DD – Transit of Venus

I began to be an avid reader of 20th Century women novelists when I began life as an undergraduate, and especially when I shifted from geology to social anthropology.  I guess I am old enough to admit what happened:  my college academic adviser’s wife was iconic sixties woman, casually beautiful, with an air of rebellion.  Desirable and out of reach!  One day in a bookshop I saw a photograph of Margaret Drabble.  They looked almost identical, and I had to buy one of her books.  In fact, only her first novel was available at the time, A Summer Birdcage, a title drawn from a line from the playwright John Webster: “Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.”  I was hooked, and any lingering associations with my senior tutor’s wife was forgotten.  I can’t help adding that I was reading about Diana Rigg a couple of years ago in various obituaries, and discovered Margaret Drabble had been her understudy for a while, at a time when Margaret was contemplating acting before she went on to become a novelist.  Two heroes (heroines) linked!

In her early novels, Margaret Drabble was a Jane Austen of the 20th Century.  A Summer Birdcage was about the complicated lives of two sisters, one about to get married, and the other at a loose end, having just completed her undergraduate degree.  It wasn’t a conventional story, but rather an exploration of the two women, their characters and personalities and the ways in which they affected each other.   Two years later she published The Millstone, which remains a favourite among her novels.  If A Summer Birdcage was fascinating and clever, The Millstone was deeper.  Today we would say it reflected the changing views about gender that were so hotly debated in the 1960s, but for me it remains a novel about the impact of chance and persistence.  The central character is Rosamund Stacey, an attractive Cambridge graduate writing a thesis on early English poetry and managing two unconsummated relationships.  A one-night stand, her first sexual encounter, leaves her pregnant, and the rest of the novel explores how her pregnancy and then her child change her.  While I am sure it drew on some of Drabble’s own experiences, Rosamund is a compelling character in her own right.  I shouldn’t add this, but I will:  it is a very 1960s novel!

Commentators have noted that Margaret Drabble’s protagonists are almost always women, who offer a mirror reflecting England’s society and its people.  Those first novels described the life of young women during the 1960s and 1970s and were written at a time when the conflict between motherhood and the desire to be drawn into academic and intellectual challenges was engaging many university-educated women.  She continued to write about women, and, as Hilary Mantel once wrote: “Drabble’s heroines have aged with her, becoming solid and sour, more prone to drink and swear; yet with each successive book their earnest, moral nature blossoms”, (in the New York Review of Books, 23 November 1989), while also noting her characters’ various and often rather determined faults reflect their political and economic situation.  Drabble claimed in 2011 that she wrote “to keep myself company” (from The Guardian, 19 March 2011).  Perhaps so, but her novels were gifts to us, too.

From Margaret Drabble it was a short step to Doris Lessing and the Martha Quest stories, a series of five semi-autobiographical novels, generically known as the Children of Violence series.  The first four, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple in the Storm and Landlocked  are set during the 1930s and 1940s in the fictional country of Zambezia, based on Southern Rhodesia in the British Empire years (now Zimbabwe).  Doris Lessing lived there from 1925 until 1949.  Written between 1952 and 1965, and just as had been the case with Margaret Drabble, they caught me at the right time:  male novelists tend to write about power and conquests, but I was fascinated by the challenges women faced dealing with restrictions and unexpected challenges society creates weaving a thicket fence around them.

At the beginning of Martha Quest , the first novel published in 1952, Martha is fifteen years old, “living on an impoverished African farm with her parents; a girl of passionate vitality, avid for experience and for self-knowledge, bitterly resentful of the conventional narrowness of her home life”. She leaves home and ends up as a typist in the Zambezia capital where “she begins to encounter the real life she is so eager to experience and understand.”  Martha Quest was followed by A Proper Marriage, two years.  Disillusioned with big city life, she was drawn into the hectic life of the ‘smart set’ and then married.  This was a story of discontent and frustration, emerging awareness, and then the unexpected restrictions in her life as a young mother.  The novel is set at the outbreak of the Second World War, when her husband joins up to fight overseas.  Martha’s feminist sensibility is blossoming.

The third novel in the series, A Ripple in the Storm, appeared in 1958, and describes the growth of a Communist group in a small town in Central Africa, “as a result of the general mood of optimism, enthusiasm and admiration for the Soviet Union” in the war years.  Now divorced, Martha Quest joins the communists and marries its leader, a German refugee..Seven years later, Landlocked completes the first four books in the series set in southern Africa: “The time is the last few months of a war that had not only ruined Europe but had flooded a message of equality even into this backwater. Some of the white people have already sensed the imminence of change: they could never again unthinkingly hold down this corner of Africa for themselves and their heirs”.

