‘Pieces of the Puzzle: an introduction to Christina Stead’s “The Puzzleheaded Girl”’, by Fiona Wright


The four novellas that make up The Puzzleheaded Girl, first published in 1967, are all portraits of women – although they’re referred to, by the characters that surround them, as girls. The distinction is important, and it’s made most explicitly by two of Stead’s male characters, Martin and George, both American expats living in Paris. They’re talking about Linda, the beautiful, kleptomaniac daughter of one of Martin’s friends, whom George desperately wants to marry, in what would be his fourth such partnership. Martin begins:

‘A woman can’t be, until a girl dies. I don’t mean it indecently. I mean the sprites girls are, so different from us, all their fancies, their illusions, their flower world, the dreams they live in.’

‘Women!’ said George stormily. ‘No, there is not a dead girl in them. They are just clay. When a girl dies there is nothing. Just an army of aunts and mothers, midwives and charwomen… I see girls without sentiment, but I see how beautiful they are. I cannot marry a woman who is a dead girl. I must marry a living beautiful wonderful girl.’

Yet the drama in this story—the last in the collection, ‘Girl from the Beach’—occurs precisely because Linda refuses the definition that these men seek to impose on her, refuses their expectations, too. She is flighty and impulsive, embarking on spontaneous trips to Spain, to Strasburg, to the French countryside, with other young expats she meets in cafes and bars; she shares a hotel room with a young gay man, pretending they are an engaged couple, to save her money and his reputation simultaneously.

At one point in the novella, Barby, one of George’s ex-wives, asks Linda if she intends to follow through with her engagement, and she answers, ‘I don’t know… I think everybody wants to get rid of the problem. I’m a problem.’ But Barby, older, brasher and clearer-eyed than Linda, responds by pointing out that George is the problem, that ‘he’s got a complex’ and hates American girls, but doesn’t know it. ‘He keeps marrying them to make them into his own little girl,’ she states.

Linda is a problem because she won’t settle down, because she doesn’t know exactly what she wants, but won’t accept anything that she doesn’t. She has her secrets, and her own pain, but she is also having a riotous time, indifferent to—although not unconscious of—the demands and desires that men like George project onto her.

And project Stead’s men do, across each of these novellas. In ‘The Dianas’, Lydia, another American living and working in Paris, spends her time meeting and dining with men, all of whom feel some claim on her and try to pin her down. ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’ is named for the descriptor Debrett, a city businessman, uses for the enigmatic Honor Lawrence, an oddly beautiful and socially inept young woman who drifts in and out of his life across many years. And in ‘The Rightangled Creek’, Sam Parsons, a male writer, goes on retreat in a country farmhouse, and dreams up a ghost based on a local story about the young woman who once inhabited the house. In each of these stories, Stead is making a forceful and sometimes brutal point, about the claims and the kinds of knowledge, patronising and paternalist, that these men assume they have over women – and girls.

I’ve been this girl, I can’t help but think. This kind of girl somehow misapprehended by the world, or at least by the people around me, who’ve seen something in me or about me that I wasn’t sure was really there. And because we are all constituted in part by the selves we see reflected back at us in our interactions, or because I think I somehow trusted other peoples’ apprehensions more than my own, I couldn’t help but play along. It’s taken me years to recognise the damage this misrecognition can do, even longer to try to undo it. So it’s remarkable to me that Stead is so uncompromising, so clear-eyed in examining this strange projection.

It’s remarkable today, but all the more startling when you consider that the first novella in this book was originally published in 1965. In 1965, Robert Menzies was still prime minister of Australia. Bookshops were still being raided and publishers prosecuted for obscenity. The first Australian troops were sent to Vietnam. In the United States, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had been published only two years before, and it was still illegal for married couples to use contraception.

At this time, Christina Stead had been living away from Australia for thirty-seven years, and was residing on the suburban outskirts of London. Her novel The Man Who Loved Children, originally published in 1940, was reissued in the United States, and finally started finding its audience and acclaim. The world was changing, and so was Stead’s position within it; so too, more slowly, were the lives of many women and girls. Against this backdrop, Stead’s portraits are subversive and defiantly political. They are drawn from many angles at once, much like Cubist paintings, and are never stable, never definitive, but riddled with uncertainties, half-truths and secrets that conventional knowledge cannot capture or contain.

Honor Lawrence, the titular ‘puzzleheaded girl’, first appears at the offices of the newly formed Farmers’ Utilities Corporation in New York City, carrying a book on French symbolism and claiming to be eighteen. The first description of her is entirely from the perspective of Guy Debrett, one of the partners in this firm, who is immediately intrigued by her: ‘He saw a diffident girl in a plain tan blouse, a tight, navy-blue skirt, very short at the time when skirts were not short, round knees, worn walking shoes; she wore no overcoat.’ In this passage, Debrett literally looks Honor up and down, and we see only what he sees.

Honor joins Debrett’s office as a filing clerk, and is disliked by her women colleagues, but is strangely fascinating to the men. She is ‘polite yet odd’, an unsettling and intense presence, always reading her art books as she works. After some months, she is offered a promotion, but stormily declines, stating ‘I have to earn my living in an office, but I won’t mix in business… it is the enemy of art.’ When pressed, she explains, ‘I want to live with artists and live like them. I don’t want to be like those earthy girls there… I prefer to die of hunger. Or go away.’

There are echoes here of Stead’s other heroines – the principled, ambitious and hungry Teresa from For Love Alone, the rebellious and creative Louisa from The Man Who Loved Children. Honor’s striving and desire lead her, later, to abandon the firm without warning, to almost travel to Europe as the companion of an older lesbian, to marry bigamously and float around the world, always unanchored, always unsatisfied and always barely avoiding destitution.

But the more that Honor passes in and out of Debrett’s life, the greater his romanticisation of her becomes. She is an innocent and ‘a rare human being’, and then ‘a repressed girl who is hunted by lechers, criminals and hags’, ‘a weak shade of lunatic’, and finally one who ‘partakes of a sacred character, those the gods love, or hate’. Other characters, caught in her thrall, begin to describe her as a person ‘with great gifts who want[s] to create, but [is] not self-centred enough’, ‘a spirit in a dress of rags’, and even ‘the ragged, wayward heart of a woman that doesn’t want to be caught and hasn’t been caught’. To the men who perceive her, Honor is all of these things – but what she is to herself neither they nor we are ever allowed to know. All we see are pieces of the puzzle, never the image that Honor might carry in her own head.

And this is Honor’s tragedy, just as it is the tragedy of Linda, traipsing around Europe with George hopelessly in tow, and the tragedy of Lydia, trying to make a life for herself and by herself, as her suitors scramble madly and often cruelly to pin her down. ‘You’re surely not going to refuse?’ one of these men asks when he tries to take her to bed. Linda answers, ‘We’re travelling together, my dear Russell, but we’re not intimate. We’re comrades, remember; we scarcely know each other’ – which doesn’t prevent him from trying again, and again.

All four of the women at the heart of these novellas are, in their own way, trampled or tormented by the expectations or projections that are pressed upon them, but they are also defiant. They are distinctly modern women, waiting for the world to catch up. And this is precisely why The Puzzleheaded Girl is such a fascinating book – it is so thoroughly of its changing and confusing time. Stead is masterly in capturing the contradictions and complications of this era, and the effects, both devastating and decidedly mundane, that they had—and perhaps still have—on the lives of women and girls.

Fiona Wright’s book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award, and her poetry collection Knuckled, won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award. She has recently completed a PhD at Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.

The new edition of The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead is available this week from Text Publishing.