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

December 5, 2020 23 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.

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