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Stow, Julian Randolph (1935–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

from Sydney Morning Herald

Randolph Stow, by Alec Bolton, 1985

Randolph Stow, by Alec Bolton, 1985

National Library of Australia, 14599010

Randolph Stow's creativity was with him from birth, responding to the sights and sounds, the landscape and its history, of his boyhood home in Geraldton, Western Australia. At university, he abandoned law for letters and in the first two novels as an undergraduate, those early experiences found expression.

His natural writing style took the form of "internalised fiction" — exploring the inner workings of his main character as relating to the surrounding world. It was different from the all-action "social realism" novels the Australian reading public had been used to. These "modernist" novels, pioneered in Australia by the likes of Patrick White, were greeted with mixed reviews but eventually won recognition. Stow won the second Miles Franklin Award in 1958 — the first having gone to White — and in 1979 the Patrick White Award. He was to receive a host of awards, grants and medals in a career that was to brand him as one of the finest writers Australia has ever produced.

Julian Randolph Stow was born on November 23, 1935, son of a country lawyer, Cedric Stowe, and Mary, nee Sewell. Both sides of Stow's family were fifth-generation Australians. A great-great grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Stow, who arrived from Suffolk in 1837, helped to found the state of South Australia. The Sewell family had migrated from Essex and settled in the Geraldton district as pastoralists.

Stow went to school in Geraldton, then attended Guildford Grammar, Perth. He went to the University of Western Australia, initially to study law, but switched to arts and graduated in 1956, majoring in English and French. His first novel, The Haunted Land, was published that year, capturing the stories told by his grandparents of the early days of Geraldton and recording, as he said, "my own adolescent response to the landscape". Also published that year was a collection of poems, Act One, which he completed in his university holidays. His second novel, The Bystander, was also published.

In 1957, Stow took on a temporary job as a storeman at isolated Forrest River Anglican mission in the northern Kimberley. He won that year's Australian Literary Society Gold Medal for Act One, and took a job as a tutor at the University of Adelaide, where he wrote his third novel, To The Islands. That book won Stow a second Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and the 1958 Miles Franklin Award. In 1960, Stow went to Sydney University to study linguistics and social anthropology. The following year, he went to New Guinea where he worked as a cadet patrol officer. He worked mainly in the Trobriand Islands and studied the Biga-Kiriwina language. He also contracted cerebral malaria, developed suicidal depression, and was invalided home.

Stow did his master of arts at the University of Western Australia. Taking a ship to London, he filled in his time by writing his fourth novel, Tourmaline, in which a messianic visitor has descended on a desperate outback town, and revealed the influence on him of Taoism. In 1961-62, he lectured in English at the University of Leeds. In 1962, he had his main collection of verse, Outrider, published, with illustrations by his friend Sidney Nolan.

In 1963, Stow returned to the University of Western Australia as a lecturer in English literature. In 1964, with the benefit of a Harkness Fellowship, he went to the United States and lived in New Mexico, Maine and Alaska. While in Aztec, New Mexico, he wrote his fifth novel, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, expressing the nostalgia he felt for his boyhood in Geraldton in the 1940s. The same year, he attended Yale University to study the Indonesian language. In 1967, he had published A Counterfeit Silence, a selection of his poems, along with a children's story, Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy, about a bushranger and the bungled efforts of a kind-hearted policeman to arrest him. In 1968, Stow took up a lectureship in English and became a Fellow of Commonwealth Literature at the University of Leeds.

In 1969, having moved back and forth between Australia and Britain for years, Stow settled in East Bergholt, Suffolk. It was where his family had come from, and he preferred the greater social and linguistic complexity of Britain. He also wrote librettos for Eight Songs for a Mad King. He then wrote Visitants, set in New Guinea. The experiences of the main character, Cawder, a patrol officer, paralleled his own, but the ending was a bit harsh, but he suffered writer's block and did not finish, at least then.

In 1974, with a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant, Stow returned briefly to Australia to write librettos for Miss Donnithorne's Maggot. Back in England in 1979, Stow overcame his writer's block by writing his seventh novel, The Girl Green as Elderflower, in four weeks. Here, the main character, Crispin Clare, suffered disease and stress in a tropical colony that nearly killed him but in Suffolk was drawn out by the kindness of distant cousins. When Stow did finish Visitants, it ended sadly, with Cawder committing suicide. Published in 1979, it helped him win the Patrick White Award for that year.

In 1981, Stow moved his abode to a terraced house in Harwich, Essex. In 1984, he had published his last novel, The Suburbs of Hell, a cross between a murder-mystery and a mediaeval morality tale. In his last years, he lived frugally and obscurely, enjoying only a trickle of royalties, mixing with the locals at a nearby pub, having no desire to restrict himself to the company of literati. Randolph Stow died of a pulmonary embolism in Essex on May 29.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Stow, Julian Randolph (1935–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/stow-julian-randolph-31783/text39248, accessed 17 September 2021.

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