Book Reviews

Transit of Venus

By Shirley Hazzard

Slightly Foxed

Review by Anne Sebba, Slightly Foxed, summer 2009

As soon as I meet Shirley Hazzard, before we begin to engage in a conversation, she is quoting Hardy poetry to me. She insists that the love Thomas Hardy expressed for his first wife in his later verses is genuine, that after Emma Hardy died he somehow managed to recall all the old love and feelings.
“Not guilt, that’s too modern. He was able to recall the way he had felt when he first met her.”

We are meeting for lunch in a lower East Side restaurant near Hazzard’s New York home. What prompted the outpouring was that she had spent the morning sorting out her late husband’s papers – he was Francis Steegmuller, the writer – before sending them on to a university archive. But she had been in tears recalling their love.
It’s an intense beginning to our friendship, but I’m up for it. Then she tells me about her childhood and her slight formal education. Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia in 1931. As a child she traveled widely as her parents were diplomats. 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. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand, Europe and in the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York and in Italy. She has been deeply critical of the United Nations ever since. She taught herself through books, and by studying human nature. She was in her thirties by the time she married Steegmuller, a widower more than twenty years older, in 1963. “It was marvellous to be married to a writer. Sometimes I’d be staring into space searching for a word and, although he encouraged me to write, he knew this was just a necessary part of the thinking process.” Words are precious. She uses them carefully and sparingly, as anyone who has read her book, The Transit of Venus will know.

This deeply sensual novel has long been a favourite of mine and it improves on re- reading. Yet I did not adequately appreciate it when I first read it shortly after publication in 1980. I came back to it after discovering her grippingly perceptive account of Graham Greene, Greene on Capri (2000). I was older, was emerging from a Greene phase and it was evident from her observation of Greene that Hazzard had a deep understanding of how women and men, not necessarily married but in sexual thrall to each other, behave. Although I admired her more recent and highly autobiographical The Great Fire (2003), it is Transit of Venus, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, that has stayed with me, demanded to be re-read, and led to this meeting of the adoring fan worshipping at the font. Hazzard is modest but knows her worth.
From the book’s opening sentence – “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation” – you know you are in the hands of a skilled driver but that it’s going to be a bumpy ride. The book is laced with sexual tension sometimes pulled so tight it is almost suffocating. But it’s also threaded through with poetry which relaxes the tension. Poetry is an important part of who Shirley Hazzard is and the book is full of it. One key offstage character, long since dead, was a poet and the main protagonist, Caro, is constantly remembering verses or sitting with a book of poetry.

Transit of Venus is the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline (Caro) and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in post-war England – a transit through love and life. Both sisters are beautiful. While the “fair” Grace quickly settles for a wealthy but unsatisfying married life, dark-haired Caro works (for a time as a shop girl) and soon embarks on a passionate adulterous affair. Her lover, a duplicitous but handsome playwright called Paul Ivory, newly married to a rich and boring woman, warns Caro he has never suffered greatly – “I have not felt enough. Whatever enough means.” Aware of his power to wound, he is not afraid to use it. Years later, when he learns that his son has leukemia, he rages at fate and at being so powerless. “I’ve always detested any sense of power over me.”

At the same time Edmund Tice, an astronomer, is forced to adore Caro from afar but is unable to move completely out of her orbit. Although rejected by her, he lives in hope. He continues to meet Caro, write her long letters and bring her quince blossom and tries to settle for her enduring friendship. When Caro marries a wealthy and urbane New Yorker, a widower, it seemingly dashes any hopes Ted may have for finally winning Caro’s love and he, too, marries – Margaret, the daughter of a scientist. But in Caro’s transit through life, such stability is not destined to last, and Ted is offered one last chance to grasp happiness with the woman who has seared herself onto his soul. Or else to settle for the knowledge that, at last, she reciprocates his love.

It is Ted, the scientist, who understands that love is a kind of madness. Ted, with one flawed eye, who is the most clear-eyed of all the characters when he states “…the tragedy isn’t that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.” He also observes, “Even through a telescope, some people see what they choose to see. Just as they do with the unassisted eye… Nothing supplies the truth except the will for it.”Caro is from the outset described as a child of Venus and we are told in the first few pages that a Transit of Venus is when the tiny planet moves like a dot across our gigantic sun. There are other facts: In 1769, James Cook set sail in the H.M.S. Endeavor to study a Transit of Venus and found Australia. But it is Tice who explains to the young Caro how a Frenchman had travelled to India years earlier to observe a previous transit, and was delayed on the way by wars and misadventure. Having lost his original opportunity, he waited eight years in the east for the next transit of 1769. When the day came, visibility was freakishly poor; there was nothing to be seen. There would not be another such transit for a century.
Destiny – the way that people kept apart by circumstances are drawn together or, conversely, the way that people thrown together by circumstance are yet condemned to mutual isolation – is the theme of this book. That, and of course love.The Transit of Venus has been described as a story of place: Sydney, London, New York, Portugal, Stockholm, as much as time. But it’s the people who linger; men but mostly women and especially Caro. In the course of the novel, which ranges from the brilliantly depicted drab fifties to the unraveling late seventies, the women face seduction and abandonment, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal. The sad tale of Dora, Grace and Caro’s pitiable half-sister, who devoted herself, martyr-like, to the young girls when their parents drowned and then, late in life, finds a handsome major who steals all her money, gives an interesting insight into the limited options open to women in the immediate post-war period. One of the book’s most intriguing historical reference points is the attitude towards women who wanted or needed to work. Paul Ivory refers with disdain to “little shop girls,” forcing Caro to remind him that she too has been a shop girl. “We are not necessarily diminutive.” Caro graduates to government work – “only recently opened to women” – which requires her to take (and pass) exams so that eventually she can afford a flat with a table and chairs of her own. She was not expected to pass the exam. But even if she did, her career prospects were limited as “it was a way of having people with languages without giving them career service.”
The story repays slow and careful reading. Those who love it praise its voluptuous vocabulary. (Cataphract and Entelechy were new to me.) Critics call this literary pretentiousness. That’s their loss. Hazzard believes in careful use of the right word even if that slows up the pace and is never less than elegant. And what’s the rush? This is a slice of another world, a more leisurely world. Our lunch, too, is slow and leisurely. Food, like words, can be savoured if you know how.

When it’s time to go we discuss another auto-didact; Winston Churchill. Hazzard immediately laments that his power of oratory, his ability to summon up courage and leadership through words and speeches, was perfect for another era, the radio age. “Remember how the colonies relied on his broadcasts? But it would not be effective now in a television age with the inability to listen that has resulted.”
She, too, remembers waking at all hours to hear his words “and he had just the right words delivered in just the right way, derived from the basics of English literature. ”

I have loved every minute of my time with her and understand better the world from which Transit of Venus was created. I say: “I very much hope we will meet again.” Unoriginal words for a departure, but I mean them.
Taking my hand she says with her usual precision: “I depend on it.”