Stead's experimental approach to the novel and to the treatment of character is not only influenced by key nineteenth- and twentieth-century practitioners--including in addition to Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Theodore Dreiser--but is also shaped by her encounters with modernist culture and writing, radical political thought, and the theories of Charles Darwin and other scientific naturalists. Stead's fiction, while self-consciously engaging with this European and transatlantic cultural heritage, is also conditioned by the somewhat marginal, postcolonial position of an expatriate Australian white woman of her generation. Stead's novels are perhaps most remarkable for the way in which they dramatize, often satirically, the clashing perspectives of a multitude of characters who appear as epiphenomena of their societies. The most memorable of these--for example, Samuel Clemens Pollit, Jonathan Crow, Nellie Cotter, and Emily Wilkes-Howard--are obsessive and dominating talkers whose overwhelming performances simultaneously fascinate and repel their listeners.
Aiming for what she once termed (in a letter to her father's third wife, Thistle Harris [6 April 1942]) an "intelligent ferocity," Stead has attracted with her prose style both admiration and criticism--its abundance, raw energy, heterogeneity, and obscurities forestalling easy consumption by the reader. The lyrical exuberance of Stead's early prose is overtaken in her later writing--as Angela Carter puts it in her appraisal of Stead's achievement in London Review of Books (1982)--by a tendency "to hew her material more and more roughly." Although in significance Stead is often said to rival Patrick White, her status in the Australian literary canon remains ambiguous, since her fiction does not--beyond one and a half novels and some shorter pieces--primarily depict Australian settings or characters. Nor is Stead's fiction easily encompassed by any single national literary tradition. Rather, it is oriented toward an international context, refracting and commenting on the experience of her generation of Western intellectuals. From the 1970s onward, Stead's vivid depictions of a range of female characters have resulted in her appropriation for the feminist canon, a maneuver not undertaken without some difficulty, since in many interviews Stead herself explicitly rejected any feminist agenda. In recent years, however, new poststructuralist literary theories, such as those of Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, have provided commentators with relevant approaches and greater scope for responding to the contradictions, the heterogeneity, and the social and political force of Stead's writing.
Stead once claimed--in an interview with Giulia Giuffré in 1983--to have written her biography into her fictional characters, and indeed a recurring set of themes and concerns integrates her disparately located stories. Stead's biographers, Chris Williams and Hazel Rowley, have drawn upon Stead's novels to inform their reconstruction of her early life in Australia and her complex relationship with her father. In the absence of any fixed national location, Stead's life story has functioned as a unifying text against which her books may be read. Susan Sheridan argues in her 1988 study, however, that the tendency to focus on the autobiographical dimension of Stead's fiction has "obscured both the continuities and differences" among her novels, leading critics to "ignore the prodigious variety of the narrative experiments she set herself."
Christina Ellen Stead was born in Rockdale, Sydney, Australia, on 17 July 1902, daughter of Ellen Butters Stead and David George Stead. Ellen Stead died when Christina was just two years old, and for several years afterward Christina was primarily cared for by her father. David Stead's formative influence on his daughter's view of the world was profound, evidently causing her anguish as well as joy. From this father-daughter relationship sprang Stead's devastating portrait of Samuel Clemens Pollit in her 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Children, generally regarded as her best. A middle-ranking public servant with the New South Wales Department of Fisheries, David Stead was a socialist and a freethinking atheist, a self-taught naturalist involved in the Linnean Society of New South Wales, and a founding member of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Stead imparted his passion for the Australian continent, its evolutionary prehistory, and its ecology to his young daughter. In later life Christina Stead acknowledged her father's significance in nurturing her love of story: in her essay "A Waker and a Dreamer," she offers readers an alternative portrait that, while continuing to depict him as a self-absorbed idealist, adopts a gentler tone.
In 1907 David Stead married again, this time to Ada Gibbins, whose propertied father, Frederick Gibbins, offered the couple rent-free the use of Lydham Hall, a capacious sandstone house situated on a rise at Bexley, commanding a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean and of Cape Banks and Cape Solander, through which Captain James Cook had sailed in 1770. Six children were born to this union, and for a time the family appeared to prosper. After Frederick Gibbins's death in 1917, however, Lydham Hall was sold to satisfy his debts, and Stead's family relocated to a large but rather dilapidated house at Watson's Bay. These days an exclusive harborside suburb of Sydney, Watson's Bay was then a fishing village. The bay recurs, in different guises, in several of Stead's novels. In The Man Who Loved Children it becomes the American locale of the Chesapeake Bay. The Man Who Loved Children casts this period in Stead's life as a time during which, as she wrote to Harris (7 July 1939), her family made "an etching" of her.
