Tag Archives: post-war

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Do you have this experience? It doesn’t happen very often, but when I finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard I felt that I had been lifted onto a different plane. In part it was the accomplishment of the writing, its elegance, sparseness and the observations of human relationships revealed in the prose. And in part it was the breadth of Shirley Hazzard’s observation and of her imagination of the post-war world.

The Transit of Venus is my choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The novel captures something of the international influences happening in the decades following the Second World War. 

The Transit of Venus

The novel’s narrative stretches over 30 years allowing the characters and their relationships to be played out with the inevitability of the transit that gives the book its title.

Two Australian sisters have come to Britain in the 50s and are staying in a house of an eminent astronomer, Professor Thrale. Grace is the younger, very pretty, engaged to the son, Christian. Caroline is older and with more purpose in life. There is a third sister, a half-sister Dora who is an eternal victim who has cared for Caroline and Grace since their parents died. We follow Grace and Caro through several decades, and mostly Caro because Grace leads a calm and largely unexplored life. 

Ted Tice is a young astronomer come to spend time with Thrale and he falls for Caroline, a love he nurtures beyond the end of novel. Caro however is seduced by a friend of the family, a young playwright, Paul Ivory who in turn is engaged to Tertia who lives in grand style nearby. Paul and Caro begin an affair. The reader is sure that Paul is untrustworthy and that Tertia knows about the affair but has other motives for continuing with her engagement and marrying Paul. 

Paul Ivory is the bad boy, cynical, calculating, enjoying power and influence. He has a secret, known to Tice (and he knows Tice’s secret too). He breaks up with Caro.

She works in an office, subjected to the taken-for-granted sexism of the time. She is very hurt by the end of her affair with Paul but eventually marries an American benefactor and goes to live in NY. Christian Thrale has an affair because he believes he should. Grace falls in love with her son’s doctor, but he refused to compromise her. The marriage is not made better or worse by these episodes. Ted Tice goes on loving Caro from a distance until two important secrets are revealed. 

Themes

Although the transit of Venus across the sun is predictable it is an event that occurs only every 120 years, and then twice in 8 years. Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 was designed to coincide with one transit to help with astrological measurements, specifically the size of the solar system. His measurements were inaccurate. The next transit will be in December 2117.

Shirley Hazzard understands that our lives are influenced by both predictability and chance, by those we meet and the moment we meet them. The important thing is what we do with our experiences: perhaps use them to manipulate others as Dora does. She turns every situation into a story of wrong being done to Dora. She is the saddest of all the characters.

Dora sat on the corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it. […] Dora was not one to lie down under the news that a veranda was called a loggia, or a mural a fresco. Let alone villa for house. (45)

Grace lives a life of conventional comfort, with her husband making steady progress in the Foreign Office, and children and a nice house with beautiful things. A mirror bought in Bath is frequently mentioned, yet towards the end of the book Caro reflects that

It was not clear now, as formerly, that Grace was satisfied with chintz and china – with Christian saying, “A wee bit fibrous,” or hoisting his trousers at evening and announcing, “Must get my eight hours.” It was not quite certain Grace had remained a spectator. Those who had seen her as Caro’s alter ego might have missed the point. (324)

The reader has seen Grace’s thwarted love for her son’s doctor and noted the dignity ascribed to her by Shirley Hazzard.

With these prospects and impressions, Grace Marian Thrale, forty-three years old, stood silent in a hotel doorway, with the roar of existence in her ears. And like any great poet or tragic sovereign of antiquity, cried on her Creator and wondered how long she must remain on such an earth. (289)

Caro’s life has also contained much hurt and loss. She had not remained a spectator, but engaged with the experiences life sent her with dignity, reflection and generosity.

Writing

Reading The Transit of Venus one could not fail to notice the quality of the writing. The novel’s plot is skilfully managed and the tension is held to the final chapter. Some of the sentences are beautifully constructed. Look at what she wrote about Grace’s reaction to the departure of her would-be lover quoted above. And as I typed Caro’s reflections I noted the provisionality of the sentences: ‘not clear now’, ‘not quite certain’, ‘might have missed the point’. 

Within her sentences the choice of words, especially adverbs and adjectives, add complexity, depth and nuance to the novel. She writes on a wide canvas: across several decades and across the globe: Australia, Britain and New York as well as parts of Europe and South America. It has been described as an unbearably sad book, but I felt moved by it, as if the experience of reading it had added to my own life. In part this is because of her ‘huge charity towards the people’ (Kirkus Review 1980). 

Perhaps you have felt uplifted by this novel and are only surprised that I mention it. Or perhaps you have yet to experience one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, in which case you have a great treat in store for you.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia and died in 2016 in New York. She had spent time in the Far East after the war, before being employed by the UN from 1951. She was posted for a while to Naples, and developed a love of Italy. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that she published her next and final novel, The Great Fire, which was also much acclaimed by the critics. I am currently reading some of her essays in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published in 1980) and reissued by Virago in 1995. 337pp The novel also won the National Book Critics Award.

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent choices for the project are

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project, words, Writing

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair, a classic mystery, was published in 1949. Its mystery is not in identifying the criminal, but in uncovering the lies and flaws in young Betty Kane’s story to exonerate the two women she has accused. The task falls to Robert Blair, an established country solicitor.

216 Fr Aff coverThis is the 18th review in the Bookword series about older women in fiction. Thank you to the reader who suggested the character of Mrs Sharpe from The Franchise Affair.

The story

Marion and her mother, Mrs Sharpe, are accused by Betty Kane of abduction and ill treatment. 15-year old Betty claims that they imprisoned her in the attic of their house, The Franchise, which stands outside the small country town of Milford.

Robert Blair is living a very comfortable bachelor life in Milford, cared for by his aunt. The narrative follows his search for the truth, but we do not find much out about his previous life: not married although he had opportunities, his wartime occupation not indicated. His comfortable life is not usually disturbed by criminal cases, but he is attracted to Marion Sharpe and her gypsy-like looks, and motivated to put right the injustice done to her and her mother. The narrative pull of the novel comes from his dogged pursuit of the truth about Betty Kane’s missing month.

Mrs Sharpe

Mrs Sharpe is introduced to the reader though Robert Blair’s eyes.

She [Marion] drove a battered old car, from which she shopped in the mornings while her white-haired old mother sat in the back, upright and delicate and incongruous and somehow silently protesting. In profile old Mrs Sharpe looked like Whistler’s mother; when she turned full-face and you got the impact of her bright, pale, cold, seagull’s eye, she looked like a sibyl. An uncomfortable old person. (6)

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Mrs Sharpe is a gentlewoman, enduring less good times in The Franchise. She knows about good furniture and architecture, and she comes from horse-breeding stock. She inherited The Franchise from a relative, which allowed her to move out of London where she had lived in a boarding house with her daughter. Neither woman has entered the social life of Milford. They enjoy peace and isolation, although it works against them when Betty Kane’s story is published by the mud-raking, strangely-named tabloid – Ack-Emma.

Mrs Sharpe is rather a forbidding woman, and she also has an intelligence which sees to the heart of matters as we find out early on when Mrs Sharpe demands to know if Betty is a virgin. She earns respect from Blair by her refusal to be unsettled by the accusations. He observes to the reader that ‘it was no small achievement to steal the interest from an outraged heroine.’ (29)

She is from the time and class that requires older women to keep their composure in the face of life’s difficulties. We discover that her husband was always speculating and that his suicide left her with a very young child and no money. Even when the Sharpes are arrested and brought to trial Mrs Sharpe remains steady.

The relationship between mother and daughter is easy, based on observing strict boundaries. Marion explains this to Robert late in the novel.

Mother and I suit each other perfectly because we make no demands on each other. If one of us has a cold in the head she retires to her room without fuss and doses her disgusting self until she is fit for human society again. (274)

Her role in the novel is to make it clear that Betty Kane’s story is unfounded from the outset. She represents common sense. Such a strong and intimidating woman would not treat a young girl in the brutal manner of which she is accused. Mrs Sharpe’s steadfast dignity and denial provides the reader – and Robert Blair – with the certainty that Betty Kane is lying. This is older woman as moral authority.

A few other things about The Franchise Affair

An interesting feature of The Franchise Affair is the discussion reading a person’s character in their appearances. Their appearance and especially the eyes are claimed to indicate criminality. Marion tells Blair that Betty Kane’s eye colour indicates that the girl is over-sexed, a post war notion.

‘I have never known anyone – man or woman – with that colour of eye who wasn’t. That opaque dark blue, like a very faded navy – it’s infallible.’(36)

And appearance means Josephine Tey can link criminality to genetic inheritance, another background theme in the novel.

But Josephine Tey’s novel relies on this emphasis to mislead the reader. Much of the power of Betty Kane comes from her innocent appearance. The forbidding appearance, on the other hand, of Mrs Sharpe hides a sharp intelligence, a warm heart and resilience.

216 J TeyThe novel also reflects the dominant social attitudes of the time, not just towards an older woman. Although the Sharpe women are independent they are not capable of resolving their own difficulties and a succession of men have to do this for them. It is the men, the solicitor, the barrister, the garage owner (and former army sergeant), the private detective who must help the women out. And they do. Even the man in the case doesn’t lie.

It is set post-war with some references to the war (air raids, experience in the armed forces for example) and is quintessentially English in a warm beer kind of way, despite Josephine Tey being from Scotland. She used a historical event, the deceptions of Elizabeth Canning from the 18th Century, as a basis for the story.

216 Fr Aff gr coverThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey first published in 1949. The copy used in this post was published by Arrow Books in 2009. 278pp

Related posts and book

The previous posts in the older women in fiction series can be found by clicking on the category or by going to the page called about the older women in fiction series.

Sarah Waters says that The Franchise Affair provided some inspiration for Little Stranger, which is also set in a dilapidated large country house in the post war period.

Josephine Tey has her own website: www.josephinetey.net

Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson was published in November 2015 by Sandstone Press. Jenny Morrison writes about her reclusive life in the Daily Record in October 2015.

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews