I’m adding a sixth book to my list of favorites: The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. The novel spans thirty years, and follows two sisters (Grace and Caro Bell) as they enter adult hood, the work force, marriage. The writing is poetic, and the narrative structure is a mix between traditional Victorian novel (love stories and tragedies, elaborate and ornate rooms, social structures and customs), and something by Virginia Woolf (where, you find out clues of what happens at the end of the book, in the very first chapter–a second reading always reveals the brilliance of the writing). And, in the words of Sven Birkerts, the novel offers much wisdom about human relationships.
(And before I go on any further, I want to open this with the caveat that these are not necessarily MY own individual thoughts and opinions, but rather, what I think Shirley Hazzard is saying in her novel).
Obviously, one of the main issues the novel takes up is marriage (that’s the Victorian threads running through). We see many marriages throughout the novel–first Grace and Christian, Paul Ivory and Tertia, Grace and Adam, Ted Tice and Margaret. Hazzard asks us to re-asses the functionality of marriage in our society. It’s a classic case of individual desires combating societal expectations. The structure of the novel itself reads Victorian, plagued with ornate descriptions of rooms; important conversations take place during dinners and parties; people marry for social class. The Victorian’s set up this standard of marriage where, the woman occupies the domestic space, the man occupies the outside space, and together, all their bases are covered: the red Lego coming together with the blue Lego; nothing ever mashes, mixes, but rather, sits politely next to each other. But, within those metaphorical societal structures, Hazzard offers us chaos and dysfunction; the ornate rooms are haphazard and messy, the dinner conversations stifling and unfulfilling, the marriages tragic and lost. Grace and Christian obviously represent the very traditional ideal of marriage: she is beautiful, innocent, bears three children. He is successful, comes from an established family, and takes care of all external affairs. But, Hazzard suggests that perhaps this traditional, Victorian style of marriage is unnatural for us, that is it actually illogical for us to think we could stay committed to the same person for our entire lives, because as humans, we are constantly changing; the person I’m attracted to and compatible with at 22 is not the same person I’m attracted to and compatible with at 42.
At some point, each of the characters enters into territory we can consider some form of ‘infidelity‘–whether that be physical or emotional infidelity. Ted Tice and Caro, Paul Ivory and Caro, Tertia and her lovers, Christian Thrale and Cordelia Ware. Even sweet, innocent Grace finds herself attracted to Dr. Dance, leading her astray from her marriage contract. I think we have this misconception that once we sign on the dotted lines and make our marriages contractually official, all of our desires, attractions, our human nature goes away, and (to borrow the words from Twilight) we imprint on our spouses. But, Hazzard suggests that this is not necessarily true; that even though we are married, we will always continually battle our attractions towards other people, because our experiences change us, and we are always different people than we started out. Grace, for example, may not have considered Dr. Dance ten years ago, but there was something of the moment in which he walked into the patient room that ‘all the stars aligned’, something about her was different, and something attracted her to him in that moment.
Experiences change us; as humans, we are broken creatures; we make poor decisions, we are meant to suffer, and it is through that pain and suffering that we reach a state of enlightenment. After each character participates in the affair, they view the world in a completely different and enlightened way. As Christian Thrale ends his relationship with Cordelia Ware, he walks outside, feeling like a foreigner in his native town, suddenly noticing different sounds and smells that he never did before–of course, these sounds and smells were probably always present, but something about Christian has changed. Caro is incredibly broken by Paul Ivory, but it is within this brokenness that she is able to accept love from Adam Vail (one of my favorite lines in the book? Adam Vail asks Caro, “Is there someone else in love with you?”, and Caro responds, “You’re in luck, sir, there’s been a cancellation”).
While a sense of enlightenment seems positive, the book also warns that once you dabble into these infidel territories, you can never pull yourself back out. Marriage and affairs sends these most of these characters into a spell of depression; even Grace wonders “how long she must remain on such an earth”. It’s kind of like having a crush on the boy in your math class. It usually starts that one day, you walk in, get grouped with him on a project. You go home, think about your interaction, decide he seems ‘nice’. Next class, you work with him again, decide he also has a nice smile. When you go home, you add nice to nice smile, decide you like him, and from there on out, your interactions with him will never be the same; once you have entered into that territory of desire and attraction, even if you then find out he once spat gum in your hair, you will never be able to look at him the same way ever again. This happens with Christian Thrale; one day, he notices Cordelia Ware’s blonde hair hitting her shoulder. He goes home, ponders it, comes back to work the next day, and notices her typing. And, their three weeks is up and they end their affair, Cordelia asks, “How shall we go on now?”, and Christian Thrale responds, “My dear, we’ll have to play it by ear”.
So much of our human interactions occur without words, without speaking directly, without saying exactly what we want to say. I’ve always wondered how these affairs begin–I don’t think you just meet someone and say, “Hey do you want to cheat on your husband with me?”, so there must be some kind of sequence of nonverbal advances that eventually end in these outcomes–one nonverbal cue or gesture leads to another that results in an affair. In the case of Christian Thrale, he first starts by sliding his hand over Cordelia Ware’s lap as he opens the door for her. Their next interaction, he touches her shoulder while she is typing, and since she resists none of these advances, he reads enough into her nonverbal cues to gain confidence to ask her to dine with him (to which, I think as people, we hold a great moral responsibility to others to ensure we are properly communicating our intentions to them). But, even though he thinks it at first sight, he cannot ask her right off the bat to dine with him, because he must ensure that she will go (his boldness, rejection and misreading of cues could significantly alter their relationship that must remain a secret for his professional stature–there are just some things that cannot be said, but only expressed through actions).
And, all of this happens, because, as humans, while marriage claims itself to be a ‘union’, we can actually never fully know a person, and we actually never belong to someone else. In the case of Ted Tice’s marriage to Margaret, he can never admit his love for Caro, because admitting that would ruin their marriage structure (except when he finally does, he feels a sense of freedom). Christian Thrale nor Grace can ever admit their bartering into this territory, because it might cause a rift in their family, so they keep it a secret and pretend like nothing happened (even though, as stated before, these affairs cause them to gain new perspectives in the world, and change them, which is perhaps the tragedy–that we must continue going on, pretending like we are the same people we once were, even though we will never be that person ever again). As soon as Caro finds out Paul Ivory’s secret, she can never see him the same way ever again. There are just some experiences, some secrets, some things we cannot tell people, because telling them would be detrimental to the relationship. In the novel, people are often referred to as possessions, their physical traits described in much detail. Paul Ivory, “sometimes still thought [Caro] looked foreign–by which he meant she never quite belonged to him”. So, no matter how well we know someone, how long we have had a love affair with someone, how solid our marriage contracts are, we will never be able to fully possess, and fully know, another human being, because they don’t belong to us, and they are changing at vast rates that we will never fully be able to grasp (because there are so many limitations to language).
The moral lesson we should take away from this novel? Well, I’m not really sure. Perhaps it is don’t let yourself tredge into the dangerous territory of love affairs, because then you become depressed, but then again, it could offer you a life altering experience. Perhaps it is that no one should ever get married, but then again, Caro finds the most contentment when she finally releases herself to Adam Vail. Perhaps it is that the Victorian’s screwed us all up, and we live in a society that no longer fits their structures and expectations.
Or, perhaps it just is that love is so, so wonderful, and so, so tragic.