Miss Herbert

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1656

Christina Stead, an expatriate Australian who lived much of her life in England, published her first novel in 1934. Between that book and this, there are nine others, two of them recently reprinted in a revival of her major works. She has been called one of the most distinguished novelists writing in English; and Randall Jarrell, who wrote the introduction to the reissued novel The Man Who Loved Children, compared that work with Moby Dick. These facts notwithstanding, Miss Herbert is a novel with serious flaws.

Miss Herbert tells the story of Eleanor Herbert Brent, a tall, athletic beauty who is bright, ambitious, and energetic, yet who cannot escape a series of dreary fates. Set in postwar Britain, the novel spans more than thirty years of her tedious life and sees her in and out of several affairs, a bad marriage, and grueling periods of poverty, all without eliciting reader sympathy. This Stead accomplishes by drawing Eleanor as a silly, self-centered, narrowminded woman, given to flattering herself and badly misjudging others.

As a character, Eleanor appears as a paper figure pasted to a twentieth century urban landscape. She is obviously meant to be the modern woman (“the suburban housewife”), wrestling with drives, both intellectual and sexual, that seem to put her at odds with societal pressures. Yet neither the character nor the reason for the struggle becomes believable: the pressures seem to come from her own shallow mind, while the drives emanate from her imagination. The anticipated collision and reassessment of values never occurs because there is no protagonist and no antagonist; there is just Eleanor.

At times, the insipid banalities she spouts lead her, in apparently total innocence, to insult the person with whom she is conversing. Yet the insults have an exasperating habit of falling on deaf ears. One such case involves Marky, an old school friend who is living (unmarried) with Ivo, a foreign journalist in Paris. Eleanor tells the couple, “You, my dear ones, could never be so happy, shine and beam with happiness as you do, you darlings, in England, for in Paris these things are quite normal, but in dear old fusty England, people must be married. And even here, I suppose you are not received in society?” Marky and Ivo look at her and laugh good naturedly. Eleanor continues:“Oh my dears, but you do miss good company, it is a pity. On the train over, I met Mrs. Blanding-Forest, an artist. She did the whole Royal Family and she was most curious when I said I was going to stay with an artist in Paris. I said a woman artist, of course—only it was on the tip of my tongue to tell her where I was staying, but I thought it better not, in your situation.”

Marky and Ivo do not react at all; the scene changes. Not only this scene, but several others like it, involve the defiance of traditional morality—a pastime that Eleanor has engaged in for years without ever admitting it to the rest of the world. Her hypocrisy irritates more so than her silliness.

We first meet Eleanor when she is in her twenties, young, beautiful, and confident. She is, we are told, different from her friends, for not only is she more beautiful than they, but she is an engaged woman. That particular status does not last long, however, as she breaks her engagement to devote her energies to a literary career. She is now young, beautiful, and free, and to these attributes we can add sensuous, for she begins her literary education by tasting the sordid life, first as a hotel maid, seducing and seduced by fellow employees and clientele; and then, living in a respectable women’s residence, where she makes part of her living entertaining male students in her room, after first discussing philosophy with them.

Eleanor eventually falls in love with a man she refuses to marry because the feelings are too passionate (“I want fresh air in my marriage, not passion, love, the hand of fate . . .”), and she eventually marries a man she does not love. We are evidently meant to sympathize with Eleanor as a woman who can neither understand nor control the drives that shape her life. Her sensuality is an integral part of her personality, but so are her old-fashioned values, and she wavers constantly between her two selves. But instead of becoming a tragic, or even sympathetic figure, she becomes—from this point on—merely pathetic and irritating.

As the novel continues, we see Eleanor devoting herself singlemindedly to her marriage, just as she earlier devoted herself to experiencing life. But when the marriage finally ends in divorce, she is a broken woman, unable to comprehend her husband’s infidelity. She declares herself a widow, forces her two young children into an awareness of their father’s infamy, and embarks on a tedious series of attempts at making a living on the fringes of the London literary world. She becomes involved once more in a series of affairs (this time almost totally imaginary) with peculiar men (a homosexual, a voyeur, a Scottish farmer who does not know her at all but cherishes her for the editing job she has done on his manuscript). These men and others populate her fantasies for a decade or so while she and her children are living in abject poverty.

