so that something more fitting had befallen her than this isolated end, with her clamour and electricity muted and quite unknown to the strangers who nursed her. All the French scent, and the wine and spirits, and the horseracing and parties and quarrels and new clothes and loud laughter and singing, all unknown.
One day a letter came in the most miniature writing I had ever seen. She said, ‘This is my last letter.’ And it was.
The other one, the proper Grandma, figured less, disappeared sooner, and was, like the rest of the human race, misunderstood. At least, by me. That is, I accepted what I heard—that my Australian-grown, Victorian-seeming, very correct Grandma was the baddy. My father’s mother.
She had springy lawns that I liked to walk on. Everything else had weeds and asphalt, so her cushiony grass, those crisp bright edges of cut grass bordering garden paths, was noticeable. She had roses, fig trees, rows of vegetables, hens’ eggs. But I don’t think it occurred to me ever to praise or blame for such given things as gardens, weeds. I didn’t know that anyone decided. One arrived, and the world was there.
Grandma had an interesting jug with a sliding lid that you pulled back to let out golden syrup or honey. There were puddings at her table. She gave me a mango once, exotic, totally unknown fruit. Eating was a pleasant surprise at her place.
She had a magpie, a pet, indulged and cranky, roaming the backyard waiting for my visits. And one day she had a penguin flapping about in her bath. Some captain had rescued it and brought it to her to save: I forget what happened to it. Early on she had a small snapping Pekingese dog. For my benefit, he would occasionally be asked to perform, dressed in a straw boater and cane. He would stand on his hind legs, wearing this hat and with the cane tucked under a paw, and all the adults would lean down, exhorting and admiring.
In the dining room there was a big painting of some ancient battle at sea, with boys climbing the rigging while horrendous deeds were committed on the deck below. One of the boys was Grandad. He was the brave boy who won the battle, I was told. Yes! I would gladly point him out for them. Up on the sofa, in a second my finger had fixed on him there still, wild-eyed on the rigging, where he had been last time they wanted to know where he was. They could never remember. ‘Grandad!’
It is clear now that, whereas my Irish-Scottish grandmother was all personality, my home-grown colonial Grandma was her background first, and actions and views second. This made her duller company, though the objects about her were magical in their diversity and strangeness. Even to me, she seemed conventional and pious: ‘hypocritical’, my Helen grandmother said, and worse. I don’t know. When my parents had parted, I heard that Grandma had made life deeply miserable for my young mother from the day of her marriage. I loved my mother. So I listened and drew up my accounts.
She was a baddy, Grandma, but she made nice jellies. She never smiled, that I can remember, but I can’t remember a hard word from her, either. Only that caution against broadmindedness. She took me to the church down the hill from her house. It was very boring, and the minister at the front moaned in a voice like nothing I’d ever known, and everyone looked as if they were hearing bad news that they’d heard before.
She sometimes gave me a party for my birthday. Once, when I was seven or eight, she had dresses made for me. When I was about the same age she arranged for me to have piano lessons. I was supposed to go to her house every afternoon to practise. But the sitting room, the room with the piano in it, had immensely tall windows and was shadowy with wooden venetian blinds. There was a doll in a glass case in the room, and there were shells you listened to, and photographs in silver frames. Sometimes the doll was taken out, exhibited to me, so blind, so dumb, so very old, so without purpose, that I used to eye her, breathless and blank myself, in a painless torment of futility, as though I had caught this disease from her.
Either I really was frightened in the room, or to win attention pretended fear. The piano lessons came to nothing. I learned some scales and could play ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’, then either the big shady room or idleness kept me away. What was it for, piano playing? A certain truth is that although I was sure of my welcome as a grandchild of the house, I also felt myself to be in alien territory. They were nice to me, but what about my gentle mother?
My two grandmothers lived less than half a mile apart, yet never once in my presence met or spoke. Neither did her own shopping, so they never had accidental encounters over the groceries. My comings and goings between the old-world and colonial households were taken for granted, never discussed, not apparently noticed. But I can remember periods when I not only abandoned the house near the church, but actually rushed into doorways to avoid Grandma if I saw anyone like her anywhere in town. Perhaps the divorce was going on. I heard things. My mother and father were absent forever, it seemed, living and working in different cities.
Some years later, when I had spots, Grandma was the one who noticed and took me a long way by train to a skin specialist. She also talked to me about education and thought I should acquire some. Restless, wary, conscious of myself as one who always had good marks in class without effort, I took no notice of her—this short, plump, not entirely trustworthy lady who made addictive jellies and had perhaps been mean to my mother. Education? Adult life? Looking to the future? I had no idea what she meant. I listened, bright and blank, like a member of some lost jungle tribe, my intelligence a light illuminating empty space.
(My other grandmother, Helen of Troy, was always looking to the past, telling about the far, snowy side of the world, and conditions there in the snow in a mythical time when she had been young.)
But Grandma seemed not to know we lived in eternity. She would ever be Grandma; I would ever be in primary school and running, running up the hill and down the hill.
I woke one day a little older, actually attending high school. I had even left the two grandmothers to their proximity and joined my own mother in Sydney miles away. It was years since I’d seen Grandma. Then we had a telegram that told us she was dead.
My mother and I didn’t really know what to do. We had never before known anyone to die. Down at the shops, we bought a card doubtfully and posted it. Afterwards I was told that this had been inadequate, inappropriate, and that others, other grandchildren, had done the right thing—sent telegrams, caught trains, assembled, attended the funeral. Deeply chastened, I listened and learned, adding this about death and funerals to what I knew of the world. I knew hot weather and surf, the noise of steelworks, the sound of horseracing commentaries on radio, school subjects, the weeds of the suburb, Saturday matinees at the pictures, the long-ago snows of Scotland and Ireland. I knew homes were impermanent; parents were impermanent. Nothing was reliable. I knew all that. Out in the world there were wars. And here, grandmothers warred and died.
Decades later, I stopped to notice what Grandma, the baddy, had actually said and done. Health! Ethics! Culture! Education! After all, indubitably, she had had my interests at heart. I thought of the propaganda from my wild Helen of Troy, of her erratic pronouncements, open-handedness, wrong-headedness, violence. Oh, she was entertaining and self-centred. Her egotism was fascinating. She made me laugh and cry. I thought if the two had been rolled together made into one big grandmother, what a wonderful one she’d have been.
Sometimes, lately, I’ve thought: They didn’t even know me. I just turned up, not a bit like either of them, my name quite probably Trouble. And see how they received me! Now, without a finger lifted anywhere, time has moved the grandmothers together in my mind, and they are linked and united by what they shared long ago—my unconditioned childhood.
‘The Retrospective Grandmother’ © Elizabeth Harrower 1976, 2015