The five novels discussed here, all by Australian women novelists, all published post Second World War, and all of clear literary merit, have a further and closer bond. They offer what is essentially the same view of male-female relationships in which a radical depth is discovered within a very traditional, clearly conservative playing of sex roles.
Each novel sets forth a situation in which the initiative seems to lie effectively with the male. He is the creator of all the narrative uncertainty. The female is patient observer, the receptive one who waits, eagerly or fearfully, upon his next move. She plays Jane Eyre to his Mr Rochester. Yet, when the whole weave of action and response is examined up close, the situation is seen to lie quite the other way. In this nearer, more inner view, the female is active participant, as scrutiniser more than just observer, watching the male, but always intent upon seeing somewhat beyond him. By contrast the male, within her gaze, shows up, more and more, as one who is jerked about, swept along, pressured from within and without. Active comes to seem passive, passive active. The question arises — who is using whom and to just what end.
Quite other sorts of strengths and weaknesses now seem to be in evidence. Outstanding among the former is the female’s mode of perception. In it seeing, feeling and thinking are never really to be separated. They run together, tend to be the one powerful, incorporative act, sometimes rather beyond the female’s own recognition. She may suppose she is merely seeing, where she is also exercising compassion, and simultaneously making an estimate.
The five novels are For Love Alone by Christina Stead (1945), Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977), and, in the time between, three by Elizabeth Harrower, Down in the City (1957), The Catherine Wheel (1960) and The Watch Tower (1966). In three of these five there is direct sexual involvement. In Down in the City, Esther Prescott, thirty-three, daughter of an upper middle class Rose Bay legal family, increasingly absent and removed in her general manner, marries, after only three weeks acquaintance, Stan Petersen, ex-orphanage kid. Kings Cross centred middle-man, maker of shonky extra-legal deals. In The Catherine Wheel, Clemency James, twenty-five, Australian girl in London, firmly committed to legal studies, professional woman’s life, clear, no-nonsense goals, falls in love, almost by the way but deeply, with Christian Roland, aged thirty, a beautiful and beautifully expressive former Stratford Shakespearean actor. He has a starkly tragic family background which has left him inwardly irremediably ruined. He is on his uppers economically too, and does odd jobs in the private hotel where Clemency lives. In Monkey Grip, Nora, Melbourne resident, supporting mother, into communal living. Brandy Alexanders and fucking with a variety of fellows, falls all the way for Javo, the bludger who has a heavy smack habit.
In For Love Alone, there is no sexual involvement at all between Teresa Hawkins, young Sydney teacher become office worker, and Jonathan Crow. For years she works and saves, starves herself, walks to work to get the fare to reach London where Crow, her twenty-four year old ideal male, is doing some sort of postgraduate stint. When she gets there, finally, he rejects anything but a cautious, occasional, conversational relationship. Teresa finds love eventually with two quite different males. But it is on Crow that her gaze is fastened for the longest and most agonising period.
The Watch Tower is unlike all the others in that here it is not a matter of attraction towards but revulsion from. In her early teens, Clare is taken to live in the harbourview house of Felix Shaw when he marries her older sister Laura, some thirty years his junior. She watches with puzzlement, suspicion, and, finally, quiet horror as he reduces Laura to the status of mechanically responsive house slave. The interesting thing is that Clare’s aversion from her brother-in-law leads her into the same close, obsessed survey which the female keeps upon the male in the other novels from motives of love or attraction.
In each case the female maintains a close, continuing surveillance of the male, with the feeling and out of a conviction that he means more than just himself. In four of the five novels he arrives from some place, some region, quite beyond her usual experience. There is something slightly legendary about him. With Jonathan Crow this is quite explicit — he is ‘full of the mysteries of adult life and full of the wisdom of the university hill in Camperdown’. Certainly Javo doesn’t come from any beyond, but with his burnt skin and scarred nose and violently blue eyes he looks as though he does. So does Felix Shaw: ‘People who had never seen a Turk or a Persian thought he looked like these foreign men.’ Stan Petersen, arriving in his flash Cadillac, crunching over the gravel of the Rose Bay front drive, demanding raw factual information, breaks into Esther’s removed, untouched awareness with the force of a rather tinny Space Invader.
