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Reviews: Past Books The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

The Pilgrim Soul

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty
With love false and true.
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
W.B. Yeats
Every century or so the brightest planet in the galaxy, the one named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, crosses the face of the sun. Astronomers refer to this phenomenon as the transit of Venus. Australian author Shirley Hazzard titled her masterful 1980 novel The Transit of Venus, an apt choice with that title’s implied acceptance of larger patterns beyond an individual’s fate and with its connotations of progression and light, love and beauty. Hazzard makes effective use of the transit of Venus as the unifying motif that frames her novel.

The plot features six convincing pivotal characters, not to mention at least a dozen additional, minor characters who flash on and off throughout the narrative like brilliant points of light. The Bell sisters, 20-year-old Caroline, and Grace, who is a few years younger, are Australians who reside in England. In the course of the novel the astronomer, Ted Tice, the playwright, Paul Ivory, and the philanthropist, Adam Vail, each fall in love with Caro, as she is called, and Christian Thrale becomes Grace’s husband. It is to Caro and Ted that Hazzard’s affecting story of unrequited love belongs. It is their transits that Hazzard charts most thoroughly.

The highly structured plot, reminiscent of Greek tragedy with its sense of doom, covers a three-decade time span beginning with the early 1950s. It opens in rural England during a summer thunderstorm. With determination Ted Tice makes his way on foot through the driving downpour, headed for a country house called Peverel. “Only he,” writes Hazzard, “kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.”

With that sentence Hazzard prepares readers. Though he will encounter endless rebuffs and slight after slight, Ted will advance inexorably toward his goal – Caro Bell’s love. Two more riveting sentences planted early in the novel will resonate with the careful reader, sentences that foster suspense: “In fact Edmund Tice would take his own life before attaining the peak of his achievement. But that would occur in a northern city, and not for many years.”

An eminent, elderly British scientist named Sefton Thrale has beckoned Ted to Peverel to assist him in writing an opinion on a proposed site for a new telescope. There Ted meets the beautiful Bell sisters and is immediately attracted to Caro. In describing Caro, Hazzard notes that her “hair was so very black, so straight, heavy and Oriental in coarse texture.” Ted recognizes the bond between the sisters. “You could see,” explains Hazzard, “the two sisters had passed through some unequivocal experience which …had formed and indissolubly bound them.”

We learn that in 1939 when Caro and Grace were in elementary school, a ferry boat, the Benbow, turned over in Sydney harbor and “hideously sank.” Their parents were among those who did not survive the disaster. Hazzard informs us, “At school both [girls] were clever, which was attributed to the maturing effects of tragedy – just as, had they lagged, obtuseness would have been ascribed to the arresting trauma.”

Hazzard, however, conveys that despite the cement of orphan hood, the sisters are vastly different from one another. Serene and tractable, Grace is engaged to marry Christian Thrale, which explains how the sisters come to be ensconced with the Thrales. Christian is Sefton’s son and an up-and-coming foreign diplomat. Grace works in the Complaints Department at Harrods, and as Hazzard insightfully points out, “There could be no outcome to such activity but marriage.” Caro, on the other hand, after spending time in Spain, Italy and France to learn the languages, studies for the civil service examination to qualify her to work in a government diplomatic office. She eventually lands a job in Whitehall. Unlike Grace, Caro carries herself with an air of consequence, “as if existence were not trivial.” Hazzard further characterizes Caro by having Christian speak disparagingly of her, “She has this notion of herself…of being different or better. [She] sees herself making large gestures.”

Almost immediately Ted and Caro begin seeing each other privately. As an astronomer Ted’s work “required a great deal of silence and exactitude.” Hazzard remarks, “[Ted’s] future ascendancy could not, like Caro’s beauty, be taken on faith: some sign was needed as to whether he would win or fail – both possibilities being manifestly strong in him.” In his engaging Manchester accent Ted confides to Caro: “There is no site whatever in England for this kind of telescope. There isn’t the visibility. They all know it. But for politics and gain and out of littleness, will have it here.”

More significantly, Ted reveals to Caro the facts that during the War he had helped a German P.O.W. to escape from an English detention camp by giving him food and water, and that the prisoner turned out to be a renowned missile scientist. To Ted’s impassioned declarations of love for her, Caro replies the only way she knows how – honestly – saying, “I like you better than anyone I’ve known…As to the rest, I can’t see how it would ever happen.”

At one point in the narrative Ted pleads self-effacingly, “I’ve no charm at the best of times; nothing is less charming than unwanted love. But as we’re parting soon I must say it, that I hope you’ll think of me and let me write to you. And eventually let me love you.” For most of the book he will squander his affection on Caro.

After Ted leaves England to study in France, Paul Ivory, a godchild to Sefton Thrale, arrives from London to stay at Peverel. Paul is engaged to marry Tertia Drage, daughter of aristocrats, who lives in a castle within sight of Peverel. Hazzard uses the adjectives “attractive,” “cruel,” and “cynical,” in describing the successful London playwright, and hints of his ambivalent sexuality – “the duality of my tastes,” as Paul himself puts it. And she notes that for him “Sincerity was something to fall back on when other methods failed.”

