Essay: Charlotte Woodon Shirley Hazzard

Across the face of the sun

In June 2012, I stood on a balcony at the Sydney Observatory at seven in the morning, to watch this century’s final Transit of Venus. We huddled in coats and scarves, peering into telescopes, waiting and waiting. We watched, and waited more, and finally cheered when a small black dot appeared against the sun’s bright expanse. A tiny bead, making contact, slowly traversing the face of the sun.

Before then, I had not been more than passingly interested in astronomical matters, but I had recently read Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus (1980), and been struck by it in ways I didn’t fully understand. Venus transits appear in pairs, each pair a hundred years apart, and 2012 was the second transit this century. The chances of seeing a perfect transit are rare, unrepeatable; I knew I had to be there that day. As the black dot made contact, I found myself in tears. It was a momentous experience. For the rest of the day, throughout the six and a half hours of the transit, I kept returning to watch it on my computer screen, the tiny dot valiantly making its way across the sun’s vast boiling surface, a small boat in an orange sea.

My presence at the observatory that day was, in some opaque way, an act of homage to Hazzard’s book. Why I felt I had to be there I am not certain, but it was something to do with the kind of cosmic heft I felt on finishing the novel. I wanted to be there, in some way, for Shirley Hazzard.

I still don’t fully understand The Transit of Venus, which I suspect is why I will keep returning to it throughout my life. It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

It is a curious thing, this need to return. It is as if the book itself gives off a kind of anti-magnetic field at first, holding the readers off until they are ready to face up to the questions it asks of them. In her memoir Greene on Capri (2000), Hazzard writes that Graham Greene ‘regularly invited you to step on a rug, which he would then pull out from under’. While the context is different – she was referring to Greene’s antagonistic personality – this rug-pulling aptly describes the disruptive nature of The Transit of Venus’s  narrative and Hazzard’s literary technique. For it seems to me that in The Transit of Venus, a significant aspect of her artistic motive is to set up a sense of certainty – and then destroy it, capsizing the reader over and over again.

Most often described as a novel about love, The Transit of Venus is the story of two Australian sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, who emigrate to England in the 1950s. Orphaned while young by their parents’ deaths in a Sydney harbour ferry sinking, the sisters have been raised by their older half-sister Dora. On their arrival as young women in Britain, mild gentle Grace quickly marries and settles into an apparently uneventful marriage with Christian Thrale, a self-satisfied man of means. Caro, the elder sister and the novel’s main protagonist, is a different kind of woman. Gifted and beautiful, poor but willful, she spurns the lifelong love of astronomer Ted Tice, preferring the dangerous and adulterous attentions of Paul Ivory, a playwright. The book follows Caro into middle age, through devotion and betrayal, penury and prosperity, love and loss, until the final detonation of a long-held secret brings both startling enlightenment and catastrophe.

By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.

This is the opening sentence of the novel and, for the re-reader, an elegant summary of the story itself. There is a storm, and small newspaper paragraphs report on its aftermath:

unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.

A bridge was swept away. The phrase is a forceful shorthand for the provocative double-sidedness at work all through this book. Over and over again, Hazzard insists on the paradoxical nature of human experience: that two opposite things can be true at once, and that it is within this contradiction we must live and love. Like the capsized ferry, the Benbow, the swept-away bridge attests to the ever-present possibility of calamity. This sudden, massive trauma and reversal of fortune is not only one of the novel’s themes, but  a constant presence in the very tissue of the writing. There are many examples of this, but I would like to explore three of these paradoxes – these sudden collapses of hitherto sturdy-seeming facts.

The first is the novel’s exploration of Australianness, despite being set almost entirely in Europe and America. The Transit of Venus bears the scars of its author’s upbringing in the Australia of the 1940s and 1950s, that nation deplored by Patrick White in his 1958 essay ‘The Prodigal Son’, written after his own return from Europe:

In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.

It is this Australia – supposedly a historical one, though on my darker days it seems only the teeth have changed – that haunts Hazzard, as it does so many other writers of her era, from White to Amy Witting, Jessica Anderson and Elizabeth Harrower. In The Transit of Venus, this Australia is made flesh, in the grotesque portrait of Dora. As little girls, Caro and Grace may be dumbfounded by grief, yet they know Dora, with every fibre of themselves, to be suspicious, martyrish, manipulative and mean:

The girls heard it said that Dora was raising them. Yet it was more like sinking, and always trying to rise.