Stead's earliest idea for a novel came to her while she was still at school. The title of this imagined work, "The Lives of Obscure Men," conveys Stead's early interest in a theme she pursued in her first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934). On completing her secondary schooling at Sydney Girls' High, where she had edited the school magazine, Stead attended Sydney Teachers' College, co-editing and contributing to the college magazine, The Kookaburra. Stead also undertook a psychology course at Sydney University as a nonmatriculation student. Obliged in 1923 to begin a five-year bonded period of teaching, and plagued by pharyngitis and nervous anxiety, Stead was unable to manage classroom teaching, for which she felt herself to be profoundly ill suited. Provision was made for her to tutor small groups of children with special needs and to lecture in psychology at Sydney Teachers' College. After protracted ill health and unhappiness, however, Stead managed to enlist the support of sympathetic officials and was mercifully released in 1925 from her bond to the New South Wales Education Department without incurring the usual financial penalty. In this same year, David Stead submitted his daughter's collection of children's stories to Angus and Robertson, the fledgling Sydney-based publisher of Australian literature. The rejection was kindly couched, but the incident probably did little to mitigate the resolve Stead was forming to leave Australia for England and Europe. Having attended evening classes in stenography, Stead obtained a secretarial position in the firm of an architect and subsequently in a Sydney hat factory. In the course of two more years, during which time she corresponded regularly with Keith Duncan, a lecturer she admired from Sydney University who had departed for the London School of Economics in 1926, Stead managed to accumulate sufficient funds to purchase for herself a one-way, steerage-class fare to London. In electing to leave Australia she was not alone, but following in the wake of many other Australian writers, such as Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin, and Jack Lindsay.
In March 1928, at age twenty-five, Stead arrived in London malnourished and exhausted from the rigors of the last few years. Still in poor health, she found employment at a grain firm, Strauss and Company, where she met Wilhelm Blech, the temporary associate manager, who also held the position of investments manager for the Travelers' Bank, a small private bank based in Paris. Lifelong companion, husband, and loyal supporter of Stead, Blech--who anglicized his name to William Blake--was a cosmopolitan intellectual, an American of Jewish background, and a Marxist economist. Blake shared Stead's literary enthusiasms, successfully turning his hand to writing historical novels, including The World Is Mine (1938) and The Copperheads (1941), and also producing a lively and influential text, Elements of Marxian Economic Theory and Its Criticism (1939). Blake not only introduced Stead to leftist and literary circles in Britain, Europe, and the United States, where the couple lived, worked, and traveled for the next forty years, but also helped to establish and manage Stead's publishing career. After some earlier attempts to interest publishers failed, Blake sent the manuscript of Seven Poor Men of Sydney to Sylvia Beach, the distinguished Paris bookshop owner who published Joyce's Ulysses (1918). This contact led to Stead's association--her longest with any single publisher--with the London-based Peter Davies, who, though recognizing Stead's idiosyncratic genius, was wary enough to ask first to see something else that she had written. Undaunted by having nothing prepared, Stead immediately began composing, with remarkable speed and efficiency, The Salzburg Tales (1934), drawing on her recollection of earlier stories left behind inAustralia and inventing much new mat erial for the purpose. Davies, admiring the result, agreed to publish both b ooks, which appeared in quick succession.
The major features of Stead's mature writing are manifest in these two early publications. The reviews in England and Australia, favorable on the whole, greeted Stead as a dazzling and precocious new talent. Although a collection of short stories, the mise-en-scène of The Salzburg Tales harks back to the fourteenth-century origins of the novel, and many critics have noted its rewriting of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron (1349-1351), Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (circa 1400), and the Arabian Nights Entertainment, or The Thousand and One Nights (translated into English in the eighteenth century). Set during the Mozart Festival at Salzburg, the stories feature a cross-section of personages, more than thirty of whom are sketched with precision, wit, and economy in the prologue, who assemble in the Capuchin Wood at the end of each of seven days to exchange their tales. The scope and variety of Stead's storytelling and her verbal dexterity are demonstrated in these tales that, as noted by Ian Reid and others, incorporate the same elements Stead herself identified, in her essay "Ocean of Story" (originally published under the title "The Short Story" in Kenyon Review, 1968) as generic to the short story--"the sketch, anecdote, jokes cunning, philosophical, and biting, legends and fragments." The collection is cleverly connected by the tales told at the end of each day by the Centenarist, an orchestrator of ceremonial occasions who "knew many thousand themes from the master musicians and many peasant songs and single strains picked up here and there on the earth" and who embodies the dual creativity of the Mozart Festival and the feast of stories in the collection: "He was as full of tales as the poets of Persia: he unwound endlessly his fabrics, as from a spool the silks of Arabia."
Written first but published second, Seven Poor Men of Sydney more dramatically signals the direction of Stead's subsequent writing. The sole Stead novel set entirely in Australia, it takes place in and around Sydney during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Seven Poor Men of Sydney presents a network of perspectives, voices, and experiences, its energies clustering particularly around three members of the younger generation of the Baguenault family--Michael, Catherine, and Joseph (brother, sister, and cousin). Collectively representative of a generation, class, and nation, Catherine, Michael, and Joseph dramatize three modes of perceiving reality.
