As soon as I meet Shirley Hazzard, before we begin to engage in a conversation, she is quoting Thomas Hardy’s poetry to me. She insists that the love Hardy expressed for his first wife in his later verses is genuine, that after Emma Hardy died he somehow managed to recall all the old love and feelings: ‘Not guilt, that’s too modern. He was able to recall the way he had felt when he first met her.’
We are meeting in a restaurant near Shirley Hazzard’s home in New York. What prompted the outpouring was that she had spent the morning sorting out the papers of her late husband, the writer and translator Francis Steegmuller, before sending them to a university archive. And she had been in tears recalling their love.
Over lunch she tells me about her childhood and her slight formal education. She was born in Australia in 1931. As a child she travelled widely, for her parents were diplomats. At 16, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence, where, in 1947–8, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand, Europe and the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York. She has been deeply critical of the United Nations ever since. She taught herself through books, and by studying human nature. She was in her thirties by the time she married Steegmuller, a widower more than twenty years older, in 1963.
‘It was marvellous to be married to a writer. Sometimes I’d be staring into space searching for a word and, although he encouraged me to write, he knew this was just a necessary part of the thinking process.’ Words are precious. She uses them carefully and sparingly, as anyone who has read her book The Transit of Venus will know.
This deeply sensual novel has long been a favourite of mine and it improves on rereading. I did not adequately appreciate it when I first read it shortly after publication in 1980, but I came back to it after dis
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