Sunday, December 6, 2009

a track turns right and down

Debrett liked his job in the old-style German Bank in Broad Street, but he soon saw that the partners' sons were coming into the firm and he could not rise far; so he joined three friends of his, Arthur Good, Tom Zero and Saul Scott, who had just founded the Farmers' Utilities Corporation. They were all in their early twenties.


The balcony of Lydia's room in the green and white boulevard hotel looked over the treetops. The hotel was at the top of a long rise from the Seine, in Montparnasse. The sun beat into the carpeted, curtained room so strongly in the mornings that the shutters were kept tightly shut till after midday. Lydia got in late every night, slept restlessly.


The road rises steeply from Lambertville on the Delaware, into hill country, bared for planting and grazing, with small old white villages in trees and unpainted farmhouses high on the ridges. The road follows the uplands. Several miles along, entering Newbold Township, a track turns right and down by Will Newbold's red barn, a landmark.


George Paul came to see the Deans, man and wife, soon after dinner. Tall, ample muscular, blue eyes in a red, boyish face, thick bronze hair in a brush, he was fifty years old, but walking like a young man from the exercises he did to keep fit; and energetic, a restless worker. He looked tired and anxious.

The Puzzleheaded Girl, a book made up of four novellas, is an anomaly in Stead's oeuvre. The Salzburg Tales, with its multiple stories, feels as if it should be Girl's natural partner and yet it isn't: the connecting thread of that book is absent in this one, and the four stories are alike in only one way: in each one there is a different young woman who can't find a place for herself in society, or doesn't want to, and who doesn't know what to do.

In the title story, the first one, this character is a teenager who lives in New York, and she's so self-contained that it amounts to a kind of social retardation.

She would listen in silence, as if not quite in agreement; but when he made social comments or deductions, she would lower her eyes or look out of the window.

The opening lines set up a group of men who will act throughout the story as her opposites, normal members of society who are everything she isn't: she doesn't strive for position, she's deliberately disinterested in money-making, she'll never club together with other people, and she won't look out for her own self-interest. "She's a little astray mentally," said Stead in a 1973 interview.* "And this makes her always try to solve it with her own solutions." The 'it' here is life. She's "uncaught" the author tells us - "uncaught" in the way that Lilian in Kate Grenville's Lilian's Story twenty years later, will be "uncaught", treating jobs and marriages and even an art career, as traps. But what can you replace them with? Outside society, what is there? Her "inner freedom" states Angela Carter, in the good introduction that comes with the Virago edition of the book, is "acquired … at the cost of almost everything else."

In the second story, The Dianas, the woman is an American in Paris, trying, like Letty Fox, to find a man who will marry her. Her heart isn't in it - she's doing it because it's what she's expected to do - but Stead has already shown us, in the first story, what can happen to a young woman who doesn't follow an expected path. Perhaps - if Lydia had an idea of something else she might pursue? She doesn't. As in Letty Fox, there are sub-stories to suggest that marriage is not the solution she thinks it is, but she doesn't see the lesson. "Slept restlessly" is the key phrase in this opening. Lydia is sleeping through her life, always restless, always moving and talking, both attracted and repelled by sex, virginity (mythological Diana in the title), confused by the feeling that she should be doing something else but not knowing what.

The lost-woman-figure doesn't appear personally in The Rightangled Creek: A Sort of Ghost Story but other characters talk about her. Here she's the daughter of a couple who own a house in the countryside of those opening lines. The opening is a piece of scene-setting, making the backdrop solid so that the uncanny happenings later on will have something to play against. Such rosy countryside! Such solid landmarks! Of course the city people want to stay in the old farmhouse by the rightangled creek, where the stairs creak at night, the plants are hyperactively fecund, and the neighbouring farmer hangs over the place like the old retainer in a haunted house. What could go wrong? Ho ho.

George Paul in the opening paragraph of The Girl From the Beach is the other side of The Dianas' coin, a man who partners young confused women. Behind the "boyish face" there is a boyish brain; he marries his infatuations. Again the author gives us the word "restless." He's fifty and he hasn't worked out the it of life; the Puzzleheaded Girl of the first story ages during the tale but she never does it either. His old-young appearance is telling. All of this becomes apparent later in the story. Soon after we meet him he says something that could have been Stead herself, talking about her approach to character:

"Every defect, every flaw and every weakness has its cunning. You know that?" he said violently. "We say the handsome use their looks. The ugly use their looks; and the sick use their sickness; and old age uses its age. Don't pity anyone."


* I found this interview in Christina Stead: Selected Fiction and Non-Fiction, edited by R.G. Geering and A. Segerberg: UQP, 1994.

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