The febrile and neurasthenic Michael, whose viewpoint directs the early chapters of the novel, struggles passionately within and against the conventions of family, church, and provincial society. True to his name as a "ne'er-do-well," Michael achieves little of outward social consequence, forever paralyzed and haunted by the perceived gap between his heightened sensory experience and the unfathomable passage of time and change. His question, "How will we ever refine our eyes to see atoms and our ears to hear the messages of ants?" correlates with the impulses of the narrative. The presentation, later in the novel, of Michael's suicidal dementia is one of the most powerful and moving sequences in the novel.
Michael's sister and kindred spirit, Catherine Baguenault, is strikingly excluded from the cast list of seven poor men in the novel, an omission that signals her disruptive marginality as a vagabond woman. She is the person who, after Michael's death, discloses the story of incestuous love between herself and Michael. Catherine's wayward desire to escape conventional gender roles is partly channeled by her political agitation, and she is sympathetically observed by the kindly American Marxist of Jewish background modeled on Blake, Baruch Mendelssohn, who works at the Tank Stream printery among other key characters. There Baruch befriends Catherine's cousin--the humble, ordinary, and obscure Joseph Baguenault.
Carried along in life unquestioning, Joseph finally garners the self-knowledge to depict himself as a "letter of ordinary script" over whom "hierarchies and hierarchies" have dominion: "I am a machine. I am the end of my race." Humble Joseph emerges on the last page of the novel as the narrator of the tale of seven poor men. The unusual combination of realist themes and modernist techniques in Stead's first novel won startled praise from critics and reviewers at the time, and this favorable reception has continued in recent years. In writing Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Stead's contribution to the Australian novel was a pioneering one. Her Australian contemporaries in the 1930s--such as Katharine Susannah Prichard, Jean Devanny, and Dymphna Cusack --wrote within an established tradition of social realism. Although just as politically engaged as the works of these writers, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, differing radically in form and approach, was a forerunner of the modernist novel in Australia.
Stead's dramatic assembly and deployment in these first two books of an unusually large cast of characters--whose voices interact competitively, democratically, and energetically--were a recurring feature and strategy of her writing that she later articulated in her notes on "The Uses of the Many-Charactered Novel" (circa 1939): "the many-charactered novel is the novel of the metropolitan today . . . it is a novel of strife." This approach continued to develop in Stead's next novels, which also capitalize on observation of the strife of the 1920s and 1930s and which record the foibles and energies of businessmen, politicians, activists, and literary luminaries encountered in London, Paris, and New York. The First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, convened in Paris in 1935, was an event of some cultural and historical significance; Stead attended in the capacity of secretary to the English delegation. In company with such fellow writer-activists as Ralph Fox and Michael Gold, Stead also met with Australian writer and critic Nettie Palmer, whose diary entries record her impressions of Stead at the time. "The Writers Take Sides" (1935), Stead's own report on this problematic congress, in which a broad spectrum of leftist writers and artists combined on an anti-Fascist platform with the backing of the Comintern, is an overtly polemical essay that conveys the enthusiasms of the era along with her own sympathetic yet critical observation of would-be revolutionaries on the world stage. Stead's next novels, The Beauties and Furies (1936) and House of All Nations (1938), both set in Paris, capture the heady excitement of this period with its confluence of radical aesthetic and political movements.
Mixed reviews greeted publication of The Beauties and Furies, a novel exploring unfulfilled sensuality and desire in the Parisian story of lovers Oliver Fenton and Elvira Western and their encounter with the enigmatic Marpurgo. The narrative, with its linguistic excursions into surrealist discourse and its savoring of the sensualities of Paris in the 1930s, also retains an ironic perspective on romantic excess. Jennifer Gribble comments in her 1994 monograph that the romantic quest in this novel "becomes analogy for, and displacement of, political quest." Elvira, the Sleeping Beauty or unawakened Venus of the narrative, having abandoned her husband and her provincial life in an English village, escapes to bohemian Paris to rendezvous with her lover, Oliver, a student enamored of revolutionary politics. The notion of sleepwalking, or somnambulism, recurs, suggesting conjunctions between love and politics in the notion of awakening to a fully realized existence. In her 1987 monograph, Diana Brydon identifies this theme of the call to "Cythera" as the central metaphor of Stead's life and writing, arguing that a character's value may be gauged by the nature of his or her response to this call. In one of Stead's favorite paintings by Antoine Watteau, "Cythera" is the island of love in Greek mythology, emblematic of the ideal community. In The Beauties and Furies, the response of the lovers remains shallow and self-serving rather than profound or transforming: Oliver "plays" at revolution just as Elvira "plays" at love. The discontented Elvira is contrasted with the free-spirited Coromandel, daughter of the antique- dealer Paindebled. In a surreal scene Coromandel and Oliver make love under a fallen map of the world, under the secret eye of Coromandel's mother. Tension gathers, particularly around Marpurgo, whose voyeuristic and Prospero-like relation to the young couple is primarily narcissistic and whose conspiracies finally rebound on him. A sexual predator, puppet master, and monologuist, Marpurgo's female counterpart emerges later in Nellie Cotter, in Cotter's England (1967). The extreme blend of satire and fantasy, of politics and surrealism, in The Beauties and Furies was disconcerting for many readers. In Australia a significant early essay by M. Barnard Eldershaw, "Australian Writers 2: Christina Stead" (1937), ambivalently praises the "rich luxuriance" of Stead's style, finding her first two books successful but The Beauties and Furies disappointing: "No amount of meretricious glitter can animate these sawdust puppets." Certainly The Beauties and Furies, despite belated recognition of its strengths by a few readers, has continued to be less well known and regarded than some of Stead's other works.
