Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower is a balance of intense character studies and a window into a rapidly changing world. Set before, during and after World War II in Sydney, Australia, The Watch Tower begins when sisters Clare and Laura Vaizey are forced to leave boarding school because their father has died. Clare is only nine, but Laura is in her late teens and gets a job in a cardboard box factory. Soon after, their detached mother announces she’s returning to her native England. Fearing poverty, Laura winds up marrying her boss, Felix Shaw, more than 20 years her senior, who takes the girls in and promises (falsely) that Clare may continue her education. What follows is an account of domestic violence (though it’s never called that in the novel) Clare’s struggle to break free and a portrait of a city in the grip of modernity. First published in 1966, The Watch Tower will be released for the first time this month in the U.S. by Australia’s Text Publishing, as part of a series of reissued classics.
Harrower was born in Australia in 1928, and lived there until she was 23. “I lived though a very interesting period; I was 17 in Sydney in 1945, and there was phenomenal change everywhere,” Harrower says from her apartment in Sydney. “I was young and in a bright city, reading and working, but I didn’t know what to do with all of this liveliness.”
In 1951, Harrower left Australia for the first time and sailed to England. The journey took more than six weeks. “Off I went,” Harrower says. “By the time we hit Bombay, I thought I’d never go back because there was the great world. Every port was a revelation.” Upon arriving in the U.K., Harrower spent time with her mother’s relatives in Scotland and then went on to London, where she began to write.
“I was separated from my parents by letters,” Harrower says. “And I was just inclined to write down everything I thought, in diaries, letters, everything. I decided I was going to start writing a novel, so I started.… People think the fifties weren’t interesting, but they were wonderful years. So much was changing and there was so much at risk, [in terms of] the Cold War. Even the fogs in London were sort of mysterious and glamorous.” After eight years, Harrower returned to Sydney in 1959, in part to be closer to her mother.
A similar current of unease runs through The Watch Tower. At home, Laura and Clare never know when the volatile alcoholic Felix will have an episode, and though Sydney is experiencing post-war prosperity and an influx of Europeans, there’s atomic anxiety (in one scene, Laura and Felix awake in the middle of the night and think for a moment that a nuclear bomb has struck) and an uncertainty about where the city and the world are headed.
To the modern reader, The Watchtower can be frustrating. Laura and Clare don’t leave Felix, even after they get older and gain independence and his behavior continues to be dreadful. Laura is particularly entrapped, and it’s difficult to watch her decline from a bright young woman to a slave to her cruel and unhinged husband. But it’s a testament to Harrower’s prose that these decisions do not feel unnatural for Laura’s character, or even as though her trajectory is being brought into being by the novelist. Instead, it reads as though we are observing a real life, and events we are powerless to stop.
The Watch Tower was the last of Harrower’s four novels. While writing it, she became friends with Patrick White, an Australian novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Harrower wrote one additional novel when she received a government grant, but ended up withdrawing the manuscript because she “didn’t like it and it was very grudgingly done.”
Harrower isn’t certain about why she never wrote another book. “I feel it’s a great pity, because I had much more to say,” she says. “But at this stage of the game, it’s no use regretting or blaming yourself. I see life spread out like a great map, and I believe in living for the search of experiences, and not what went wrong.”
It’s only natural that Harrower was pleased when she heard Text was going to reissue The Watch Tower. “I wasn’t astonished,” she says. “[Text] are these exceptionally nice people doing this great thing: bringing back lived experience in this country from previous times. The past is still alive in fiction. I thought nobody would be interested, but there are readers everywhere, and they’re tremendously interested in finding out about the past, because the world won’t always be as it is.”Adele Oliveira is a journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she writes for The Santa Fe New Mexican, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.