Serious Ladies

Dark Places of the Heart

by Christina Stead
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 352 pp., $6.95

The Collected Works of Jane Bowles

by Jane Bowles, introduction by Truman Capote
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 431 pp., $6.95

Journal from Ellipsia

by Hortense Calisher
Little, Brown, 375 pp., $5.95

Like The Man Who Loved Children, Miss Stead’s first book in nearly two decades is mainly a set of characterizations developed through resourceful dialogue. Since the earlier novel concentrated on a family a general theme unavoidably materialized, though the willingness of some critics to take the Pollits as the essential modern family can almost be taken as slander. Miss Stead seemed to be raising social issues, both in Sam’s patronizing behavior to the natives on his Malayan trip and in the class warfare lying beneath the Pollit’s horrible mismating. Yet what one remembers from this novel are not its thematic qualities but Henny’s tirades and Sam’s nauseating baby-talk.

Dark Places of the Heart is even foggier conceptually, and may seem, as a consequence, even more aimless. Its heroine, a radical Fleet Street hack with a squalid family in some northern province, has received her education in a frequently mentioned but dimly perceived ambiance of London socialism and promiscuity. But if Miss Stead meant that Nellie Cotter’s history corresponds to an ironic decadence in the welfare state (in Britain the book is called Cotter’s England), she has, once more, been obscure about it. As in the earlier novel, her central characters, a brother and sister this time, overwhelm their background.

Fortunately, Tom and Nellie have considerable force. Though a lady’s man, Tom Cotter is androgynous, self-pitying, and passive. Proclaiming himself a stony-hearted waif, he inspires in the women he conquers and does not love, maternal sentiment and sexual pride. At our first meeting, Tom stands firmly at the side of his dying mistress, but only, we soon surmise, to gain public recognition of his heroic fidelity. For Tom, each woman is a mirror for his charm, or a reward for his wistfulness.

Second-rate in all else, his sister Nellie is a virtuoso of opportunism, who can drain triumph even from self-abasement. She laments her family’s poverty (“I don’t understand those who don’t feel this terrible tender guilt towards their parents. It’s a crushing burden, darling: it is”), but only for the solace in such guilt (“we have known life and love and it was denied to them”). She rails, in and out of print, at the miserable lot of workingmen, but her sympathy subtly flatters her own condition. Not one of Nellie’s attitudes is straight or true to facts. She regards her marriage as “perfection,” but her husband is always in pursuit of humbler pleasures; in Geneva, in Rome, with her servants and boarders: anywhere and with anyone to escape Nellie’s non-stop chain-smoking, drinking, and raving which invariably end in coughing fits.

PRECARIOUSLY BIRD-LIKE, her breasts, as she says, “a bunch of scallions,” Nellie is a frantic woman staving off despair behind a wall of words. Though her self-deceptions are raucous, we and the other characters are deafened to them “by the inner melody of her northern voice and its unexpected cry, its eloquence…Yet eloquence gives her lies the authority of truth only until the deepest lie is exposed. Fiercely…

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