In The Catherine Wheel there is a mystery about Christian, the Stratford actor, from his first appearance. Or, rather, from his first appearances, among the shadows on the stairs of the bed-sit establishment. Clemency’s first passing encounter with him reveals ‘only the garish yellow sweater and its aspirations’. While the most notable feature of the second is his ‘beautiful voice’. Clemency will only be able to understand him, knit together the discordant parts, see him clearly, by looking beyond these present appearances into his shattering past. Her mind is stirred to a wider comprehension by what she sees and hears. She will come to see Christian as a tragic figure. Christian, schooled to this role, both by tormenting thoughts of his family (his father’s suicide, his mother’s heartlessness, his beloved sister’s death by cancer) and his Stratford experience, will play out the part before Clemency for all he’s worth.
Compared with Christian’s beauty, Jonathan Crow seems ridiculously inept as the embodiment of Teresa Hawkins’ dreams in For Love Alone. These are boundless, fluid and frankly lascivious. While he is lean and meagre, of physical being, of sexual appetite, and even, one might say, of intellectual range. Yet this very leanness makes him a clearly shaped target at which to aim her aspirations.
In each of these books the male’s behaviour invites, or, rather, demands close scrutiny. It is invariably reckless, abrupt, ungoverned by the usual ordinances, socially abnormal in one way or another. The female must look to see what governs it at some level beyond the merely social. To see what governs him, what drives him along, because clearly, visibly, he is subject to driving forces. His vulnerability is manifest. She discovers it not only in his features but in his gait, in his way of hastening along. At the beginning of Teresa’s acquaintance with Jonathan Crow, he walks with her down to Circular Quay to her ferry. As well as ‘his starved skin (and) the sparse stiff hair…there was something pathetic in the way he walked, dragging one foot a little, hunching one shoulder slightly…’ And again at the very end of this long novel, after Teresa has made rapturous entry into the land of love with Harry Girton, the man with a clear outspoken cause, off to fight in Spain, she catches one more glimpse of Jonathan Crow in the London dusk. ‘She saw a peculiar, sliding, fumbling figure go by.’ His true grotesqueness has become clear to sexually awakened eyes.
In Monkey Grip, already aware, and over-aware, of the disintegrative power of her lover’s smack habit, Nora catches a similar glimpse of Javo ‘at lunchtime in Pukinella, me, Rita, Bill and Willy…’
‘Ah, there he goes, the star of stage and screen’, remarked Willy nastily. I looked up and saw Javo, white-faced and rough headed, stumble past the window, heading down Elgin Street, looking for a hit.
This is the reverse of Teresa’s last sight of Crow. Nora sees beyond the window, beyond social intercourse, beyond dignity, the merely shambling Javo, the smack artist, the extreme case, sent to instruct her in the width of Love’s reach. Teresa’s seeing was, intellectually, an act of disposal; Nora’s is one of encompassment.
The male’s vulnerability is often seen by the female, as here, to have led to despair. This despair may be apparent in his moments of stillness as much as in his gait. So Clare sights her brother-in-law Felix, squatting on the footpath, stripped to shorts, painting the fence of his resplendent and pitifully lonesome house with the harbour view, ‘quite alone in the burning, sun-stricken street…Lower than the dust she thought’.
And there is Christian, part-time window cleaner now, living with much older, lower class Olive, standing before Clemency at their first extended exchange, acting it all out, in a defensively self mocking manner.
‘Olive’s worried now in case I’m taken queer and fall off one of those skyscrapers’. His hand throbbed in the direction of the window. ‘Still, if you aren’t well…’ His fist was against his mouth, eyes covered, face closed. ‘It’s nothing. It wouldn’t matter. It’s nothing to the mental agony.’ Mental agony. Mental agony? Shocked and curious, I stared. He had a bitter, private, despairing intensity about him.
In each case, the male acts out his hurts and the female watches, takes cognisance, moves, in a sometimes involuntary way, towards deeper awareness of the forces that hold him. A remarkable dramatic strength of Harrower’s three novels is the provisional inferences, the hypotheses the female feels called on to draw about the male’s violent vacillations all along the line. Her thoughts are a reaching after, as much as an arrival at, any deeper truth. The pain of the effort being made is palpable.
In The Catherine Wheel, particularly, there are flashes of conceptual light which show up the tangled underpart of Christian Roland’s being. It is not a case here, any more than in the other novels being considered, of active male and merely watching female. The female’s surveillance, watching her own responses as well as the male’s lunges and vacillations, is certainly not passive.