Hazzard portrays Caro as a self-controlled woman, mature beyond her years. Yet Caro proves innocent and vulnerable in the clutches of Paul. She is no match for his magnetism and worldliness, and the two carry on a steamy sexual affair in which Caro is always a willing participant and often the instigator. In an injudicious moment during their liaison Caro tells Paul Ted’s secret about assisting the German prisoner. When Paul breaks off the affair with Caro because his wife, Tertia, is pregnant, Caro is devastated.

Propitiously, some years later Caro encounters the distinguished American, Adam Vail. In a delightfully vivid scene Hazzard portrays their first meeting. It is early morning in London. Standing in her nightgown, Caro opens the bedroom window in her Chelsea apartment and sees a well-dressed American man across the street. Looking exactly like Orson Welles, he hails a taxi. Just hours later the two meet formally when he turns up at her office.

He is in Whitehall to plead on behalf of eight Latin American underground activists who are about to be hung for “struggling for fundamental political decencies.” Interviewed on television, Adam speaks candidly of the “serious aggression practiced by giant American corporations in Latin America with … the connivance and covert support of the U.S. government.” Caro falls in love with Adam and marries him. Her transit this time is to a distant point; the two travel to New York to take up residence in Manhatten. Ted notices Caro’s happiness with Adam. “She glows with it,” he thinks.

As the years pass Ted and Caro continue to meet whenever they happen to be in the same city at the same time, and to correspond by letter. Hazzard is at her best in composing these letters. For example, Ted writes, “I work. I think of you. These are not alternating propositions – I think of you always.” And Caro writes, “There is no future I believe in as I do in yours, and no one else whose ambition ever seemed so clear a form of good.”

In her elliptical style, Hazzard depicts Adam’s death. Her obit-like, fragmented sentences inform the reader: “Dies in America. Suddenly at home after an active career marked by and culminating in, considered aloof, nevertheless Loyal friends such as, recently awarded, traveled, resided, founded, collected…Had suffered stroke. Dead and gone, at one stroke. Peacefully. Adam Vail lay at peace on a bed…”

Hazzard emphasizes that “If it were not for the incontrovertible fact of Adam Vail, Caro would have considered her life wasted.” Shock and sorrow engulf Caro, but as a young widow she continues Adam’s work by translating political documents from Spanish into English. Paul re-enters her life at a time when he is uncharacteristically worried and anxious. His 20-year-old son, Felix, has been diagnosed with leukemia, and the prognosis for the young man is not good. Needing Caro’s sympathy, Paul unveils his feelings. “The rage – at fate, at God. Not merely being helpless, but in someone’s – something’s – power. The doctors and nurses with authority to tell you the worst, or to lie to you. With authority to make mistakes.”

Emotionally weak, Paul feels an arbitrary compulsion to confess something to Caro. It is Paul’s confession that he committed a crime, and, quite amazingly, his revelation that Ted was involved as a witness, that mark the turning point of the novel. The coincidence of Ted witnessing Paul’s crime, and the two of them subsequently visiting Peverel simultaneously may strike some readers as implausible. Yet to Hazzard’s credit, in her capable hands both chance encounters seem credible. Learning of the years of steadfast refusal on the part of Ted to implicate Paul prompts the astonished Caro to realize that she does, indeed, love Ted. Hazzard states, “Consciousness of Ted Tice was the event that pervaded her waking and sleeping life. His greatest strength had been his secret…”

But tragedy intervenes preventing Caro and Ted from “living happily ever after.” Hazzard prepares readers for this through the subtlety of doom she develops in her plot.

The trajectories of Grace, Christian, Caro, Ted, Paul and Adam play out against a chaotic background of “Europe drifting toward anarchy; Soviet tanks grinding into Hungary and Czechoslovakia; political murder in Latin America; high-profile assassinations in the U.S.; and a relentless catastrophe laying waste to Southeast Asia.” And interwoven with the main plot are three absorbing subplots.

The first centers around Dora, much older half-sister to Caro and Grace. At the time the young sisters lost both parents, it fell to 21-year-old Dora to care for them. Hazzard’s lifelike minor character is a troubled person who perceives herself as a victim. Dora considers any achievement – or even happiness – experienced by Caro or Grace to be a personal affront. Dora revels in misery. As little girls Caro and Grace learned immediately to be wary of her explosive temper. Yet as adults both of them loyally come to her aid no matter how outrageous her behavior.

The two other subplots, which turn on the extra-marital affairs of Grace and her pompous husband, Christian, are not only entertaining set pieces, they also display Hazzard’s remarkable ability to shape lifelike characters. At one point in the novel Christian smugly reflects, “It was to his judiciousness at every turn that he owed the fact that nothing terrible had ever happened to him.” But later Hazzard notes, “It was not until a summer of the 1960s that something terrible, or at any rate highly regrettable, happened to Christian Thrale.” By this time he has advanced high on the ladder of his profession as a British Foreign Office executive. As Hazzard tartly points out, however, “His preoccupation with importance had unfitted him for greatness,” and “Christian seldom assessed his limitations.” Though normally staid and cautious, Christian strays while Grace is spending a summer at Peverel with his mother. He carries on foolishly with Cordelia Ware, a pretty and sexy young woman from the office typing pool.

he third subplot, the story of Grace’s love affair, balances the chronicle of Christian and Cordelia. Early in the novel we come to understand Grace’s mildness. Caro is the risk-taking sister. Grace, in contrast, who settled immediately for Christian, is tame and “tractable.” “In her daily existence,” explains Hazzard, “[Grace] feared the smallest deviation from habit as an interruption that might bring chaos.” Deftly further characterizing Grace, Hazzard states that she “knew perfectly how the practical conformity of her days gratified her own desires.”

