- Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife) by Christina Stead
Virago, 308 pp, £5.95
Eleanor, in Christina Stead’s most recent novel, is a writer and a rewriter, whose somewhat parasitical achievement it is to have turned a story written by her father into a modest best-seller; a wry sort of apology, perhaps, for the wonderful novels, which have not been best-sellers, Christina Stead herself has written about oppressively exuberant fathers, but a judgment as well on those who live within borrowed scenarios. In earlier novels it has been writers and children who were seen to have the best hope of resisting bullies and taking control of their own lives. Fourteen-year-old Louie is already a writer when she leaves her father in The Man Who Loved Children (the novel published in 1940, which is probably the best-known of the 11 Christina Stead has written). And Teresa, Louie’s older incarnation in For Love Alone (1945), escapes her father, and eventually his more insidious understudy, the autodidact Jonathan Crow, when she follows him to London and then evades him to become a writer. Letty, of Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), records a life which threatens to dissipate itself in pursuit of a husband and by telling her story gradually shapes and controls it. Christina Stead’s career as a published writer has occupied 45 years. She has been greatly admired but is far too little read. Long periods of her life have been spent in England and in America, and only in her seventies – she is now 77 – did she return to Australia where she was born. Penguin, and now Virago, have recently embarked on reissuing her work. It deserves serious attention; it also cries out to be read and enjoyed.
Early in this novel (its title’s arch contradiction could seem to be its heroine’s own work) Eleanor is struck by a story she reads by chance in a woman’s magazine, which ‘had meaning for romantic women like herself who had been tempted by their own good looks’. Later ‘she extracted the outline and rewrote the story a little.’ It is an episode characteristic of her: conformist, amoral, thrifty. And she herself is characteristic of one kind of Stead character, the monstrous and charming egotist, ‘boiling with self-respect’, who is superb and ridiculous in wishing only for the simplest things in life: things like love, happiness and scope for the free play of a benign will. The novel begins with and returns to, as The Man Who Loved Children did, something like a frozen group-portrait, which stands for a touched-up public version of youth and friendship or family happiness, and is allowed to develop as a notion, an increasingly hectoring and recriminatory one, of the good life, the real one, which has been so irresponsibly smudged by other people. In the earlier novel the allusion was to a simpering arcadia, with all the prettified poverty of the TV Waltons, which is Sam Pollitt’s dream of the family life he deserves and can still, momentarily, appear to create. When his wife’s ferocious misery and their violent quarrels splinter the dream, we see that this conventional idyll is more than a delusion. It has become the instrument of the unhappiness it attempts to conceal, a deceiving generalisation, which must be held responsible for the pain of particular frustrations and incompatibilities.
Eleanor’s health and beauty propose from the outset a glorious happiness at least. We see her first in the 1920s, glowing among a group of friends, young women graduates with characters and destinies. She is easier with women ‘because she was much the handsomest of all’. Men are more difficult because ‘she wanted to be taken seriously’ and must be on her guard. She has realistic and womanly plans for herself. She will write and then, having sampled men and love, will move richly into marriage and motherhood. There will be no triumphant culmination to it all, rather a life lived in decorous stages, each calculated to make use of her superior capacity to experience life’s most valued offerings. Her love affairs seem tawdry and unfeeling to other people, but they are hers, and transformed by her distance from them. Then, when she realises, more slowly than she might, that she has married a crass and petty tyrant, she consoles herself with making extravagant economies, and the discovery that ‘all the commonplaces of her present life were delicious to her.’ Desertion and divorce are also able to bring out the best in her, inspiring even an interest in other people, so long as they can discredit her husband and confirm her own magnanimity. Her plight uncovers new energies born of heroic indignation, and these enable her to hold the family together while she returns in her fifties, ignominiously but with poise, to the fringes of the literary world. Her strength lies in her ability to accommodate to the reductions of age, to see them as worthy challenges to her charm and ingenuity. It is a strength which accounts for her disintegration; and she is English. There is no doubt that this proud disintegration is meant to be England’s too, and that England is under attack for its wearying buoyancy and tinselly imperialism.