House of All Nations , the voluminous novel Stead claimed to have drafted in six weeks while holidaying with Blake in Ronda, Spain, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, was greeted with more enthusiasm by reviewers, especially in the United States, and with considerable admiration for its technical grasp of the operations of high finance. Response in England was muted, however, and by this time Australian interest in the fiction of an expatriate who failed to address local concerns was wavering, although reviews of Stead's books continued to appear in a few newspapers, such as The Bulletin (Sydney). Departing from the lyricism of the earlier fictions, House of All Nations is an experiment with the documentary novel, a genre enjoying support in radical circles at the time. Teeming with garrulous characters, Stead's novel anatomizes the corrupt machinations of the merchant banking brotherhood. The account of the shady dealings of the Banque Mercure in House of All Nations derives from Stead's own intimate encounter with the ruinous financial scandal that enveloped the Traveler's Bank, whose charismatic owner- directors--Peter, Aubrey, and George Neidecker--had in the 1930s employed both Blake and Stead within their privileged inner circle. The capitalists and bank employees who populate the novel include its problematically loyal Marxist consultant, Michel Alphendéry (modeled on Blake); the devious but lovable bank owners, Jules and William Bertillon; the womanizing wheat merchant, Henri Léon (based on Blake's business associate Alf Hurst); the cold and calculating rival to the Bertillons, Jacques Carriere; and the ill-fated customer's man, Aristide Raccamond, who becomes the neurotic nemesis of the bank. Paralleling the banking fraternity is the communist brotherhood, a small cell of Paris intellectuals and activists frequented by Alphendéry and bank teller-cum-poet Adam Constant (based on Ralph Fox), a group equally comprised of serious idealists and poseur revolutionaries. Although women play a subsidiary role in the story, they are no less colorful than the men, including the scheming and manipulative Marianne Raccamond, the vengeful harridan Suzanne Constant, and Sophie Haller, the murderously assiduous hostess who force-feeds the Raccamonds in a savagely funny dinner-party scene that travesties bourgeois manners and consumption. For some feminist critics the focus of the novel on the activities of men and marginalization of the few women characters presents a challenge. Yet, Stead's incisive treatment of "phallocracy," capitalism, and 1930s popular-front politics in this novel has recently been identified by Louise Yelin in her essay in The Magic Phrase: Critical Essays on Christina Stead (2000), edited by Margaret Harris.
From July 1937 to December 1946 Stead and Blake resided in the United States, mainly in and around New York City, where, though not without financial vagaries, the couple enjoyed a comparatively secure and productive phase of their lives. During this "American" period, Stead observed the workings of the American Communist Party, with which she sympathized but never joined. Stead's correspondence shows her disgust with the self-serving machinations of careerist party hacks involved in running New Masses, the communist organ to which she contributed occasional book reviews in the 1940s.
Once she had arrived in the United States, Stead permitted herself the difficult luxury of drawing on what proved exceedingly painful memories of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. More than merely autobiographical, these novels actively rewrite the künstlerroman genre, recasting in mock-heroic terms the struggle of the artist-as-a-young-woman and her emergence from familial provinciality into the wider world.
In The Man Who Loved Children , the triangle of Samuel Pollit, his wife, Henny, and adolescent stepdaughter, Louisa (or Louie), constitutes the author's allegorical portrait of family life, conveying its claustrophobia, cruelty, and chaos. Initially well received in England and the United States, the novel has attracted much critical discussion, most of which postdates its republication in 1965. As Yelin finds in her essay in Contemporary Literature (Winter 1990), the "changing reception history of the novel is paralleled by changes in the geography of its reception," from its early positioning as an American novel to its later appropriation for the Australian literary canon. Stead's choice of American settings for this seminally autobiographical story successfully reorients it toward social and political critique of the Roosevelt era, as demonstrated in a cogent reading by Jonathan Arac. Critical views about the relative importance of its three main characters--Sam, Henny, and Louie Pollit--have also shifted along with changing literary, cultural, and political views. With its crises concentrated in just a few days--although the story spans a year--the novel is richly detailed and compressed in its plotting of the marital collision between the impractical and narcissistic Sam Pollit and Henny, the disappointed and self-destructive mother of his brood of children. In and around impending disaster, the children, seemingly oblivious, participate in an unfolding drama of filial rebellion led by the awkward and imaginative Louie, who finally breaks free of the imprisoning forces of family life. Louie's genius in marshaling the resources of language against her father's verbal tyranny reaches maturity in her direction of her siblings in "Tragos Herpes Rom," a play in her own invented language, staging rebellion against the father. This story of rebellion against the patriarchal family held particular appeal for second-wave feminist readers, a development that fostered appreciation of Stead's writing across national boundaries. Many variant readings of The Man Who Loved Children, however--treating its Nietzschean thematics, its novelization of Friedrich Engels's Origin of the Family (1884), its political critique of liberal humanism, and its inversion of the Oedipal narrative--have proliferated rather than stabilized its meanings for readers.
