While it is safe to assume that literary scholars agree as to the inalienable value of literature, problems arise when we try to quantify or otherwise make explicit its worth. Considering the value of literature is difficult primarily because this ostensibly requires the quantification of an aesthetic form that by its very nature thwarts measurement. This does not mean that literature is an ineffable phenomenon. On the contrary, its ability to engage with the vast spectrum of human experience suggests that it is very much of the intelligible world. However, questions regarding its value linger in an age where pragmatic concerns can supersede the more subtle social ameliorations of literary forms – in particular, when economic outcomes are embraced over the intangible merits of literature and ideas.1
Hanna Meretoja and Pirjo Lyytikäinen argue that ‘values have been an integral part of literary debate ever since the ancient quarrel between Plato and Aristotle on whether literature is good or bad for us’ (1). Adopting an Aristotelian perspective, moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum champions literature by arguing that the contemporary pursuit of ‘short-term profit’ is blind to literature’s crucial social benefits, including its ability to cultivate compassion (106). Nussbaum discerns a moral basis for literature’s worth as it enables a ‘deeper understanding of love, death, anger’ – an understanding that is compatible with the development of a moral consciousness (xviii). Jacques Derrida also sees value in literature, asserting it is an open horizon that ‘allows one to say everything, in every way’ (‘Strange Institution’ 36). Derrida’s idea that literature has the capacity to say everything is evocative of his writings on ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘hospitality’, including where he examines the ethics of granting asylum in an age of endless wars (see Hospitality; and Cosmopolitanism, where Derrida explores the limits and possibilities of hospitality as it is exercised – and not exercised – by nation states in responding to asylum seekers). In short, Derrida suggests that while opening one’s borders to all refugees is generous, such hospitality could diffuse the very borders that make our homes asylums. In a similar way, literature’s borderless hospitality – its ability to say ‘everything’ – potentially undermines its singularity as a unique aesthetic phenomenon (that is, it evokes a multiplicity of values). Although post-structuralist Derrida and moral philosopher Nussbaum are theoretically divergent, they nonetheless each explore the ethical and moral dimension of literature’s capacity to elicit compassion and hospitality.
The expansive literary format of the novel can provide a unique window into the world of others. Henry James, in his ‘Preface’ to The Ambassadors (1903), argues that ‘the novel remains … the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms’ (xlvii). And few contemporary novels have achieved this synthesis as masterfully as Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus (1980). In what follows, the literary value of The Transit of Venus is explored through analysing its memorable representation of physical and psychological travel, as well as its roving point of view that moves forwards and backwards, enveloping the future, the past and the present.
The Transit of Venus and Literary Merit
Sven Birkerts explores why fiction matters and identifies The Transit of Venus as an exceptional work that creates a ‘life changing’ readerly experience:
I count Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus (1980) as one of the great novels of recent times … and I don’t say ‘great’ just as an exclamation of enthusiasm. No, I have read the book twice now, the second time to test whether my first response – it seemed to me a uniquely powerful work – might have been a fluke. I am more convinced than ever. In fact, on my recent reading I found it structurally more intricate, emotionally more resonant, and – perhaps we need a category here – wiser than I remembered. (720)
Birkerts values The Transit of Venus for its intricacy, emotional force and wisdom. He twice alludes to Hazzard’s clever technique of ‘prolepsis’, where the future is installed within the present in unpredictable ways. Prolepsis is different from foreshadowing, as its flash-forward revelations offer key pieces of information outside their temporal order, thus leaving it up to readers to retrospectively discern meaning. Lauren Groff also admires this novel, describing it as ‘dazzling as a celestial body’. She is particularly impressed with Hazzard’s literary technique:
To read Shirley Hazzard’s masterpiece for the first time is to be immediately submerged into a world in which language and character carry the reader along, gasping, in a current too strong to fight. To read the novel for the second, third, even nth time is to see Hazzard’s careful orchestrations of echo and rhythm, her quiet deployment of foreshadowing and omniscient irony, and to be astonished anew. (Groff)
Groff’s praise focuses upon the temporality of reading The Transit of Venus and how each encounter elicits fresh experiences and revelations. Robert Dixon also marvels at The Transit of Venus’s ‘complexity on a first reading’ and how ‘re-reading’ it becomes a process of discovery where what was originally concealed appears ‘in plain sight for all to see – like Poe’s purloined letter’ (79).
