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...
(The entire section is 1656 words.)