‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’ by Christina Stead is the first of four short stories collected under its title in the Text Classics edition published late last year. (The blurb calls them novellas, but at 55 pages, IMO it’s a short story). According to Fiona Wright, who wrote the introduction, it was first published in 1965, and she notes that this was an era when
Robert Menzies was still Prime Minister of Australia. Bookshops were still being raided and publishers prosecuted for obscenity. The first Australian troops were sent to Vietnam. In the United States, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had been published only two years before, and it was still illegal for married couples to use contraception. (p. x)
Yes, a different era indeed, but Christina Stead was an internationalist, and from what I know of her attitudes from reading Hazel Rowley’s biography, I suspect that Stead had long since given up on Australia. It would be a mistake, I think, to read this story through the lens of Australian conservatism, because it was penned by a woman who had experience of life as a woman in the US, the UK and Europe. Her experience was global, which makes it more profound.
At this time, Christina Stead had been living away from Australia for thirty-seven years, and was residing on the suburban outskirts of London. Her novel The Man Who Loved Children, originally published in 1940, was reissued in the United States, and finally started finding its audience and acclaim. The world was changing, and so was Stead’s position in it; so too, more slowly, were the lives of many women and girls. Against this backdrop, Stead’s portraits are subversive and defiantly political. They are drawn from many angles at once, much like Cubist paintings, and are never stable, never definitive, but riddled with uncertainties, half-truths and secrets that conventional knowledge can never capture or contain. (p. x)
The tragedy of Honor’s life is that she does not fit in anywhere, and in a world with no place for a woman of sensitivity and intelligence, she doesn’t want to. She enters the story as a filing clerk in the Farmers’ Utilities Corporation, taking dictation from Augustus (Gus) Debrett and making an impression by unselfconsciously reading a book about art while waiting for her interview. Her clothes are inadequate both for the weather and for the smartness of the office, but it takes some time before the kindly Debrett finds out why. (Actually, he’s not just kindly, he is a socialist like Christina Stead and her husband were, and he is motivated by social justice as much as his kind heart). The misery of Honor’s young life beggars belief: I can easily imagine Stead writing with the purpose not just of exposing the wasteland of women’s lives in the postwar era but also the poverty and neglect which put the United States to shame at a time when social reforms in Britain and Europe were making a real difference to the lives of the vulnerable. For a teenage girl like Honor, to be thrown entirely on her own resources in order to escape her father’s tyranny, seems quite shocking:
She answered indirectly as usual. She lived alone with her father. And then, in an undertone, in a spurt of talk. She wanted to live nearer Greenwich Village. She wanted to find a room in that district, but everything was dear; she hadn’t the money and she hadn’t friends. She didn’t know where to look. Where could she look? She knew no one but her brother, Walter Lawrence, the painter, who shared, with an actor, an old studio at the corner of University Place. They would not take her in. (p.7)
She doesn’t want to be an artist, but she aspires to do something more noble than making money. When Debrett tries to give her a raise by having her trained to use book-keeping equipment, she rejects it.
‘I have to learn my living in an office, but I won’t mix in business. I hate and despise business and anything to do with making money.’
‘Do you think it’s wrong?’
‘It is the enemy of art.’
‘And you feel yourself an artist?’
‘No. But I want to live with artists and live like them. I don’t want to be like those earthy girls out there, like Maria Magna and Vera Day. I prefer to die of hunger. Or go away.’
‘But you have no money.’
‘No. But it doesn’t matter, I can get along without money. In the village, artists get along without money. They all help each other. It’s a different kind of living. This is a terrible world here, everyone working for money, no one working for anything good.’ (p.8-9)
Many characters try to help Honor, with varying degrees of reluctance. Without any apparent sense of the incongruity of her approaches to get help, because she doesn’t understand the simplest conventions, she visits the wives of the men who work in the office. Gradually they learn that Honor’s father is a miser who takes all her money, and who makes her sleep on the landing if she’s not home on time. What clothes she has are cast-offs; she is odd because of her strange upbringing:
‘I never told anyone all this before. I suppose it’s a bit unusual. But I never knew there were happy families. I thought that was all a lie. I didn’t know there were rich people either.’ (p.13)
The women who choose conventional lives aren’t any happier either. Debrett’s wife Beatrice feels trapped by marriage and motherhood, suffering from the intolerable anguish of living, the intolerable doubt about everything.
Debrett said nothing. Beatrice concluded, ‘Men can’t understand it, even the best of them. Women are terrified not to get married; everyone’s at them; and then they get married to eat and have a child; and so they find themselves shackled like an imbecile in a little room, with no money and no freedom.’ (p.40)
Oh, and by the way, Stead shows us examples of sexual harassment at work, before (Anne Summers tells me in Damned Whores and God’s Police) there was even a word to describe it.
The cover art by the inimitable W.H. Chong is an homage to Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ – not the 1937 one in the Tate, but the one in the National Gallery of Victoria, also painted in 1937. I can’t reproduce it here for copyright reasons but you can view it at the NGV site where it is noted as one of a series comprising ‘postscripts’ of Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, which expresses his horror at the German bombing of defenceless civilians in the Basque city of Guernica. As you will see if you ever read ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’, Chong’s homage is a thought-provoking one, because Honor Lawrence sheds a tear only once, and none of the other women weep for her. Seen always through the eyes of others who project their own meanings onto her life, Honor leaves a legacy only in the tears shed by Gus Debrett in the last line of the story. I like to think that Chong was suggesting we should all weep for the puzzleheaded girl…
Author: Christina Stead
Title: The Puzzleheaded Girl
Publisher: Text Classics, 2016, first published 1965
Source: review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Available from Fishpond: The Puzzleheaded Girl
Or direct from Text Publishing where you can also buy it as an eBook.