The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020)

I read and reviewed this novel back in 2015.

‘Now that your father’s gone – ‘

Laura and Clare Vaizey are at boarding school when their father dies, and the lives they had anticipated for themselves (especially Laura) are changed forever. Their mother removes Laura from school and sends her to business school to learn shorthand and typing. Laura, no longer able to dream of pursuing a career in medicine, becomes responsible for her sister Clare. Mrs Vaizey decides to return to England and, on the last ship bound for England as World War II breaks out, abandons her daughters.

Laura finds work in a factory, where the owner Felix Shaw pays attention to her. Although Laura is unsure about Felix, she agrees to marry him, partly (at least) to prevent Clare having to leave school.

‘I think you’d better just marry me, and both of you come to live in the new house. I’ll fix everything.’

Felix’s way of fixing everything is through controlling Laura. He belittles her, he manipulates her, and he crushes her. In the claustrophobic environment that Felix controls, neither of the sisters can relax. And over time, Laura begins to reflect Felix’s values.

‘She had achieved this state with much painless suffering, committing murder by proxy.’

Although Clare sees Felix for what he is, she cannot persuade Laura to leave him. Laura has almost entirely lost any sense of herself as an independent person. Can Laura be saved? Or will Clare have to abandon her in order to save herself?

For me, two tragic themes are central to this novel. The first is the warping of Laura’s spirit as, oppressed by Felix, she becomes more like him. Gone is the clever independent girl who dreamed of being a doctor, replaced by a fearful woman reflecting Felix’s views in order to find an uneasy peace in her world. The second is the awfulness and power of manipulation, where people seek (whether physically or psychologically) to impose their wills on others. Laura has been doubly unfortunate: a narcissistic self-serving mother, and an insecure controlling husband.

This is a thought-provoking novel. It is uncomfortable and confronting, raising questions about choices, and imbued with an undercurrent of malicious destruction. I am uneasy with aspects of the story, they reflect a reality I have observed.

This novel was first published in 1966, and was reissued in 2012. The setting may seem dated, the issues raised are not.

‘It is a wonder of the world to notice how fundamentally people change from one second to the next when they are given their own way.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith