The Catherine Wheel: Elizabeth Harrower

In Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, The Catherine Wheel, it’s the 1950s, and twenty-five-year-old Clemency James is an Australian lodger living in a grim London boarding house belonging to spiritualist landlady, Miss Evans. Clem’s tiny, bleak attic room has “a diagonal view of bare black avenues and paths and empty seats and grass,” but in spite of the room’s lack of appeal, to Clem, the space represents her “square yards of freedom.” That freedom is about to be swept away when a peculiar couple insinuate themselves into Clem’s life.

Clemency earns a marginal living teaching French to private students while she studies, by correspondence, to be a lawyer. With her father dead, her stepmother, Mimi, back in Australia, and a small legacy to help her survive, Clemency doesn’t have much time for frivolity–in fact she’s on a treadmill alternating between teaching and studying. There’s little to no fun in between, and so perhaps that makes her vulnerable.

The Catherine wheelChristian Roland,  a very good-looking young man, is first introduced to Clem as the new window cleaner, and soon he and Olive, a much older woman he calls his wife, are well established features in the building. Before long, Christian, by using a suave combination of guilt and pressure, manipulates Clem into giving him free French lessons. At first Clem, who already resents teaching and “the draining off of that much energy–but [I] needed the money,” resists and while there are hints that she could give free lessons, Clem initially responds negatively:

And where was the obligation to be heart and soul with everyone who importuned attention? And, really, was graciousness my aim in life?

Christian and Olive make a strange couple. He’s a former actor, strikingly good-looking, with a history of finding a series of women to ‘take care of him’ whereas Olive is much a much older, plain, “large round shouldered woman” who initially treats Clem with embarrassing and unnecessary obsequiousness. There are moments when Clem receives warning signals about Christian and yet these moments fade and then vanish as she’s swept up by his relentless pursuit and charismatic personality. Gradually, Clem is seduced, mesmerized, manipulated, and beguiled into Christian’s chaotic world of poverty, debts, endless menial jobs, drunken binges, and violent arguments. And as Christian slowly dismantles Clem’s defenses, Olive becomes violently jealous of Christian’s relationship with Clem–or so he claims. Yet since Christian loves being in the position of having women fighting for him, and since he is constantly acting a role with himself as the star, it’s impossible to tell just where the truth ends and the lies begin.

Christian, who has a massive chip on his shoulder about class, money and the standard of living he thinks he’s entitled to, is out for what he can get from Clem. There’s the sense that his goal is to overcome Clem’s reservations about his character with conquest as pure ego gratification. Occasionally Clem wavers between fascination and revulsion yet gradually melts under the constant assault of his dominant, narcissistic personality:

I felt myself withdraw, withdraw mentally, from his proximity, I didn’t like him! All at once his earnest pleasure in himself was alarming.

‘Then after they’ve asked me to do their income-tax returns–one actually did the other day–they tell me how poor they are. They get out the old purse and try to kid me along. Can’t afford! They can’t bend their fingers for diamonds some of these old bags!’

As a student of the theatre, I saluted him. As a student of human nature I felt an unprecedented inclination to come down heavily on both sides at once. He was awful! Why did it seem irrelevant?

As Clem becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of Christian and Olive, she isn’t always honest with herself. She’s not honest about her motives for ‘helping’ Christian, and as she sinks deeper and deeper into his delusional, volatile, narcissistic web, her friends become alarmed only to find that they are powerless to help her. Clem sees Christian, with “his bitter, private, despairing intensity,” as noble and someone who deserves a chance. Everyone else sees Christian for exactly what he is–trouble, a user and destroyer of any woman foolish enough to get involved with him. Christian lives in a world in which he manufactures his own reality as evidenced by his scheme to learn French and move to Paris. Given his volatility and sordid past, it’s a ludicrous idea, yet as the novel wears on, and Clem is seduced into Christian’s delusional world, she begins to accept that his fantasies of a glorious future are entirely reasonable and deserved. Trying to talk sense to Clem about Christian is rather like trying to persuade the ardent heroin addict to pass on the syringe already stuck in an arm.

This was no place for me, yet I was held to the room–far from fascinated now and the reverse of curious–by something I did not believe in: necessity, compulsion.

Elizabeth Harrower only gives us a few slices of information about Clem’s past, but there are darker hints of some emotional trouble in her past.

Then, all my life I had been ill of emotion, had been much gobbled, prodded. […] To be left alone, I wanted! Not to have people or things, not to be had by them. My very survival, it seemed, had hinged in the absence of feeling in my life. How pure was freedom and isolation!

Does this explain why Clem enjoys a safe platonic friendship with Lewis? He’s already spoken for, and yet he too is in a safely impossible relationship with a married woman.

