Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2013

The Watch Tower, by Elizabeth Harrower


The Watch TowerThe  Watch Tower, by Elizabeth Harrower, was the ANZ LitLovers book-group’s choice for February, and it is a remarkable book.  It puts me in mind of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, because  although the style is completely different, it is a similar study of a dysfunctional family.

An abusive family, that is.  Laura and Clare are the unwanted children of a neglectful, absent father and a self-indulgent mother.  At the time that the story begins their father has just died and their mother Stella Vaizey is taking them out of boarding school.  This puts paid to Laura’s ambition to be a doctor, and it ensures that Clare never really develops any ambition at all.  In Sydney Stella indulges her whims with petty cruelties, attacks on the girls’ self esteem, and sabotages any good memories they might have of their father by blaming him for their financial straits.  She is emotionally distant, ‘like a park that had never once removed the Don’t Walk on the Grass signs‘.  All the work of running the household in its genteel poverty falls to Laura who becomes a surrogate mother to Clare.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Disastrously, Stella also farms Laura out to work, and it is at the mind-numbing factory which makes plastic boxes, that Laura comes to the notice of Felix Shaw, who quixotically decides to marry her.  Almost the first question any book group will ask is, why on earth does Laura accept him?  He is unprepossessing to look at, and twice her age.  There is no love involved on either side., and she knows next to nothing about him.  Readers need to take themselves back to the immediate prewar period to understand just how limited choices were for young women.  They were expected to marry, for marriage provided security that was otherwise unattainable.  And Felix offers more than a pleasant home and financial security, he also offers to pay for Clare’s education at college, which offers more than the local high school’s domestic science courses for girls. Although bookish Clare has shown no inclination towards any particular career, she is Laura’s surrogate ambition; it is she who should fulfil the dreams that are denied to Laura, whose future seems to be typing dull dockets at work and polishing the silver at home.

The ironically named Felix reneges almost as soon as the perfunctory marriage is completed.  (Stella embarked for ‘home’ as war breaks out, so the girls are wholly alone and entirely vulnerable). So Clare goes to business college so that she can end up with the same dreary job as Laura, and Laura continues in the same job as before – but unpaid, because she is the boss’s wife.  This shift in her status makes it even more difficult for her to make any friends among the factory girls, whose inverted snobbery makes them reject someone who is better educated and more intelligent than they are.

Before long, the real Felix reveals himself in a grim story that is all too common.   Metaphorically, the two girls are locked up in a claustrophobic tower constructed by Felix’s obsessive control.  They are terrorised into anticipating his every wish, and punished in extraordinary ways.  Clare, the younger, can do nothing but watch life, entrapped herself by Laura’s compliance.

This is a harrowing story to read, but it’s an illuminating portrait of  relentless psychological power.  If you’ve ever wondered just how some women end up so demoralised by an abusive marriage that they can’t escape, this book shows you how, little-by-little, they lose all sense of agency.

Highly recommended.  We had a really good discussion about this book in our group.

For a profile of Elizabeth Harrower, now in her 80s and still living in Sydney, see this article in the SMH.

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed it too and she also posted some ‘Delicious Descriptions’ from the book.

Author: Elizabeth Harrower
Title: The Watch Tower
Introduction by Joan London
Publisher: Text Classics 2012
ISBN: 9781921922428
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond

Availability

Fishpond: The Watch Tower (Text Classics)


Responses

  1. This is one of the Text Classics I bought recently, and I’m looking forward to trying it once my schedule is a little clearer…

    …which won’t be until after the IFFP longlist reading now :(

  2. It’s a great book isn’t it … I laughed when you wrote “harrowing” as I wrote that too. I bet Elizabeth Harrower got that a lot.

    Anyhow, you are right that she perfectly shows the soul-destroying impact of such psychological power exerted by one over another.

    • I *knew* someone had reviewed it that I wanted to link to, I should have searched more thoroughly. I’ve linked to your (much better) review and to your delicious description.
      And now, since it’s been a long day, I’d better go to bed and get some rest, roll on the weekend…

      • Oh silly you, it’s not much better … just different. You and I tend to look at books from slightly different angles I think but we clearly *often* agree on what we like and also on what we think the works about. (And, sweet dreams!)

        • Oh yes it is, I am playing catchup with books I’ve read but haven’t reviewed and I really haven’t given this brilliant book the review it deserves. I have pages and pages of notes in my journal about it (as I often do when it’s our bookgroup choice) but I was so tired last night that I rushed this one through.

          • Yes I do too … I wish I could make fewer notes … I sometimes overwhelm myself!

  3. this one was mentioned when they did a piece about the text classics over her they are coming out here so I will be getting a couple to try ,all the best stu

    • That’s great news, Stu, I hope Kim at Reading Matters will review some too so that they get plenty of publicity.

      • They’ve been available for yonks now and I splurged and bought quite a few when the Kindle editions were on sale (for £2.99), but even prior to that I bought a hard copy of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab directly from the Text Publishing website and was very impressed with the speed (about five days if I recall properly). Alas, I’ve not read or reviewed any of these books, but will get to them in due course. I would dearly love the whole set — and quite like the way you can mix and match books for a set price. Excellent value and high-quality reading I dare say.

  4. As a writer, I have a disgraceful habit of forgetting other writers’ names but this is one I will always remember purely because my mind won’t let go of Harrower/harrowing. Good review, as always.

    • *chuckle* I really wasn’t playing with her name: it was just the perfect word!

  5. Thanks for this review, Lisa. I’ve heard this book mentioned on Twitter a lot but had no idea what it was about. It sounds like something I’d quite enjoy so will add it to my wishlist.


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