In historical study, certain individuals and/or classes are made distinct from the passive mass by the degree of their protagonism; charting their prominence through an era, it becomes clear that such activity is as much a testament of the human will to signify one’s own existence as any well-articulated primary account. For the self, however, protagonism is simply its indigenous function, motivating one’s behavior from the get-go. Already so distinct, so distinguished, to ourselves, how could we ever be of that vague crowd whose actions are mostly homogenous, and whose culmination for some historian of the far-flung future amounts to nothing more than sheer statistical data?
About three-quarters of the way through Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus, a character of up-till-then secondary (tertiary, even) significance finds himself protagonized, and here is how Hazzard illustrates the beginning of his centrality—or the delusion of such:
It was early evening on a Tuesday, and Christian was standing at his office window observing the bloom of silky light extending in reconcilement over London: looking at forests of leaves spread like open hands, and white colonnades and porticoes, and roads that shone like rivers. In the park could be seen a streak of turf, a dab of water, the blue tilting steeples of delphinium. The evening bore the cachet of a huge success magnificently consummated after many botched attempts.
Christian was enjoying not only the manageable rapture of sundown but the novelty of his own high pleasure in it. He had merely glanced out, not expecting anything but weather. Though traffic rumbled, the mnemonic light had a quality of silence—yet seemed no simple fact of nature, for one scarcely felt such a radiance could exist without such a city to encompass. There was human engagement in it, as at some momentous passage of human greeting, or leave-taking, with the world.
Christian, moreover, was aware of himself looking: a sandy man of more than average height and intelligence—yet always keeping at hand the bolt hole of the average; the yardstick, rather, by which departures and excesses might be measured.
In the narrative whole, Christian Thrale is little more than a non-entity, an established bourgeois snob who marries Grace, one of the Bell sisters (the less plot-central one, at that) and spends much of the novel making lame remarks about class and art, as well as isolating his wife from her sister, Caroline, who he sees as a fallen woman. The Transit of Venus is Caroline’s story, really, although other characters in addition to Christian are given the spotlight, throughout.
But for a single long chapter, the novel is Christian Thrale’s—the novel, and a girl, a secretary, who invades his finely-tuned life with such calamitous distractions as youth, beauty, and, best of all, obeisance. A bureaucrat of some importance, with a wife and children, it is Christian’s class which is proven most susceptible to incursions of this sort. Romantic dalliances in the office, yes, but also certain illusions of uniquity. It’s not as common for people of average (or less) standing to delude themselves into a false vision of significance; and if they do, then not for long, since the world is quick to crush such pretension. Instead, it’s those who do possess a certain level of distinction (earned or not) that tend to magnify their own traits, and with little serious blowback; are even further rewarded for such, in fact.
With the Matthew Principle in full effect, is it any wonder that Christian’s chapter-long drama ends with very little surface-change, despite the infidelity, workplace impropriety, and the disturbance of serious ardor? And the girl, one Cordelia Ware, is of course left with the dregs of refusal, and the humiliation of the hysterical scene.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Early on in The Transit of Venus, Thrale is introduced as a scion of that well-to-do, educated and rather small-minded breed of Englishmen, who, upon invitation to the Bell home, reacts thusly:
He found these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australians in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come, and instead caught himself living up to what he thought might be their standards and hoping they would not guess the effort incurred. Quickness came back to him like a neglected talent summoned in an emergency: as if he rose in trepidation to a platform and cleared his throat to sing.
He recurs every now and again in the tale, popping up with some passive-aggressive critique of Caroline, and those like her, until catastrophe in the form of Cordelia Ware occurs.
With her appointed as a temporary secretary when his actual one goes on holiday, his attentions are immediately captivated. It is not that Thrale’s marriage is particularly unhappy, or that he is not pleased with his children, his home—it is precisely the utter pleasantness of his situation, we learn, that so compels him towards the girl.
Shirley Hazzard narrates the inevitability of his pursuit, his predation, with almost clinical detachment. Here is Thrale maddened by the idea of further contact with this slight and pretty object:
The following day was hot. The city opened all its windows as Christian rode to work in his car. Down to tower’d Camelot. As if by assignation, she wore the dress of the cornflowers—was it?—and her hair down. He had heard that girls were ironing their hair that year, in order to wear it long and flat, but did not think that would apply to her. It would not be possible to do this oneself—perhaps their mothers did it for them. He tried to picture the little kitchen at Dulwich, neat as a new pin, the mother shapeless in flowered apron, and she with her head laid on the ironing board. It was like an execution.
It was a simple matter to detain her after work. There was no difficulty in manufacturing a crisis—most crises in that place being manufactured ones—by retarding some memorandum into the afternoon. When she came back at two from her hasty sandwich (he assumed the sandwich, noted the haste), he struck. At six they were alone, he attentively reading over, she pounding. He got up, went to the gents’ to spruce. He ran water, ran a comb, ran a critical eye. Smiled into a square of quicksilver that was cracked from side to side. Walking back along the inert grey arteries, he could hear the machine still racing, like a heart.
