The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower


I recently read James Woods' 2014 piece in The New Yorker about Elizabeth Harrower and made a note to read her work. I began with the one he called her masterpiece, written in 1966. She wrote only six novels and shortly before publication of the last one in 1971, stopped the presses. Her work is now in print, including that last one, thanks to Text publishing. 

She writes about women who are oppressed by abusive, misogynistic men and in this case, the charming sadist is also an alcoholic. Sisters Laura and Clare are called away from school by their hateful mother when their father dies. She sets Laura, the older one, to work maintaining the household and after secretarial school, to earning money. When the mother leaves for England, Laura who must care for the younger Clare, marries her much older employer Felix. 

Felix is unkind and Laura excuses him from the outset. She thinks, "If he teased her a little cruelly, smiling fixedly as he pointed out her defects, she would have to learn not to be too touchy. It was true she was ignorant. He was no more than right when he told her that she was not beautiful." 

As Clare grows up and thinks of leaving, Laura begs her to stay to help divert Felix from his bad tempers. Laura is only rarely willing to glimpse the truth and has excuses for his drinking and rages. While Clare is clear-eyed about the situation, she is unable to abandon her sister. The three of them are for the most part isolated from others by his behavior.

This changes when Laura and Felix bring a very sick young man who works at the factory into their home to help him recover. Clare points out he is too sick to be left on his own while they work. The couple convinces Clare to give up her vacation trip to care for him but when she takes a real interest in helping him, they are angry and contemptuous. Felix works to undercut Clare's support for Bernard but Clare finds the means to keep Felix from getting Bernard in his clutches. One evening after Bernard has recovered his health he spends the evening with a couple who had been kind to him in the past. Clare overhears Felix's tirade to Laura in response:

You wonder why he cleared out tonight, do you? Do you? I'll tell you why. I can tell you. You don't know, do you? You don't know — Do you? No. that's right. But Mr. Shaw [Felix referring to himself] does. Mr. Shaw knows. He's out tonight so he can be amongst men. Men.That's why. Yes. That's why. You didn't know that, did you? You didn't know he'd had a bellyful of the sight of you, did you?  You're too–stupid– to know he's sick in his guts of being in a house full of women. Christ! They're not fit– they're not fit for me to vomit on. That's why. You're just–things. 

The cruelties make this a hard read; it felt suffocating. Despite that, I'm glad I soldiered on because ultimately it is a satisfying book. 

There was one scene that seemed unrelated and counter to the message. One night Laura and Felix were awakened by a sudden noisy wind that shook the house. They rushed to the window and saw "dreadful clouds, a mad wind and hideous noises," united in their fear for once. They knew it was not a hurricane and wondered if they would be killed by the new weapons they had heard about. They eventually went back to bed and the event is not mentioned again. Britain tested nuclear weapons in the Australian desert in the 1950s so I suppose that Harrower was referring to that.  

 Elizabeth Harrower, The Watch Tower, Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1977 (originally published in 1966), 219 pages. Available at the UVa library and from Amazon published by Text.

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