Thank you to Tina for moderating The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard.
Published in 1980, Hazzard’s novel is a Modern Classic.
Caro, gallant and adventurous, is one of two Australian sisters who have come to post-war England to seek their fortunes. Courted long and hopelessly by a young scientist, Ted Tice, she is to find that love brings passion, sorrow, betrayal and finally hope. The milder Grace seeks fulfilment in a happy marriage. But as the decades pass and the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, love, death and two slow-burning secrets wait in ambush for them.
Unfortunately, I was unable to join the OBGers for this month’s meeting as I was on holiday. I am reliably informed that it was a very lively meeting. The majority enjoyed the book: a small minority talk, an opposing stance.
To reflect on the meeting, I present Tina’s moderation notes for the affirmative case followed by Karen Ball’s for the negative. I also attach Maureen Clark’s notes. She discusses the novel’s depiction of incipient feminism in the 1970s through the character of Valda Fenchurch.
- I read this book when I was young and remembered it with fondness when finding it while tidying a bookcase and decided to reread it. However, it remained beside my bed for a year and then when it was suggested by Gillian to be part of the books discussed I thought it would push me to read it if I presented it. I remembered it as beautifully written, a social document of the time with much sadness woven through. It was also a glimpse of the era of my parents which echoed the way of life in England in many ways. What is interesting is that many people have described that reading The Transit of Venus for the second time caused a profound change in how they saw the book and what it was portraying. Some said it had altered their sense of perspective and place in the world. It is quite an achievement to have the second reading become more nuanced and important than the first. The Transit of Venus is the story of two Australian sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, who emigrate to England in the 1950s. They were orphaned while young due to their parents’ deaths in a Sydney harbour ferry sinking and were raised by their older half-sister Dora who was particularly unlikeable and manipulative.
- The book highlights the ups and downs of their love life, and the trials and pitfalls of their daily lives but the central character is the older sibling, Caroline. Grace marries quickly to a boring and self-satisfied man whereas Caroline, the stronger-willed and beautiful sister, in the beginning, falls for a more dangerous unrequited love interest before eventually marrying an older, rich American. Throughout she has a friendship with an astronomer, but she rejects his lifelong love for her. The book follows both women but as I mentioned mainly highlights Caroline and her striving to be independent and true to her desires. It moves from rural England to Australia, to London and to New York. It slowly moves through their earlier lives before moving speedily through the older years at the end of the book culminating in the dramatic ending.
- It is a remarkable book for the era and one with profound thoughts about women, power, manipulation and secrets. Much of the story was hinted at very early in the narration so is easily missed and I was not surprised to learn that many people did not seem to appreciate it until after the second read for example the first sentence “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.” includes the mention of a body being found when a bridge was swept away. The relevance of this and other traumatic events were buried as they were depicted so early in the book, their importance not articulated until the end of the book.
- One of the things about the book that I loved was Hazzard’s ability to capture large issues and attitudes in small sentences. Every sentence had depth, subtlety and humour. You need to concentrate. Caroline said of their move to England when they meet up with Christian “having got here is an attainment, being here is an occupation”. Again, in a description of her boss, Mr Leadbetter, she says that “his hair was prematurely grey with anticipation of his pension”. At the funeral of her sister’s father-in-law “the congregation stood, knelt and sang”. Concerning Dora’s continuing waring handwringing Caro said to Grace “she is curious to see how many cheeks we still have left to turn”. And lastly an apt description of New York, “the City posed its conditions like a test: those apt in its energies became initiates; the rest must fail, depart or squander irrelevant strength.”
- The class issues are presented succinctly and the people they meet in the early days are puzzled by the sisters being unashamed and self-possessed despite being newcomers and Australians to boot. (Story of going to London first off in the 60’s?) In this way, their power especially Caro’s is established, and so is the paradox that Australianness bestows both weakness and strength. Shown by Caro’s comment to Leadbetter at the time of her resignation. (192) and earlier to Tertia who particularly felt the siblings should be more conscious of their disadvantage. Caro finds a dress she had bought abroad and sees it as her future and she decides to wear it at Tertia and Paul’s engagement party. She wore the dress downstairs to iron the belt and Tertia asked what she was wearing tonight. After silence and staring at Tertia, she put flowers in a vase and laughed. (82)
- It is not just a novel about love and the fate of the sisters it is also about seduction and loss. Chance encounters are also significant in the way the story evolves and the characters move within the story. Caroline continually displays independence, moral courage and individual power although in choosing Paul to love she negates some of this. However, Caro is the only one to keep to her destiny even if hurting Ted on the way to this. Love and betrayal are major themes and secrets that change the course of their lives.
- Issues around Dora, an annoying and unattractive yet pivotal person. As one reviewer commented “As little girls, Caro and Grace may be dumbfounded by grief, yet they know Dora, with every fibre of themselves, to be suspicious, martyrish, manipulative and mean: The girls heard it said that Dora was raising them. Yet it was more like sinking”. Dora and her attitude toward the world particularly to the sisters whom she saw as an imposition was a strong negative but powerful voice in the book. However, Dora was all they had. Once in England, although rarely having spoken about Dora to each other, they felt liberated. This did not last long and she seemed to follow them around when not even close by!
- The book constantly lays traps regarding characters as they are often not as they seem. Early portrayal and information are negated partially later in the book, particularly at the very end. We so often only have part of the story of people’s lives and mistake many actions to suit our worldview. Hazzard writes beautifully and every word and description is important. You can imagine her happily enjoying their evolution during her writing process.
- The men in the book are mostly stereotypes and are not fleshed out in the same way as the women. They are interesting types rather than individuals. Paul is not as good a playwright as he believes. Caro’s husband is an American Jewish academic as was Hazzard’s husband. Ted who she does not contemplate is involved in substantial scientific activities.
‘I hadn’t read the book previously so perhaps that influenced my feeling of frustration at having to reread sentences and paragraphs to understand her meaning. The florid style of writing, Thomas Hardy-like, initially intrigued but soon annoyed. The author’s technique of interspersed ‘clues’, or ‘disruptive writing ‘throughout the novel required close attention and turned out to be a precursor to deciphering the ending which reminded me of Agatha Christie – tying up the plot. The revelations of Paul Ivory’s bisexuality, his complicity in the death of a male lover and Ted Tice being a silent witness all seemed too far-fetched. It was also inconceivable that Caro would then decide she truly loved this very moral man while previously being dismissive and almost contemptuous of him.
The novel is an accurate reflection of its time, young Australians seeking adventure in the UK and confronting class snobbery. The emerging feminist strength of the women characters is very evident as is the questionable male bias in society at the time. Some of the observations are very funny and the author is deft at depicting interactions and dialogue through beautiful, evocative text. It just becomes too much.
Perhaps, as suggested by several at the meeting and many online, I should reread it, but life is too short…
Well, if you missed the meeting don’t you regret it? I certainly do.