The Watch Tower, from Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower is set in the years surrounding WWII. The story begins when sisters Laura and Clare are withdrawn from private boarding school by their self-focused mother, a British woman who’s never really adjusted to life in Australia. Stella Vaizey’s lack of adjustment probably isn’t made easier by the fact that she feels a bit let down by her husband. Dr. Vaizey died unexpectedly, and his death which seems the final proof that he was “unreliable” has left his widow and two daughters in financial hardship. Both Laura and Clare must give up their ambitions for university, and after their large home is sold, they move to Manly, a suburb of Sydney. Here’s Stella Vaizey:
“I want you and Clare to take over from tomorrow morning, Miss Muffet.” Stella Vaizey lay back in bed and extended one small, beringed and manicured hand in a final relinquishing gesture. Propped against two pillows, smoking an Abdulla cigarette, she looked tolerantly at Clare, who sat on the dressing-table stool, leaning on her knees, plaits hanging, one navy-blue ribbon untied; and at Laura, who stood, back to the windows, assessing the strange bedroom and its furnishings with quick little glances. Laura hated that ‘Miss Muffet.’ It wasn’t well intended.
“You’re fixed up at your business college; Clare’s enrolled at her school, and they’re both within walking distance. You know where the shops are, and the beach is at the bottom of the hill, so you’ve got nothing to complain about, have you?”
She was crossing them off her list!
“And now that everything’s settled, I’m going to expect you both to take some responsibility. I’m very tired. I’ve had a busy, upsetting time with that oaf of a solicitor bungling everything and selling the house. It’s been a great-” her eyes filled with tears. She sneezed, and sneezed again, and groaned luxuriously as if to say, ‘There! You can see for yourselves how ill-treated I’ve been.’
Laura finishes business school and then gets a job at a company owned by industrious bachelor Felix Shaw. With WWII gathering momentum, Stella Vaizey longs to return to her old crowd in England, and it seems nothing less than fortuitous when Felix proposes to Laura. He even buys a large, impressive house and agrees to take in Clare too. This is the liberation Stella has been waiting for, and gently, subtly, Laura is eased into marriage.
But Felix Shaw isn’t quite what he seems, and as his business interests fluctuate, both Laura and Clare pay the penalties for his erratic decisions. Gradually Felix’s dark side emerges….
The Felix Shaws of this world have an innate ability to identify and capture the vulnerable women who have the misfortune to enter their sphere of acquaintance. At first The Watch Tower seems to be Laura’s story, but as the plot develops, the story is Clare’s. Clare has the choice of remaining with Laura as a powerless witness of a hellish marriage or she can break free and abandon her sister.
The Watch Tower does an excellent job of creating its three main characters and gradually building the details of the domestic tyranny endured by Laura and Clare. Domestic abusers and marital tyrants are skilled at creating false worlds and then imprisoning their victims within those invisible walls. So true to form, Felix remains well-respected by others while at home he’s a monster. There are hints of Felix’s repressed homosexuality, and certainly he values his relationships with other males while his relationship with Laura and Clare is infused with hatred and loathing. Often Felix appears to bait Laura and Clare:
“Months ago they had learned that there was no defence but silence, and that was no defence. He did so enjoy cajoling them into speech, but he had been known to be provoked to the very edge of violence by the sound of an answering voice. Not that he minded being brought to the edge of violence.”
All these details are well-developed and believable, and Felix’s gradual transformation occurs as he isolates the sisters first from the world and then from each other.
On a personal level, I find it difficult to read novels in which characters are acted upon–endlessly. I wanted someone to do something in this novel, so I became frustrated with the female characters as they continued to soak up Felix’s behaviour and escaling violence. That criticism voiced, I realise that that is the whole point of the story. These women take it because a) they have few other choices and b) it becomes ‘normal.’
In spite of the novel’s painful subject matter–the destruction of one human being by another, the plot does not wallow in emotion, and much of the drama remains delicately understated. There’s not a great deal of introspection here as people carry on and pretend everything is perfectly normal even when it’s quite clear that it’s not. For its exploration of the relationship between sisters, the sacrifices of 1940s women who are forced by circumstance to drop dreams of education for the terrors of becoming one man’s cooks, cleaners, and general factotums, then this could be a classic feminist text along with titles such as Mrs. Caliban (Rachel Ingalls) and Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson).
The brief bio notes at the front of the book state that Harrower was born in 1928 in Sydney, lived in London in the 50s, and then returned to Australia. The Watch Tower was published in 1966. It’s a somewhat unfortunate title as a search yields a lot of religious material.