Increasing difficulties with American publishers seemed temporarily averted when Stead secured a three-book publishing contract with Harcourt, Brace, of which the first was For Love Alone (1944). Developing epic themes similar to those in The Man Who Loved Children, For Love Alone begins in Australia but concludes in England. Teresa Hawkins's journey from the antipodes to the Northern Hemisphere enacts a reverse odyssey, from family and national origins to the international condition of what Angela Carter, in her 1982 review, identifies as "the rootless urban intelligentsia." Having evolved from the earliest of Stead's drafts and jottings, For Love Alone presents a devastating critique of provincial life, of the social roles of modern women, and of conventional marital monogamy, memorably depicting the way women internalize their bondage: "There was a glass pane in the breast of each girl; there every other girl could see the rat gnawing at her, the fear of being on the shelf." For the rebellious protagonist of the novel, Teresa Hawkins, however, "life is only a passage. . . . to our secret desires . . . to Cytherea." Teresa's escape is accomplished through a succession of journeys, during the course of which she finds herself temporarily plunged into ever greater victimhood. The opening focus on the father, seminaked astride the doorway and haranguing his silent daughters, is soon displaced by the sinister and predatory figure of the misogynist, Jonathan Crow. Perversely fixing on Crow as an object of her questing desire, Teresa negotiates many physical and psychological ordeals before being initiated into full sensual awakening in her encounter with the generous and effusive American abroad, James Quick. In the final and, for some, controversial twist of the novel, Teresa's one night of passion with wanderer and kindred spirit Harry Girton prepares her to return voluntarily to her connubial life with James in the metropolis, having discovered through this experience that her thirst is after the "track-making and wandering of the man in the world, not after the man." Published to generally positive reviews in the United States and England, For Love Alone has appealed to both feminist and nationalist critics, and a considerable body of critical literature has developed on this novel.
Stead's next novel, Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), published in New York and London, inaugurates a sequence of novels exploring American manners and society. Focusing, as does For Love Alone, on a young woman's embarkation upon life, Letty Fox: Her Luck satirizes social mores in New York. According to Anita Segerberg in her 1989 essay in Australian Literary Studies, Stead had originally planned a book about two sisters, Teresa and Letitia, and had drafted sections of Letty Fox and For Love Alone in tandem. In contrast to Teresa's quixotic quest, however, Letty's feverish search for a suitable mate steers a course for social belonging and conventionality. Unlike the artistic, quasi-mystical Teresa, who follows the singular, heroic path of suffering and self-restraint, Letty is a vulgar "Everywoman" figure seeking through her generous promiscuity and serial monogamy some anchorage in life. Yet, although she is an unreliable narrator, Letty is not an entirely despicable figure, since she is occasionally capable of astute observation of self and others: "What I had in me that gave me most joy were two things: the capacity for an enormous output of work, and the ability to enjoy myself regardless of expense, regardless of others; a healthy trait, if a bit barbaric." The garrulous first-person narrative and picaresque plot combine to preclude the reader's close identification with Letty, who appears as a latter-day Moll Flanders and an exemplary instance of the advice she dishes out to would-be novelists. Pragmatic, resilient, and direct, Letty typifies the superficially modern--her shrewd grasp of the marital game enabling her ultimate conformity rather than resistance to its rules. While some reviews were positive, the reception of Letty Fox: Her Luck was generally either scandalized or uncomprehending. Confounded by its politics, Barbara Giles--in New Masses, 10 December 1946--complained that Letty Fox was "a play radical" rather than a genuine Communist. Other reviewers thought the novel merely vulgar and immoral, misconstruing its ironies. The news of this general disapprobation having reached Australia, in 1947 the Australian Literature Censorship Board placed a ban on the book that was not lifted until a decade later.