Dixon also refers to Brigitta Olubas’s important 2012 study of Hazzard’s work, in which Olubas reveals that Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller thought that ‘one should never have to read The Transit of Venus for the first time’ due to its ‘audacious use of prolepsis’ (79). Olubas’s Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist (2012) dedicates a chapter to The Transit of Venus, recognising it as her ‘best-known novel’ that has received the ‘most extensive and admiring coverage’ (151). She details some of its ‘admiring coverage’, including Anatole Broyard’s famous description of the novel having curative powers: ‘Her book was the prescription I needed … I needed a dose of the sublime’ (Broyard 1990). Olubas’s own response addresses the novel’s foregrounding of ‘not knowing’ through a form of ‘narrative prolepsis’ that makes one ponder ‘the significance of knowledge, understanding, and ignorance’ (157). This sense of not knowing is connected to the ‘temporal realignment’ of episodes that initiate an alternating dialogue between ‘knowing/unknowing’ (157). Olubas’s reading is particularly fascinated with the way the novel’s ‘melodrama works to stage … acts of revelation and concealment’ that not only involve protagonists but also readers (157–58). Certainly, the novel’s proleptic manoeuvring is vital for how it helps position knowledge as a retroactive experience that challenges thinking and perception in a manner that invites speculation and contemplation across multiple readings.
Reading (and re-reading) The Transit of Venus opens the fiction up to the Derridean promise of ‘saying everything’ because every re-engagement awakens the possibility of seeing more and experiencing more, including the depths and surfaces of a prose style that reveals as much as it conceals. Of course, not everything can be said (or is said) in Hazzard’s work, but it is worth restating that it lives up to its accolades as an emotionally and intellectually astute novel. The Transit of Venus is a valuable work of fiction whose compelling characterisations also explore the question of value itself as the attitudes of cosmopolitanism and parochialism, hospitality and insularity are examined through protagonists who adopt these contrasting sensibilities. Importantly, love is given the most value of all – its power survives the insults and degradations of faithlessness and disappointment, invoking the dream of its resilience.
A Dialectic of Knowing and Not Knowing
The subtlety of Hazzard’s writing is conveyed early on – in fact, the novel’s opening sentence delivers information in a manner that invokes the past while at the same time suggesting a future: ‘By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation’ (3). The auxiliary verb ‘would be’ carries a dual meaning, for it refers to a devastating weather event that has taken place even though its ravages are yet to be broadcast to the public. The past and the future coexist in an opening line that prepares us for Hazzard’s clever manipulation of time. What is more, a powerful sense of the ill-fated primes readers for a drama that will unfold under the canopy of a stormy sky: ‘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 … This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England’ (3). This atmospheric scene heralds a narrative that largely will be enacted in southern England. The alliterative style of the passage bequeaths upon the landscape an acoustic eloquence that contrasts with the broken imagery. The word ‘simply’ is deceptive too because there is nothing straightforward about this weather event: in fact, it conceals a body and a crime. But the reader does not know this yet.
Indeed, it is uncertain if we ever really know this, even by the end of The Transit of Venus, because Hazzard’s writing is so often enigmatic, even secretive. This is well illustrated when Caro(line) Bell travels to London for reasons unspecified. Through a series of bystander observations, she is seen with ‘a real old rake’, who is identified as Captain Nicolas Cartledge, an acquaintance who happens to be travelling on the same train (109). During this journey, when the ‘rake’ Cartledge says, ‘It has not harmed your looks, you know’ (111), one wonders what precisely ‘it’ is. When they discuss Caro’s option of going to ‘Gloucester Road where they take Australians’, or ‘North Audley Street’, one is inclined to surmise that they are referring to unregistered medical practices (111). When Cartledge wonders if Paul Ivory was sexually involved with Caro and considers the possibility ‘interesting, if only for caste reasons’ (110), one is inclined to deduce that Caro is carrying his unwanted child. The tact of Hazzard’s writing in this episode fosters our speculation about a train journey and a conversation that is never fully explained. Hazzard’s subtlety of narrative sustains our curiosity, while also reminding us that not everything in this life is explicable.
Gail Jones acknowledges Hazard’s dual ability to reveal and conceal in a novel that is ‘caught within a dialectic of knowing and not knowing’ (65). Although Hazzard is capable of obscurity, her writing is also luminous and this is well demonstrated through her characterisations of Caro Bell and Ted Tice, both of whom radiate through the pages of The Transit of Venus. Tice’s debut is especially memorable: he appears with an embarrassingly ‘cheap suitcase’ that oozes an orange liquid and with hair that emits an ‘auburn smell’ (5, 6). The colours marking Tice’s entrance burn bright like the red planet of Mars and reflect his career as an astronomer. Caro too is cosmologically aligned, deemed ‘a child of Venus’ (15). Moreover, her allure is written in the stars: ‘You deferred to her future beauty, taking it on trust. In looks, Caro was as yet unfinished, lacking some revelation that might simply be her own awareness’ (9). Hazzard’s point of view encircles Caro’s promise. Time is coiled within her potential. Roseate astronomer Ted Tice and romantic heroine Caro Bell orbit one another like spheres in search of place and identity.
