Home > 1960, 20th Century, Australian Literature, AWW Challenge, Harrower Catherine, Novel > The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower – toxic relationship at its finest

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower – toxic relationship at its finest

December 5, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower (1960) Not available in French. 

“I felt as if something was killing me. The pressure of his personality.”

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower is set in London in the 1950s. Clemency James, 25, is from Sydney and is in London to study for the bar by correspondence. (Why couldn’t she stay in Australia if she were to study by correspondence anyway is a mystery to me) She has a room in a boarding house, where she shares a bathroom and a kitchen with other tenants. Her room is her safe harbor, her place to study, work and teach. Indeed, her life is split between studying, giving French lessons, tending to her domestic duties and meeting with her friends until Christian Roland and his so-called wife Olive move into the boarding house.

They’re an odd couple, Olive is a lot older than Christian and she left her husband to follow him to a strange life in London. Christian is handsome, tortured and uses twisted ways to take people over. He’s full of unrealistic dreams like becoming a star actor at the Comédie Française in Paris when he’s not French and doesn’t even speak the language fluently. But he’s certain that he’s entitled to a higher standard of living and that being poor is totally unfair to him.

At the beginning, Clemency isn’t particularly interested in befriending them but Christian and Olive worm themselves into her life. Christian manipulates her into giving him free French lessons. Olive is especially friendly and diffident. Clemency is more and more drawn to Christian in spite of her and he pursues her relentlessly. Olive is consumed by jealousy –according to Chrisitian—and the reader never knows whether she’ll surrender or turn violent or whether it’s all in Christian’s imagination because he wants to live in a world where women fight over him.

The whole novel is told by Clemency and it is the slow destruction of a young lady who thought herself strong enough to get close to Christian’s flame without burning her wings and fails spectacularly.

It’s the tale of a neurotic relationship based on a fight between two minds. Clemency’s mind is determined not to be conquered and it acts as a red flag to Christian’s mind, pushing him to use every trick that his sick mind makes up to win her over. It’s not the assault of a lover consumed by love. It’s the assault of a deranged and narcistic man who wants to conquer and bask into Clemency’s surrender.

I looked it up, “the Catherine Wheel or breaking wheel is an instrument of tortuous execution originally associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria”. This is exactly what Christian –funny name for a character who uses a mental instrument of torture compared to one used to execute Christians— is doing to Clemency. He’s killing her free will, her independence of mind. He tries to cut her from her friends. He embarks her in his journey towards self-destruction and madness. He lies, he cheats, he drinks, he believes in the wildest and most unrealistic schemes, like the one about Paris.

All in fair in love and war? For Clemency, all is unfair in this story but she’s not necessarily a likeable character. She seems untethered, detached from everything and living like a fish out of the water. I wanted to shake her up and seeing her so passive, even at the beginning, before she got drunk on Christian, got on my nerves.

Reading this was a mini Catherine wheel to me. I abandoned the book twice before eventually finishing it. I started to write my billet about why I had given up on it and realized that I’d already invested enough time in it and I needed to read it entirely to write this billet.

I didn’t like to read about Clemency’s destruction even if I wasn’t invested in the characters. I have no patience for tortured relationships (hence my profound dislike of Wuthering Heights) but here, I couldn’t help thinking that I was witnessing the appropriation of one’s mind by another person, that it happens in real life and that the writer was describing a frightening mechanism.

We’ve all known people whose behavior changed drastically after they started seeing or befriending someone new. We’ve seen people giving their money, losing their good sense over someone or acting against their best interest. This is what Harrower’s book is about. The mechanism of the relationship between Clemency and Christian is applied to a love relationship in this novel. It could also be between friends or family members.

Harrower’s tour de force lies in the minutia of her description. Christian’s manipulation is gradual, and described with such an accuracy that made me want to put the book down and stop reading. To breathe. And exhale my frustration because Clemency was too passive and Christian so ridiculous in his dreams that I couldn’t care less about his childish but destructive machinations.

The pun is easy, but it’s been a harrowing book for this reader. I’ll recommend it for its excellent style, the quality of its execution but you need to be in the mood for twisted relationships before immersing yourself in such a difficult tale.

I very highly recommend Guy’s excellent review of The Catherine Wheel.

This is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer challenge.

  1. December 5, 2020 at 10:52 pm

    So interesting to hear your reaction to this! I don’t know that I would have got to the end of this – sounds remarkably claustrophobic.


    • December 6, 2020 at 7:05 pm

      Claustrophibic is a good word to describe it.

      When I first stopped reading, I wondered why I was inflicting this to myself, especially since I felt no sympathy for the characters. Then I started to write my billet and realized that it had a larger meaning than the story of these two individuals. I wanted to see where Harrower would take her reader.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 5, 2020 at 11:27 pm

    How strange that the author’s name is Harrower! This is one I’d probably avoid for the reasons you describe. But I guess I admire an author who can pull off such an intense psychological portrait. I don’t know whether to congratulate or offer you condolences for finishing it.