Dora’s moods and petulance must be appeased; her self-pity is endless, as are her threats of suicide, made to small, already orphaned girls. Anyone with a difficult friend or resentful aunt knows Dora:

Dora herself was strongest of all, in her power to accuse, to judge, to cause pain: in her sovereign power. Dora’s skilled suspicion would reach unerringly into your soul, bring out your worst thoughts and flourish them for all to see; but never brought to light the simple good.

Dora and her grievances prematurely age the little girls, who

walk home hand in hand, not so much like lovers as like an elderly couple, grave with information and responsibility. Coming home was to a Dora of outraged quiet … Grievance was statistical: ‘They only invited me once in two years.’ ‘In all that time I was there to tea exactly twice.’

And yet, Dora is all the small girls have. ‘Dora is daily life.’

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the spiritually diminished entities of Dora and Australia are established in the same chapter. They are two strands of the same coarse, constraining rope. Here is the girls’ paltry education, derided:

Australia’s history soon terminated in unsuccess. Was engulfed in a dark stench of nameless prisoners whose only apparent activity was to have built, for their own incarceration, the stone gaols, now empty monuments that little girls might tour for Sunday outings: These are the cells for solitary confinement, here is where they. Australian History dwindled into the expeditions of doomed explorers, journeys without revelation or encounter endured by fleshless men whose portraits already gloomed, beforehand, with a wasted, unlucky look – the eyes fiercely shining from sockets that were already bone.

Like Australia, Dora fears and abhors knowledge. When Caro mutinously buys a secondhand book and adds it to her pile,

Dora said: ‘You have enough books now.’ Dora knew, none better, the enemy when she saw it.

In The Transit of Venus, captivity to Dora and captivity to Australia are the same story: ‘a shrivelled chronicle – meagre, shameful, uninspired’. In ‘the true, and northern, hemisphere’ is where living – rather than waiting – is done. And though they do not escape Dora’s clutches entirely, the sisters embrace England. ‘London is our achievement,’ Caro tells Grace’s smug yet besotted suitor, Christian. ‘Having got here is an attainment, being here is an occupation.’

The shame of being Australian is not merely internalised, but a deficiency frequently impressed upon the sisters by others. The precision of Hazzard’s observations here surely attest to how often she must have been patronised, as a gifted young woman from Sydney. Even now, every Australian whose accent or ‘convict forbears’ have been mocked by some mediocre Englishman will recognise the acuity of these scenes. Here, for example, is Grace’s crusty old father-in-law to be:

Sefton Thrale would explain, ‘Christian has got himself engaged’ – implying naive bungling – ‘to an Australian girl.’ And with emphatic goodwill might add that Grace was a fine young woman and that he himself was delighted, ‘Actually.’

But then comes one of Hazzard’s bridge collapses. Being Australian is shameful, to be sure. And yet, once the sisters are free of the country itself, it bestows upon them a strange sort of authority. It is as if, free of the dun-coloured history of their own land, Caro and Grace are free of all history, and this statelessness bestows a confronting new power. It is a power that overwhelms and attracts Christian Thrale on his first visit to Grace. His first shock is that the sisters have made beauty and modernity manifest in their shabby ‘furnished rooms’:

The stairs were freshly painted white and had a scarlet carpet. There was a glass jar of yellow flowers on a landing.

This is one of the earliest indications of the central role that beauty plays in Hazzard’s moral vision. In her world, perceiving and making beauty is a mark of a civilised mind, and an inherently moral presence. But Christian’s second, more alarming jolt, comes when he realises the women are – incomprehensibly – unashamed:

He found these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australians in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come, and instead caught himself living up to what he thought might be their standards.

These women provided something new to Christian – a clear perception unmingled with suspiciousness. Their distinction was not only their beauty and their way with one another, their crying need of a rescue for which they made no appeal whatever; but a high humorous candour for which – he could frame it no other way – they would be willing to sacrifice.

In this way, the women’s – especially Caro’s – power is established, and so is the paradox that Australianness bestows both weakness and strength. In accepting the shame of their heritage, they are divested of it, and in its place stands something rare, something rather daunting.

But it is not only men who are provoked by this power, which brings me to my second subject: the richly variegated experience of womanhood in this novel. Aside from the main protagonists, there are many acutely drawn female characters in The Transit of Venus. I want to draw particular attention to two of those on the periphery. I have already discussed the monstrous Dora, who never entirely disappears. Like a bad penny or malaria, she keeps turning up, dragging Caro away from potential happiness towards duty – which is to say misery and penury. But if Dora has an alter-ego, it must surely be Paul Ivory’s fiancée Tertia Drage, one of the great female villains of modern fiction. Where Dora is a blunt instrument, Tertia is a finely sharpened, glinting silver needle. At the very moment Caro and Grace learn by letter that they are at last free of Dora (or so they think), Tertia is led into the room:

He had Tertia with him, the daughter of a lord. So sleekly pretty, so fair and tall that she seemed an advertisement for something very costly.

