Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2020

Vale Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020)

It is with sadness that I bring the news that Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020) has died in Sydney.

Until Text Publishing began reissuing her novels in their Text Classics series, most of us had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower, and yet her writing was greatly admired by notable authors such as Christina Stead and Patrick White.  She had published four novels from 1957 to 1966, but then, by her own choice, her work lapsed into obscurity after she withdrew her last novel from publication shortly after her mother died.  She then abandoned writing altogether. These novels languished, forgotten, until they were reissued:  Down in the city first published in 1957 and reissued in 2013 (see Kim’s review at Reading Matters); followed by The Long Prospect (1958, reissued in 2012, on my TBR, see Kim’s review); The Catherine Wheel (1960, reissued in 2014, on my TBR, see Kim’s review); and The Watch Tower (1966, reissued 2013, see my review).  Update 12/7/20 re this publishing history: see below.

Patrick White is said to have been very cross about her refusal to write.  No one ever persuaded her to start writing again, and for a long time she refused to allow publication of her final novel, In Certain Circles, because, she said, it had been written under the pressure of having a grant to 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: And Other Stories in 2015.  Ironically, considering she disapproved of the attitude of grievance amongst contemporary feminists, (see this profile in the SMH) the collection was shortlisted for the Stella Prize; perhaps she was more pleased that it was co-winner of the Steele Rudd Award in the 2016 Queensland Literary Awards.

Harrower’s other awards included fellowships from the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1968, and from the Australian Council for the Arts in 1974.  She won the Patrick White Award in 1996, and the Voss Literary Prize for In Certain Circles in 2015. It was also short-listed in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in the same year.

Not much is known about Harrower’s private life.  She was born in Sydney but lived in Newcastle with her grandmother after the divorce of her parents. Like many in her generation she escaped the banality of Australian cultural life and went to live in London from 1951 to 1959.  She worked in publishing on her return, and wrote book reviews.  But if there are autobiographical elements to her novels, then it would seem that she had a profound understanding of dysfunctional relationships.

Thanks to Kim from Reading Matters for passing on the news via Twitter.

Update, the next day:  I’ve had an email from publisher Tom Thompson at ETT Imprint, letting me know that he published new editions of The Watch Tower as an Imprint in 1991, The Long Prospect electronically in 1989 and as an Imprint in 1995, and The Catherine Wheel at A & R in 1988.


Responses

  1. I have The Watchtower. It was reviewed on The First Tuesday Bookclub after its reissue and I bought it based on the discussions. Alas, I have still not read it. What a sad reminder that I haven’t.

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    • Great books keep, Theresa. The day will come when it will jump off the shelves into your hands and you won’t be able to put it down:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this Lisa … such a great writer, and a very interesting person in the choices she made I think.

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    • Yes. Whatever her reasons were, she stuck with them, and I admire that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the mention. (I’ve also reviewed The Long Prospect.) I was sad to hear the news of her passing; she’s seriously under rated as a writer, I feel. I was planning to read The Watchtower as my #20bookaofsummer but now feeling conflicted as I don’t want to be in the position of no longer having any Elizabeth Harrower novels left to read.

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  4. RIP Elizabeth Harrower, she was a one-off with such a natural style.

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  5. This is sad news indeed Lisa. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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    • We have lost too many of our great women writers in the last little while…

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  6. Sad news. She looks like a wonderful writer. I love the fact that she kept her private life away from the limelight.

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    • Yes, I think everyone should be able to do that. But it’s hard in the modern world.

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  7. lovely review of a life, Lisa

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    • Thanks, Glenice. Congratulations on your latest achievement!

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  8. Very sad news. I discovered her through the Text Classics and particularly loved The Watch Tower. Our female writers are so often not held up in the way that they should be.

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    • True. But in her case, it was her choice. It seems odd, but there it is.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s been a tough year. I too purchased three of the Text publications thanks to your recommendation. Will buy the others now and looking forward to reading them very much.

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    • I love the Text Classics. And they’re so inexpensive!

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  10. I’m sorry to read this Lisa, I’m in the middle of my first read of The Watch Tower and I have a friend who is married to a man who fits the husband in this book to a tee, sadly. Bought the Text Classics edition at the local book store. Very Lynn passed away too – sad to lose these people isn’t it. Wonderful that they leave music and novels for us to enjoy though – a wonderful legacy.

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    • Yes, we are so lucky that they live forever in this way.

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  11. Very sad news. I have only (so far) read two of her novels: ‘In Certain Circles’ and ‘The Watch Tower’). I’ll re-blog my reviews later this week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One good thing is that at least with the lockdown ended in NSW she’ll be able to have a decent funeral with her friends in attendance…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. This is one of many examples of why Michael Heyward, Text publisher, should be regarded a national treasure. Thanks to his persuasion and the accompanying publicity, I have read all of Elizabeth Harrower’s books, and have loved them all. Without him, this reading pleasure would have passed me by. Feel very saddened by the news of her death.

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    • Yes, I agree, and Geordie Williamson played a part too, with his book The Burning Library which was about great books which had lapsed out of print.

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