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by Bamber Gascoigne

Christina Stead (1902-1983)


Australian writer, generally regarded as a major 20th-century novelist. Christina Stead lived a wandering life and never achieved a real popular success. She has been called Australia's "lost" novelist, partly because she lived abroad, and her works were originally published in England and the US. One of her works, Letty Fox (1946) was long banned in Australia – its heroine was considered depraved. The Man Who Loved Children (1940; rev. ed. 1965) is considered Stead's finest novel.

"She was a champion of many liberal causes, of free trade, minority rights, social services, nationalization of industry. She wanted to burn up her life in services; but she had, they knew, another hope: to find some greater cause, the best of all, and bind her life to it, as a living body is bound to a stake." (from Miss Herbert, 1976)

Christina Stead was born in Rockdale, New South Wales. Her father, David Stead, was a Fabian Socialist, and eminent naturalist; later he formed and managed the New South Wales Government State Trawling Industry. When Christina was two her mother died, and she grew up as the responsible eldest child of a large family. Davis Stead married Ada Gibbins, who according to Christina did not like her.

As a child Stead was particularly interested in fish, natural history, Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, and the sea. She attended New South Wales Teachers College, graduating in 1922. Stead then worked as both a teacher and a psychological tester, but did not enjoy teaching. She took a business course at night and from 1925 she worked as a secretary. By 1928 she had saved enough money to move to London after Keith Duncan, a young lecturer, with whom she had fallen in love. However, Duncan rejected her. Later Stead returned to this period in For Love Alone (1944), in which an idealistic girl follows a detestable man to England.

At the office Stead met the American broker Wilhelm Blech, who became her lifelong partner. They eventually married in 1952 when Blech was able to get a divorce. Blech was a Communist and Stead adopted his political views. Also Stead's friend the Communist writer and journalist Ralph Fox influenced her thought, especially his work The Novel and the People (1945).

The two Marxists moved to Paris to work at the Travelers’ Bank. Stead saw the city as the capital of the world. Moreover, the French Parti Communiste Français (PCF) was not banned until 1939. When the bank closed, Stead and Blech went to Spain. At the outbreak of Civil War they moved to the United States. Stead once said that they sailed for the "land of boundless importunity" after an "extensive night-course on American society under C.B. DeMille and Sam Goldwyn". (''A Skyrocket Waiting to Be Let Off', but to Where? Christina Stead's First Impression of the United States and Her Postwar Literay Rehabilition' by Michael Ackland, in Reading Across the Pacific: Australia - United States Intellectual Histories, edited by Robert Dixon and Nicholas Birns, 2010, p. 231) Blech changed his name to William Blake. He also had his own career as a writer, publishing romantic, historical novels, and an entertaining book on Marxian economics.

In the early 1940s Stead worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, contributing to Madame Curie, directed by Mervyn Le Roy, and They Were Expendable, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery. Stead also taught at a course on the novel at New York University. Before the U.S. House of Representatives started its crusade against Communists, Stead and Blake returned to Europe. To earn their living they had to do a lot of hack work, editing, and writing articles. Although Stead was involved in communist organisations, she was not a revolutionary and never joined the Party. The American writer Hortense Calister described Stead as both "open and silent", "an observer", who radiated "intimate majesty". ('Stead' by Hortense Calister, in Yale Review 76, 1987, p. 171-177) 

"You always said domestic women were treated as cattle, they should be free. They used to be sold like slaves in England till the middle of the nineteenth century, isn't that so? Well, I'm striking a blow for freedom. The so-called moral system is just imposed on women by men, isn't it? Well, I'm asserting my rights and my freedom." (from Miss Herbert)

Blake died of a stomach cancer in 1968. Stead remained unpublished in her own country until 1965, but gradually started to gain recognition. However, she was rejected in 1967 for the Britannica-Australia award on the grounds that she had ceased to be Australian. In 1969 she was a fellow in creative arts at Australian National University, Canberra. She settled permanently to her native country in 1974 and received the Patrick White award in the same year. Stead died in Sydney on March 31, 1983. Her last novel, I'm Dying Laughing (1986), published posthumously, gave an account of communists in Hollywood in the 1940s. It was pieced together by R.G. Geering, who also wrote her biography.

As a novelist Stead made her debut with Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), set in Sydney's waterfront, and depicting of a band of young revolutionaries, misfits as herself. House of All Nations (1938) was a massive and loosely constructed story about the collapse of a Swiss banking house, contrasting the corrupt capitalists with an ideal socialist hero. This work turned out to be a critical success and a best-seller. Miss Herbert (1976) was not published until some twenty years after it was written. Cotter's England (1966) was a savagely comic novel about politics, poverty, and sexual life. The protagonist is Nellie Cook, née Cotter, a Socialist, journalist, manipulator. Her brother Tom, to whom she remains locked in adolescent intimacy, has his own role as a Don Juan, who breaks hearts like the German's bombed London during World War II.

