“LONDON in the 1950s and in a rented room, a dark-haired Australian bends over her Oliver typewriter. She wears a woollen cap and hugs a hot-water bottle. There’s a shilling in the slot for heating but it is bitterly cold. Elizabeth Harrower, however, is in a different space, writing about the heat of Sydney and the furnace of marriage …”
So goes the introduction to a 2012 article on novelist Elizabeth Harrower by The Australian. Once neglected by an apathetic public, Elizabeth (age 87) is garnering belated attention the second time around.
Elizabeth and an Olympia SM8
In the prime of her life, Elizabeth Harrower published just four novels and a handful of short stories, then stopped writing. In 2012, more than four decades later, her best-known novel The Watch Tower, first published in 1966, was reissued by Text Publishing as part of its project to recover forgotten Australian novels.
Other Harrower novels subsequently published by Text are her first novel, Down in the City (1957), The Long Prospect (1958), The Catherine Wheel (1960), and In Certain Circles (completed in 1970, but never previously published).
In an interview “Written in the Past Tense” published on May 6th, 2012, by the Sydney Morning Herald:
…for five years, the whole goal of her existence was to write this intense, very Australian, psychological thriller. She worked at an office job during the day (she was a touch-typist) and wrote on her typewriter from 7pm to 10pm at night and all weekend long. “I didn’t care how long it took, I just thought, I have to get it right.”
Writing was a ”reckless, foolish thing to do” in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was all she wanted to do. When The Watch Tower was first published the Sydney Morning Herald described it as “a dense, profoundly moral novel of our time”.
More than four decades on from all that, she finds herself unexpectedly, and strangely, old.
”How did it happen? I can’t believe it. It’s incredible,” she laughs.
In that other life, Harrower was a close friend of painter Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia.
Cynthia, Sidney and Jinx Nolan in 1949
Harrower loved Cynthia Nolan, who would take her own life in 1976 – ”she was a fragile soul, a rare soul”. Cynthia urged her to write, even asking Harrower to write her biography. But something prevented her, something which Harrower can’t quite explain.
”Writing has to matter more than anything else, and other people don’t like being abandoned. Other people have an interest in your not writing.”
Harrower was a close friend, too, of Patrick White, in 1973 Australia’s first winner of the Nobel prize for literature and, to his dismay, Australian of the Year.
“How sick I am of the bloody word AUSTRALIA. What a pity I am part of it; if I were not, I would get out tomorrow. As it is, they will have me with them till my bitter end, and there are about six more of my un-Australian novels to fling in their faces.” Patrick White.
White keeps his “un-Australian” Optima typewriter under wraps.