Caro Bell’s unfinished beauty is synecdochic of a fiction that is structured around a series of disasters that expose the truth of life’s incompleteness. For instance, a Sydney Ferry catastrophe described as the ‘Benbow’ incident leaves the Australian sisters Caro and Grace without parents, the novel’s opening storm leaves countless Englanders homeless, and its conclusion dramatises a horrific plane crash that is liable to leave readers bewildered. Such calamities are stretched out across four sections of text that reveal themselves like a four-panelled relief – ‘The Old World’, ‘Contacts’, ‘The New World’ and ‘The Culmination’. One might assume that the novel’s first section, headlined the ‘Old World’, refers to England, but in some respects this is misleading. The Australian sisters Grace and Caro are provided with new-world opportunities in this old world of England as they mingle with aristocrats, astronomers and bureaucrats. But in keeping with old-world narratives, their romantic lives are foregrounded. Caro is like a revitalised Isabel Archer who affronts her ‘destiny’ (James, Portrait of a Lady 48), in a manner that echoes Henry James’s heroine, for – like her American predecessor – she is seduced by a manipulative deceiver. Caro’s younger sister Grace makes what society perceives to be an excellent marriage because her husband, Christian Thrale, is a member of the upper classes and an eminent scientist’s son.
However, Grace’s marriage has the double effect of protecting and exposing her to old-world prejudice and to a class system that values pedigree over morality. Indeed, The Transit of Venus’s exploration of value effectively foregrounds the insularity of class snobbery that, in Grace’s case, oscillates around her betrothal, as her father-in-law Sefton Thrale ponders her background:
Professor Thrale did not much care for the fact that Grace came from Australia. Australia required apologies and was almost a subject for ribaldry. Australia could only have been mitigated by an unabashed fortune from its newly minted sources – sheep, say, or sheep-dip. And no fabled property of so many thousand acres or square miles, no lucky dip, attached itself to Grace. On the contrary, Grace came encumbered with a sister, and even with a half-sister. (11)
The jarring repetition of ‘Australia’ throughout the passage rhythmically captures an Englishman’s harsh attitude towards a country that is considered a mere colony, even a second-rate Britain. Thrale’s rampaging thoughts oscillate around the idea of Australia being a joke that must be mitigated by the delivery of a fortune. That his daughter-in-law Grace is penniless adds to his anguish, along with the burden of having to tolerate an impoverished sister and half-sister.
Old-world bigotry follows the Australian sisters again when Grace’s fiancée Christian Thrale visits her and Caro in the early days of his courting: ‘He found these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australian in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come’ (21). Here, Thrale’s thoughts reveal more about his limitations than the two sisters. His backhanded compliment concerning their uncommon composure despite their nationality and living conditions reveals a suitor whose privilege renders him blind to his own shortcomings. Indeed, Thrale’s expectation that he should be distinguished for deigning to visit betrays a robust ego. An imperious Lord’s daughter, Tertia Drage, is cut from the same cloth as self-important Christian Thrale, as she too desires the Australian sisters to feel their inferiority: ‘Like Christian Thrale before her, she found them insufficiently conscious of their own disadvantage, and would have liked to bring it home to them’ (66).
Even the tragic fame of Caro and Grace’s orphaned condition is diminished by the antagonists Thrale and Drage. The former flippantly refers to their parents’ deaths as a ‘boating accident’, as if they frivolously tripped over some oars (22), while the latter undercuts their loss by revealing that her mother escaped from a far more seismic disaster: ‘Tertia’s mother was a survivor of the Titanic – eclipsing Grace and Caro with their obscure, inglorious Benbow and its ineffectual displacement of Australian waters’ (83). However, it is Caro who bears the brunt of English pretention since she possesses a threatening mixture of beauty, intelligence and purpose, with Thrale observing that ‘Caro was beyond his means’ (23). In fact, Caro has a unique ability to elicit reactions from the upper classes, such as when Tertia Drage makes a point of asking her what she is going to wear to a dinner party when she is already dressed in an alluring and exorbitant French gown (82). Tertia sees Caro not just as her inferior but also as a sexual threat.
