The Puzzleheaded Girl

by Christina Stead

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Augustus Debrett hires Honor Lawrence as a file clerk for his company, although she has no discernible qualifications. He is taken with her youth and her sweet, wistful quality. As time passes, he learns that she lives with her father in appalling poverty and that her brother is a successful artist. When Debrett’s burgeoning business acquires a new bookkeeping machine, Honor quickly learns to operate it, but she refuses to accept the job of bookkeeper even though it would mean a raise in salary. She will not deal with the moneymaking aspect of the business, calling it unworthy. Tom Zero, a handsome young lawyer in the firm, suggests they fire her, but Debrett is impressed by the fact that Honor has given up a raise on principle, so she stays.

Honor shows up unexpectedly at Zero’s apartment one day during working hours and breaks through Mrs. Zero’s reserve with stories of her life dominated by a mean and miserly father. Honor’s mother, who was also ill-treated by her father, is dead, and she wants nothing as much as a room of her own in someone’s house. Sympathetic Mrs. Zero promises to think about the problem and finds Honor touching, even when she shows up at the Zero’s apartment unexpectedly for dinner the following evening.

Debrett, whose wife is away visiting her mother with their infant son, comes home from work one night to find Honor in his apartment. He sends her home, ignoring her innocent suggestion that she stay there with him. When his wife and son return, Honor makes an unexpected call on Beatrice Debrett. Beatrice invites Honor for dinner, during which the girl’s extreme poverty and lack of normal experience are highlighted.

Honor’s eccentricity is further emphasized when Palmer, a visiting engineer from the Midwest, invites her out for lunch and tells her of his wife and children on their farm in Ohio. Honor does not show up for work the following week, although her father and brother both come looking for her. Her father is an Italian immigrant who barely speaks English; her family name is Tommaseo, which she and her brother have changed to Lawrence. Debrett is shocked to learn that the girl is only sixteen. A short time later, Debrett’s firm breaks up and he finds a new job on Wall Street. Palmer, the engineer who had invited Honor to lunch, receives a letter from his wife in Ohio. A young girl arrived at the farm claiming that she knows Mr. Palmer and has decided to stay. Mrs. Palmer is taken with the girl although she does no work in the house or on the farm, even when asked. When Mr. Palmer returns, the girl slips away without a word.

Two-and-a-half years later, Honor shows up at Debrett’s Wall Street office to borrow money to live on until she leaves for Europe with a wealthy woman who has taken an interest in her. Two days later she is back; the woman has made sexual advances toward Honor and then thrown her out when she resisted. She next takes up with the matron of a mental home, an alliance that also ends badly when the matron treats her like a madwoman. Tom Zero runs into Honor on the street looking frayed and exhausted, but she refuses his offer of help and disappears, weeping.

Debrett settles his wife and son in Nice while he looks for work in Europe. Honor again surfaces unexpectedly. In Berlin, he receives a late-night call from an associate in London about a Mrs. Hewett who has turned up at their office claiming a close friendship with Debrett. She needs ten pounds to keep from starving. When it is determined that the woman is Honor Lawrence, Debrett approves the loan. On his return to London, he finds a letter from her explaining that she married Jay Hewett, a childhood friend, but found him dreadful and mad and left him. Debrett eventually leaves his wife for another woman, but as he and his new wife meander about Europe, he imagines that he keeps seeing Honor.

In New York on a business trip about three years later, Debrett again encounters Honor Lawrence. She tells him she married a South African she met in a gallery in Europe, but when she went to South Africa, his family had her deported and put their child in an orphanage. She now has no money, but plans a trip back to South Africa. She also has a venereal disease that she believes the South African gave her. When questioned, she is vague about her relationship with Hewett. While visiting an exhibition of the artwork of Honor’s brother, Debrett is approached by Hewett, who claims to have known all about Debrett for years. Hewett has been in love with Honor since childhood, but his stories about her and Debrett’s stories about her are quite different, although they both believe the girl never lies.

Some time later, Debrett hears that Hewett ran into Honor and found her sick and dishevelled. Although poor himself, Hewett offered to take care of her in the name of love, but she rejected both his offer and the idea of love. Finally Hewett learns of her solitary death, and disappears himself. Debrett continues to believe that he sees Honor from time to time in her younger incarnation.

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