These four books set Martha’s development in a series of events in Africa, about which I had known little:  at times I was torn between wanting to know what was happening to Martha, and what was happening in southern Africa.  The final book in the series,  The Four-Gated City, appeared in 1969, and represented an unexpected development and a radical change.  Martha Quest had moved to London, and there, as the 1950s begin, was a world I did know:  this was the time of the Cold War, Swinging London, and the Aldermaston marches.  However, she also situates these events in settings that explained more of the social history of London at the time, especially about poverty and social anarchy, aspects of London I didn’t know as well.  By now Lessing’s focus on the character seemed subsumed by exploring the character of the period.  Finally, the novel leaps forward to the end of the century with the world in the grip of World War Three.  Martha dies in 1997, on a contaminated island off the coast of Scotland, having survived the massive loss of life in Britain in 1978 caused by the bubonic plague, the use of nerve gases and nuclear explosions. A dark ending.

Not just dark, but about events set in a world that couldn’t have been more unlike Margaret Drabbles, although the two authors were to become closer in their views about the decay of British society as they grew older.  Perhaps it is hard to understand, but reading their earlier books was key to creating an addiction to 20th Century women novelists, and this led me on to another writer, Shirley Hazzard.  Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. Twenty years later, she moved with her family to the United States and began working for the government and then the United Nations.  In the early 1960s, she started writing.  This was around the time she met Francis Steegmuller, a critic, biographer, translator, and novelist.  It was love at first sight  They met in New York, at a party Muriel Spark gave in January 1963.  It was a party packed with famous authors.  As Shirley Hazzard walked in, W. H. Auden was just leaving.  At one point she noticed a tall man entering the room.  It was Francis.  One thing led to another, and before year’s end they were married.

While she spent some of her time overseas in Naples, New York remained her home from her family’s arrival there in 1951.  In time she moved into a large, white-brick apartment house on the Upper East Side, and remained there, a quiet, familiar home in what she described as “this crazy beehive” of a city.  She would write her initial drafts in longhand on a yellow pad, then would type it up on her electric typewriter, often scribbling over the results, amending the material.  She described her process as “a clarifying affair.”

Shirley Hazzard’s novels focus on love, and the complexities of relationships over time.  Her first full length novel, The Bay of Noon, was published in 1970.  It follows the unfolding and dramatic story of a young Englishwoman, Jenny, who is working in Naples, her adventures taking place after the Second World War.  There she meets a writer, Gioconda, and her lover Gianni, a well-known film director.  At work she becomes involved with Justin, an inscrutable Scotsman.  Its underlying theme is that  the past is not easily forgotten.

Ten years later, she completed The Transit of Venus which, for me, is her greatest novel.  The story begins with two beautiful young Australian sisters arriving in post-war London, where they meet three men who will be central to the rest of their lives.  Grace Bell is fair, timid, conventional; Caro Bell is dark, reserved and fiercely intelligent.  Grace meets Christian Thrale, a successful and self-centred bureaucrat, whom she’ll marry.  Caro meets Ted Tice, a ginger-haired astronomist, awkward and brilliant, who falls in love with her. but Caro falls in love with Paul Ivory, a handsome playwright who treats her badly.  None of these three marry each other: Paul marries a cold and beautiful aristocrat; Caro, a rich and distinguished American.

In some ways her books are like classical tragedies, with events at one point in time the precursors to fateful consequences, sometimes remaining hidden or dormant for years.  There is a sense of inevitability as the story unfolds.  Indeed, a presentiment of the final and devastating end to the book has already been offered to us in the first sentence of the novel, although we have to read to the end to see that.  In some ways, this is rather like watching a clockwork mechanism, as each stage of the story seems determined by inexorable laws as impersonal as those that govern the birth and death of stars.  This is about destiny, but not the kind of destiny that results from the meddling of Greek gods however, but rather the result of the characters own actions and choices determining their fate.  By and large, the consequences are unhappy.

The title, The Transit of Venus, refers to the fact that rarely, twice every one hundred years or so, the planet Venus is observed crossing in front of the sun.  This rare event is a metaphor for Caro’s life.  It is also a description of Ted Tice, who follows Caro’s path through life but can never catch her in transit.  Early in the novel Ted and another scientist tell the story of 18th-century astronomers who set sail from Europe to India and then to Tahiti to in order to observe this rare phenomenon, but fail, largely because of poor visibility.  Venus escapes capture and understanding.  For Ted Tice Caro, his Venus, remains unattainable.

