Elizabeth Harrower and Shirley Hazzard only met six times. They wrote to each other for 40 years

<span>Elizabeth Harrower (L) and Shirley Hazzard have left us an intriguing double self-portrait to complement their magnificent, hard-won books.</span><span>Photograph: The Guardian</span>
Elizabeth Harrower (L) and Shirley Hazzard have left us an intriguing double self-portrait to complement their magnificent, hard-won books.Photograph: The Guardian

Elizabeth Harrower’s trip to Italy in 1984 should have been pure joy. She was invited by her friends Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller to join them, at their expense, in Rome, Naples, Capri and then New York.

The couple wanted to thank Harrower for her years of care for Hazzard’s mother, through mental illness and decline in Sydney, and they had been urging her – pleading with her – for years.

Harrower made excuses until September 1984, when she replied to the latest letter from Steegmuller, an esteemed American writer and translator. “When you put your ‘all’ into writing a letter, Francis, it would take someone much less susceptible to the word than I am to resist.” Weeks later she was on a plane.

I know what pleasures awaited her, because I did the same trip with Hazzard 20 years later. I had kept up friendly contact after interviewing her in New York, and my husband and I were privileged to visit the places where she and Steegmuller had lived for half the year, dine where she had dined with Graham Greene, see submerged Greek ruins, all in her generous, erudite company.

That was our precious last time together before frailty immobilised her.

Related: Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life by Brigitta Olubas review – doyenne of love and devastation

Friendships exist in different dimensions and the warm bond between the two Australian writers, Hazzard and Harrower, flourished mainly in the letters they exchanged between continents for 40 years. As writers, they lived most vibrantly on the page, where they could ponder their own and one another’s words.

Those letters, all 400,000 typed and handwritten words, are preserved among the papers each of them placed in Australian libraries. They give rare insights into the meeting of creative, curious, sensitive minds. They also conceal tensions that Hazzard’s biographer, Brigitta Olubas, and I tried to decipher as we shaped a selection into a book, Hazzard and Harrower: The Letters.

Born three years apart, in 1928 and 1931, Harrower and Hazzard had similar memories of childhood in the harbourside suburbs of Sydney, of unhappy families and divorced parents against a background of Depression and war. They shared a deep love of literature and a talent that produced some of the great novels of the 20th century; Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and Harrower’s The Watch Tower are masterpieces.

Their paths diverged. Harrower, who remained single, spent the 1950s in London where she published her first three novels before returning to Sydney to write two more. Hazzard worked for the United Nations in New York and Naples and established a life of writing and travel with her husband. Her first novel, The Evening of the Holiday, was published in 1966 just as The Watch Tower, Harrower’s fourth, appeared.

That auspicious year also brought the writers together. Harrower was introduced to Shirley’s mother, Kit Hazzard, by a Sydney bookseller, and when Kit visited her daughter in New York a few months later they jointly wrote to Harrower a formal, admiring letter.

So began the correspondence that tracked Hazzard and Harrower’s personal lives and political times, their reading and writing, their mutual support and influential networks and the grimly amusing travails of poor, impossible Kit.

As Hazzard wrote on 26 May 1978: “This morning came yr lovely and so welcome – and so kind and good – letter. To get Mum over with (as if one could) right away – together with your letter came one from her … It merely said, ‘I hate you and your sister’.”

Given the intimacy of their letters, it is surprising to realise the friends met only six times: in London in 1972, in Italy in 1984, and four times in Sydney when Hazzard came to give lectures, to receive the Miles Franklin award in 2005 for her last novel, The Great Fire – and to see her mother.

Hazzard did what she could for Kit from the safe distance of her expatriate life but gratefully she allowed Harrower – motherless, childless, willing – to become her proxy. Harrower liked the lively, erratic Kit. She took her to doctors, organised her pension and hearing aids, visited almost every Christmas Day, and moved her into a nursing home, where she died in 1985.

Was it coincidental that in those years Hazzard’s career soared, while Harrower’s writing stopped? Both struggled to write fiction amid other demands. But Hazzard, with more stamina and support from Steegmuller and New York publishers, wrote her best work in spite of her mother. Harrower withdrew her last, flawed novel, In Certain Circles, from publication in 1971 and put the manuscript away until 10 years ago when her work was revived by Text Publishing.

Related: Elizabeth Harrower: Australia's buried literary treasure is unearthed

She lost her drive, if not her desire, to write. Her energy went into boosting the Labor government under then prime minister Gough Whitlam and mourning its dismissal in 1975. She gave herself over to loved and needy friends, to the extent that Patrick White told Hazzard: “Too many vampires make too many demands on her.”

By the time she flew to Italy, Harrower was becoming resentful of her more famous friend’s increasingly grand tone. She shrank from Hazzard’s conversational monologues. Harrower, in return, was snappy and complained that her room at the Hassler hotel in Rome had no view. She left abruptly for Paris to stay with the Whitlams and the UK to see relatives, refusing to go on to New York.

The fracture is detectable in the clipped coolness of the letters that followed. Both expressed their hurt and irritation more fully to others. I also interviewed Harrower and became friendly with her in the last years of her life, as her books were being reissued. She wanted me to know in 2017, when interest in Hazzard was heightened after her death, that “Shirley was not the only well-known person I knew and nor did I seek her … Patrick knew that she was a small part of what I was doing.”

Friendships wax and wane, and often break. This one might not have endured at closer proximity. But the letters continued until 2008, as well as meetings, phone calls, telegrams and cards, with genuine affection and intellectual spark. The authors have left us an intriguing double self-portrait, in their distinctive voices, to complement their magnificent, hard-won books.

  • Hazzard and Harrower: The Letters (NewSouth) is edited by Brigitta Olubas and Susan Wyndham. They will be at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 22 and 23 May