The conjunction of Sydney’s wild weather last night with today’s transit of Venus across the Sun demands a post on Shirley Hazzard‘s novel The Transit of Venus. Not only because of the title and the transiting planet, but because by chance the novel opens with a storm:
‘By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
‘It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.
‘As late as the following morning, small paragraphs would even appear in newspapers having space to fill due to a hiatus in elections, fiendish crimes, and the Korean War – unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.
‘That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning …’
First let’s look briefly at Hazzard’s early years in Sydney, because her Australian childhood shaped her novel and gave her its title.
Shirley Hazzard spent the first 15 years of her life in Sydney’s harbourside suburb of Mosman, during the 1930s and 40s. Her early years were marked by the suffering of the Great Depression and the aftermath of the First World War. Her Welsh father had fought in the trenches of the Western Front and never spoke of it, but veterans parading with missing limbs and amputees begging in the streets of Sydney brought home to her the war’s unspoken horror. When war was declared in the Pacific in 1941 and a Japanese invasion of Sydney was feared, Hazzard’s school, Queenwood, was briefly evacuated to Penrith, west of Sydney.
She has said of this time away from the city: ‘Anywhere in the country then was desolate. There was a feeling you might be forgotten there, and at night the silence was the silence of a convent.’ One evening as the sun fell, she went to milk the cows: ‘Oh, to be more sad than this would hardly be possible. It was like a scene out of Thomas Hardy. It felt hopeless.’
Hazzard grew up in an Australia of economic depression and two world wars. It was also philistine, devoid of interest in books and art, and isolated, a six-month boat trip away from Europe. For a schoolgirl devoted to poetry, Hazzard’s Australian years were boring and unhappy: ‘I was born into the British Empire. In those days, there was only one way out for a bookish girl with aspirations, and that was a one-way ticket to Europe.’ Fortunately for Hazzard, in 1947 her father was posted to Hong Kong as Australian Trade Commissioner and so at the age of 16 she left school and Australia for good.
These early Australian experiences and Hazzard’s delivery from them into a new world of international adventure are at the heart of The Transit of Venus. First published in 1980, the novel centres on two orphaned Australian sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, who have managed to escape 1940s Sydney for post-war London.
As its title suggests, with its reference to the Roman goddess of love and beauty, The Transit of Venus is concerned with love. But always beyond it, informing the characters’ lives and the state of their nations, is the ruin wreaked by two world wars.
The novel opens with a storm in the English countryside which sets the scene for the tempests of passion and illicit emotion that run through the story, as well as the violent upheavals of the 20th century that form the novel’s background, from the lingering effects of the First World War to the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Told in four parts – The Old World, The Contacts, The New World and The Culmination – The Transit of Venus opens in England, the ‘old world’, then cuts back to the sisters’ childhood in Australia and moves eventually to New York (the ‘new world’).
Hazzard conjures in rich detail not only the two sisters but also their stepsister Dora and the central men in their lives: astrophysicist Ted Tice, senior government official Christian Thrale, and charismatic playwright Paul Ivory (‘Paul Ivory was a star: any firmament would do’). But it is Caroline, or Caro, with her passion for love, literature and beauty, who is the novel’s Venus: ‘Again they looked at Caro, established as a child of Venus.’
Ever the child of Australia (‘Australia was the first fifteen years of my life and you are already Australian for life by doing that’), Hazzard extends the reference of ‘Venus’ beyond its evocation of the Roman goddess to its serendipitous role as the planet Venus in Britain’s earliest acquaintance with the east coast of the ‘unknown’ southern land. In August 1768, Captain James Cook sailed from England to the recently charted Tahiti to watch a rare transit of Venus across the face of the Sun on 3 June 1769, as part of Britain’s quest to measure the distance of Venus – and thus all the planets – from the Sun. From Tahiti Cook then sailed west and ‘discovered’ the east coast of Australia.
And so in Hazzard’s novel the astronomer Professor Thrale can say to Caro: ‘You owe your existence to astronomy, young woman.’
And in her defence Ted Tice can say: ‘The calculations were hopelessly out … Calculations about Venus often are.’ (alluding to the variation in Cook’s and his two colleagues’ measurements which went beyond the anticipated margin of error so the exercise yielded no conclusive data).
The Transit of Venus is an elegantly composed, artfully constructed novel, foreboding and foretelling its characters’ fates. Hidden in a few cryptic clues the novel’s opening scene contains its entire tragedy, so that as it draws to its ordained conclusion the story gathers the momentum of a thriller.
Hazzard can portray in concise, witty sketches whole psychologies and social phenomena, such as: ‘Christian knew the type. She was one of those persons who will squeeze into the same partition of a revolving door with you, on the pretext of causing less trouble.’ and ‘Like Christian Thrale before her, she found [the Australian sisters] insufficiently conscious of their disadvantage, and would have liked to bring it home to them.’
The novel juxtaposes the cultural poverty of Australia – ‘Sydney could never take for granted, as did the very meanest town in Europe, that a poet might be born there or a great painter walk beneath its windows’ – with the remarkable ability of the sisters, especially Caro, to transcend it.
Hazzard’s prose in The Transit of Venus is precise, certain, mesmeric. It’s not surprising that when she sent her first stories to the celebrated fiction editor William Maxwell at The New Yorker he accepted them immediately, with barely an alteration. Nor that The Transit of Venus received the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel in the United States in 1980.