‘No light, no land or sea’: Urban alienation in Elizabeth Harrower’s Down in the City.


Elizabeth Harrower’s first novel, Down in the City (1957), introduces concerns that define her oeuvre, offering a typically adroit depiction of destructive domestic relations and middle-class mores. Focused on the marriage of upper-class Esther Prescott and ‘boy from the back blocks’ Stan Petersen, the novel embeds this central narrative in a compelling portrait of Australian urban modernity. The novel’s eponymous city is Sydney in the immediate postwar period, which Harrower writes with attention to its booming industry, new wealth and burgeoning commodity culture. At the beginning of the novel and at certain points throughout it, the city seems to offer sensuous enjoyment, increased liberty; however, Harrower emphasizes an urban modernity under the spell of capitalism and commodity culture, dominated by ‘air-conditioned’, ‘disinfectant-smelling’ spaces of ‘no light, no land, no sea’. In these spaces of urban alienation, female autonomy is circumscribed and interpersonal relationships are destructive. Arguing that this depiction of the urban milieu is central to the novel, this essay explores the narrative’s presentation of space and its capacity to produce subjectivities and condition relations.

Elizabeth Harrower’s first novel, Down in the City (1957), focuses on the marriage between Esther Prescott, the thirty-three-year old daughter of a wealthy Sydney family, and working-class, crooked businessman Stan Petersen. Stan installs Esther in Romney Court, an apartment building in Kings Cross, and for a time their marriage is sustained by their apparently obsessive desire for one another. Eventually, however, Stan’s gambling, drinking and womanizing habits, stemming from a crippling inferiority complex, sour their union. Over the course of the narrative increasingly violent emotional and physical trauma erodes Esther’s mental and bodily autonomy. Harrower’s work is noted for its masterful use of free indirect discourse, which pulls readers into the minds of its suffering characters. The same style is employed with great effect in her first novel’s narration of Esther; however, Down in the City makes use of a multi-strand narrative that, in addition to Esther, follows Stan, a…

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Published 16 November 2016 in Volume 31 No. 5. Subjects: Cities, Gender - Literary portrayal, Modernity, Sydney, Elizabeth Harrower.

Cite as: Brayshaw, Meg. ‘‘No light, no land or sea’: Urban alienation in Elizabeth Harrower’s Down in the City..’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 5, 2016, doi: 10.20314/als.3b4c2d72cf.