The decadent corruption of capitalist profiteering during World War II and the economy of modern sexuality are furiously satirized in A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948). A Little Tea, A Little Chat was published in the United States when Stead was still under contract to Harcourt, Brace, but she found little support for publication of the novel in England, having parted company in 1947 with her London publisher Peter Davies, who was now gravely ill. Largely negative and dismissive reviews greeted the American publication of this book about Robbie Grant--predatory capitalist, incorrigible rogue, womanizer, and seducer--whose restless desires are chronicled in relentless detail. Robbie Grant is the last, and in some ways the most frenzied and despicable, of Stead's male monologuists. His pursuit of sexual gratification is performed with a serial zeal, and his self-aggrandizing and self-deceiving Don Juan fictions suppress his own callous exploitation of women, such as Myra Coppelius. Robbie meets his match, however, in the duplicitous and mercenary Barbara Downs, the Blondine, who fascinates, ensnares, and puzzles him until the end. Like the capitalists in House of All Nations, Grant is in perpetual flight from the specter of the angry masses, of coming revolution, and of death itself. Death, revolution, and apocalypse are conflated in the avenging angel, Azrael, who materializes as Hilbertson, Grant's long-anticipated nemesis. The relentless pursuit of Grant's unstoppable desire in the narrative and the spectacle of his frantic consumption also signal the direction and pace of narratives to come. The effects of an initially poor reception of this novel have been compounded by subsequent critical commentary relegating it, with others of this period, to minor status. Only recently, and with the benefit of post-structuralist perspectives, have a few commentators begun to reappraise these texts. Virginia Blain argues--in Southerly, December 1993--that the narrative of A Little Tea, A Little Chat reproduces Grant's own compulsive seriality, creating excess through its repetitions, the very boredom of which demands that the reader actively derive pleasure from the digressions of the text.
The People with the Dogs (1952), the third in this suite of American satires, revisits middle-class family life in a more temperate mood, following the desultory quest for love of an amiable bachelor, Edward Massine. Having inherited sufficient means, Edward whiles away his existence between his Manhattan apartment with its lively neighborhood community and the satirically named Whitehouse, his ancestral family home in the Catskills. The extended Massine clan retreats from the metropolis to Whitehouse to enjoy its quotidian dramas in pastoral serenity and to dote upon its many dogs. The affectionately rendered Edward is an unawakened man lacking direction and passion, in both personal and political senses. Caught within a now exhausted relationship, for much of the story he does little to resist its buffetings. Edward's futile attempt to uproot a wild hops vine rambling out of control on the family property, however, triggers a slow awakening. The description of the vine conveys the organic and complex interconnections of the family, its sleepy rootedness in history, and its vigorous and smothering stranglehold. Though the dimensions of his gesture are limited, Edward finally embraces commitment, and the narrative leaves him with the promise of some personal integrity and satisfaction. Neither as ironic as Letty's narrative nor as epic as Teresa's, Edward's story offers a gently satiric investigation of social mores and of the American dream of the utopian community. Though Stead had sold the manuscript to Little, Brown in 1950, the novel languished for two years. The reviews of the published novel generally lacked enthusiasm. Subsequently, commentators have tended to agree that, despite its integral place within the American sequence, The People with the Dogs lacks Stead's usual energy and verve, even though it includes some masterful passages.
The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas , published in 1967 to favorable reviews, is a book that cannot be straightforwardly positioned in this chronology of Stead's fiction, since its elements are difficult to date. Some material from this collection likely was drafted during Stead's stay in the United States, possibly as early as 1938, while other sections were drafted much later, in the 1950s and early 1960s. The book's four novellas--"The Puzzleheaded Girl," "The Dianas," "The Right-Angled Creek," and "Girl from the Beach"--are thematically parallel, although, as Stead remarked in a letter to Stanley Burnshaw (22 July 1965), the inclusion of "The Right-Angled Creek" works to break up "the tightness of a single idea controlling the book." Collectively the novellas depict the disoriented sexuality of young American women, questioning the state of gender relations in the morally and politically conservative postwar era. As chaste Diana figures, the girls can be viewed as psychologically damaged and socially subversive. In "The Dianas" Lydia's inability to separate herself from her mother erodes her capacity to sustain a heterosexual relationship, whereas in "Girl from the Beach" Linda's similarly stunted psychology can be read as a commentary on the politics of postwar American imperialism and the lost idealism of the Left. In the title story, "The Puzzleheaded Girl," the virginal Honor Lawrence, befriended by the kindly and protective Augustus Debrett, displays what Judith Kegan Gardiner--in her essay in World Literature Written in English (1992)--describes as "female hysteria as a form of political rebellion." In contrast with these novellas, "The Right-Angled Creek" interrupts the hectic pace of metropolitan life to focus on the fecundity of nature. Stead's earlier lyricism returns in the exquisite description of the "spellbound" Dilley's Place, with its alien abundance and its uneasy Diana figure, the enigmatic ghost of "Poky" (after Pocahontas). Margaret Harris--in her essay in World Literature Written in English--says that The Puzzleheaded Girl "forms a kind of coda" to Stead's American sequence, overlapping with the concerns of the posthumously published I'm Dying Laughing: The Humourist (1986).
