Academic journal article Hecate

'Deep into the Destructive Core': Elizabeth Harrower's the Watch Tower

Academic journal article Hecate

'Deep into the Destructive Core': Elizabeth Harrower's the Watch Tower

Article excerpt

In Damned Whores and God's Police,(2) Anne Summers makes a half-page plea for the recognition and critical acceptance of Elizabeth Harrower. She also points to the links between Harrower's Emily Lawrence, in The Long Prospect,(3) and Kylie Tennant's Shannon Hicks, in Ride on Stranger, at least in terms of their careers. Summers uses Harrower as an example of a female novelist whose works have been denied critical attention in Australia and who has yet the tenacity and courage to persist in writing "her splendid books about women for a world which fails mostly even to acknowledge their existence." Summers sees a link between Emily Lawrence and Shannon Hicks consisting in their "pain and intellectual frustration of being denied books by the Philistines in whose charge" they have been placed. (pp. 49-50)

Certainly Harrower's works illustrate scathingly the anti-intellectualism of Australian society, its denigration of the intelligent woman, its insularity, parochialism and philistinism. Summers does not mention that, in the novels, both males and females suffer from this Australian malaise. I suggest also that the links between Emily Lawrence and Shannon Hicks are far more complex than their exclusion from the world of books. Harrower's works, and her portrayal of female characters and their plight within Australian society moves far beyond the examination of anti-intellectualism and has dimensions which are considerably broader than a specifically Australian society or literature.

In a recent article(4) I have commented on the notion of a female tradition of literature as explicated by Elaine Showalter(5) and other contemporary feminist critics. In that article, I argue that Miles Franklin could be seen as belonging to a tradition of literature much broader than nineteenth century Australian, and unified in themes, imagery and subject matter. This literature can be termed "Female." Although the concept of a female imagination, as proposed by Spacks(6) remains questionable, smacking as it does of biological determinism, the notion of a female sub-culture running parallel to the dominant male culture and producing its own images, themes and subject matter, is less contentious. Certainly there are uncanny resemblances between the works of many female writers, regardless of time and place. Harrower, no less than the Brontes or Tennant or Franklin, is portraying a consciousness and life-style which belongs specifically to this female sub-culture. To achieve this, Harrower uses a pattern of imagery shared by many female writers.

Much current feminist research attempts to uncover the roots and reasons for the almost universal subordination of women. Laura Shaw, in The Watch Tower unconsciously senses her kinship with other women when she remembers a quotation from one of her sister's books:

`The men of this tribe,' the anthropologist had written in that book of Clare's that she had skimmed one night, `the men of this tribe regard the act of sex as the ultimate insult to be inflicted on a woman. Having degraded their wives by using them thus, they hold them thereafter in the greatest contempt.(7)

Laura never does penetrate to the heart of the reason for her subjugation and misery; Harrower's depiction of her degradation and Clare's attempts to escape from a similar fate are a literary examination of many of the issues which have exercised such contemporary feminist theoreticians as Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow, Kate Millett, and Rosemary Radford Reuther.(8)

Reuther traces the polarization of male and female sex roles through anthropological and theological sources. Her examination of the cultural symbols assigned to femaleness extend and expand on Simone de Beauvoir's seminal work, The Second Sex. Similarly based on de Beauvoir is Millett's Sexual Politics, which opens up the area of literary criticism by extending the notion of literary ideology into the wider and hitherto untouched notion of sexual politics. …

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