Sue Rabbitt Roff
In Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2022) Australian academic Brigitta Olubas gives us the authorised version of the expatriate Australian writer who died in 2016. She might well have titled it ‘Shirley Hazzard’s Life Writing’ because in at least a quarter of a million words over five hundred pages Olubas shows us the origins of so much of Hazzard’s short stories and novels in her own life, which she diarised in sentences that can often be found in her ‘fiction’ – that often merges into ‘creative non-fiction’ and/or autobiography. With one important exception.
The Color of the Road
The American artist Georgia O’Keefe said she didn’t mind the dust of Amarillo, Texas. “Sometimes when I came back from walking I would be the colour of the road.” Life can be like that too.
Olubas traces Shirley Hazzard’s peripatetic childhood in the caravan of her father’s diplomatic postings in postwar Hong Kong, New Zealand, London and eventually as Australian Trade Commissioner in New York. By which time he was Australia’s highest paid civil servant. His wife hadn’t realised that his secretary had also been in the caravan for most of the ride until they did a runner in the early 1950s. The Sydney Truth reported the divorce on Boxing Day 1954 under the headline COMMISSIONER NABBED IN NUDE Lady ducked her head. (Olubas cites this as “Commissioner Nabbed”.)
Shirley was in her early twenties employed as a ‘clerical’ in the distaff lower third of the United Nations workforce. From which everyone but Shirley understood that there would not be any transfer to the professional ladder.
En route to Hong Kong at the age of sixteen, Shirley and her family had spent a week at Kure while the army wives among the rest of the passengers disembarked to join their husbands. Most of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Hiroshima were Australian. Shirley and her family were taken to see the devastation of Hiroshima.
In Hong Kong the seventeen year old Shirley met the first love of her life, a highly decorated war hero who had grown up in England after a childhood in China and was nearly twice her age. Her older sister’s tuberculosis hastened a posting to Wellington, New Zealand which was a purgatory for Shirley. The war hero wanted to return to his dream of farming in the UK. He declined Shirley’s offer to have sex on the eve of her departure from Hong Kong. She was a teenager, and very intense about her literary ambitions – altogether too high maintenance for a tenant farmer’s wife, as she would become if she married him.
It would be fifteen years before Shirley lost her virginity despite at least a dozen flirtations, usually office romances with married men, ‘A collection of silly, pointless affairs’ Shirley later wrote. They all returned to their wives, including the one who did have sex with her virtually under his family’s nose. He told her that he told his wife ‘It’s just as though I danced with someone.’
In early 1957 Shirley was posted to Italy, to the UN emergency mission in Naples. During her end-of-contract leave she became a paying guest in the salon at Villa Solaia, four kilometres from Siena. She returned many times in the late 1950s and found there an emotional safe place as well as very useful contacts in the outside world among the fellow writers and artists. These included Dwight Macdonald, former editor of The Partisan Review and a staff writer for The New Yorker from 1952 to 1962.
Olubas writes ‘Dwight Macdonald had offered to take one of her stories to the magazine, which meant that it would circumvent the slush pile and go straight to William Maxwell… the most significant editor of short fiction in the United States through the post war decades…’ In August 1960 she received her first acceptance and a cheque towards the [US] $500 fee. Worth the equivalent of today’s US$5000 at the time, it was the first of many she would receive as well as office space and expenses. She was not yet thirty years old.
She quit the UN job in January 1962. A year later she was introduced to Francis Steegmuller by Muriel Spark and in December 1963 she married him.
I have outlined in The tale tellers: why Muriel Spark fell out with Shirley Hazzard how, according to Muriel Spark’s friend and executor, Patricia Jardine, Muriel was convinced that Francis Steegmuller was what Olubas terms ‘a closeted homosexual.’ The cache of 57 letters, mostly from Shirley to Muriel, that Jardine sold to the National Library of Australia in 2020 indicate that Muriel warned Shirley a few weeks after she introduced her to Francis that he might well be a homosexual, like so many of their other friends. Shirley replied firmly ‘I too had thought of your suggestion that he might be ambiguous, but no, it isn’t at all like that.’
Shirley also reminded Muriel ‘you know that for me being in love is infinitely more important than making love, but see no reason why the two should be mutually exclusive’.
Francis was twenty five years older than Shirley when they married in 1963. For virtually all Shirley’s life he had been married to Beatrice Stein, a wealthy heiress, and benefited on her death in 1961 from her legacy including a good early modern art collection.
Shirley moved into his apartment on East 66th Street in New York, and they explored Italy and other countries – using a gold (sic) Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II Francis kept in Europe, driven by a chauffeur. Olubas includes a photograph of Shirley sitting on its front bumper.
Their network of friends and literary and artistic peers was very wide on both continents. Francis began work on his biography of Jean Cocteau, having written about and translated other French bisexual writers.