    • December 6, 2020 at 7:07 pm

      In the end, it was more curiosity about where the writer would take me than a real interest in the characters. I wanted to see the belly of this manipulation until the end, because I finally saw the universal message behind it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • December 6, 2020 at 8:04 pm

        Now that’s interesting. I can see why you recommend reading it if someone is in the right frame of mind, especially since she’s such a good writer.


        • December 6, 2020 at 9:07 pm

          It truly is an excellent book from a literary standpoint.


  3. December 6, 2020 at 12:00 am

    Hi Emma… all of Elizabeth Harrower’s books that I’ve read, are like that. Twisted relationships consisting of one who is dependant and the other who is manipulative.


    • December 6, 2020 at 7:08 pm

      Hi. Well, no more Harrower for me, even if she’s an excellent writer.


      • December 7, 2020 at 12:35 am

        Fair enough. I liked her books when I read them a few years ago because there wasn’t much around that illuminated this problem, but now every other memoir is about the same thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. December 6, 2020 at 3:37 am

    What Lisa said above. She’s excellent at looking at coercive control and was wasaaay beyond her time because this sort of abuse is only becoming widely known now and in many places is yet to be enshrined in law (I think Scotland may be only place). I read this book a few years ago and found it a tough read, but I liked the nuance of Harrower’s writing. I highly recommend her debut novel Down in the City; it’s about another troubled relationship but is less claustrophobic and the main character is easier to like. She’s a rich girl who just made a bad choice.


    • December 6, 2020 at 7:12 pm

      It is an excellent book. We’re left with only Clem’s point of view and it’s a bit frustrating but realistic at the same time. In life, we’re left with our assessment of people and events, we never truly know other people’s motivations.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. December 6, 2020 at 7:07 am

    Twisted relationships make for fantastic reading if one is in the right mood. Thanks for the mention.


    • December 6, 2020 at 7:10 pm

      Certainly. It’s an excellent book, from a literary standpoint and an precise deconstruction of the mechanism used by Christian.
      It was still a tedious read for me, especially because Christian was so ridiculous.


  6. December 6, 2020 at 8:58 am

    Lovely review, Emma. It was what I hoped Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis would read like. I thought there was going to be more psychological tension between Jenny and Patrick but the book ended up disappointing me. It’s the minutiae of the description that most interests me. My girlfriend and I have already downloaded two copies and will be reading it together. Thanx for that 🙂


    • December 6, 2020 at 7:16 pm

      Well, let me know what you think about it. It’s going to intiate fascinating discussions about couples, even if Christian is “hors normes” in many ways.

      I hope you’ll come back and leave a comment after you’ve read it.

      According to the comments before yours, Harrower usually writes about toxic relationships, so if you like this one, there’s more in store from the same writer.


      • December 22, 2020 at 12:21 pm

        Having now finished the book, I think I like it, I will give Harrower another chance. I liked how she described the formation of an obsession in Clem’s mind, I also liked how she gave some depth to the thinking process of Clem, for example, when she says she doesn’t have faith to take this on, when she realizes her limitations. She also has some nice phrases on Clem’s own growth What I didn’t like was the plot which was absolutely simple, if not simplistic. Thanx for introducing me to her.


        • December 22, 2020 at 10:49 pm

          Thanks for coming back here and leave a message about how you felt about the book.

          I totally agree with you. I eventually finished it because her writing was excellent and because she was so good at showing how Clem became obsessed and got caught into Christian’s net.
          I was bored with the plot too but in a sense, it gives more power to Christian. Objectively, there’s nothing dazzling about him. He doesn’t have a superior mind, he’s handsome sure but the rest of his personality isn’t very interesting. In a way, it shows that Clem’s obsession relies on nothing tangible or factual.
          What did your girlfriend think about it?


          • December 30, 2020 at 9:35 pm

            Her words:
            “The style of the story is nice in general, despite that some of the wordings and used vocabulary are hard to understand. Clem’s personality is frustrating and irritating, it seems that she is filling a void from her childhood. Her reaction to and how she dealt with Christian taking care of him and not “accepting” back the loans seems she wants to take care of a vulnerable person.
            This relationship shows the typical narcissistic type, where one of the partners is narcissistic and everything in the relationship is turning around him/her, in this case, Christian.”


            • December 30, 2020 at 10:36 pm

              I would have liked to know more about Clem’s past too. I agree that her reaction to Christian is linked to something from her past but we don’t know what.
              Christian is demanding and narcisssistic and Clem enables him. She think she accepts him as he is but she just lets him do whatever he wants and treat her badly. A bit of tough love would have helped her. I think that sometimes she also enjoys to be a martyr, to sacrifice herself for him.


  7. December 6, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    I have The Watch Tower by Harrower on my shelf (unread but recommended by others). I think it also talks about toxic, manipulative relationships. She certainly seems to have a knack for them and I wonder if she experienced it herself (or saw it in her family).


    • December 6, 2020 at 10:26 pm

      I asked myself the same question. It’s a strange obsession if you haven’t been in one, no?


  1. December 13, 2020 at 10:29 am
  2. December 27, 2020 at 8:07 pm

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