He had plumped for the magisterial assertion: “I am going to drive you home.” Had of course hoped she wouldn’t look so bowled over. “Let’s face it”—with this interpolation Christian habitually reproved a widespread tendency to shirk—“we’re going to be another half-hour here, at least. Might as well”—foregone conclusion—“have a bite of dinner somewhere, then I’ll drive you.”
It is this dryness, however, that convinces the reader—in spite of Thrale’s growing lust, eventually consummated when he connives a way to dine with Ware, after which she surrenders to his grasp—of the union’s inevitable fizzling-out. Rarely has a mind such as Thrale’s been so finely articulated. Hazzard, having worked in offices such as this for a good part of her life, clearly had encountered men like Thrale—and, really, who hasn’t? Clever, self-important men are endemic in a society where cleverness (and not wisdom) and self-importance (and not virtue) are seen as the highlights of achievement.
When the flame approaches its end, here is Thrale grappling with his infidelity, and never truly implicating himself in any wrongdoing:
Christian’s situation had abruptly become a predicament. To feel for his isolation in it, one must realize that Cordelia Ware had been the only unpremeditated episode of Christian’s existence since Grace Bell. Any other precipitate action having been sanctioned and demanded by the social order and—even when carried out single-handed—performed in mighty concert. In the Cordelia Ware undertaking he had ventured out on his own. It was a mutation as of fish to land. And Christian, gasping on the bleak shingle, knew himself a creature of the ocean and the shoal.
It was the point at which, in an old book, the protagonist might awake to find it all a dream.
In his solitude he said, “I blame myself.” An accusation that seldom rings entirely true. If Christian placed blame elsewhere, then it was, curiously enough, on literature. He blamed—but that was not the word—the promptings and colourings of language, that put sights in his eyes and sentiments in his heart. He felt himself importuned by echoes that preceded utterance, betrayed by metaphors and exaltations that, acquired young, could never be eradicated.
Literature was a good servant but a bad master.
The Transit of Venus, considering its relatively limited scope and concerns, is a superb novel (David Bentley Hart calls it a “small masterpiece,” which sounds like a putdown, but is rather apt, although I’d personally hesitate on the latter modifier) and the central narrative involving Caroline Bell certainly deserving of its focus. So in writing my reflection, it came as somewhat of a surprise that my attentions gradually shifted to Christian’s little episode, rather than an overview of the book in its entirety.
Perhaps it was the shift itself that so intrigued me, and how the reader is caught up in Christian Thrale’s self-motivated drama as Christian Thrale is caught up in the bloviation of his inner monologue, relentlessly justifying every action so as to emotionally uncomplicate the proceedings and keep his world intact. Perhaps it was that opening, quoted in the beginning, of Thrale presiding over London with a magisterial air—as if the city had presented its scene for him alone, as it would for any protagonist worth their salt.
Read the very final moments of this episode, and ask yourself how many Christian Thrales are in your life, your workplace, occupying the corner office or grazing by your arm, protected by various layers of superiority:
To make a long story short—which was the way Christian put it to himself in later years, in the synopsis of remembrance—he made himself clear, once and for all. There was nothing for it but the clean break. It was, as he told her, the hardest thing he had ever had to do. I blame myself. If I have hurt you, Cordelia. IF, she said; and in such a voice. If, as I say, I have hurt you. He had never seen anyone cry in a restaurant before—not even at another table. It was bizarre to think he had originally been attracted by her reserve.
He said, “I believe I have learned my lesson.”
She leaned her elbow on the table and her brow on her hand. Strands of hair stuck along her cheek and trailed over her ear. In his heart, as the unconscious used to be called, he knew he had asked for trouble. But loathed every second of it.
One could only take so much of this. Attempting rational discourse, he told her of the previous evening’s concert, where he had been much affronted by interruptions of untimely applause, and by the shushings that countered these. The motion of censure revived him: the world had once more proved unworthy of Christian Thrale.
He did not mention the music.
Perhaps I recognize something of myself in Christian. Not the dryness, not the conduct of his class, but that worrying tendency to, upon encountering the momentous event, envision oneself especially exceptional; deserving, even, of its efficacy. Thus rendering oneself especially vulnerable to the shock of common disappointment when the moment’s sheen inevitably dulls, and one’s life is exposed as more or less a variation on a theme and not the theme itself.
But I’m glad that Shirley Hazzard chose to sideline Thrale’s tryst for the majority of her novel, despite the excellence of its presentation. Can you imagine reading several hundred pages of this tosser’s daily itinerary? A moment of real connection, however problematic, is afforded to him, and he wiles about like any average, ordinary man. We’re the better for it, though, as side characters like Christian Thrale must often be proved unworthy of extended attention.
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More from Ezekiel Yu: Nature’s Nurture: On Pattiann Rogers’s “The Determinations of the Scene”, In Memoriam: Carcinogens and the Common Isopod, Shoot ’em Dead: Review of Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018)