Playing with Fire
by Ramona Koval
One of the great pleasures of my reading life has been the relatively recent discovery of the work of Elizabeth Harrower. I was a child when she was first published, and by the time I was a serious reader she had stopped submitting her work for publication, aside from the occasional short story. Her books were not widely discussed, although Christina Stead and Patrick White had been admirers of them.
I wish now that I had read her acute insights into the human condition before embarking on my own messy life. In an interview I told Elizabeth this, and we both wondered if anybody ever listens to the lessons and advice proffered by others, especially in the pages of a book.
At the beginning of The Catherine Wheel (1960), Harrower’s third novel and the only one not set in Australia, we feel the icy winds of winter coming directly from Siberia, or at least from the direction Siberia ‘was taken to be. Who knows where the wind was really coming from?’
Told in the first person, the novel puts us in the mind and body and small London bedsit of Clemency James, a twenty-five-year-old Australian law student living alone, studying for the bar by correspondence and giving French lessons in the evenings to pay the rent for her modest digs.
By the second paragraph we feel the cold in our own bones, our ears are throbbing along with Clem’s and we are privy to her cheeky view of the grim realities of London: a city supposedly at the centre of the universe and a far cry from provincial Sydney, where Clem grew up. Here even the places across the road have ‘enigmatic façades’, as Clem herself does, noting her own appearance in the glass-panelled door as she seeks the relative warmth of her boarding house.
She has been disguised all her life as ‘a nice quiet girl’, but there is ‘something unintentionally deceitful’ about her overcoat. In postwar London, clothes send messages—‘this uniform reserved for genuine socialists, this for hereditary shoppers in Harrods’—and Clem risks being accused of false pretences.
Again we are in Harrower’s psychological territory, where things are not what they appear to be on the surface. She is acutely observant of the mores of London in the late 1950s, of tearooms and restaurants and trips to the theatre; and, as ever, of the intersection of class and power.
Clem has a range of sensible and kind companions, like Lewis, a friend of a friend, an older man who dines with her on Friday nights.
We’d finished a doubtful chicken vol-au-vent and were eating fruit salad. I listened in an amiable stupor brought on by food and heat. Once I looked up and saw our reflections in the misty mirror covering the wall behind the counter. Cheese boards and mustard pots stood on a shelf in front of it. My spoon was halfway to my mouth. Lewis talked, eating with an attention that somehow belied his faintly forbidding air of austerity. After all these years it still surprised me in a way to know that Lewis ate. He suspected that it even disappointed me a little, and was amused when I admitted it.
It is a world of social disguises, in which Clem has careful conversations while holding back what she really thinks. And it is her mind that is the focus of our interest and concern—in particular, the possibility of derangement when she takes up with the man who has been employed to wash the windows and to supervise the boarding house when its owner, Mrs Evans, takes off in the evenings to attend spiritualist meetings.
The man is Christian Roland, and his only jumper is yellow. In nature, yellow is the colour sometimes reserved for organisms with deadly poisonous intent, or for those trying to emulate them. Harrower offers such clues to her intentions throughout the novel; most seem to arrive subconsciously, penetrating our minds as we become further enmeshed with the lives of her characters and their relationships.
Christian is a strikingly handsome young man who has taken up with Olive, a drab and ingratiating older woman in whose house he has boarded. She left her husband and two daughters to strike out with him. He is all enthusiasm one moment and despair the next, delusion and world-weariness, aggression and alcoholic self-pity. He might as well have a neon sign flashing above his head: Danger! Keep Away!
And while Clem is knowing and clever and alive to his theatrics, she is also ready for an adventure. Little by little, she is lured into his fantasy world. She agrees to teach him French free of charge, using all her spare time; against her better judgement she does not resist the gravitational pull of planet Christian.
And judgement she has—we know it because she knows it herself—but sometimes people like to follow a story to see how it will end. When Clem gets closer to the flame of instability, she’s no longer the ‘nice quiet girl’ that she first appeared to be. She’s playing with fire.
Clemency, as befits her name, is lenient with Christian, even as she sees that he won’t return the money he borrows from her, and doubts his story of a marvellous job in Paris coming up and a future life together, if only he can escape the clutches of Olive, who cares for him and controls him—at least, that is how he paints it.
Lewis and his sister Helen gently try to save Clem from herself. They see that the young woman they knew is going under. She resists them, pride and curiosity preventing her from pulling back from the brink. Can madness be infectious? Is this what’s meant by folie à deux? Two impulses balance each other in Clem; she is both at the centre of the whirlwind and observing it—she ‘listened like a scientist, listened like a lover’. The head and the heart.
We hope she is resilient. She reminds herself that she was ‘immunised’ long ago. We don’t know by what. But in some immunisations it’s the subsequent exposure which generates the population of active cells that maintain the defences against another assault. Once bitten, twice bitten. Perhaps the third time you bite first? Or not: ‘And yes, not to worry, a kind insidious voice insisted in my ear, you can always die when it’s too much.’
In conversation with Elizabeth Harrower I asked about Clem. It’s as if she can sense Christian’s turmoil, his madness—and yet he is engaging, firm in his opinions, somehow fascinating. Clem is keen to find out what might happen.
‘There’s a friend I have,’ Elizabeth said, ‘who talks about the charisma that is sometimes part of mental disturbance: that it has a sort of exceptional charm, exceptional attraction, magic, something quite special…People live dangerously to discover things. Sometimes it’s a high price to pay.’
I marvelled at her uncanny understanding of relationships.
‘I don’t study people,’ she replied. ‘But I do somehow or other feel that I know something interesting about human nature that I have a deep wish to tell everybody. I haven’t searched for it…These are just interesting things I know. I think I’ll keep on like this to the end. Although I’m not writing, I’ll still keep thinking.’
I love Harrower’s The Watch Tower (1966), which is considered her masterpiece. But I love The Catherine Wheel more, perhaps because I’m a bit more like Clem than like The Watch Tower’s Laura. As do all the Harrower books, with their psychological mysteries and droll humour, their brilliant language and ear for voices, this novel takes your hand from the first page and draws you in.
So do follow. I promise that rich rewards await you.