‘The Watch Tower’ by Elizabeth Harrower – A Realistic Australian Marriage Horror Story

“The Watch Tower” by Elizabeth Harrower (1966) – 335 pages

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How bad is Felix Shaw, the husband in “The Watch Tower”?

Felix is so wretched that he makes Edward Casaubon from “Middlemarch” seem in comparison the ideal mate.

The first tip-off on Felix, “several times he had boasted of his admiration for Hitler and the Gestapo”.

The second tipoff, his business associate jokes that a small statue of Bluebeard the famous wife murderer reminds him of Felix.

He has no love for the young woman Laura in “The Watch Tower” who works for him, but asks her to marry him anyway, apparently so she can clean his mansion as well as work in the factory.  Since she is his wife, he will no longer have to pay her a salary at the factory. He is over 20 years older than Laura, but she decides to marry him because he promises to pay for her young sister Claire’s education.  As soon as they are married, he reneges on that promise.

He absolutely needs constant attention from Laura and Claire.  The two women are nearly hostages in the dreary mansion where there are never any visitors.

Felix does have some success in business, but as soon as one of his companies does well he sells it to a young man he finds attractive.  The deal is always structured so the other guy comes out ahead, and Felix and his wife and Claire wind up in a deeper hole financially.  There is a sexual undertone between Felix and these young men, but as soon as the deal is made in their favor these young men disappear forever from Felix’s life.  When Felix comes home from these business deals, his mood swings erratically, he gets drunk and one time he even strikes Laura.  One could say that Felix is bipolar, but there is little evidence of him ever being in a good mood.

Laura, more a victim than a wife, develops a kind of Stockholm hostage syndrome where she defends her abusive husband, takes his side in arguments with her sister Claire.  Claire originally loses herself in books and later dreams only of escape.

“The Watch Tower” is a domestic horror story, a portrait of severe misogyny. One keeps reading to see how bad things will get, and if these women will somehow escape their terrible situation.  I suppose there is also a sense of relief that we are not stuck in that awful situation either as the abusive Felix or as the besieged women.

p19_Riley_1130152hThis is a horror novel but not a genre-type horror novel, since it is realistic and believable.

“The Watch Tower” is an Australian novel that was first published in 1966 and only recently has been re-discovered.  I am beginning to wonder why so many great novels in Australia get neglected in the first place.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? People read all kinds of rubbish from overseas and pay no attention to the talent here…

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, it is amazing how many bad novels get hyped here in the US. I just gave up on a novel called “& and Sons” by David Gilbert that got extremely positive reviews here. I was a third of the way through it when I decided this wasn’t doing anything for me.

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      • I don’t know how it happens. Some authors seem to get oceans of publicity, and others struggle to get their heads above the parapet.
        That’s why I like GoodReads, because although some reviews are not helpful. there are plenty of discerning readers amongst my GR friends and they are not afraid to speak out above the hubbub.

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        • Hi Lisa,
          Yes I do like the individual commenters on GoodReads. They have strong opinions, both positive and negative. Their composite score on novels is not very helpful as most novels wind up with a 3 1/2 to 4 star composite score.

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          • Oh yes, the star rating is a waste of time. It’s the considered opinions that I value, and I have often been attracted to read something because one of my friends there has reviewed it well. It’s the trusted opinion that counts to me…

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  2. Oh I missed this as I was at a conference all last weekend, as well as having a house guest. So glad you read and enjoyed this Tony. TEXT Australian Classics is doing a great job of bringing to the fore forgotten or semi-forgotten Aussie novels. I hesitate to call some classics given their age, but I forgive them for the work they are doing. The watch tower is a truly chilling (harrowing! ha!) study of control and dependence isn’t it? And her writing is so good too. Harrower is still alive though in her 90s (as I recollect).

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    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      I think any country could be proud of a publisher like TEXT Australian Classics. It seems somewhat similar to NYRB but with a focus on Australia.
      As far as “The Watchtower’ goes, it makes me wonder if Elizabeth Harrower was herself in a similar situation that she could write about it so persuasively.

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