Inside Story

Epistolary lives

Forty years of correspondence illuminates the careers of two important Australian writers

Susan Lever Books 16 May 2024 1439 words

Rich relation? Shirley Hazzard in Sydney to record her Boyer Lectures in August 1984. Robert Pearce/Sydney Morning Herald

In her expansive biography of the New York–based Shirley Hazzard, published two years ago, Brigitta Olubas revealed that the writer corresponded for many years with the Sydney novelist Elizabeth Harrower. Harrower had never met Hazzard when they began writing to each other, but she had become friendly with Kit Hazzard, her difficult mother, in the 1960s and gradually found herself taking responsibility for her care in Sydney while Shirley stayed on in New York and Europe. The slightly shocking revelation that the relatively successful international writer had imposed her daughterly duties on the struggling local novelist reinforces a sense that Hazzard was rather haughty and self-centred.

Since Olubas’s book was published, Susan Wyndham has begun work on a biography of Harrower, accessing letters that were unavailable to Olubas. Now, the two biographers have joined forces to edit about 400,000 words of correspondence into a manageable but still substantial book.

Hazzard and Harrower: The Letters opens in 1966 with a note from Hazzard to Harrower in response to a letter she had sent to Kit, who was saying with Hazzard in New York, and ends with a Christmas card from “E to S” at the end of 2008. That’s forty years of conversation between literary women who cared about books and art and keenly followed political developments in their countries of residence.

At first, as the two writers catch up on each other’s fiction and declare their mutual admiration, the letters are cautiously polite. In Harrower’s case, her background reading includes biographies of French writers written by Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller, or at least those she can lay her hands on. As she increasingly becomes involved in looking after Kit (who comes to be called YM by Harrower and MM by Hazzard), a task that included organising her old age pension and seeking advice on her mental health, Hazzard tends to gush in gratitude. Though her appreciation seems genuine, she appears rather condescending to the kind, modest woman back in Sydney.

Telephone conversations clearly break down some of the formality, and the letters gradually become more open and interesting. The pair meet briefly in London in 1972, where it was clear that Harrower didn’t “live perpetually on that plane of euphoria and enthusiasm” that she might try to present in her letters. An attempt at a more extended meeting in Rome in 1984 ends when Harrower, after rather prickly engagements with her hosts, flees to Paris to stay with the family of Gough Whitlam, who was serving as Australian ambassador to UNESCO.

Letters clearly allowed Harrower to offer a more buoyant version of herself, though she seems to have resented being a kind of honorary “poor relation” to Hazzard. Olubas and Wyndham explain that Hazzard and Steegmuller were not much wealthier than she was, always renting their residences in New York and Italy while Harrower could support herself on inherited property in Sydney. But the New Yorkers’ cosmopolitan attitudes and Harrower’s generosity to Kit seems to have exacerbated an imbalance in the relationship.

Harrower’s commitment to Labor’s successful 1972 election campaign and her devastation at Whitlam’s dismissal by governor-general John Kerr make for some of the most interesting letters. By this stage she had joined the Labor Party, and her exhilaration and disappointment convey a clear sense of the atmosphere of the times. Her friendship with Patrick White, who publicly supported Whitlam, brought her into close contact with political developments and eventual friendship with the Whitlam family, especially his sister Freda and wife Margaret.

On her side, Hazzard delineates the evils of Richard Nixon and analyses the decline in American political morals. She also follows the various forms of corruption in Italy and notes the rise of the country’s future president, Silvio Berlusconi. Clearly, she is confident that she has some agency in public matters, writing a book on the shortcomings of the United Nations and another on the suppression of former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi background. She even lobbies Whitlam’s women’s officer, Elizabeth Reid, on behalf of Australian women working for the UN in New York.

The correspondence alerted both writers to their ignorance of other Australian writers — both admit to not reading any Australian fiction until they were in their thirties — and they set about educating themselves. Harrower provides Hazzard with information about local books and their authors, helping her write a knowledgeable “Letter from Australia” for the New Yorker and providing background information when she visited Sydney for her Boyer lectures in 1984. As a returning expatriate, Hazzard was feted and, of course, criticised for her strong views on the national culture she had left behind; her informant stayed quietly in the background.

The letters also reveal parallels in the two writers’ lives. Having both lived part of their childhood in Sydney North Shore suburb of Balmoral, they reminisce about the beauties of the harbour, imagining that they might have crossed paths as schoolgirls. They both wrote autobiographical fiction, turning their mothers into fictional older sisters in their major novels — Hazzard in The Transit of Venus and Harrower in The Watchtower.

But Hazzard’s more optimistic and romantic worldview is clear in both her fiction and her letters. Harrower writes of traumatic family relationships in which her characters often feel powerless; though she wishes there were more Francis Steegmullers to marry, she also thinks marriage would be impossible. In hospital for an operation, she comments that it “always feels interesting inside my head” and refers to her body as no more than a taxi carrying around her consciousness.

For much of this period, Hazzard is busy researching and writing new books or essays under the eye of the disciplined Steegmuller while Harrower sits at her typewriter making notes that become manuscripts that she doesn’t publish. Friends on all sides urge her to write more but also make demands on her time; Christina Stead, Kylie Tennant, Cynthia Nolan and a range of unnamed young people call for her attention, as does Kit. Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris are like brothers to her, though she hears she has been the subject of nasty comments at their dinner parties.

Hazzard, too, learns that she has been the victim of White’s bitchiness. They enjoy sharing some vengeful mockery of him, referring pointedly to Mrs Jolley and Mrs Flack, the brutal gossips in his Riders in the Chariot, and remind themselves that, by contrast, Sumner Locke Elliott has proved to be an exemplary gay friend. In the end, though, Harrower shows herself to be a true friend of White, remembering him not only as infuriating and hurtful but also “extremely lovable, kind and funny.”

These are not brilliantly written letters: sometimes Hazzard reverts to a kind of shorthand to convey the speedy impressions of a busy woman, and Harrower’s discussion of serious matters is often solemn. They occasionally refer to their exchanges as telegrams or “teleces” intended to convey more than can be put in words. They are rarely funny, and it is a relief when Hazzard refers to herself mockingly as “Shirl” or Harrower enquires about the availability of her favourite perfume, Ivoire, in New York.

Olubas and Wyndham have excised the tedious details of YM/MM’s care and focused on literary life. The writers’ exchanges about their current reading, their visits to art galleries and their meetings with friends give a rich sense of cultural life in Sydney and New York in the last decades of the twentieth century. No matter what the fate of their published work, they share a joy in the life of art.

Together with the two women’s autobiographical novels, these letters allow us to read some of the source material for their biographies. Their attraction is that they appear to give direct access to the two women’s voices, making them seem more human and likeable, though (as those polite introductory exchanges show) each of them is also creating a presentable version of themselves.

Olubas’s Shirley Hazzard: A Life wraps her fiction, her diaries and her letters in a rich context of her life in New York and Europe, but it isn’t necessary to have read that biography to appreciate these exchanges with Harrower. It is essential, though, to read the editors’ very useful introduction, which gives important background and discusses some of the minor characters who recur in the letters.

Olubas is currently editing still more of Hazzard’s letters, and we can wait with interest for Wyndham’s biography of the complicated Harrower. •

Hazzard and Harrower: The Letters
Edited by Brigitta Olubas and Susan Wyndham | NewSouth | $39.99 | 384 pages