They murmured, you-do. Tertia offered fingertips in a gesture not so much exhausted as reserving strength for something more worth while.  … Having shaken hands, Tertia touched her bodice, her hair: an animal fastidiously expunging traces of contact. … Like Christian Thrale before her, she found them insufficiently conscious of their disadvantage, and would have liked to bring it home to them. She perceived that, while Grace might eventually be set straight in this fashion, Caro would be a tougher proposition.

And so the enemies become acquainted. A striking near-acknowledgement of their status as adversaries comes in a fleeting scene on the evening of Tertia and Paul’s engagement party, to be held in the Thrales’ house in the country, where the sisters are staying. In her room, Caro puts on her one good dress, a Parisian extravagance she knows displays her beauty to superb effect. She is in the scullery ironing the silken belt of the dress when Tertia appears, in her own ‘rustling, sweeping dress of silver’, ordering Caro to do something with flowers. But then Tertia stops and stares, arrested by the sight of Caro in her magnificent dress. The normally modest Caro enjoys seeing Tertia shaken and ‘on this occasion, had a taste to see the fact acknowledged’. But Tertia is an expert at this kind of contest. She recovers her composure and, after a pause, smiles at Caro’s dress and asks lightly, ‘And what are you going to wear this evening?’

It’s a master stroke, but Caro merely laughs. Then, holding Tertia’s gaze, she ‘lowered the belt and fitted it with slow care about her own waist.’ This simple but deliberate gesture – Caro drawing attention to the splendour of her own body – is an expression of sexual power as raw as anything that comes later. Caro may be merely engaged in the womanish business of frocking up, but in this scene her gesture has all the threat of a gladiator buckling his sword-belt.

Caro’s sexual allure is deep-seated, arising not so much from her beauty as from a quite masculine refusal to submit. In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Caro’s post-coital afternoon with Paul is interrupted by the familiar noise of Tertia’s car pulling up on the gravel. Paul, an accomplished liar, leaps from the bed and throws on a shirt and tie so he is able to casually greet Tertia from his top-floor window. That is, until he understands, ‘from the fixing of Tertia’s limbs’, that Caro too has risen from the bed, and is standing silently and ‘perfectly aloof’ beside him at the window ‘wearing nothing but a small round watch’.

Caro will not lie, nor lie down. Her literal nakedness here is a manifestation of her spiritual and moral nakedness: she will not dissemble or play coquette, will neither evade nor acquiesce. She knows what she is doing, and stands to face the consequences. A lesser novelist might reward Caro for this nobility, but Hazzard is concerned with truth, and it is around this time that another bridge is wrenched away. It happens in a sentence so fleeting as to be almost invisible, and it is delivered by one of the most minor characters in the book.

Valda Fenchurch is one of Caro’s colleagues in the miserable government offices where intelligent women must simper and minister to the whims of men like the petty tyrant Mr Leadbetter. Alone of all the women, Valda is enraged by the demeaning tasks and childish power-plays inflicted on them by their all-male superiors. Valda’s is the voice of modern feminism, coming from a far distant future. She appears at a point in the narrative when Caro is still in thrall to Paul Ivory, still able to deceive herself that she holds some cards. He still comes to her in preference to Tertia, after all, and they bask in the warmth of their illicit love. The reader’s sympathies are all with Caro: with the romance of her daring, her freedom from petty morals of the day. It is Valda who coolly, astutely, lays down the unpalatable truth:

For her part, Valda considered Caro as a possibility lost. Caro might have done anything, but had preferred the common limbo of sexual love. Whoever said, ‘When you go to women, take your whip’, was on to something deep, and deeply discouraging.

When you go to women, take your whip. This is a line delivered by an old woman in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. In Valda’s mind, the aphorism is a bleak verdict on women’s passivity; and in Caro’s case, she speaks the truth. For all Caro’s veneer of independence, for all her unexpressed scorn for those, like Grace, who capitulate to unhappy marriages and mediocrity, she surrenders to the stark misogyny of Nietzsche’s image. Paul Ivory brings his whip, and Caro understands his bond with her in the way every woman of her era understands relationships with men: as domination and submission. So submit she does. She does not nobly rise, but sinks, slowly and surely, into despair and degradation. Independence of mind may have freed her from hypocritical social mores, but she is captive nonetheless: to her demeaning job, to the miserable bleatings and stupidity of Dora, and as a result to crippling poverty. Most of all, she remains captive to her own doomed devotion to Paul Ivory. There is nothing noble in it; it is awful Tertia who prevails.

