The Transit of Venus

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Shirley Hazzard has had considerable international experience. She has worked for British Intelligence in Hong Kong, for the British High Commissioner’s Office in Wellington, New Zealand, and for the United Nations in New York and Italy. In addition to three previous novels and a collection of stories, she has written a book about the U.N., called Defeat of an Ideal. In Hazzard’s most recent novel, The Transit of Venus, characters move easily about the globe; the novel’s settings include Australia, South America, Portugal, and Sweden, as well as England and America, and each character is carefully located in a cultural and historical milieu, as well as a personal one. Hazzard’s global perspective, however, extends beyond such matters, to the realm of metaphor and point of view. Often in this novel, she seems to have placed herself on some neighboring planet in order to observe the earth and its inhabitants through a telescope. From this remote vantage point, she views human history—from the prehistoric observatory at Avebury to the destruction at Hiroshima—as it impinges on the morality and behavior of her central characters, Caroline Bell and Edmund Tice.

Ted Tice is, by profession, an astronomer, and Hazzard draws her novel’s governing mataphor from an astronomical phenomenon, the transit of Venus, in order to reveal “the cosmic power of love.” In addition to its ordinary meaning of “passage” or “change,” “transit” has an astronomical definition: like an eclipse, a transit involves the temporary alignment of three celestial bodies. The planet Venus passes between the earth and the sun twice a century, the two transits occurring eight years apart. It is this meaning which suggests the terms used by Hazzard to name the second and fourth parts of her novel. “The Contacts” are the phases of an eclipse and “The Culmination” is the short period of totality. “Transit” can also refer to the use of a telescope to survey an astronomical phenomenon; thus, in Hazzard’s novel, Venus is not only making a transit, but also being observed as she does so. The precise moment of transit is, of course, transitory; at the novel’s end the reader sees, as if through the telescope of history, a pair of lovers who are “like amorous figures from mythology,” marking a moment when human love defies time. About the brevity of the transit, Caroline Bell notes, ’“The years of preparation. And then, from one hour to the next, all over.’” Caro’s apparently innocent remark occurs in a dinner conversation with Ted Tice, a conversation during which Ted also tells her about an eighteenth century astronomer whose efforts to observe the transit of Venus were defeated by bad weather. Ted admires that astronomer: ’“His story has such nobility you can scarcely call it unsuccessful.’” As the novel unfolds, one learns of Ted’s own nobility and of his devoted scrutiny of Caroline, whom he clearly sees and deeply loves.

Appropriately enough for an astronomer, Ted is most remarkable for the clarity of his vision, despite a childhood injury which has left one eye noticeably flawed. Of working class origins, he is a highly respected scientist who is certain to achieve international eminence. Even as a young man, he has definite ideas about where telescopes should be located for the greatest possible visibility; more important, he appears to be able to see into people and their relationships—to see, even, into the future. His way of looking gives him enormous moral authority, and the clarity of his insight and foresight is contrasted with distortions in the vision of others, particularly Caroline. Caro is a physically strong woman, highly intelligent, darkly beautiful. She moves “with consequence as if existence were not trivial,” and she honors above all things knowledge, heroism, and excellence. As a young woman, the reader is told, Caro has already become “impatient of the prime discrepancy—between man as he might be, and as he was. She would impose her crude belief—that there could be heroism, excellence—on herself and others, until they, or she, gave in.” Caroline also believes herself to be in the process of acquiring knowledge, which she views as “stately, pale, pure as the Acropolis.” Hers is, however, a knowledge of abstractions, a knowledge arising from reading and speculation rather than from the emotional complexity of experience. When she tells her lover that ’“Someone you know well might surprise you with an action that was monstrous, or noble,’” she speaks without seeing either the monstrosity or the nobility of those closest to her. Caro’s moral vision is flawed, as the reader is reminded when, in middle age, she visits an ophthalmologist who prescribes glasses. ’“You were always the one, weren’t you, who could read the name on the boat, or the announcement on the billboard?’” he asks her. ’“You could decipher the fine print. Well, things catch up with you. Nature doesn’t like exceptions.’” As Hazzard works out this metaphor of vision, the reader can lay Caro’s moral blindness beside the intense clarity of Ted’s...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)