Classes, Hemispheres and Conflicting Sensibilities
Class divisions in The Transit of Venus parallel the division between hemispheres, as even one’s geographical origins are imbued with value. James Wieland writes that ‘in terms of the controlling European ethos, to be antipodean is to be inferior; it is to know that you are unimportant’ (37). Such unimportance is reflected in Caro and Grace’s Sydney school education where Australian History is understood as a ‘shrivelled chronicle’ of British exploration:
Australian History, given once a week only, was easily contained in a small book, dun-coloured as the scenes described. Presided over at its briefly pristine birth by Captain Cook (gold-laced, white wigged, and back to back illustrations with Sir Joseph Banks), Australia’s history soon terminated in unsuccess. Was engulfed in a dark stench of nameless prisoners whose only apparent activity was to have built, for their own incarceration, the stone gaols, now empty monuments … Australian history dwindled into the expeditions of doomed explorers. (32)
Again, the repetitive use of the appellation ‘Australia’ punctuates a citation that reads like one of Sefton Thrale’s tirades. Indeed, the series of disparagements – ‘dun-coloured’, ‘terminated’, ‘unsuccess’, ‘dark stench’, ‘nameless prisoners’, ‘empty monuments’, ‘doomed explorers’ – conveys a grim picture of a country founded upon failed expeditions, putrid convicts and hollow shrines. Although Australia’s penal past is criticised, the excerpt epitomises a colonialist point of view due to the omission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Caro and Grace’s history lessons reflect early- to mid-twentieth-century attitudes that sanitised the past by expunging the brutalities of genocide. Caro and Grace’s indoctrination within this colonialist or imperialist version of Australian history is nonetheless rejected by a capitalised ‘History’ that bypasses the country without so much as a ‘downward glance’ (32).
Anna Grazia Mattei suggests that ‘real history’ is something that ‘happens, and has happened elsewhere, in the Northern Hemisphere’, making Grace and Caro’s adult journey ‘beyond the Equator’ a ‘Biblical passage from the desert to the Promised land’ (123). The style of Caro and Grace’s education with all its distortions, omissions, and penchants likely paralleled Hazzard’s own. In Shirley Hazzard: This Writing Life, Olubas suggests that her Queenwood School days gestured ‘back to colonial worlds’ (40). Whether Hazzard (unwittingly or otherwise) adopted the values of colonialism and dismissed or devalued Australian history and literature is uncertain: there is a difference between a narrative voice and authorial intention. Of relevance to this question is her Boyer Lectures of 1984, where she reflects on Australia’s murky past: ‘This nation’s short recorded history is shadowed, into the present day, by the fate of its native peoples, by forms of unyielding prejudice’ (44). In these lectures, Hazzard also imagines Australia as a cosmopolitan nation without enemies (57).
Given this evidence, it is not surprising that Hazzard’s forward-looking perspective is evoked through a style of writing that conjures ‘cities, rooms: sociable spaces’ that enlarge and widen one’s mind (de Kretser 9). The Transit of Venus’s vision is expansive in its chronicle of characters who travel across three continents and capital cities – Sydney, London and New York. Hazzard’s depiction of Caro and Grace’s Sydney childhood is a particularly generous rendering of the harbour city’s unique topography and fragrances: ‘There was a stillness on certain evenings, or a cast to rocks, or a design of a languid branch against the sky that might be announcing glory … the girls put their smooth faces to gardenias, inhaling December for a lifetime’ (37). History and eternity collide within the moment of Caro and Grace drinking in gardenias. The ‘stillness’ of Sydney’s tropical nights permeates rocks, branches and nature’s designs. Smell and vision become acoustic as the sky transforms into a trumpeting angel heralding the singular existence of a ‘languid branch’. Hazzard’s evocation of Sydney’s visible and invisible territories conjures the lush intensity of an antipodean summer. The detail of Hazzard’s descriptions is celebratory of nature’s splendour and of Australia’s own historical reality, while simultaneously thwarting a small-mindedness that is incapable of appreciating the richness of finite pleasures.
Throughout The Transit of Venus, there is a drama between cosmopolitanism and provincialism, and this is largely enacted through key characters who possess differing mindsets and attitudes. The question of whether a character is cosmopolitan or provincial is not determined by their class, country of birth or even hemisphere, but rather their outlook, values and disposition. For example, Caro and Grace’s childhood carer and stepsister Dora is an inward-looking character who constructs herself as a perennial victim: ‘Dora could always die, so she said. I CAN ALWAYS DIE, as if this were a solution … she said she could do away with herself. Or she could disappear … They flung themselves on her in terror, Dora don’t die, Dora don’t disappear’ (40). Dora’s parenting of the forlorn orphans Caro and Grace is filled with scenes of emotional blackmail. She deploys this weaponry well into adulthood as a way of maintaining her relevance and centrality. Dora’s toxic self-absorption is detected by Grace’s self-interested husband, Christian Thrale, whose awareness of her shortcomings is balanced by a blindness to his own: ‘Christian was surprised by Dora’s good looks. He had always felt her nature did not come commensurately through in her appearance’ (124).