What relief, then, when Caro has finally done her time in this prison of her own choosing, and Tertia’s pregnancy releases her. At last, Caro’s integrity does find reward, in a chance encounter with Adam Vail, the first man whose strength of character can match her own. Adam Vail, rich New Yorker, appreciator of beauty, human rights advocate, world traveller: in his civilised, ethical world, Caro finally has her rightful home.

Back at the office, Valda finally refuses point blank to submit to Mr Leadbetter’s trivial tea-fetching demands. And Caro stands by her, delivering Leadbetter a lacerating lecture on principled behaviour, followed by her trump card: before he can sack her for impudence, she resigns, to marry Adam Vail and move to New York.

But Hazzard won’t let Caro off without one last crack of that whip, and once again it is delivered with horrible perspicacity, by a minor player and a villain at that. When Caro brandishes her resignation to Leadbetter:

He hated her, for her liberty and her looks and her happiness, and that remark about the teapot. The Gatling jammed: words would not so much as sputter. However, since even she could only be delivered by male intervention, he eventually smiled and made his last attack. ‘I had already assumed something of the kind.’

Even as we cheer for Caro then, another little bridge – the illusion of her independence – is swept away.

Independence, the sovereignty of the self that drives all the most powerful characters in The Transit of Venus, is the third paradox I wish to explore. The search for personal freedom seems to lie beneath many of Hazzard’s statements, in interviews and elsewhere. And for me it is this – the moral exercise of ‘sovereign power’ – rather than love, that is the central theme of the novel.

It is ironic that the girls’ impoverished education provides the first flash of this theme, at the very beginning of the book, in the lines of a poem by Tennyson:

For a punishment you might, after school, write one hundred times:

Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control;
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.

The little girls licked nibs of tin and fingered pigtails, preparing for sovereign power.

Despite this mocking introduction, the idea of ‘sovereign power’ is pursued throughout the novel. The phrase recurs again and again. The Transit of Venus is ultimately an examination of this concept: what does it mean? Is it good or bad, neither or both? How is sovereign power to be expressed?

In Greene on Capri, Hazzard rebukes the meanness of spirit which saw the press sometimes criticising Greene for his material wealth. She attributes this to ‘that confusion of esteem and envy, centred on the independence in which [art] is conceived and composed’. She quotes Auden on the same matter. Fascination with artists, wrote Auden,

is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which the artist works; he, and in our age almost nobody else, is his own master. The idea of being one’s own master appeals to most human beings, and this is apt to lead to the fantastic hope that the capacity for artistic creation is universal.

It follows that those who are not their own masters feel the need to punish those who are. This happens time and again throughout The Transit of Venus. A woman who appears in control of her own destiny (‘Caro would decide at which table she belonged’) must suffer most of all. Adam Vail, too, is suspected and attacked for his independence of mind:

In any group there are masters and followers. Even the right side rather dislikes a man who stands alone.

It is to do with this issue, self-sovereignty, that Hazzard allows the most devastating bridge collapse. It is impossible to discuss The Transit of Venus without examining what Hazzard is doing in its final pages. The last 75 pages, where the ‘story’ appears almost to peter out, is the section in which its meaning for me is laid down. It changes quite abruptly from a complex, beautifully written love story to an icy examination of selfhood and morality.

A more anxious writer than Hazzard might have used this section to speed up – but she does the opposite, slowing the narrative down to an almost unbearable degree, stepping away from it, dismissing major events in a single line, offstage. We already know, for example, from an almost stray line in the first pages of the novel, that Ted Tice will take his own life. The devastating news about Adam Vail is delivered third-hand, in a way that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s shattering removal of Mrs Ramsay from To the Lighthouse in a single, offhand sentence – in parentheses.

Paul Ivory’s shocking confession to Caro sweeps away her own bridge of self-delusion, to reveal Ted Tice as the supremely moral character in the novel. The revelation about Ted shows the novel to be concerned with much deeper moral courage than that required simply to love. By the novel’s end, all characters stand judged on how they exercise self-sovereignty. Dora’s comes through bullying and judgment. Paul Ivory’s by deceit and the most detestable of crimes. Grace’s failure to grasp her own destiny is contrasted with Caro’s insistence on hers – until the end. Not for Caro the fate of all yet-to-be-married women of her generation, expected to leave school and then ‘hold their breath, while accumulating linen and silver’ – her life has been achieved not by waiting but by acting, and by ‘the exaltation of her own beliefs’.