The chronology of The Puzzleheaded Girl mirrors the obscurity of Stead's own career at a time when she was still writing prolifically. The novels written between the late 1940s and the late 1950s bear the unmistakable traces of Stead's changing fortunes and mood as a displaced, expatriate writer and articulate the anxieties of her drift into publishing marginality and political minority. Though their departure from the United States for England and Europe in 1947 was a timely one, Stead and Blake did not entirely escape the effects of McCarthyism and the attendant shift in the cultural and political climate. This time period was for the couple one of itinerancy and poverty in which they tried to derive a meager living from hack literary work. Beset by publishing obscurity and low-level harassment by the FBI, Stead witnessed with horror--and to some degree experienced--postwar European hunger. Blake's health began to deteriorate during this time, and Stead's nostalgia for Australia grew, as seen in her increased efforts to renew her Australian connections. In 1952, the year she and Blake married, Stead applied for a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship but was unsuccessful. In addition, the efforts of Stead devotees in Australia--such as Douglas Stewart, Colin Roderick, Clem Christesen, Walter Stone, and Ron Geering--was gathering strength. The revitalizing of Stead's literary fortunes, however, did not occur until the republication of The Man Who Loved Children in 1965 by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Meanwhile, Stead's fiction was becoming more intense and bleak, tending to probe reasons for the postwar malaise and the failure of the socialist ideal in the West. The Little Hotel (1973), Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife) (1976), and Cotters' England all draw upon the downward spiral of personal and political fortunes during this era. None of these books--focusing on gender disorder, disillusion, decadence, and social and political anarchy--found a publisher until more than a decade later. The reasons for this fall into publishing obscurity have been attributed variously to the couple's dislocation--their lack of continuity with one publisher or with an influential literary circle--and, more insidiously, to their leftist political affiliations.
The likelihood that FBI harassment exacted a toll on Stead illuminates elements of The Little Hotel, the atmosphere of which reproduces a sinister sense of surveillance. Drafted by the early 1950s, The Little Hotel remained unpublished until 1973, although in 1952 part of the manuscript was published in Australia under the title "The Hotel-Keeper" in the literary magazine Southerly. In The Little Hotel, the apparently benign narrator, hotelkeeper Selda Bonnard, retails the personal lives of her transient guests, feigning a warmth that belies her avid curiosity and unsavory desire for gossip. Selda's true interests lie elsewhere, detached from the individual fates of the inmates of the hotel. Unevenly sustained, Selda's narrative view vanishes during the middle of the story, supplanted by an omniscient narration that follows the guests outside the doors of the hotel. Although this haphazard approach is not atypical in Stead's novels, the unexplained shift in viewpoint affects this text in interesting ways. Paranoia is the keynote, as Selda's husband eavesdrops unashamedly and as the predatory Mr. Wilkins and Dr. Blaise devise furtive schemes to prey upon their women. Lydia Trollope's narrow personal escape from the loveless Wilkins, her mercenary partner, is a small triumph wrested from an otherwise uniformly dark picture of the relations between men and women, the oppressors and the oppressed, in fugitive-ridden Cold War Europe.
Though still unsuccessful in finding a publisher for recent work, Stead continued to be extremely productive, moving rapidly into the full drafting in 1952 of her first postwar English novel, "Cotters' England." This manuscript was not published until more than a decade later, first in the United States as Dark Places of the Heart in 1966 and then in 1967 in Britain as Cotters' England. Like The Little Hotel, Cotters' England is permeated by the horrors of surveillance and by a set of social, psychological, and political dislocations. In 1949, having sought to meet with typical English workers, Stead stayed for a brief time with friend Anne Dooley's family, the Kellys, in Newcastle. Much of the material for the novel was garnered from this encounter. The action of the novel alternates between Nellie Cotter's Lamb Street flat in London and events in the family home in Bridgehead in the industrial north. Nellie Cotter, described by her elusive husband, George, as a "Fleet Street sobsister," pretends to espouse the cause of the poor and needy, but her real mission is to prey upon them, vampire-like, with her defeatist fictions. The men in this narrative are emasculated, absent, or marginal: in London, Nellie victimizes her brother Tom, while in Bridgehead, the other sibling, Peggy, brutally unhouses Tom's counterpart, Uncle Syme. Replete with competing narratives that undermine the rational foundations of knowledge and truth, Cotters' England is a complex exploration of the workings of ideology that has been the subject of increasing critical attention in recent years. Although reviews were lukewarm, especially in the United States, English commentators such as Rodney Pybus--in his 1982 essay in Stand--have praised Stead's acute rendering of northern English dialect and culture. Critics such as Terry Sturm, seeking to identify the nature of Stead's achievement, also embraced the novel as a brilliant, if bleak, example of her fiction.