If sexual allure prompted Christian’s infidelity, a more substantial attraction motivates Grace’s. She is, in fact, deeply in love with Angus Dance, the “high-complexioned, blue-eyed, bright-haired” physician who treats her son Rupert’s back problem. The character of Angus is a particularly bright light gleaming through Hazzard’s narrative. Conveniently, Christian is away in Dar es Salaam during Rupert’s hospital stay, and Grace and Angus meet daily at the boy’s bedside. It is telling that for the first time in her life Grace finds herself engaging in real conversation. Insightfully Hazzard remarks, “The bare facts of Grace Thrale’s infatuation, if enumerated, would have appeared familiar, pitiful…But to Grace it was the sweetness that was unaccountable.” Also, Grace dwells on Angus’s “unprecedented perfection.”

Because they are responsible people Grace and Angus soon part. Skillfully equating the tragedy of the breakup to the earlier tragedy in Grace’s life, Hazzard writes, “Here at last was her own shipwreck – a foundering beyond her parents’ capsized ferry. She might have howled, but said instead what she had heard in plays: ‘Of course there would have been no future to this’.” By the end of the novel it’s not certain that Grace continues to be satisfied with Christian. As a middle-aged woman Grace philosophically confides in Caro: “At first there is something you expect of life, later there is what life expects of you. By the time you realize that these are the same, it can be too late…”

Given the scope and unsurpassed quality of The Transit of Venus, it comes as no surprise to learn that Hazzard spent seven years writing the novel. (It took her 10 years to complete her 2003 National Book Award winner titled The Great Fire.) In addition to writing, her distinguished career includes a stint with British Intelligence in Hong Kong and years of diplomatic work with the United Nations. Like Virginia Woolf, Hazzard is deeply preoccupied by the moral and emotional aspects of personal life.

Hazzard succeeds at the most basic task of fiction writing – creating real people and allowing the plot to grow credibly out of who these characters are. She is an impressive omniscient narrator who takes turns identifying with one character at a time, going where he goes and seeing what he sees, as well as recording his thoughts. If at times conversation between Hazzard’s characters seems too brainy, too precise to be realistic, it is because fictional dialogue must move the story along as well as shape and reveal character. Narrative drive and emotional impact are both considerations for an author when creating dialogue. As serious readers we must bring a “suspension of disbelief” to the novel, a mindset that makes allowances for dialogue that may seem stilted.

Another of Hazzard’s strengths is her use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader, while seeing through a character’s eyes, is encouraged to perceive more than the character perceives. For example, Caro, a woman of ideals and principles, suspects that Paul is a bit of an imposter, but the reader discerns him to be worse – a man totally devoid of conscience.

Though charged with great power, Hazzard’s writing style is consciously refined, elegant and literary. Her precise, nuanced prose -- frequently laced with subtle wit – combines whole and fractured sentences. Following are some of her matchless words of wisdom: “As Christian advances in the civil service, those peering into the oven of his career would report, ‘Christian is rising’ as if he were a cake of a loaf of bread.” And: “Saturday afternoon in England is a rehearsal for the end of the world.” And: “Nothing creates such untruth as the wish to please or to be spared something.”

Hazzard’s perceptions of gesture, voice and attitude suggest an infinite understanding of humanity. The core of her book is, of course, the interaction of personality, yet she pushes beyond the narrative of these relationships to illustrate powerful themes. Chief among them is the notion of unrequited love: “The possibility that [Ted] might never, in a lifetime, arouse [Caro’s] love in return was a discovery touching all existence.” And, joining countless earlier fiction writers, among them E.M Forster, Hazzard reveals that things are not as they appear. Other ideas prominent in The Transit of Venus are: life acquires meaning through human commitment to a purpose, a belief, a passion; life’s consequences hinge on the dictates of conscience; and the bigotry of the British class structure, with its egregious barriers and loopholes, is unjust. Readers of the novel will not, indeed, overlook the concept of the redemptive power of good.

While viewing Hiroshima after the devastation of the atom bomb, Ted fathoms “that the colossal scale of evil could only be matched or countered by some solitary flicker of intense and private humanity.” Ted, of course, once brought food and water to a weakened enemy, the German P.O.W.

For the novel’s forceful final pages, Hazzard moves the action to Stockholm. Both Caro and Ted are literally and figuratively in transit. Like the planet Venus, they resolutely progress toward the sun, in this case the sun of each other’s love. But unlike the certainty of Venus’s progression, the fate of humans in motion is always risky.