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