I’m not clear as to how I can explain how the novel grabs hold of you, drawing you in, almost teasing you at times as relationships seem to fall apart, only for the characters to come back together, to ‘collide’ to continue that scientific metaphor, as if they are unable to escape, attracted by some kind of invisible magnetic or gravitational force.  The analogies from physics, from astronomy, keep reappearing.  Grace is  “fixed, terrestrial, landlocked . . .”, and she makes a conventional marriage to a conventional man.  Caro, on the other hand is almost like a  celestial object, a person with a sense of destiny, who “has this notion of herself . . . of being different. Or better. She sees herself making large gestures.” If Grace is conventional, Caro is passionate, dazzling, and somehow unpredictable, like a shooting star.  They couldn’t be more different, at the opposite poles, their actions often embodying the forces of good and evil, order and chaos.

There are many horrible and easily recognised characters in this complex, extraordinary novel.  One is Dora, the aunt who brings them up.  Despite their grief, of losing their parents when young, they know Dora to be suspicious, martyrish, manipulative and mean:  “The girls heard it said that Dora was raising them. Yet it was more like sinking, and always trying to rise.”  Dora’s moods and demands must be met, with her endless self-pity, her threats of suicide:  “Dora herself was strongest of all, in her power to accuse, to judge, to cause pain: in her sovereign power. Dora’s skilled suspicion would reach unerringly into your soul, bring out your worst thoughts and flourish them for all to see; but never brought to light the simple good”. Dora and her slights prematurely age the little girls who “walk home hand in hand, not so much like lovers as like an elderly couple, grave with information and responsibility. Coming home was to a Dora of outraged quiet … Grievance was statistical: ‘They only invited me once in two years … In all that time I was there to tea exactly twice.’  And yet, for several years Dora is all the small girls have.  For that time, she is their daily life.”

I can’t do any better than to continue to quote from Charlotte Wood’s outstanding re-examination of The Transit of Venus  in the Sydney Review of Books, (21 April 2015):

“But if Dora has an alter-ego, it must surely be Paul Ivory’s fiancée Tertia Drage, one of the great female villains of modern fiction. Where Dora is a blunt instrument, Tertia is a finely sharpened, glinting silver needle. At the very moment Caro and Grace learn by letter that they are at last free of Dora (or so they think), Tertia is led into the room:

 So sleekly pretty, so fair and tall that she seemed an advertisement for something very costly.  They murmured, you-do. Tertia offered fingertips in a gesture not so much exhausted as reserving strength for something more worth while. … Having shaken hands, Tertia touched her bodice, her hair: an animal fastidiously expunging traces of contact. … Like Christian Thrale before her, she found them insufficiently conscious of their disadvantage, and would have liked to bring it home to them. She perceived that, while Grace might eventually be set straight in this fashion, Caro would be a tougher proposition.

And so the enemies become acquainted. …  on the evening of Tertia and Paul’s engagement party, Caro puts on her one good dress, a Parisian extravagance she knows displays her beauty to superb effect. She is in the scullery ironing the silken belt of the dress when Tertia appears, in her own ‘rustling, sweeping dress of silver’, ordering Caro to do something with flowers. But then Tertia stops and stares, arrested by the sight of Caro in her magnificent dress. The normally modest Caro enjoys seeing Tertia shaken and ‘on this occasion, had a taste to see the fact acknowledged’. But Tertia is an expert at this kind of contest. She recovers her composure and, after a pause, smiles at Caro’s dress and asks lightly, ‘And what are you going to wear this evening?’  It’s a master stroke, but Caro merely laughs.  Then, holding Tertia’s gaze, she ‘lowered the belt and fitted it with slow care about her own waist.’ This simple but deliberate gesture – Caro drawing attention to the splendour of her own body – is an expression of sexual power as raw as anything that comes later. Caro may be merely engaged in the womanish business of frocking up, but in this scene her gesture has all the threat of a gladiator buckling his sword-belt.”

Razor sharp, crystalline comments illuminating a tragic world.  Shirley Hazzard should have the last word.  When the two sisters meet, Grace reflects on their lives. “At first, there is something you expect of life.  Later, there is what life expects of you.  By the time you realise these are the same, it can be too late for expectations.”  Brilliant writing, a stunning novel.