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