The male, for his part, is revealed not as active but as over-active. In each of the novels he is driven, he is suffering the whips. He is victim as well as aggressor. He is vehemently, dangerously, hopelessly, on the loose. He has slipped his social moorings, he has broken away from his class position, though he may still carry the characteristics of it to use as an instrument of aggression. This is the case with Stan Petersen, who, at pretty regular intervals, turns a baleful, snarling resentment upon his genteel, carefully nurtured wife; as it is with Jonathan Crow, possessed of an unrelenting stoicism that goes back to his childhood; and with Javo who has become that formidable social type, a seasoned middle class pseudo-prole.
Equally in his present way of life, the male fails to fit to the peer group that he circles about. Felix in The Watch Tower is quite unable to buy his way into the social company of the smart young business men. He is too completely other. He tries too hard. Javo’s life, as Nora complacently observes in the very act of falling for him, is a messy holiday of living off his friends from whom he pinches the household money to get himself a hit. Christian acts up to the old girls of the London bedsitter world where he is now in service. They voice approval of his manners. But this is all rather masochistic, a grotesque, painful diminution of the performances he gave and the applause he received at Stratford.
Cast violently out of any restraining supportive context, the male veers and vacillates. His movements create a state of total uncertainty which the female is called on to endure. In The Catherine Wheel, states of total and desperate drunkenness on Christian’s part put at naught occasions which had been carefully planned by him and Clemency to signal concord. In Down in the City, a recurring sense of total inadequacy, of social inferiority periodically drives Stan to fits of violence: ‘Stan’s personality, so precariously balanced on the need for universal admiration, plunged him from normality to a state where pride was burned and thought and feeling ran moulten. After long ages, and a period of forgetfulness, he came back.’
In For Love Alone, Jonathan Crow abruptly denies Teresa on her arrival in England any emotional fulfilment for all the years of patient trudging effort it has cost her to earn the price of the fare there. He insists, instead, on the skimpy, platonic, evasive arrangement which drags on and on. Felix, in The Watch Tower, has the habit of building up a successful small business, using the free labour of young wife and sister-in-law, and then of suddenly selling it for a song without any forewarning word to either. Inevitably he one day abruptly sells the splendid house where wife Laura slaves out her days and moves them all to meaner accommodation. In Monkey Grip, Javo will figuratively and suddenly disappear into his smack habit while his shambling body is still very much around. Or his skin becomes suddenly less than touchable under a rash of sores.
The female in each case rides it out. She must. She is bound to the male. That much is painfully clear. What is not nearly so easy to see is the nature of the bond. The closeness, female to male, is not necessarily a matter of adoration. The cases include that of Clare in The Watch Tower. She abhors her brother-in-law. But even when she has attained economic freedom, and sisterly feeling between herself and Laura has all but ceased to flow, she still follows the twists of his mind, marked out in his tortuous business dealing, with quite obsessional concern.
Adoration is certainly some part of what the female feels in the other cases, but in none of them is this a matter of submission offered to a dominant male. Stan is, psychologically, much the weaker vessel in his marriage with Esther. Clemency, in her dealings with Christian, holds much the higher ground, psychologically, socially, economically. And, in tying herself emotionally to Jonathan Crow, there is a clear sense in which energetic Teresa Hawkins is actually using the poor starved fellow.
What is true of every case is that the female is caught up by her own puzzlement. The evidence provided by the eye troubles her mind. Or, conversely, an itch of the intellectual kind leads her into steady rapt survey of the visual evidence. To see is to begin to learn. To begin to learn, one needs to see it all clearly. Her involvement is not wholly, or even essentially, a cool intellectual enterprise. But, as suggested, to feel is to think in this fiction. To survey the male so closely is to think into him and all around him. It is to gain some awareness of what governs him. And thus of what has bound oneself to him. The looking into the male on the part of the female contains, this is to suggest, for all the heat of the relationship, a coolness, a certain detachment. And, as part of that, for all the loyal adherence, the apparent readiness to respond to the initiatives of the male, there is, on the female’s side, a certain self-interest always at work. This is active within passive, the radical element inside the conservative arrangement.
The male’s attitude towards the female is in striking contrast. In each case he wishes to see her not as she really is, seen in context, taken in the round , but as what he needs her to be. And this is as female of a plainly conservative mould. He wishes her to be, for him, a centre of rest, of ease and comfort, a still point, a vanishing one in the case of Felix’s wife Laura. It is a quite conventional attitude, as the language which measures his regard for her makes clear.
‘You’re gentle and good.’ [Christian tells Clemency].
‘At last’, [Javo tells Nora]. ‘I’ve found someone who fucks soft.’
And, from For Love Alone,
Meeting Teresa Hawkins…as a sad and hungry looking girl, without family or prospects, Jonathan Crow felt at ease. They might give each other a few hours shelter from the raw climate of life.
