This week is, of course, Christina Stead Reading Week, hosted by Lisa at the ANZ LitLovers blog. Stead is an author I’ve intended to read for ages, and as I mentioned earlier in the week, I do own several of her works. However, time has been against me recently, as well as a hideous cold, so I ended up reading a short work from her collection “The Puzzleheaded Girl” – in the form of the title story.
The puzzleheaded girl herself is called Honor Lawrence – or so she says when she drifts into the firm run by Augustus Debrett with his partners Good, Zero and Scott, looking for a job. She claims to be nearly 18 and her very strangeness seems to attract the sympathies of the partners, particularly Debrett. Honor is given a job as a filing clerk, a job she carries out tolerably, but she certainly doesn’t fit into the firm. It soon becomes clear that she has no idea of the social norms and niceties – her clothes are second-hand and mismatched, she reacts violently if anyone attempts to come near or touch her, and she professes to despise the financial world in which she’s working, instead lauding artistic endeavours.
As the story progresses, Honor’s background is gradually revealed and it seems that a controlled and restricted upbringing by a dysfunctional father plus the lack of a mother’s guidance have made her into a complete misfit and someone who finds it hard to function on a normal, everyday level. Her brother has apparently escaped into the world of art – it is claimed several times that he’s quite well-known although evidence is limited – and her father takes all of her money and locks her out of the house when he’s not there.
Honor is drawn to the partners’ wives in an attempt to get some kind of assistance, but they struggle to understand her, and in the end she cannot be helped. Her neediness comes across as being demanding, yet she is painfully naive, a quality which protects her for much of the book. As time progresses she leaves the firm and disappears for periods, becoming almost symbolic figure, reappearing mystically in the partners’ lives at intervals. Despite her attempts at survival, her fate is sealed as she drifts through the world and gradually ages, leaving behind her failed marriages and even a child.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of “The Puzzleheaded Girl” at first, and I possibly still don’t, but it’s certainly made me think! I found myself actually doubting a lot of what appears in the narrative, particularly when it relates to Honor herself, as the stories and impressions of her from the various characters often contradict each other. The writing starts off relatively straightforwardly, and you think it’s just going to be a story of a misfit at large in the world, but as the narrative develops it takes on a strange, dreamlike quality; and in the end the characters (and the reader!) are not quite sure if Honor existed and who she actually was.
The name, too, is probably significant – a recurring thread is the girl’s purity and innocence, and it transpires that Honor is not her real name but one she adopted. A symbol of rejecting her past? Maybe – but also reflecting the fact that her lack of a mother has given her no knowledge of relations between women and men, and she seems incapable of dealing with life on a normal, everyday level.
In the end, I found my first experience of reading Stead fascinating and a little unsettling. I’m still thinking over the point of the story – wondering whether Honor represents the drifting unfocused modern girl of the 1960s (the decade in which the novella was published), or simply a free spirit, or how women would be if they weren’t hidebound by conformity and society’s expectations. Whatever I eventually conclude, I’ve certainly enjoyed reading Christina Stead and thanks to Lisa and her reading week for prompting me to do so!