Julian Randolph Stow was born in Western Australia, where his father was a lawyer. The largely autobiographical novel The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea gives an account of his childhood experiences there. His first novel, A Haunted Land, and most of the poems in Act One were written while he was an undergraduate at the University of Western Australia. He spent his years there studying English and French literature and avidly reading in other European literatures. The reading of these years shows in a number of his novels, but especially in the rich allusiveness of To the Islands. The Bystander, Stow’s second novel, was written after he graduated. In 1957 Stow worked for some months on an Aboriginal mission in the northwestern corner of Australia, and from his experiences there was born what most critics consider to be his masterpiece and one of the best Australian novels of the twentieth century, To the Islands. Tourmaline, too, in the geographical isolation of its setting, reflects his sense at the mission of being at the world’s end, as if he were at a remote settlement within the remote settlement of Western Australia.
After studying anthropology at the University of Sydney, Stow worked as an assistant anthropologist in the Trobriand Islands off northeastern New Guinea until he suffered a physical and emotional collapse there. Visitants, which he wrote twenty years later, is based upon these experiences. In 1960 Stow moved to England. Soon after first arriving in England he was awarded a Harkness Fellowship in the United States, where he wrote The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, a fairly cheerful account of his childhood. The next fourteen years were unproductive, from a literary viewpoint, until after he finished Visitants in 1979, which was followed one year later by The Girl Green as Elderflower and in 1984 by The Suburbs of Hell. Outrider, Stow’s second book of verse, was published after he moved to England. His main book of verse, however, is considered to be A Counterfeit Silence.
Stow is one of the earliest of a group of Australians—writers such as Bruce Beaver, David Malouf, Roger McDonald, and Rodney Hall—who during the period from the 1960’s to the 1980’s wrote both fiction and poetry. That association of genres is especially a phenomenon of this time, an expression perhaps of the breakdown of formal distinctions between genres. Few of these writers, however, have written novels strong in narrative content; their novels, like Stow’s, tend to be elusive. Moreover, Stow, as a number of critics have remarked, has always had difficulty in harmonizing romantic and realistic elements in his novels. The works that are freest of that difficulty are To the Islands, in which the level of poetic intensity is steadily maintained, and The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, a warm and relaxed record of childhood years.
It is difficult to generalize about Stow, for each of his novels is different from the others; change rather than development characterizes his literary career. His work shows not so much recurrent themes as areas of interest: a penchant for the romantic (whether medieval or nineteenth century Romantic), for the anthropological, and for the symbolism of the twentieth century French movement. Linear narrative and realism do not appeal to him. There are fewer restraints operating upon his poetry than upon his fiction, and the best of his poetry, especially his love poems, is more accessible than his novels. Stow’s works, like the man himself, are elusive and, except in the case of the two novels mentioned, have a withheld quality about them. The events and personages of his novels are always seen at a distance and are obscured underneath technical experimentation. As early as in the epigraph to A Counterfeit Silence—a quotation from Thornton Wilder, “Even speech was for them a debased form of silence; how much more futile is poetry, which is a debased form of speech”—Stow betrayed an ambivalence toward writing, a reluctance to communicate in words.
Hassall, Anthony J. “Randolph Stow.” In Australian Writers, 1915-1950, edited by Selina Samuels. Vol. 260 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002. A solid overview of Stow’s career.
Hassall, Anthony J. Strange Country: A Study of Randolph Stow. Rev. ed. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1990. An academic study that covers Stow’s later work.
Lear, Martin. “Mal du Pays: Symbolic Geography in the Work of Randolph Stow.” Australian Literary Studies 15, no. 1 (May, 1991): 3-26. Examines geography in Stow’s works, addressing it as both literal place and symbolic of feelings.
“Stow, Randolph.” In The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A brief but helpful essay.
Stow, Randolph. Randolph Stow: “Visitants,” Episodes from Other Novels, Poems, Stories, Interviews, and Essays. Edited by Anthony J. Hassall. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1990. Includes insightful and enlightening interviews with the author.
Willbanks, Ray. Randolph Stow. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A good introduction to Stow’s career and major work.