Dr. Linda Mack had brought the five girls down to her Devon cottage in the car: it was June and the weather was fair. The cottage lay under the fields and between two wooded spurs on a slope that ran steeply to the hidden sea. It was a stone cottage with a barn, the trees were very old; above, the high Atlantic sky streamed west.
In the short essay she wrote to introduce The Puzzleheaded Girl, Angela Carter suggests that as Stead's career went on she began to "hew her material [ie, language] more and more roughly," that "more and more she shears away the excess." Cotters' England is the example she gives, but when I try to think of Stead at her plainest, her most shorn, this is the book that comes to mind: Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife). Actually the impression I had when I read it was not, "How shorn this is," but, "How tired this sounds, it feels as if she's running out of patience with words." I knew that this was the last book she finished before she died, and I wondered if the shortwindedness was the effect of age, exhaustion, or impatience. She'd been travelling from one place to another for a long time, she was not well off. She had good reasons to sound tired.
But this is all guesswork: the salient point here is that Miss Herbert is written in a plain tone, or plain when you compare it to the baroque inventions of the early books, or to The People With the Dogs. Everything that was extravagant, "… vapors rising in the heat, from hollows and clefts, tall, slowly forming and moving, spirits, savage men, with weapons, daggers, things habited like the Rabbi, question marks especially, and puffs of smoke," and so on, has been smoothed down to, "the high Atlantic sky streamed west," or "the weather was fair."
Reading the opening lines you might expect another Christina Stead ensemble melee, the story of Dr. Linda Mack and her girls, but after a little while the story fixes its eyes on only one of them, Eleanor Brent. The rest fade into the background. Brent needs self-awareness and lacks it; she is a "nobly built beauty" who makes gestures toward an adventurous life but ends up stumbling around in bewildered respectibility. "She is not," writes R.G. Geering in Christina Stead: A Study,
"just a hypocrite set up to be knocked down, but she is such a mass of contradictions, so given to evasion and rationalization, that it is hard not to be irritated by her."
She shies away from experiences that might shake her. At one point her control breaks, she becomes so angry that she writes an "endless letter" to a man who has betrayed her, "Great formless feelings rushed healthily through her mind giving her release and power, but she did not know what these feelings were because she had never had them before in connection with Henry," but feels suddenly "tired" and decides to write him a "cool, calm" letter instead. In front of her is the prospect of "a slope that ran steeply to the hidden sea," flowering sex, anger, truth, openness, the condition that Stead characters of the past, Teresa, Louisa, are willing to risk, but she never follows it. An existentialist would say she is acting in bad faith.