But when the struts of those beliefs are torn down – by Paul Ivory and the truth – Caro learns that the true exercise of sovereign power might require not action, but restraint. Ted Tice, patiently (some might say pathologically) adoring Caro from afar, has all the while held fast to a secret that if spoken, would inevitably drive her away from Paul, toward himself. Alone in the book, Ted preserves the moral power with which he starts out.

In a 1987 interview with Dennis Danvers in Antipodes, Hazzard said this about individual authority:

Don’t you agree that when a man or a woman has managed to refute the private temptations to malice and mockery, when they’ve made the arduous recurring decisions to renounce useless vengeance in their own life, that gives them a greater right and power to speak for us all? It gives the words a different ring. A reverberation.

This is the reverberation at the heart of this novel –- not love, but integrity. The novel is about the greater humanity that one gains by refusing glibness, resisting the cheap shot. Ted Tice rejects the accidental (and thus cheap, illusory and illegitimate) power offered by merely perceiving another’s weakness and exploiting it. The novel is a call to resist vulgar power, the type gained through reduction, through first impressions, through stereotype or quick certainty. For a person of Ted’s moral fibre, the end will never justify the means. The only advantage he will accept is that bestowed on him by his own strength of character.

When Caro is undone by this final revelation, she looks back and sees her life anew, in a pure and cold and terrible light. And still Hazzard has not finished with her demolitions. On the very final page of the book, at the pinnacle of its happy ending, comes a tragedy which doubles as a puzzle, soluble only to the properly attentive reader. An inattentive reader will miss the clue completely, and close the book bewildered.

This prompts more questions about the shape of this curiously bevelled, bejeweled book. Why would an author risk alienating a reader in this way? Why indeed take pleasure in it, as Hazzard appears to do in the same Antipodes interview, where she speaks, with what sounds like relish, of the ‘trap’ she has laid ‘for the inattentive reader’. In our contemporary publishing world, where it is assumed that readers must be comforted and coddled, and where the slightest potential for confusion amounts to a mortal sin, I cannot imagine an editor’s response to such audacity. But what is the meaning of this puzzle?

Once again, I think it is double-sided. First, the ending is an evocation of the title. The planets, not we humans, are in control. Cosmic accidents occur, our lives capsize; we have command of nothing but our capacity to love, and only in this present, fleeting moment.

The second reason reflects Hazzard’s seriousness as an artist. I said earlier that beauty – and now I would add, art itself – is central to Hazzard’s moral vision. And as Iris Murdoch said, paying attention is a moral act: only looking closely, with an unsentimental suppression of the desires of the self, makes clarity of vision possible. ‘To silence and expel self,’ wrote Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good (1967), ‘and contemplate and delineate nature with a clear eye, is not easy and demands moral discipline.’ The provocation in The Transit of Venus’s ending is a claim for this kind of attention, and a rebuke to those who turn to literature for mere entertainment, for the consolations of love stories and happy endings. Art is a serious business, the author seems to be saying, and serious attention must be paid. You have one life: take notice.

It is an exceptional achievement to create a work of art in which a second immersion is so forcefully impelled by the first. As soon as I began my first reading of The Transit of Venus, I knew instinctively that every sentence was an iceberg, hinting at greater meaning and depth than was visible on the surface. Only when I finished the novel could it change in my hands from a work of paper to one of shimmering fabric which, held up to a different light, now showed itself to be shot through with completely new colours. And so I re-read, to find it even sharper, more painful, more complex, more beautiful, but also colder, asking tougher questions: What do we expect of life? And what does it expect of us? When I finished my recent reading, I wrote to a friend: ‘I’m overwhelmed – by the book, by my response to it. I am confronted and moved and full of a feeling of wanting, somehow, to live up to it, and to Hazzard’s demands.’

I think I understand now, why I went to the observatory to see Venus that day, and why I was so moved. Both planet and book caused a profound alteration in my sense of perspective, forcing me to look again at my place in the world. It is a perspective tilt that provokes the enormous questions: as an Australian, a woman, a self-governing person, who am I? What does my life mean? These are questions that will return each time I revisit this book, and I must find a new path to them with every reading. I am grateful for this novel, for the glimpse it offers of something rare and magnificent. Like Venus returning, twice a century, to trace its small beaded way across the face of the sun.

This is an edited version of a lecture given at the University of Sydney on Tuesday 31 March 2015 as part of Sydney Ideas’ Reading Australian Literature series.