Eleanor at length comes to a resolution of the moral-sexual split in her personality only when she falls passionately in love once more—this time with her daughter’s fiancé. The solution to this dilemma is, as we should by now expect, incredible. Stead describes it this way: “. . . then something strange happened. It was just as if someone lifted the top off her head for a moment and let air in so that part of her brain blew cold. . . .” When her daughter arrives home, Eleanor is in a beatific state. “I kept the rules,” she announces, “but the rules didn’t keep me. . . .”

It is difficult to reconcile how an established author can deal with what Eleanor would term “grisly reality” in such unrealistic terms. All the affairs in the novel are held tastefully offstage, and solutions to real dilemmas are absurdly simple. We get the impression that Stead is a woman of delicate sensibilities, much like her heroine—a moralist who knows more of the seamy side of life than she would ever admit.

Miss Herbert is a novel about a woman alone: a woman who believes in her abilities to succeed in whatever role she assumes and who ultimately fails at all of them. Whether or not Stead intended the book to be read as a “women’s novel,” given the subject matter it is impossible in this age to overlook that element. However, the truth is that Eleanor Herbert’s repeated failures result not from the inequities of an unyielding society but from her own vacuous personality.

To give Christina Stead her due as a writer whose earlier works have won the respect of many critics, we must assume that delineation of plot, as well as the main character’s hypocrisy and insipidity, are intentional facets of the portrait. Eleanor Herbert’s character does in fact reflect both the dreariness and the ambiguity of modern English life. The country is moving toward socialism; the glorious Empire is no more; and life in London for a bright, educated woman who must somehow support herself and two children is tedious and difficult. Vaguely present in the book is evidence for a comparison between character and background, but Stead fails to marry the elements. She may have intentionally painted Eleanor drab and flat, but instead of elucidating the moral poverty of modern English life, she diminishes her major character.

The novel is very English, perhaps too English for the American reader; but it is not a novel about England. Time and place are strangely immaterial to Stead. The only precise reference to time that we are given is that Eleanor is fifty-five at the novel’s end. But we are given no dates and no specific references to locate the action in a particular time; nor are we told the heroine’s age at the outset of the story. References are made in the course of the novel to things that happened “after the war” or “during the war,” but we do not know whether the war occurred during the time-frame of the novel or not. This is the more peculiar if we accept the argument that Eleanor’s portrait is purposely flat as a reflection of her surroundings. What surroundings? A writer whose protagonist’s successful characterization depends upon references to the decline of the British Empire from the late 1930’s to the present does not write her novel without once mentioning a time period. Hence, we are forced to find either the characterization or the plotting flawed.

Stead is not a novice writer, nor are the themes in Miss Herbert unfamiliar to her. As in her earlier works, she makes us aware of the pressures and constrictions of a character’s own needs in opposition to society. The tensions of family life have been a recurrent theme in her writing, as has the struggle of the individual in the city. Politics, too, are important: most of the interesting characters are represented as socialists or ex-communists trying to outlive a reputation for radicalism. But themes are useless unless the character who is pitted against them has a moderate amount of believability and nobility. Eleanor Herbert has neither. She is a flat character who has been instilled with no energy to rise above the clichéd landscape in which she has been placed.

Stead tackles a problem of interest to most twentieth century women, but her solution to her character’s troublingly divided nature is no solution at all. The novel fails to provide either hope or elucidation.


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, August, 1976, p. 87.

Best Sellers. XXXVI, October, 1976, p. 214.

New Republic. CLXXV, October 9, 1976, p. 38.

New York Times Book Review. June 13, 1976, p. 4.

New Yorker. LII, August 9, 1976, p. 74.

Saturday Review. III, July 10, 1976, p. 50.

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