Paul Ivory and his snobbish wife Tertia Drage reveal how parochialism lies at the heart of the British class system. Their speculation over the kind of wealth that Caro Bell has married into (after it is made known that she is betrothed to an American billionaire) exposes a great emptiness within their marriage:
‘I rather like to think of Caroline Bell with billions.’
‘No one ever said the Vail man had billions.’
‘Where does the money come from anyway?’
‘It says here, bauxite. Whatever that is.’ Paul elaborated: ‘Penthouses papered with Picassos, yachts, private planes, limousines.’
‘Bodyguards,’ said Tertia. And ‘Lovers.’ …
‘At any rate the astrologer didn’t get her.’ (199)
Caro’s ex-lover Paul Ivory likes to think of her with ‘billions’ because it is her consolation after his abandonment. The origin of her husband’s (Adam Vail’s) wealth is derided by the idea that it is founded upon ‘catfood’. Their mocking exaggeration of Vail’s lifestyle – ‘penthouses’, ‘yachts’, ‘private planes’, as well as ‘lovers’ and ‘bodyguards’ – reveals, more than anything, Ivory’s predilections. Characters’ utterances have a way of turning back upon them, enveloping them within the very values and desires that they despise. Ivory’s final comment, that ‘At any rate the astrologer didn’t get her’, betrays his knowledge and jealousy of Ted Tice, and his remark about being an ‘astrologer’ and not an ‘astronomer’ is a final diminishing gibe.
Wieland’s discussion of The Transit of Venus explores the novel’s two distinctive perspectives, respectively identified as an ‘antipodean’ point of view that seeks to ‘make sense of existence’ and an ‘authoritative’ attitude that seeks ‘to conquer, to control or possess’ (40). This opposition between the antipodean and the authoritative perspectives parallels the cosmopolitan and provincial divide, as each position denotes either an insular or expansive way of being. As Wieland writes, while ‘one mind’ seeks to reduce and even simplify life, the other accepts complexity (40). Such attitudes are not just about ways of seeing, they also carry values, morals and ethics. Being open to and accepting of complexity captures both an antipodean and cosmopolitan sensibility that is sensitive to the wider world of others, whereas an authoritative and provincial outlook is limited by its will to power. Interestingly, Michelle de Kretser suggests that The Transit of Venus’s foregrounding of an ‘antipodean’ attitude overturns its historically pejorative meaning (10). And this perhaps is best demonstrated when Ted Tice sees the English landscape through Caro’s ‘antipodean eyes’ (26). Re-imagining the English countryside through an Australian’s point of view reveals Tice’s capacity for empathy. Moreover, his re-envisioning a Northern landscape through a Southern Hemisphere perspective reverses the hierarchical order of hemispheres.
Both sensibilities – the antipodean and the cosmopolitan – are by necessity outward looking. Tice, Caro, Grace and Vail are all antipodeans and cosmopolitans in that they all have the compassion and imagination to look beyond themselves. Although Grace marries into the upper classes and thus into the ‘authoritative’ sphere of existence, she is nonetheless empathetic, and this is evident when she imagines Ted Tice’s torment after informing him of Caro’s marriage: ‘Ted’s suffering was not obscure to her – indeed, her imagination occasionally played out such matters in some Austro-Hungarian empire of the heart’ (195–96). Adam Vail’s attitudes are expressed through his diplomatic work in Latin America that involves life and death situations: his observance of humanity’s foibles – ‘Men go through life telling themselves a moment must come when they will show what they’re made of. And the moment comes, and they do show. And they spend the rest of their days explaining that it was neither the moment nor the true self’ (184) – suggest his non-judgemental worldliness. Paul Ivory’s ‘authoritative’ and parochial attitude is expressed through his rejection of love: ‘to exclude love was to fortify himself’ (154). By denying love, he also negates empathy and vulnerability.
Powerful Revelations and Venus’s Transit
Ivory’s denial of love means that he will never know the profundity of its rapture and trembling. However, later in life, when he is a father to a terminally ill son Felix, all that he avoided as a young man – love, responsibility and pain – comes crashing down. His youthful sense of immortality is shattered, eliciting a confession that returns us to the novel’s beginning and its devastating storm (298). Olubas suggests that this scene of confession and tempest transforms Caro and Paul into elemental beings and is evocative of ‘the first storm’ inaugurating this novel (167–68). This second storm, on the back of the first, plays a supporting role to Ivory’s confession that introduces a past predating Caro as well as our experience of the text.
