Likely Stories: The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Aug 9, 2018

Two Australian women try to escape an oppressive parent by moving to England.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Back in my high school days, I wanted to read a novel by Australian author, Shirley Hazzard titled The Transit of Venus.  I was in a period of reading a great deal about astronomy, and this seemed like a natural connection.  When I found out Hazzard’s novel hat nothing to do with astronomy, I ditched her novel.  But my curiosity lived on and on.  In a recent trip to an independent bookstore, I found a copy; I was finally able to cure my longing for this work.  I am glad I persisted.

According to the author’s note in the paperback, Shirley was born in Australia.  She has written eight books, five works of fiction, and three works of non-fiction.  Many of her stories have been published in The New Yorker, and she has received, among other recognitions, a First Prize in the O. Henry Short Story competition.  She died in 2016.

The Transit of Venus is the story of two sisters, Grace and Caro who decide to leave Australia and make their way to the UK.  The sisters are immediately on the hunt for husbands.  Grace marries and lives an exemplary life as a faithful and dedicated wife.  Caro seems unable to make up her mind and has a few affairs.  She meets Ted Tice, who immediately falls in love with Caro.  Hazzard wrote, “An hour had already passed, of this day they were to spend together.  Ted Tice was glad of each additional mile, which would at least, at last, have to be retraced.  Every red and noticeable farm house, every church or sharp right turn was a guarantee of his time with her.  He said, ‘Are you thinking how tame it is, all this?’.  He meant the floral English summer, but could not have been understood otherwise.  In fact, he was not bold enough to touch her, but made his gesture to her head.  ‘What are you thinking?’ // Caro had been watching out the window, and turned the same look of general, landscaped curiosity on him.  This man was no more to here than a callow ginger presence in a cable-stitch cardigan.  The country bus lurched over an unsprung road.  The girl thought that one would read that he and she were flung against each other’ and how that was impossible.  We can only be flung against each other if we want to be” (26).  Caro seems bored with the young man, but he will do until something better comes along.

In another scene, Hazzard wrote, “Grace with a satchel and pale jiggling ringlets, Caro tilted to a loaded briefcase.  At school both were clever, which was attributed to the maturing effects of their tragedy—just as they had lagged, obtuseness would have been ascribed to the arresting trauma.  They sought each other in the playground and were known to be aberrant, a pair” (39). 

The girls’ mother, Dora, was a difficult woman, and part of their desire to leave for the UK was an attempt to get away from her.  Hazzard wrote, “Dora was twenty-two and had dark sloping eyes and, despite an addiction to boiled sweets, perfect little teeth.  Caro wondered when Dora would be old enough for tranquility.  Old people were serene.  You simply had to be serene, for instance, at seventy.  Even Dora must be, if they could only wait” (41).

This interesting story won Shirley Hazzard a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.  The Transit of Venus reminds me of some of George Eliot’s fiction especially The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!