Helen, a picture of youthful innocence, intelligence and passion, almost wholly untainted by her parent’s flaws, is a central character and symbol in Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. She is an unassuming girl of seventeen in a broken world with broken people. In the novel, Helen’s character is deep and rich; she is an innocent child touched by the Great Fire, yet not scarred by it, Helen also acts as caregiver and takes on responsibility that reaches far beyond her seventeen years, and she is an adult lover. These three qualities and aspects of her character must be looked at, not in part, but as a whole to understanding the person of Helen.
As The Great Fire begins, Helen Driscoll is barely seventeen years old, however, Leith believes her to be even younger, perhaps only fourteen or fifteen years of age. Youthful innocence abounds in Helen’s character. Gardiner describes her as “a quaint little mermaid of a girl.” She and her brother, Benedict, provide “the only laughter in the place” (Hazzard 16). Helen is the light in the darkness of her father’s house. Her appearance only adds to this picture of Helen, “Most striking was the girl’s well being. It was as if, in this child, Benedict had been re-created in radiant health, the hair made glossy, the skin vital, the form sound…the eyes were of the same uncommon clarity and rounder” (Hazzard 38). Helen used these fine, clear eyes full of intelligence to read aloud to Ben. Reading and learning became, perhaps an escape from the harsh realities of war and even to escape from the war in their own home. Leith observes that these two young people cling to literature and that “it has delivered them” (Hazzard 43). Great books and classic tales led Helen through the Great Fire and helped to preserve the beautiful innocence that Leith found so attractive. However, literature also enlarged her world and imagination. In an act of youthful defiance, Helen boldly gets on a bus to Aix-en-Provence to see the world that she has only read and dreamed of for years. This act shows that innocence can be expressed by more than quiet submission to the status quo. The girl, Helen, is a thoughtful, intuitive, intelligent, gentle creature who survives and thrives on love.
The love that Helen has for her brother, Benedict is expressed in many ways throughout the novel. As her brother’s primary caregiver, Helen spends much of her time making sure that Ben is comfortable. However, caring for Ben is not a burden to Helen and is done in a gentle, delicate way out of love for her brother. In one scene Helen leans on Ben for comfort and support, “At length she slipped down on her knees by the daybed and clasped her brother closely and laid her head on his folded hands” (Hazzard 41). The love that is missing in the parent child relationships in the Driscoll family is found in the sweet brother and sister relationship for Helen and Ben. As Ben’s health continues to deteriorate he leans heavily on Helen; though the beauty of their relationship is that neither one supports the other self-consciously but in love. As Helen grows older and stronger and Ben weaker their old roles are reversed as Ben notes, “I now sit in on her lessons…” (Hazzard 80). Helen not only cares for Ben, but her capacity to love as a human compels her to care for any in need. Because of her tender and young heart she acquiesces to Tad Hill’s request for a goodnight kiss, which in some ways is her way of taking care of him and loving him; not as a man loves a woman, but as a girl loves a friend. Helen loves Leith and cares for him as a way of expressing her love for him, as only a woman can love a man.
As Helen falls for Aldred Leith she becomes more of a woman and less a child. On the day of her impending departure from Kure and her separation from Ben and Leith, he notes that she was “a child excited. A woman and beautiful” (Hazzard 88). Though she is bound to her insensitive, sometimes cruel parents by age and tradition it is her ability to love that frees her. Helen’s heart is drawn to Leith’s and throughout the novel, their hearts are bound together. At the opening of the novel, Gardiner sums his new friend, Leith, up seeing almost no flaw in him except that he is alone and needs someone to love. In a way, then, it is Helen who rescues him from himself, his loneliness. However, the beauty of their relationship and love is that they both are desperately in need of each other. This is true love, both partners rescue each other from whatever it is that they need to be saved. Because of the difference in age and Leith’s gentlemanly conduct, they express their love in a glance or a brief look and later in conversations and letters. At one point, Leith writes, “Helen looks at me as no one has for years. Perhaps, no one ever” (Hazzard 86). Another moment in the novel shows the power of even a glance exchanged by two people in love. Though unnoticed by all others in the room, due to a loud crack of thunder, both Helen and Leith felt it. Helen becomes more attached and in love with Leith as the novel goes on and every time they part, she fears that she will die before their reunion. By the end of the novel Helen has seen and tasted the bitterness of death and the loneliness of separation. But she does not give up hope or stop believing for a moment that she and Leith will be reunited. She decides to stay home instead of accompanying her parents on their journey to America to bury her beloved Ben, because she is confident that Leith will come for her. It is in this that we see her innocence and hope have not been overtaken by the death and pain that she has experienced, but have instead made her stronger and mature.
Helen is innocence in a world destroyed by war; she is a giver and a woman in love with a man. She is all of these things and one cannot be isolated from the other. It is her ability to love that is the common strand and binds these aspects of her character together seamlessly. In the midst of the Great Fire that rages around her, Helen burns a fire of her own. However this fire burns to be a beacon of hope and to give warmth to the cold and weary, not to destroy life, but to give it.