Hazzard indeed has a Shakespearean knack of conjuring drama through weather events that parallel the interior worlds of emotions: ‘At the window the gauze curtain filled and soared … A high wind was blowing before the storm’ (306). As the tempest rages, Ivory reveals to Caro that he had a male lover before her and explains how he was being blackmailed. Ivory describes a vivid scene on a riverbank in which he contemplated murdering his sleeping lover. News of a mass release of water enables him to kill his lover through abandonment – he evacuates the area but leaves his unconscious lover to drown. This secret emerging from the novel’s final pages is a stark reminder of humanity’s capacity for depravity. It also foregrounds the idea that the world is still full of secrets (and surprises), some of which are also in plain sight. Earlier in this text, Caro alludes to Ivory’s crime (without knowing it) when she describes their lodgings as a crime scene (100) – her observation is made during a tryst with Ivory while they are staying at the same inn he occupied with his former lover.
The power of Ivory’s revelation pierces Caro’s emotional life, especially when she discovers that Ted Tice was aware of his affair with Victor Locker – it so happens that he was walking past the very same riverbank where they were resting. For Caro, it is this revelation that is the most extraordinary. For Ivory, the fact that Tice never told Caro is ‘inconceivable’ (314). Olubas observes that ‘the story of Victor’s murder is doubly concealed, first by Paul and then by Ted; the two acts crystallise the moral extremes’ of the two characters (179). The integrity of Tice’s silence elicits from Caro a storm of emotion that is evocative of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) and that novel’s climactic scene, which dramatises its heroine’s feelings through nature’s wrath: ‘Leaves and little branches were hurled about, and the thunder was getting nearer … “my heart will break,” said Dorothea’ (867, 870). Swirling vegetation correlates with Dorothea’s unravelling heart, while in The Transit of Venus, torrential rain signifies an eruption within Caro’s heart: ‘Water was beating, pouring on the windows, Caro said aloud, “Oh God.” She heard her voice cry out above the storm, “God, God”’ (309). Gail Jones describes this climax as a scene when ‘retrospection’ is the ‘only true knowledge’ (71). Indeed, the past vividly blows in with the storm of secrecy’s unveiling. Caro’s belated knowledge awakens feelings for Tice that involve a psychological transit towards his orbit.
Ivory’s shame becomes Caro’s moment of discovery: she finally realises that she loves Tice. The efficacy of this revelation aligns with the grandeur of this novel’s vision that is inclusive of the vast cosmos. Eclipsing the prejudices of the class system, the divisions between characters and the world’s hemispheres is the galaxy itself, which dwells as a real and imaginary frontier preceding and exceeding Hazzard’s novel. There are many glimpses of the celestial sphere that materialises in the form of Venus waxing and waning through the figure of Caro, her cosmological descendent. Venus first appears at the dinner table of Sefton Thrale, who does not immediately introduce the planet because he must come first. Adopting a professorial tone, he condescendingly informs Caro: ‘You owe your existence to astronomy, young woman’ (15).
It is significant here that Thrale puts astronomy before the cosmos when it is the cosmos that makes astronomy possible. Being authoritative and provincial, Thrale cannot think beyond himself and his profession even though both are utterly dependent upon the galaxies of the beyond. It requires Caro to mention Venus and the planet’s celestial passage: ‘Do you mean, the transit of Venus?’ (15). Ignoring Caro because Thrale is too caught up in his own importance, he continues: ‘“James Cook set sail in H.M.S. Endeavour for undiscovered Australia if not to observe, en route, at Tahiti, the planet of Venus as it crossed the face of the sun on the third of June 1769 and thus to determine the distance of earth from sun?” He was teaching them a lesson’ (15). At this point, the table looks at Caro because she is ‘established as the child of Venus’ (15). It seems that scientist Thrale is teaching the offspring of Venus, Caro, a lesson about her ancestor. In support of Caro, Ted Tice asserts that the ‘calculations were hopelessly out’, and his correctness is modified by Thrale who blames Venus for the error: ‘Calculations about Venus often are’ (15). Buried within this dinner conversation, rife with condescension and class tension, is the unassailable glory of an astronomical passage that occurs every 240 years, regardless of Sefton Thrale and his pedantry.
