‘Girl from the Beach’ by Christina Stead is the last of four short stories collected under the title ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’ in the Text Classics edition published late last year, and IMO the most interesting of them. (The blurb calls them novellas, but at 70 pages, I think that ‘Girl from the Beach’ is a short story, even if is separated into two chapters named to indicate the era). The others in this collection are ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’, (see my thoughts here), ‘The Dianas’, and ‘The Rightangled Creek’ but ‘Girl from the Beach’ offers the clearest example of the dilemma in which Stead’s central characters find themselves:
Linda muttered, ‘The trouble is, I do what people want me to, I can’t say no. I never do what I want to do.’ (p.220, emphasis mine)
Fiona Wright, in the introduction, encapsulates Stead’s central preoccupation:
In each of these stories, Stead is making a forceful and sometimes brutal point, about the claims and the kinds of knowledge, patronising and paternalist, that these men assume they have over women – and girls.’ (p.18)
Wright also notes the disquieting way in which Stead makes her point:
… 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)
As in ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’, the reader of ‘Girl from the Beach’ discovers the central female character through the opinions of others. The story opens in New York in the late forties, with a rant from a man called George Paul, who’s descended on a bewildered couple called Martin and Laura to complain about the girls in his life, and about Renee who is refusing to marry him in particular. By ‘girls’ George means young women. He calls them ‘girls’ because a woman can’t be, until a girl dies. He’s not a paedophile, he’s a man to represent many, because he likes them while they are sprites… so different from us, all their fancies, their illusions, their flower world, the dreams they live in. (p.247) Gradually revealing Paul’s immature, resentful and patronising view of women as he rants away for page after page, Stead shows us who this man really is, and how Laura and Martin’s lame marriage is never a meeting of the minds either. Renee is Paul’s fourth attempt to capture what he desires. He has been married three times and is not only paying alimony to these girls who turned out to be women with minds of their own, but is also (in the dynamic characterisation of Barby) fending off their refusal to have their reputations slandered.
Linda doesn’t turn up in the story until the next chapter, set in Paris in the early fifties. She is a lost soul, whose recklessness (like Lydia’s in ‘The Dianas’) is a little reminiscent of Marya in Jean Rhys’s Quartet (1928). Having escaped at the last moment the marriage her parents wanted to shoehorn her into, Linda is racketing about, short of money and with no capacity to earn any except with singing and dancing. Paul, arriving in Paris at the same time as Martin and Laura, falls for her at once. Her mother, tellingly, approves of the jilting:
[Linda] opened her purse and took out a creased letter. ‘My mother wrote to me. She wants me to be happy.’ She began to read, ‘Don’t worry about anything; leave the worry to us; we’re here for that. We can always send you the rent. Don’t worry about politics. Be a vegetable. Everyone is turning into a vegetable. Leave it alone. Have a girl’s life. Remember everyone’s proud of you. You gave us a big surprise, but we adjusted to that; and we’re on your side. We’re here for that.’ (p.221)
Those references to politics and the need to be a vegetable are an oblique reference to McCarthyism. But the trouble that Linda is in has nothing to do with Left-wing politics, but rather to her habit of stealing from hotels. As an American, she feels entitled to do this because (she thinks) the French owe their liberation from the Nazis to US troops…
‘… If I go into a bathroom in a hotel and they’re not nice to me or the place is dirty or anything like that, I take a towel or a napkin or a fork from the table. It’s to make them pay. Because they ought to be nice to us; they owe us everything, don’t they?’ (p.227)
She has the same cavalier attitude to the homeless homosexual she’s been sheltering in her hotel room. They’ve been faking an affair so that no suspicion attaches to him, but when it suits her to take up George’s offer of a cheaper hotel elsewhere, she simply abandons him. She disappears off to Spain with the keys to George’s car too, leaving him in a pickle when he has to travel for a journalistic scoop. These acts of increasing panic are because she has found a couple of grey hairs, and she knows there is no alternative for her but to marry, and the thought makes her feel desperate:
‘I guess I’m a sort of black sheep. People like me, and then they – ‘ She began to laugh. ‘I don’t know what it is. It means nothing to me here. It must be me. Everyone likes it here. But if I go home I don’t know what to do. How do you find out what to do? I don’t believe in things, that’s the trouble. They all say there’s something wrong with me. They fixed up a marriage for me. I couldn’t sleep with him. I thought of having my womb taken out, then I’d have no troubles. I wouldn’t have to like men and no one would want to marry me.’ (p.233)
Linda, just like Lydia in ‘The Dianas’, is so constrained by the sexist expectations for women in that era that she has no alternative. The reader knows that, again just like Lydia, soon Linda will find that it was as if her old life had never been [ … ] and it was many years before she thought about their union or found anything in it extraordinary. (p.98)
‘The Rightangled Creek’, subtitled ‘A sort of ghost story’, is similar in theme but more focussed on the exigencies of the writer’s life and how that impacts on a wife. Sam Parsons, a writer, visits old friends Ruth and her husband Laban, also a writer. They have chosen to live in a remote farmhouse to keep Laban away from the temptations of alcohol, and they scrimp and save to provide everything for their son Frankie who they think is a genius destined for Princeton or Harvard. (The reader is more likely to think he’s an opinionated and prejudiced young man). As in ‘Girl from the Beach’ a horde of unwanted guests arrive and cause havoc, Laban goes back on the booze and Ruth has to pick up the pieces. It’s a savage portrait of what wifehood is about.
There are, however, elements of the plot in ‘The Rightangled Creek’ that *chuckle* are even more ‘Cubist’ than the other three stories – and I remain a bit mystified as to their purpose. Unlike the other Stead fictions I’ve read, the story has a rural setting which turns out to be malevolent. There are spooky noises, invasive small creatures, weeds threatening to overwhelm the garden and a creek which floods the hapless tenants – who are aren’t told about it by the landlord. Perhaps someone else who reads this story can enlighten me…
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.