Both reviewers and critics responded with far less enthusiasm to Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife) , in which Stead presents another view of postwar England, by means of the mundane life of a middle-class woman, the unsavory and disappointing Eleanor Herbert. Even so, in recent times Miss Herbert has been productively analyzed using feminist and queer theoretical approaches; a shrewd example of the latter is an article by Kate Lilley in Southerly (December 1993). Not unlike Elvira in The Beauties and Furies, the beautiful but shallow and relentlessly suburban Eleanor Herbert is depicted as a "Venus unknown to Venus," whose approach to life is determinedly conservative and whose blinkered views are constructed from middle-class ideologies and discourses. As Sheridan points out in her 1988 study, Eleanor's few encounters with great passion are mediated by a set of inauthentic popular discourses that effectively prohibit even as they gesture toward "authentic" desire for a fully awakened life. Eleanor Herbert's dogged and blind optimism continues to characterize her behavior, long after opportunity has evaporated. The portrait of Eleanor and her bleak situation as a hack literary worker in postwar Britain conveys something of Stead's own experience but also imposes a moral and political distance between the author and her fictional character.
With the cultural shift after the Cold War, the revival of Stead's literary reputation was spearheaded by the 1965 republication of The Man Who Loved Children, which included an influential introduction by American poet and academic Randall Jarrell. Stead's reputation gathered further strength from the great wave of interest in women's writing driven by the emergence of a second wave of feminism. In Australia, Stead's reputation was most significantly shepherded by Geering, an academic whose work ensured that Stead's fiction secured a place--albeit a qualified one--in the Australian literary canon. These developments led to the eventual reprinting of Stead's earlier novels of the 1930s and 1940s as well as to the publication, long after their drafting, of the three 1950s manuscripts, a development that reinforced the erroneous perception among her readers that Stead was continuing to produce new work throughout the 1970s.
William Blake, who had been in failing health for some time, died in 1968. After his death, it would seem that Stead lost much of her will to write fiction. She had also lost her most compelling reason for remaining away from Australia any longer. Provided with a Creative Arts Fellowship to the Australian National University, Stead enjoyed a brief visit to Australia in 1969 before finally returning in 1974 to stay for the last ten years of her life. A scandal surrounding the arbitrary withdrawal of the Britannica Australia Award for Literature from Stead in 1967 on the spurious grounds that, as an expatriate, she was not sufficiently "Australian," had provoked fierce debate in Australian literary circles, prompting an outraged Patrick White to institute a prize for previously unrecognized writers of significance. Stead was the first recipient of White's prize, in 1974. Though by now much feted in Australia and elsewhere, Christina Stead produced little substantially new fiction in the years beyond 1968, although she did remain an extraordinarily prolific correspondent and as such continued to write copiously until her death on 31 March 1983. Stead's letters, selected by her literary executor, Geering, were published posthumously in two volumes in 1992.
I'm Dying Laughing was published posthumously in 1986, following substantial reconstruction by Geering. Though she had made good progress on the novel, which had been under development during the 1940s and 1950s, Stead stalled after repeated attempts to revise--following an editor's requests--to make the historical context more explicit and accessible for contemporary American readers. Increasingly unconvinced by this process, Stead finally abandoned work on the manuscript in 1974. The task of piecing the manuscript together was a considerable one that involved Geering in several years of painstaking work. Based on the lives of one-time close friends, the popular writer and social activist Ruth McKenney and her husband Richard Bransten, I'm Dying Laughing probes the impossibly contradictory position of leftist American writers caught up in and compromised by the Hollywood mass-cultural scene in the 1940s. Stead herself was employed as a scriptwriter in Hollywood for a brief interlude in 1942. Her novel satirizes the crassly materialist lifestyles of the party faithful, dependent on the largesse of the film industry, whose subscription to a narrow revisionism allowed American Communism to survive, if only for a time, within national and cultural boundaries. Emily Wilkes emerges as one of Stead's most compelling characters, a larger-than-life Rabelaisian figure whose boundless appetite and consumption appalls and attracts. Emily yearns to serve the revolutionary cause by writing the great proletarian novel, a goal that increasingly eludes her as she pumps out popular novels to generate the income required for her burgeoning family and hedonistic lifestyle. She and her husband, Stephen, a revolutionary scion from a wealthy American family with whom the couple self-servingly strive to remain connected, are expelled from the Hollywood- based Communist Party for their Stalinist views. They depart with their children for the Continent, where they fall further into hedonism, betraying their ideals while continuing to deceive themselves and each other. The novel ends apocalyptically in suicide and madness, with Emily last seen derelict and deranged on the steps of the Forum in Rome, clutching the disordered pages of her unfinished manuscript about her counterrevolutionary heroine, Marie Antoinette. With her tortured and seismic laughter, Emily embodies the postwar implosion of revolutionary idealism in the West. Though considered by some to be unwieldy, the critical consensus is that I'm Dying Laughing is an unfinished masterpiece, confirming Christina Stead's achievement as a major twentieth-century novelist.
From: Rooney, Brigid. "Christina (Ellen) Stead." Australian Writers, 1915-1950, edited by Selina Samuels, Gale, 2002. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 260.