Olubas writes ‘the list of Francis’s copious writings includes several gay-coded figures, traces of another facet of Francis’s public self, reputedly something that “everyone knew” about him. It was something assumed, if not exactly known, by members of Beatrice’s family, and it was certainly spoken of in New York literary worlds, in New Yorker circles, where it was noised about by Brendan Gill and Ved Mehta, while Robert Pounder and Vincent Giroud, who knew Shirley through her friendship with James Merrill, confirmed that stories of Francis’s sexuality circulated in gay literary circles and more widely.’
Olubas quotes from an interview she conducted with publisher Jonathan Burham in 2018 that ‘The art historians Hugh Honour and John Fleming, whom Francis and Shirley would come to know during their years in Tuscany, were another source of these stories. They were “amused that Shirley seemed to be completely unaware… or rather had invented Francis as the perfect role model of a husband, whereas he’d been, in their views a very, very sort of, active homosexual.”
Olubas also points to other homosexual friends who weren’t sure if Francis was a player or not. She concludes ‘What remains, and remains important for Shirley Hazzard’s life and work, is that she found happiness in marriage to a man with inclinations toward literary and artistic figures and subjects marked by complexity rather than transparency, with a preference for the undisclosed rather than the vaunted truth, interests that drew her to him, which she shared.’
This has been described as ‘an issue that Olubas treats with admirable tact’ but that isn’t altogether satisfactory. Shirley Hazzard had many gay friends, both before and after her marriage to Francis. She and Muriel had discussed the pleasure of those friendships in the 1960s. Shirley spoke at James Merrill’s memorial service after he died in 1995 – which was a courageous public stance at the height of the AIDS-HIV crisis.
There are sympathetic homosexual characters throughout her fiction. Her last major work, The Great Fire, written in the years after Francis’s death, reprises in many ways her 1974 short story Sir Cecil’s Ride. But in the first version the 18 year old Elizabeth concludes by the end of their walk in the broiling Hong Kong sun with the 36 year old war hero Constantin who is written up from Shirley’s diaries almost to the point of creative non-fiction that ‘She knew she would not marry this man’. In The Great Fire thirty years later a different resolution is made possible by the intervention of a kind homosexual friend serving as a deus ex machina to enable Aldred and Helen to hope for a future in the turn of a paragraph.
It may well be that Francis Steegmuller wasn’t actively bisexual; or that Shirley Hazzard didn’t realise he was; or that she accepted it. What would be sadder is if he was and that there had been other, hidden players in Shirley’s thirty year marriage – just as there had been in her mother’s.
It should be remembered that Shirley reached out to Muriel Spark’s biographer when he put an advertisement in the Times Literary Supplement asking for letters. As I have reported, Stannard wrote in 2014 that Shirley was happy for him to photocopy the correspondence with Muriel that she showed him but Muriel wasn’t even though ‘When I explained that Shirley did not, in this respect, care about her privacy, it made no difference.’
Olubas evidences how autobiographical Shirley Hazzard’s short stories and novels were, often identifying lines and scenes first noted in her diaries and letters. I interviewed her in 1980 for the Australian National Times for which I was writing ‘Letters from New York’. It happened to be on the day that she heard that The Transit of Venus had reached the New York Times Book Review best seller list – the first Australian on the list since Colleen McCullough’s mammoth run. Two more dissimilar writers are hard to imagine, the one as taut as the other was lush.
Shirley must have forgiven me for the article being published with a large photo of McCullough and none of her because she invited me to send her my first attempts at short stories.
Olubas shows that Shirley was very generous in writing encouraging letters to aspirant writers. She wrote to me in September 1980 –
‘Your pages are very moving – we have both read them with absorption. Francis finds them close to certain modern French writers in manner and sensibility. Events and impressions are real, and drastic – it is a miracle how we survive the stories of our lives really. I felt it grew to a greater strength, your Impasto – moving away from the directly autobiographical (in tone, at least) sensations of the opening pages and including more of what is imagined in the experience of others. I hope you get the time and the state of mind to work at this? – it is the kind of writing that needs much silence and reflection, I would think?’
I was thirty two at the time to her forty nine. I put the letter in my bottom drawer and spent a decade as a human rights representative for a London based non-governmental organisation at the UN and then two decades teaching in a Scottish medical school. I never caught sight of her again even though I lived in a Columbia University apartment across the hall from her friend Mary Ellin Barrett (Irving Berlin’s kind daughter) and two floors above Diana Trilling (Lionel’s curmudgeonly widow).
And then came Lockdown. No prams or wheelchairs in the hall; no excuses. Much silence and reflection.
Sue Rabbitt Roff’s essays have been published in The Adelaide Magazine, Embark, Overland, Meanjin, The Conversation and Pearls & Irritations are collated on her www.rabbittreview.com under Culture Shocks together with her short stories Greta and The Colour of the Road – neither of which is autobiographical.