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.
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.
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 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)