Inside Story

With sojourns in Italy

How Shirley Hazzard resisted provincialism

Susan Lever Books 20 December 2022 1992 words

Among the elite: Shirley Hazzard at UN headquarters in New York in 1961.

My copies of Shirley Hazzard’s early novels say the author was “born in Sydney, Australia in 1931 and in the early years travelled the world with her parents due to their diplomatic postings. At sixteen, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence where, in 1947–48, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China.” They go on to mention that she worked for the United Nations in New York and Italy, married the writer Francis Steegmuller in 1963, and then lived in New York “with sojourns in Italy.” It’s quite an enviable career for an Australian girl with no more than a high school education.

Biography shouldn’t interfere with our reading of fiction, but it does. Photographs of the well-groomed author with her dark coiffure and pearls suggest that she belonged to an elite world, the New York literati who “sojourned” in Italy each summer. In 1984 this glamorous writer returned to Australia to express her disdain for the provincialism of her homeland in a series of Boyer lectures. She was probably right about the land she had left behind, and those Australians who took umbrage may have been unduly sensitive — even displaying some of the nationalism she deplored.

Given the nature of Hazzard’s public profile, Brigitta Olubas’s meticulous new account of her life, Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, reads as a necessary corrective to prejudices about the author and her fiction. Olubas clarifies Hazzard’s association with British intelligence and the nature of her work at the United Nations, where she performed basic secretarial duties. In the way of these things, her actual experience was more complex but also more typical of clever women of the time.

Always bookish, Hazzard attended Queenwood private school on Sydney’s North Shore, where she and her older sister Valerie both thrived. But their father’s extraordinary trajectory — from orphaned child to Australian trade commissioner — gave him little sympathy for the educational aspirations of his daughters. After the second world war the sixteen-year-old Shirley left school to travel with the family to Hong Kong, where Reg Hazzard took the pre-eminent diplomatic role for Australia.

Through her father’s contacts she was employed in the office of a British military intelligence unit that had the job of monitoring the Chinese civil war. Shirley did, indeed, travel into China in a failed attempt to gather information about a British expat living in Canton (now Guangzhou).

The more significant figure in the unit was Alexis Vedeniapine, a Russian-born British officer who had grown up in Shanghai. He knew several Chinese languages and had been decorated for his heroic feats behind enemy lines in the Netherlands during the war. Although he was fifteen years older than she was, Shirley fell in love with this dynamic and cultivated man.

Olubas considers the various accounts of this relationship with sensitivity, suggesting Vedeniapine’s embarrassment at this young woman’s intense passion and his reluctant attraction to her. Within a year, though, Valerie had contracted tuberculosis. The family returned to Sydney, where Shirley’s education progressed through Miss Hale’s Secretarial College. She and Vedeniapine considered themselves engaged to marry with a view to reuniting in England once she had come of age.

Hazzard’s readers will recognise this love affair as the basis for her last novel, The Great Fire, which consigns its lovelorn heroine to the dullness of Wellington, New Zealand. Her father took the family there on his next posting, and Shirley continued writing to Alexis, now back in England and planning their future together on a farm. Until she didn’t.

Though Vedeniapine appeared committed to the relationship, Shirley must have realised that life as a farmer’s wife in Hertfordshire might be even duller than that of a typist in Sydney or Wellington. As Olubas puts it, “she simply refused to become provincial again after Hong Kong had connected her to the significant action of the world.”

Then her life opened up again. The family travelled to London, where she failed to contact Alexis, and New York, where her father had been posted. There, Shirley’s secretarial skills led to a job in the technical assistance administration section of the United Nations. Though she could never manage promotion to more senior UN positions, the work gave her the opportunity to mix with an international group of well-educated people and an insider’s view of how McCarthyism destroyed the careers of some of its most talented.

She soon became entangled in love affairs with older, married men. Olubas compares her to the Shirley MacLaine character in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, the “lift girl” who has an affair with a senior executive, but perhaps she was more like the office girls at the sexual mercy of married men in Mad Men and romantic enough to hope for ongoing commitment. Stories such as Hazzard’s “A Place in the Country,” republished in her Collected Stories in 2020, suggest the emotional cost of these doomed relationships.

After the collapse of one such love affair, Hazzard escaped to Italy, where she worked, like Jenny in her novel The Bay of Noon, in a UN emergency force office at an airfield outside Naples. It was her first sustained encounter with her greatest love, Italy.

Naples had been partly destroyed by bombing and its people were desperately poor, but Hazzard felt privileged to be in such an ancient and resilient place. Most of all, she found solace for her broken heart in Capri, still unspoiled by tourism in those hard postwar years. Leaving Italy at the end of 1957 she wrote in her diary, “Capri saved me — dear, lovely loved place.”

UN friends organised an introduction to the Vivante family, who ran their house outside Siena as a kind of holiday retreat for artists and intellectuals. Friends made there went on to include her, in turn, in their social circles back in New York. In 1959, partly through these connections, she had her first story accepted by the New Yorker. Italy and writing had saved her from a dreary life as an office worker, and by 1962 she felt confident enough to resign from the UN.

A year later she met the widowed Francis Steegmuller at a party given by their mutual friend Muriel Spark. This middle section of Olubas’s biography is full of people Hazzard met through her New Yorker editors and friends — people like Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bowen and James Merrill, as well as musicians and artists. She was sometimes accused of name-dropping, but her friends genuinely were from the New York and British cultural elite. They satisfied her longing for high culture and good taste. She became an American citizen in 1974.

Olubas devotes a whole chapter to Francis Steegmuller’s life, explaining how he and Shirley shared relatively humble beginnings and how he had become an acclaimed expert on Flaubert as an independent researcher rather than an academic. His first wife had left him in comfortable circumstances, so he and Shirley could live in New York and visit Europe regularly. He was older and better educated than she was, continuing the pattern by which she educated herself through her relationships with men.

The last section of this long biography records her friendships, her difficult relationship with her unstable mother, her occasional irritations with her husband, her many disagreements with friends and her deliberate shunning of relatives. Olubas tells us that Hazzard, perhaps typically for a self-taught intellectual, liked to dominate conversations and display her learning.

Hazzard emerges as a sometimes naive idealist sure of her own intelligence but needing to assert her claim among those with more formal credentials. This tendency goes some way towards explaining her longstanding criticism of the United Nations, no doubt justified to a degree but a little quixotic in retrospect. Perhaps it also encouraged her to return to Australia for those Boyer lectures.

She lived the latter part of her life among American intellectuals at a time when US cultural power increasingly dominated the world. Her friends were sure of their place at its centre though they valued European civilisation as the source of their moral understanding. With Steegmuller, Hazzard participated fully in this cultural homage through their regular trips to Italy, their language studies and their writing. Olubas’s biography offers a valuable tangential perspective on this commitment to high culture by the American intelligentsia in the decades after the war.

Of course, most of us know Hazzard through her stories and novels. If we hadn’t guessed, Olubas makes clear that the early novellas, The Evening of the Holiday and The Bay of Noon, are based on Hazzard’s own experience in Italy in the 1950s. They are small gems that offer readers vicarious delight in the beauty of Italy and its vivacious people.

Most of her stories, too, observe the emotional crises of women rather like Shirley Hazzard as they negotiate often unequal relationships with men. They are quiet stories told from the point of view of rather passive women but sharpened by wry satirical observation. Hazzard always takes great care with the physical details of her fictions, and her dialogue is concise and witty. She wrote novels of sensibility, closely observing the emotional shifts in her characters as they proceed through an uncaring universe.

Though Olubas claims that The Transit of Venus is one of the great novels of the twentieth century, some readers will resist the way its author so obviously stage manages the lives of her characters. Caro Bell is another passive woman allowing herself to be carried along by the activities of more privileged men. Though Caro’s love affairs seem accidental and passionless, the novel comes alive in interludes where Hazzard gives free rein to her more satirical instincts.

The panoramic view of the daily life of the working girls of London that begins the novel’s twenty-third chapter has stayed with me since my first reading decades ago. This sharpness reveals Hazzard at her best, offering sympathy to all the intelligent women at the mercy of a system that gives pre-eminence and power to men.

Olubas shows how important Hazzard’s experiences in the immediate postwar years were to her sense of the world’s dangers, a residue of the damage she saw in Hiroshima and Naples. They clearly gave her a sense that love and life could be random and imperilled.

It is surprising, though, how much her fictions depend on memories of her early love affairs. Olubas remarks on how memory provides its own form of fiction as Hazzard transforms her affair with Vedeniapine in The Great Fire. Published in 2003, this last novel offered a kind of elegy for those who had suffered and died fifty years earlier. Despite the absence of any reference to the “phases of Australian life” (was New Zealand close enough?) it was awarded the Miles Franklin prize in a retrospective reclaiming of the novelist.

Perhaps Hazzard was most Australian in her autodidacticism, in her snobbery and commitment to good taste, and in her immense appetite for European culture and its deep history of civilisation. But she remained a citizen of the world, receiving honorary citizenship of Capri late in life.

As was the case for Henry Handel Richardson and Christina Stead, it has taken an Australian biographer to account for an international literary figure who would otherwise be overlooked in favour of her more famous British and American peers. Olubas has managed to create an engaging narrative from a wide range of sources. Best of all, she has incorporated Hazzard’s own versions of her life, both fictional and documentary, to create a character more interesting than we might have imagined. Like all good literary biographies, this one sends the reader back to its subject’s writing. Olubas’s edition of Hazzard’s stories is a good place to start. •

Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life
By Brigitta Olubas | Virago | $34.99 | 576 pages