In slight contrast, the reactions of Stan Petersen, who really is rock bottom male, to his Rose Bay nurtured wife, Esther, do have some vibrancy. They are more precise and outward looking, even while figuring a rather conventional ideal. He cares for her ‘still coolness, the apparent certainty of voice and action, the sympathy and the passion’.
This clinging to the ideal of the still woman is a measure of the extent to which the male is, himself, in a state of motion, of desperate veering. His view of her is, for the female, one more indication of his vulnerability. This vulnerability is, in a sense, his strength. It creates those situations which place him out of line with the normal run of experience. These situations are what catch the female’s avid attention, engage her eye and her feelings and her mind. They are what pull her attention, direct it into an area of surmise beyond the merely routine. The male’s behaviour signals the form of his suffering, of the forces which hold him. The female’s attentiveness signals the force of her feelings, of sexual love, or abstract adoration or cold horror, and, in all cases, of an itching incomprehension, an intellectual reaching out, a desire to know.
The female is active within her passivity then, in contrast with and complement to the male who is passive within his (hyper)activeness. Within the conservative casting there is a radical recasting of roles. Playing hers, seeing, feeling, thinking, the female may be thought of as seeking the pattern beyond the flux, the stillness underlying the turbulence. When towards the end of For Love Alone, after her night with Harry Girton, Teresa looks out the window to the ‘great, slaty river, smooth but covered with twisted threads of water’, she seems to know more surely what she knew but couldn’t articulate right back at the beginning, on the night of the big yellow moon — that love is not to be found in words spoken or vows taken, the Jonathan Crow circuit, but is a tremor, a restlessness that comes to one straight up out of uncircumscribed Nature. When Nora, at the conclusion of Monkey Grip, gives herself up to the great climactic storm of tears, after Javo has been raced off by a friend, she finds grief offers its own sort of joy because it takes her on the field of love. And here, she has (actively) learnt there are really no contradictions. Each element contributes. Pus and scaly skin have their own sort of beauty.
No such concluding comfort is available to Clemency in The Catherine Wheel. She discovers the most fearsome contradiction in the same heartland. What is most true and what is most completely simulated cannot be separated there — as with fire, so with humankind. In the person of beautiful, beautifully spoken Christian, destructive force and sheer brightness run together. Her intellect, finely honed from prolonged abrasive contact with him, becomes an instrument of self defence as well as discovery. Her situation, at the last, is the reverse of Esther’s in the opening chapters of Down in the City. Esther must be rescued from the quiet, comfortable and appalling apartness into which circumstances have carried her. She is readier than she knows for the supportive force of sheer contradiction which arrives in her life with Stan Petersen’s sudden crunching presence. She learns, through a sequence of brutal lessons, that his abruptness is, in the context of their marriage, a sort of positive.
Clare, in The Watch Tower, is rather closer in tendency to her repulsive brother-in-law than she can see. At least she takes on the view that seems to be his, of existence as flatly objective, as a field where the familiar and the foreign are all one, as are kindness and calculation. So, when she sheds it, her whole world picture tilts right over, comes to seem suddenly charged with value. This, however, is only to suggest something of the complex realisations to which Elizabeth Harrower’s heroines come. Her splendidly explorative fiction forces matters back beyond any area of easy social surmise into one where her characters see and feel and think what can hardly be said.
The parts played by the female and by the male in each of these five novels, it is important to stress, are bestowed by their sexuality. They form an intrinsic opposition, one which is in no way modified by the social role that any one enacts. In this respect the novels are making a totally conservative insistence. And this is, apparently, redoubled by the initiative the male holds. His decisions and indecisions, his actions and his sometimes quite violent reactions, hold the female’s attention. They cause the suffering and the crises which comprise the narrative. Even so, the case is only superficially one of active male and passive supportive female. In essence it is all the other way. The male is driven, he is played upon by what lies outside his control, while the female is actively responsive. Hers is the enquiring eye. She looks not only at the male to love or, in one case, to loathe, but also beyond him, to know. She wishes to gain some grasp of causes, of what binds him to his conduct and, thus, of what binds him to her, her to him. She wants to know what he means, and what he, therefore, means for her.
There is, that is to say, in all this quite remarkably close-up sort of fiction, this intensity of visual detail, this continuing close hotness of exchange, a certain coolly abstract purpose at work. It protrudes, in its steely fashion, from the very centre of all that warm, receptive, female attentiveness.