While Harrower builds a convincing case of how a normal, hard-working, sensible woman can be gradually taken over by a dominant, psychotic personality, at the same time, Clem is a frustrating character–a woman I wanted to shake out of her stupor and passivity. She imagines, at least initially, that she’s an objective, interested observer speculating about Christian’s life and his strange relationship with Olive. Her best friends, Lewis and his sister Helen, can see what a destructive influence Christian is on Clem, but they are powerless (as we are) to stop her descent. There are several scenes when Christian plays both Olive and Clem as if he’s written the script for some tawdry domestic melodrama–scenes in which Clem realizes just how she’s being played.  I wanted Clem to knee him and shove them both out the door….

Emma recently made a comment regarding a novel needing to say something new, and I thought about that as I read The Catherine Wheel. This is the story of an obsessive, destructive  relationship, and how many books have we read on that subject? Yet here Elizabeth Harrower achieves something quite different. She very convincingly shows us a main female character who appears to be very calm, steady and sensible, who is gradually beguiled by a disturbed, charismatic young man, and slowly, gradually, she’s seduced by his dominant personality. His world of chaos, explosive passions, violent jealousy, and financial fecklessness becomes her reality. If you’ve ever had a front row seat to this sort of takeover of one personality by another, then you’ll know that Harrower is a keen observer of human nature.

In Certain Circles, through a handful of characters, Harrower tells the story of marital dominance, and we see how things such as invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouse. The Watch Tower also deals with domestic tyranny, and how abusers create false worlds and then imprison their victims within invisible destructive marital restraints. The Catherine Wheel’s Clem and Christian are not married, but nonetheless, the theme here is dominance and the gradual stripping of power and independence of the underdog in the relationship. While there’s a range of psychotics, bullies and neurotics in these three novels, married or not, Harrower seems to argue that there’s a struggle for power in any relationship, with the more neurotic or psychotic partner gradually eroding the willpower and independence of the other.

Review copy/own a copy.

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13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Harrower Elizabeth

13 responses to “The Catherine Wheel: Elizabeth Harrower

  1. Ah, another sinister tale set in a boarding-house to recommend to Jacqui – she seems to be making a list of those at the moment… The law of the jungle of relationships, one might say: dominate or be dominated… Sadly all too true in some cases I can think of.

  2. I didn’t know she was doing that, but this is a perfect entry to her collection. Yes I think you’re right, the law of the jungle applies here.

  3. Thank you for this insightful review. I’ve always found much food for thought in Elizabeth Harrower, though, like you, I’ve wanted her characters to break out in some way. It’s an interesting question whether we, as readers, look for a novel to say something new. I don’t think I do.

    • This is the third Harrower I’ve read and she depicts some depressing relationships. But it’s the persistent erosion of one personality on another she seems to depict so well.

  4. I had the same thought as Dorothy. I think I want novels to say things in a new way, but not necessarily new things. How many new things are there, after all?

    • Yes and every author has their own style and their own take on things.

      • A propos of this conversation, I came across this in a very good essay in The Nation, a quote from James Wood:
        “ Great writers extend our capacity for “serious noticing,” Wood says. We learn to look more closely at our world by reading artful descriptions of fictional worlds.

  5. She sounds like an author I’d like. I find it quite realistic that a character like Clem would be “infected” by someone like Christian. You sometimes see couples like that. One’s boring and passive, while the other’s on the brink of psychosis almost. Some sort of co-dependecy.

    • Clem gets something out of the relationship–excitement I think, and she finds Christian attractive. You’d like Harrower, I think Caroline. I have another one here of hers to get to. She hasn’t written a great many novels which is a shame.

      And I know what you mean about couples who seem mis-matched. Sometimes I’ll meet one half of the pair (seems normal and rational) and then I meet the other half–a total nutjob and I wonder what is going on…

  6. The setting makes it oddly appealing, but I haven’t read The Watch Tower yet which must come first.

    It must be fairly good to have overcome your general aversion to passive protagonists, which I note was an issue here but not a fatal one.

  7. I’m still struggling with my aversion for passive characters but I see there’s hope for me. 🙂

    What does the title refer to? I’ve googled “Catherine Wheel” and I suppose it refers to torture but is that all?
    I don’t imagine there’s a twisted sense of humour about Christian not behaving in a Christian way and inflicting a figurative Catherine Wheel torture to someone named Clemency?

    • Max and Emma: It helped (w/the passive character thing) that I knew someone who engaged in a relationship that was self destructive. I was every bit as frustrated with the real person too.
      Catherine Wheel does seem to indicate torture, and it’s a slow torture for Clemency. The intro mentions the significance of the name.

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