Greville St Bookstore

Contemporary Classic
September 26, 2009, 7:45 am
Filed under: Literature



Shirley Hazzard

pb $22.99

First published in 1980, but covering a period of enormous social change from pre-war Australia to post-war Britain, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus remains a classic of contemporary literature, on a par with the work of great stylists like James Salter and William Maxwell. She has an extraordinary ‘short-hand’ way of conveying thoughts and dialogue, the literary equivalent of “blah, blah, blah”.

Hazzard follows the lives of orphaned Australian sisters Caro and Grace who come to England to seek their fortunes. They can hardly even lay claim to middle-class benefits, but the young women find themselves in a privileged milieu. Though far removed from the glamour of Mad Men’s Fifth Avenue, women are sidelined in exactly the same way; the same strictures apply, and the same unstated disenfranchisement is felt, in the more staid world of the Bell sisters. Their naive expectations are thwarted in an oppressive marriage for Grace and in an equally dissatisfactory affair and work place for Caro.


Caro had been three months in Spain for the language. To do this
she had gone as a nursemaid to an English family, who had
afterwards taken her to France and to Italy. Caro was now working—
serving was what she said—in a bookshop while studying for a
government examination.

It was even worse with Grace, who was in the Complaints Department at Harrods.

There could be no outcome to such activities but marriage. He knew
all about Caro’s examination and she would never pass it [she does,
of course, well ahead of all comers]
. It had only recently been
opened to women, and he had never heard of a woman passing it. “It
is stiff,” he said. It did not even lead to prospects, you came in
at the lower level, it was a way of having people with languages
without giving them career service.

“An exploitation, if you like,” he concluded.


Caro said, “I don’t like'” and took another cream wafer. “Peek
Frean’s,” she read before biting the lettering in half.

Speaking of “unstated”, what a genius way of putting “him”, Grace’s fiance Christian Thrale, in his place! From this you may gather that all is not doom and gloom, and perhaps there is room for love to flower even in this unlikely soil.


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