This conversation is a microcosm of the novel’s wider dynamic, including relationships that foreground struggles between provincialism and cosmopolitanism, the old world and the new world, the Northern and the Southern hemispheres. Olubas suggests that Thrale’s words about James Cook announce ‘the colonial dimensions of the novel’s world’ and, by implication, also the ‘presence of the Australian sisters in his household’ (180). As the patriarch of the household and an upper-class British gentleman, Thrale’s vision certainly represents the world of Imperial Britain, while Tice’s point of view embraces a larger world of ideas that has no single country or hemisphere. Unlike Thrale, who moves to overshadow Venus with his pomposity, Tice seeks to ‘pay tribute’ to her passage as well as to astronomers who went to great lengths to witness her transit. He narrates a tale about a Frenchman who had travelled to India to ‘observe a previous transit’ only to have his ambitions thwarted by ‘wars and misadventure’ – he persisted and waited eight years for the next transit in 1769, only to be disappointed as the ‘visibility was freakishly poor’ (16).
The desire and aspiration of this Frenchman moves Tice. He narrates this story for Caroline Bell, and she is a captive audience, marvelling, ‘Years for Venus’ (16). Tice affirms the grandness of endeavour: ‘His story has such nobility you can scarcely call it unsuccessful’ (16). Annoyed by these sentiments, Thrale reveals that the Frenchman returned to France penniless, declaring, ‘If that wasn’t a failure, nothing was’ (16). Thrale’s focus upon the disappointing outcome of the explorer’s expedition undercuts the value of his audacity. Thrale might be representative of old-world snobbery, but his attitude is also redolent of a new world order that values tangible bottom lines over invisible returns. Tice and Caro are the dreamers in the conversation who pay homage to the star gazers. Their vigil becomes a lifelong observance of faith and beauty. The auburn-haired astronomer and the dark-haired Australian form a strong bond over the desires of explorers. And in their own way, they too become explorers who seek to fathom the far reaches of the heart.
Incalculable Venus is evocative of a vast interiority that exists within us all and that dwells within this novel, whose physical and emotional territories parallel the landscapes of the heart and mind. The elegant design of Hazzard’s novel is another mapped territory that is covertly revealed within the ‘Venus conversation’, in which Tice describes the stages of the planet’s transit: ‘There are the contacts, and the culmination’ (15) – which name two sections of Hazzard’s novel. Anna Grazia Mattei writes that the novel’s structure correlates with astronomy: ‘the titles of the four parts of The Transit of Venus in particular “The Contacts” and “The Culmination”, come from the lexicon of eclipses’ (118). The dinner conversation at the Thrale dwelling is also exemplary of Hazzard’s prolepsis, as Tice’s explanation of Venus’s cosmological passage outlines the trajectory of the novel as well as his and Caro’s later journeys across continents, time zones and finally the borderless sphere of love.
The novel concludes with Caro boarding a plane that we already know will crash because forty-one pages earlier we are told that her ophthalmologist will die in an air disaster en route to Rome, and Caro is on the same flight (296). For close readers, other indications presage her death, such as when her ‘luminosity’ is said to resemble ‘those about to die’ (332). A few pages before, she also contemplates her life as if she is bidding a final farewell. Her departing thought is of Ted Tice and there is a sensation that he will only ever exist in her mind (335). Caro’s memories culminate and die in a hurtling aircraft that transforms into a tremendous ship that plunges into the sea (337). Steam liner and airliner merge through the dynamism of Caro’s unravelling plane that unites other disasters referred to in this novel – the Titanic and the Benbow calamities.
Poetic Repetition and Prolepsis
Although the plane crash and Caro’s inevitable death are devastating events, this scene of disaster is nonetheless a poetic repetition of the novel’s opening catastrophe. Part of The Transit of Venus’s wisdom can be found in its intertwining of the alpha and omega – the seeds of both life and death are embedded within its beginning and ending. As the start of the novel imbues storm-ravaged objects with a certain vitalism, ‘for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerves’ (3), so too is a dying plane enlivened by its metamorphosis into a primordial beast whose dying moments emit ‘humanity’s breath’ (337).
Storms and disasters that shape and bookend this fiction change characters’ trajectories and even terminate their lives. The arbitrary nature of catastrophe, along with the eternal galaxy, is a constant that underpins and frames this fiction. Hazzard’s novel may finish with its heroine’s dramatic death, but astute readers look backwards to an earlier chapter that promises Tice’s future suicide (12). The Transit of Venus’s deft use of prolepsis keeps one turning backwards and forwards in fathoming the past and the future. These temporalities encircle one another in an unending cycle of inauguration and culmination.
Literature and astronomy orbit one another through a novel whose series of relationships and incidents trace journeys that are physical, emotional and psychological. The novel’s secrets and omissions echo Venus’s temporary obscuration of the sun. And while much is hidden, there would be no drama without an interplay between concealment and revelation. Hazzard’s husband was right to assert that one could not read this novel once – its details, intricacies and obscurities demand careful contemplation over time.
