Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2014

In Certain Circles (2014), by Elizabeth Harrower


It’s impossible to read this novel without wondering why it was that Elizabeth Harrower withdrew it from publication in 1971:  it’s as if the novel comes with ghostly baggage that haunts the reading.   After four successful novels and critical comparison with Christina Stead and Patrick White, Harrower suddenly and inexplicably stopped writing, and was all but forgotten until her other novels were recently reissued by Text Publishing.  In their wake, Harrower was persuaded to publish In Certain Circles, but in a recent interview for The Australian she said that it was written like forced labour because she had a grant and was obliged to write it.   She told Macmillan  that this one would have been a disappointment, and then she disappeared off the literary radar.

Well, even if the novel is read it with an undercurrent of expectation that it will be flawed, I think most people will be pleased to find that it’s a splendid novel.   Like The Watch Tower, it explores unsatisfactory marriage and the power of damaged people to exert power over others.   It’s set in Sydney and the beginning section is a brilliant portrayal of the patronising wealthy: Harrower was interested in class consciousness in The Watch Tower too, but in this novel it’s more noticeable.  Siblings Russell and Zoe are North Shore, while ‘poor’ Anna and Stephen were orphaned some time ago and have been brought up by a neurotic aunt whose husband submits to her bullying.   The orphans are inevitably outsiders in this glittering world of yachts and tennis courts, where to play badly is a social crime.

Seventeen-year-old Zoe’s life of privilege means she is attracted to Stephen as an exotic:  a weird, irascible character out of some dense Russian novel: She’s not the first young woman with a romantic view of her own power to cure a moody man, and no doubt she won’t be the last…

One afternoon her brother Russell despatches Zoe to talk to Stephen, and her self-imposed cage is erected:

Smiling because he knew her, knew what she as like, even to the extent of penetrating her extremely natural-looking poses that she was hardly conscious of herself, Zoe went over to sit beside Stephen Quayle.
‘What do you do?’ she asked, almost laughing, radiant.  It never mattered what she said to men: they liked her to any anything.
‘I’m a salesman.’
‘Oh!’ She was disliked,  She was disapproved of.  He had not looked at her surface at all.  She was a rude child who had addressed a visiting bishop by his Christian name.  ‘What do you sell?’ she persisted.
‘Packing materials.  Packing tape.  Brown paper.  Corrugated cardboard.’
Her fault, apparently! Avoiding the space where his face was, her glance darted about.  ‘Probably that’s very interesting, meeting different people all the time.’
As she spoke, she had an impression of something not pleasant happening to her, something irreversible and magical and inevitable.  An enchanted padlock was being fitted to her mind, and there was no key. (p. 16)

In the course of her relationship with Stephen, Zoe abandons a promising career as a film-maker, and devotes herself to winning him from his invisible oppressors but the price paid is the loss of her self-confidence, and her sense of self.  Stephen is a sadist, resentful of the kindness of others, cruel and manipulative.   He is self-destructive, choosing a soul-destroying job, then studying after hours for years only to reject the possibility of improving his life with a new career.   He goes into business with Russell as a form of self-punishment, but his unhappiness inevitably punishes Zoe too.  As he becomes more and more demanding, the couple find they cannot be happy together, but they cannot separate.  Zoe is chained to Stephen by pity and she cannot get free.   As you can see from the Sensational Snippet that I posted earlier, she inevitably reaches the limits of her capacity to adjust.  It is such a painful contrast with her youthful insouciance.  Some readers will weep for Zoe.

It is Stephen’s sister Anna who articulates the damaging effects of pity as the basis for a relationship.  Her dark experience as witness to her uncle’s pity for her neurotic aunt makes her wary of its corrosive effects:

One person pitied at bitter cost to someone else, with the well-meaning pitier unaware of all except his good intentions. (p. 134)

Pitiable people give others great joy. … But to satisfy their yearnings, someone has to be in an inferior position. The holy satisfaction of having done good to the weak is one I’m wary of(p. 135)

Like Patrick White, Harrower skewers her characters with unforgettable ironies.  Anna and Russell are attracted to each other but he’s married.  Scrupulously, they are resolutely not expressing their feelings for each other as Russell drives her home from work one night; they are discussing the agreeable men between thirty and forty-five who had gravitated towards Anna since she was widowed.   This image of Anna’s inner life is my favourite from the whole book:

Speaking in a tone of enormous objectivity, looking straight ahead, Anna felt her skeleton waver secretly, as though it were seaweed pressed about by movements of deepest seas, invisible of the glittering surface. (p. 133)

In Certain Circles is great reading.   Bouquets to Text for negotiating its publication at last!

Tony at Tony’s Book World reviewed it too.

Author: Elizabeth Harrower
Title: In Certain Circles
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014.
ISBN: 9781922182296
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

In Certain Circles (hardback first edition)
Or direct from Text Publishing where you can also buy it as an eBook.


  1. What a fabulous quote: “Anna felt her skeleton waver secretly”. Delic!


    • I’m going to remember that one whenever I’m thinking one thing and saying another!


  2. I read ‘The Watch Tower’ which was really good. It’s unusual when a writer quits writing at their peak. It is great that this novel was saved.


    • We can only hope that she has some secret memoirs somewhere which will in due course reveal all!


  3. A wonderful interview with Susan Wyndham in today’s Age (3/5) – it doesn’t look as if there’s a secret memoir.
    “What was going on in my head? Fortunately whatever it was I’ve forgotten.”
    She sounds a wonderfully sane individual.
    ” I had set my ship out in search of human nature…”


    • Thanks for bringing my attention to this interview, I’ll resurrect the paper from the recycling pile!
      PS (the next day) Yes, it is a good interview, and I liked that the interviewer was not able to pierce that reserve to winkle out what Harrower wants to keep private!


  4. […] For Lisa’s review go here […]


  5. […] Certain Circles, by Elizabeth Harrower (see my review and a Sensational […]


  6. […] Certain Circles (Elizabeth Harrower, Text) See my review and a Sensational […]


  7. […] Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book. […]


  8. […] James Clade Penguin Books (2015) Harrower, Elizabeth In Certain Circles Text Publishing (2014), see my review and a Sensational Snippet Harrower, Elizabeth A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories Text […]


  9. […] The first year of the award was 2014, but it wasn’t announced until November 2015.  The winner (from a very impressive longlist) was for the best novel published in Australia in 2013 was Fiona McFarlane for The Night Guest.  (See my review).   In 2015 the winner was Elizabeth Harrower  for her novel In Certain Circles (Text Publishing) (See my review). […]


  10. […] write it.  Luckily for us Michael Heyward persuaded her to agree to let him publish it in 2014, (see my review), and she also agreed to publish a collection of her short stories as A Few Days in the Country: […]


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