Although I've managed to collect most of the Virago editions of Christina Stead's work this is the first time I've actually opened one of her books - one of the agreeable side effects of listing all those Virago's has been feeling the excitement of discovery all over again. I have some really great looking books - and in a glass half full mood that means a lot to look forward to. Stead is one of those writers who clearly has a mighty reputation somewhere, Virago published her, Faber Finds found her, Capuchin Classics have dabbled with her titles, and so have plenty of others, but I still have a sense that she's just under the radar (that may be just me though).
'Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife)' managed to fool me, being new to Stead I didn't really know what to expect (okay, so I picked it up because of the cover which is beautiful but possibly a little misleading) and this one written late in her career may not have been the best place to start. The heroine of the piece Eleanor Brent (later Mrs Charles and then Miss Herbert) is a difficult character to come to grips with. She's a beauty, the genuine article - glowing with good health, vitality, and sexual curiosity, we meet her in her twenties not so long out of university, still given to intense talks with her girlfriends, and as conventionally chaste as any middle class girl in the twenties could be expected to be. This doesn't last, she heads off alone on a cruise which marks the beginning of a career in promiscuity that falls just short of professional - her occasional worries about plain cloths policemen make it clear just how close to the wind she sails.
Stead is coy about details and so is Eleanor who happily lies and prevaricates her way through the next five years. She is a master of self justification (and with it a deeply irritating character) intent on having her rights when it comes to youth and pleasure - but not love. It's an immensely readable book, which confused me at first because I hated Eleanor to begin with but just when she irritated me most Stead throws in a hint that all is not as it seems. Lies about the state of an engagement, those allusions to possible policemen, and scenes where Eleanor is not explaining herself - all are illuminating.
As Eleanor ages however she becomes easier to empathise with. By 30 she's getting a little desperate to marry and her literary career hasn't really taken off. She meets a man - Henry Charles almost by chance and decides he'll do. They marry without love (though Eleanor will later insist it was a love match) but she's happy with her bargain; loves running her home and making ends meet. Unfortunately her husband is a snob, would be social climber, and fascist sympathiser with a talent for duplicity that more than rivals Eleanor's generally good natured avoidance of the truth.
She is slowly manoeuvred out of her marriage, her home, and her self confidence, until finally she's left with two children and the task of making them a home in post war London without any reliable support. What follows is a bloody struggle which would be far more heroic if Eleanor wasn't, in so many ways, such a terrible mother. Still she battles on, playing by the rules which refuse to play by her and living with the double tragedy of being trapped in poverty (however hard she works and this, I think, is particularly relevant to the economic turbulence we're currently enjoying) and never really experiencing real love.
It's a complex book that will take some mulling over (it has something in common with Persephone's 'To Bed With Grand Music'), I'm certainly more interested in Christina Stead now, and wish my edition had come with an introduction - it's a book that wants some explaining, if for nothing else than the chance to disagree with another's opinion.