Christina Stead is a political writer, for whom the promise as well as the vicissitudes of family life and sexual relations hold metaphors for society, and possibilities of oppression and collaboration. Eleanor is an anachronism, a pirate rather than a partner, who has learned to smile dispassionately upon a world which has no place for her. Sam Pollitt is an embodiment of American idealism, the melting-pot kind, and of its rhetoric, which in extending its embrace to the world’s children simultaneously adjures them to flee the contamination of the undecided as well as the sceptical. It may have been too easy to applaud as an attack on America Miss Stead’s insight into the tradition of individualism, which in Sam tips so effortlessly into fascism, and which, as Rosalind Mitchison once put it, could mean permissiveness, but ‘could also mean the expression of the personality of the father at the expense of everyone else’. Too easy, because, as Christina Stead shows in this novel, there are other rhetorics, ones, for instance, which allow varieties of debility to excuse an absence of idealism, and they can be damaging too. Any reader of Christina Stead’s novels is likely to feel bewildered by her protean talent, by an unevenness between novels and within them, and by the diversity of their worlds and approaches, but there is in the four novels which are now available here a consistent preoccupation with the discrepancy between how people say things and what they mean and do, and it is a discrepancy which is seen to distort values and personality.
Eleanor’s particular vanity is to have quite limited ambitions but to believe that she has a right to their fulfilment. Her literary work, her friends, husband and children, are the tapes and records of an ‘athletic’ performance, which maintains its standards by diminishing, imperceptibly, the length of the course and the height of its hurdles. What would be degrading for other people – grubbing for publishers’ work, lending herself to an old man’s pornographic fantasies, sacrificing her children to her marital tussles – she forgives herself on the grounds that they provide occasions for displays of making do, rising above, staying young, absorbing shock. When Andrew Hawkins, in For Love Alone, reminds his grown-up daughters that he has been loved by women for being ‘the good-looking, sincere young idealist’, Teresa responds sceptically and scornfully. An intransigent refusal to be gulled destroys Henny Pollitt in The Man Who Loved Children. There are characters in the novels who are asked for a nearly impossible resistance to nearly irresistible blandishments. Some of them, and there are children among them, manage this. Eleanor does not. She has been ‘well, but vaguely educated’, and she has learned to keep her sights low and rely on good breeding and a university education to get her through. Poor judgment, failures of spontaneity and concentration, an inability to keep as friends the women who gave edge and confidence to her youth, and, above all, a shrinking from men who are attractive to her and intelligent enough to rumble her emptiness: all this is soothed for her, lubricated by vanity and snobbishness. It is a harsh indictment, one which an English reader could find hard to shrug off, especially as Eleanor herself refuses to be reduced by it. She does not know, as we are encouraged to believe we do, that she might be seen in this way. That is another of her strengths: a conceit which transcends self-consciousness.
Christina Stead has little patience with victims. Children are watched for the growth in them of resistance and independence, and it is this which makes them among the best-understood of fictional children. Her monsters are incorrigible, but they can be denied, and once they are denied they are creatures of comedy as well as terror. The young and the oppressed are not helpless, because there are still choices for them, while oppressors reduce their options and stitch their own straitjackets. Nor is marriage inevitably an invitation to battle or constraint. It is also allowed to provide co-operation and freedom.
Miss Herbert offers a gloomier, more negative picture than some of the earlier work, and it has more of the sermon in it. It suffers from Eleanor’s self-absorption, so that we have to rely on authorial sleights-of-hand for our focus on her. There are still moments of bravura: a glum visit Eleanor makes to a patronised old friend who has disconcertingly made a success of her life as a doctor and a mother; another when Eleanor rampages through her ex-husband’s papers in search of damning evidence and discovers, filed under ‘Various’, exactly the trite and repetitive love letters she expected. The volcanic rhythms of The Man Who Loved Children are replaced here by small spasms as Eleanor moves from each failure on to ‘the next stage of life’. She does less damage than Sam does, and that is partly because he is as much the creation of his watched and watching children as their creator. His flushing-out of their secrets and privacies, and his bending of them to his rituals, are the stuff of their interwoven lives. In Eleanor we have a single, hieratic figure, performing to a scattered and faceless congregation. She is out of touch, and the world she is out of touch with is not believably present in the novel: and yet Miss Herbert should be read, not just as a telling image of contemporary Britain, but also as a richly comical portrait, even an affectionate one, of a monster.