The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead, 1967

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by Christina Stead, 1967

Best known for The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead was productive for more than five decades. Her output, in addition to novels, included novellas and short stories. A distinguished example of her achievement in short fiction, The Puzzleheaded Girl (1967) comprises four tales that have contributed to her reputation as one of the important writers of modern times.

First published in Kenyon Review in 1965, the opening narrative and title piece, "The Puzzleheaded Girl," depends for its chief setting on the writer's observations of New York. It also draws on her experience of London and the Continent. After leaving her birthplace of Australia in 1928, Stead spent stretches of her life in Europe and the United States, taking imaginative possession of the transnational domain of modern Western culture. The period of composition of the stories that comprise The Puzzleheaded Girl has been identified by R. G. Geering as spanning the 1950s and early 1960s, following the completion (in substance) of Dark Places of the Heart (1966), entitled Cotters' England in England. At this time Stead and her American husband, the novelist William Blake, were living in London.

Stead's habit of mind, learned from a father who was a naturalist, is strongly empirical, to the extent that she maintains a scrupulous openness to evidence, including evidence that might actually cast doubt on scientific disinterestedness. "The Puzzleheaded Girl," which is told in the third person, reports in a factual way on the observations and reflections of a left-wing intellectual who, against his inclination, is compelled toward a vision of truth as passion, that is, as experienced by involved subjects. His movement away from truth as objectivity occurs as Augustus Debrett, a New York businessman with a social conscience, attempts to come to terms with the periodic appearance in his life of a young woman who is the embodiment of mystery. Debrett is a haunted man. But what is it that haunts him?

At the outset Debrett and his business colleagues are presented with a spectacle of poverty in the form of a new addition to their staff, the young typist Honor Lawrence, who turns out to be the daughter of an Italian fruit seller. Debrett employs the girl on a whim, won over by her ingenuousness and her quaint air of intellectual seriousness. As she begins to affect his life, to the point of influencing his family's move to France, however, he begins to see that the power she has over him is disproportionate to the straightforward demands she makes on his charity. In her portrait of Honor, Stead reworks the character of Teresa Hawkins, the protagonist of For Love Alone (1944). The bond that exists from the moment Debrett recognizes something unusual in the girl's frank and detached manner recalls the novel's account of the meeting of Teresa and her future partner, James Quick, although in the earlier case the relationship never reaches the point of sexual encounter. Honor appears not to desire a sexual relationship. Or does she? This is one of the mysteries surrounding this woman manqué, who is puzzling to herself as well as to others. It is interesting that both fictional meetings imitate the real-life situation of boss and young employee in which Stead met her own husband.

In a series of episodes that show her poised enigmatically on the cusp of dependence and independence, obsession and detachment, innocence and experience, Honor Lawrence works out her destiny in relation to other characters in the story. Unconscious of conventional restraints, she importunes her bosses and their wives, seeking advice, money, or an invitation to dinner or to stay. Debrett's wife, Beatrice, is especially put out by the girl's behavior. She senses the danger of an affair at the same time as she shrugs off the idea as being ridiculous. It is clear to all that Honor, who narrowly escapes the designs of two lesbian patrons, is sexually naive. Baffling to the people who, through compassion, are driven to help her, the girl both pursues and does not pursue her benefactors. To Debrett it seems that she is simply there as a fact of life.

In this character Stead combines the traits of her earlier passionate searcher, Teresa Hawkins, and Teresa's terrible superego, Jonathan Crow. Like her brother Walter, Honor aspires to be an artist. A friend from her adolescent years who is infatuated with her and to whom she proposes marriage says that she is a person with "great gifts" who has created herself as a work of art. At times she seems to possess preternatural knowledge of Debrett, even tracking him down after the breakup of his marriage to Beatrice. Debrett shares with his second wife, Mari, the puzzle of this creature who seems to be set on integrity yet so often acts out of desperation, shocking others with her unwitting opportunism. He learns from Honor's "husband," Jay Hewitt, that a story she previously told him about a South African marriage and a lost child exists in another version in which Debrett himself is cast as the lover and accused of cold-bloodedly handing her on to a South American. Debrett is stunned by this challenge to his idea of Honor as a truth teller.

At the end of the story we encounter an Honor who, approaching death, repudiates any notion of love: "Love, I spit, I spit it out…. It kills you." It is left to Mari to throw light on the power of this vagrant who, even after she is gone, upsets Debrett's evenness of mind: "She's the ragged, wayward heart of woman that doesn't want to be caught and hasn't been caught…. She never loved anyone." Mari's husband, however, does not choose to believe her. A 1968 reviewer of the collection The Puzzleheaded Girl described Stead's portraiture as "cubist," as evoking the Picasso double profile. This is an illuminating way of drawing attention to the complex perspectives of the title piece, a tale of pursuit that sets out to confront both the objective and the subjective faces of truth.

—Patricia Dobrez

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The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead, 1967

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