The title of The Man Who Loved Children was ironic: its portrait of the egoistic and tyrannical Sam Pollit, reflected partly Stead's own love-hate relationship with her own father. Marriage has left his wife, Henny "a dried-up, skinny, funny old woman," who cries out: "Isn't every rotten thing in life rotten luck?" Sam and Henny are no longer on speaking terms. Stead set the bitter story on the east coast of the United States. In the depiction of a disintegrating family and its consequences for the children and all involved, Stead used several juxtapositions: the clashing ideologies of North and South, the chasm between husband and wife, personal freedom versus traditions. Stead sees the family as a symbol for the world, ruled by power politics. As in her other novels, Stead also dealt with the theme of a woman facing the conflict between her own artistic freedom and family ties. In the story the young Louie plans a cycle of poems for her teacher and at the end decides to go for "a walk round the world." Louie reads most of the time, even while taking a shower.

The Man Who Loved Children was poorly received when it was published, and went unrecognized for 25 years. It was reissued in 1965 with an influential preface by the American poet Randall Jarrell, finally attracting much attention. Jarrell wrote: ". . . Christina Stead's way of seeing and representing the world is so plainly different from anyone else7s that after a while you take this for granted, and think cheerfully, "Oh, she can't help being original." The whole book is different from any other book you have read before." ('Introduction' by Randall Jarrell, in The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, 2001, First Picador USA Edition, p. xxii) Jarrell bought in 1941 two copies of the book; both were borrowed from him and at the time Jarrell wrote his introduction he had nothing left but a copy from the library."Lending a favorite book has its risks; the borrower may not like it." (Ibid., p. xl)

Stead was fully aware of socialist-realist theory of literature, but never adopted its Soviet formula. Challenging the feminist movement Stead argued that women's liberation pitted women against men, their "natural companions". She admired Zola and called herself a naturalist in the scientific sense. Her interest in cinema is seen in her use of scenes rather than chapters; The Man Who Loved Children is structured around a series of dramatic scenes set within the Pollit houses; House of All Nation has 104 scenes. Stead preferred third-person narration, allowing her characters to express their own clashing views and versions of reality. In The Salzburg Tales (1934) she used the structure of Geoffrey Chaucer's Cantebury Tales, which was made up of stories told by a group of people.

"The essence of style in literature, for me is experiment, invention, 'creative error' (Jules Romains), and change; and of its content, the presentation of 'man alive' (Ralph Fox). I am not puritan nor party, like to know every sort of person, nor political, but on the side of those who have suffered oppression, injustice, coercion, prejudice, and have been harried from birth." (Christina Stead in Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, edited by Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, 1942, p. 1330)
For further reading: Christina Stead and the Matter of America by Fiona Morrison (2019); A Free Flame: Australian Women Writers and Vocation in the Twentieth Century by Ann-Marie Priest (2018); Christina Stead and the Socialist Heritage by Michael Ackland (2016); Christina Stead, Satirist by Anne Pender (2002); The Magic Phrase: Critical Essays on Christina Stead, edited by Margaret Harris (2000); Christina Stead's Politics of Place by Ann Blake (1999); Christina Stead, Selected Fiction and Nonfiction, ed. by R.G. Geering and A. Segerberg (1994); Christina Stead by Jennifer Gribble (1994); Christina Stead by Hazel Rowley (1993); Christina Stead: A Life of Letters by Chris Williams (1989); Christina Stead by Susan Sheridan (1988); Christina Stead by Diana Brydon (1987); Christina Stead by R.G. Geering (1969) 

Selected works:

  • Seven Poor Men of Sydney, 1934
  • The Salzburg Tales, 1934
  • The Beauties and Furies, 1936
  • House of All Nations, 1938
  • The Man Who Loved Children, 1940 (rev. ed. 1965; introduction by Randall Jarrell: 1965, 2001, First Picador USA Edition)
  • For Love Alone, 1944
  • Letty Fox: Her Luck, 1946
  • A Little Tea, a Little Chat, 1948
  • The People with the Dogs, 1952
  • Dark Places of the Heart, 1966 (U.K. title Cotters' England)
  • The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas, 1967
  • The Little Hotel, 1973
  • Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife), 1976
  • A Christina Stead Reader, 1979 (ed. by J.R. Read)
  • The Palace with Several Sides: A Sort of Love Story, 1986
  • I’m Dying Laughing, 1987
  • Talking into the Typerwriter: Selected Letters, 1992
  • A Web of Friedship: Selected Letters, 1992
  • Letty Fox: Her Luck, 2001 (introduction by Tim Parks)
  • Dearest Munx: the Letters of Christina Stead and William J. Blake, 2005 (edited by Margaret Harris)
  • Letty Fox: Her Luck, 2011 (introduction by Carmen Callil)
  • For Love Alone, 2011 (introduction by Drusilla Modjeska)
  • Seven Poor Men of Sydney, 2015 (introduction by Delia Falconer)

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