The ever-expanding canvas of The Transit of Venus, one that traverses the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere, the old world and the new world, and finally the globe and all realms beyond, is testimony to the value of thinking large. Hazzard’s vision is both ambitious and hospitable, as friendships and romantic attachments are developed across various landscapes and territories, all the while questioning the importance of place as both an anchoring principle (one can only physically be in one place at one time) and an emancipatory phenomenon (as people can dream beyond their here and now). Gail Jones observes that ‘those who travel from their own nation to meet old world prestige … are for Hazzard Homeric or exilic vehicles of value’ (68). Travelling from one’s ‘own nation’ to other worlds is treated as a courageous act since it involves meeting the unknown. The Transit of Venus’s lead protagonists, Caro and Tice, undertake several such journeys that cross continents, borders and frontiers, while simultaneously negotiating the uncharted territories of love and desire. There is a wonderful generosity and cosmopolitanism in the internal and external journeying of characters throughout this novel.
The Transit of Venus exemplifies literature’s power to transport readers beyond themselves and into vast linguistic spheres that inspire our thinking and imagination. Hazzard’s novel provides invaluable insight into the injustices of a world shaped by class and other inequities. Her fable of love, power and desire parallels a value-laden world that is still tilted in favour of the Northern Hemisphere’s ruling class. As such, Hazzard casts an ironic eye upon those whose privilege renders them incapable of seeing beyond their own entitlement. The Transit of Venus could be described as a deeply moral fiction that provides readers with precious instruction on how to live. This coheres with Martha Nussbaum’s belief that literature awakens our compassion and is integral to the fostering of a moral consciousness. Sven Birkerts sees Hazzard’s novel as an exceptional text that not only imparts wisdom, but it also exercises it: ‘Hazzard’s novel does not so much embody wisdom as exert it’ (721). Birkerts further asserts that ‘wisdom is what the greatest art achieves’ (721). Thus, The Transit of Venus is a great work of art.
Brigitta Olubas’s close analysis of The Transit of Venus further supports the arguments that I have made by recognising the novel’s ‘narrative richness’ that includes its exploration ‘of love, and of good and evil’ (157). For Olubas, how these themes ‘configure’ in Hazzard’s novel is of special interest due to her clever manipulation of time (157). This leads back again to Hazzard’s ‘audacious’ and astonishing prolepsis, in particular her strategy of concealing a significant section of the narrative – a murder – that has a huge bearing upon the actions and decisions of characters. Such concealment and its eventual revelation also affect the perceptions of readers. Crucially, I argue that the omission of this knowledge highlights knowledge’s consequence.
The novel’s affirmation of knowledge is consonant with an ethical consciousness that brings integrity to relationships, and this is particularly the case when Caro and Tice finally come together (however temporarily) after the former is disabused about a previous lover’s morality. Interestingly, it is Tice’s concealment of his knowledge that provides Caro with evidence of his devotion. Part of this novel’s great intelligence is its awareness that knowledge gathers momentum through its obscuration. An ethical sensibility is also evoked through Hazzard’s writing style that balances omission with revelation, and that provides a mobile point of view revealing perception’s multiplicity.
Ultimately, The Transit of Venus is a narrative and stylistic triumph. And what is perhaps most impressive about Hazzard’s novel is its unforgettable rendering of ideas that are embodied in characters and that also exist as unanchored desires and aspirations – cosmopolitanism, astronomy, boundless love and enduring passion to name a few. The values and sensibilities of this fiction are grand, and such grandness is paralleled by a style and a perspective that spans hemispheres and vast territories. Moreover, Hazzard’s proleptic manoeuvres transform The Transit of Venus into a constantly orbiting and unravelling text that is alive to reading and re-reading. Reading The Transit of Venus becomes a pleasurable act of surrender as we are drawn within its sphere of travel, ex-patriotism, marriage, desire, temporality and love. Although much is revealed and experienced, Hazzard’s novel still leaves us wondering, pondering and questioning. Such cogitation is not painful but hospitable: it is perhaps literature’s greatest gift. In the end, The Transit of Venus embraces a cosmopolitan and generous sensibility that eclipses parochial forms of small-mindedness, and this is invaluable.
In terms of the academic study of literature, this is most obvious in the recent political move in Australia to significantly raise fees for humanities students based on the argument that tertiary education in fields such as literature does not make students sufficiently ‘job ready’. Sabastian Williams counters such claims in his exploration of the various arguments supporting a literary, philosophy and history education, suggesting that these knowledge areas provide individuals with critical thinking skills that are essential to self-determination as well as the functioning of wider society (‘What is the Value of the Humanities’).↩