Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead

I have mentioned Christina Stead several times on this blog – and yet she remains the guilty gap in my reading. I thought 2011 would be Stead year, but things have conspired to restrain the rate of my reading this year. Maybe 2012! I have also written several posts inspired by articles in The ABC Weekly, and I’m returning to this paper for today’s Monday Musings, this time to an article by novelist-journalist Florence James. It’s titled “Young Australian Wins Fame Abroad” and was published on 7 December 1940, at which time Stead would have been 38. This was the year her most famous book, The man who loved children, was published, but James does not mention it by name in her article. (She does though refer to Stead “correcting the galley proofs of a new book”).

James commences her article with a telling comment:

A Sydney girl [girl?] whose name and work are much more widely known and appreciated in England and the United States than in her native Australia is the writer Christina Stead.

I can’t help thinking that little has changed 7 decades on, at least in terms of her recognition here. She is certainly known, but she is not on the tip of everyone’s tongues the way I suspect she ought to be.

James then documents some of this acclaim:

  • English critic John Squire who, on reading her short stories The Salzburg tales (1934), said he’d discovered a “second Sappho”;
  • Poet, and publisher’s reader, T. S. Eliot, who wrote that The Salzburg tales was “a work of genius – but doubtful as a popular success”; and
  • New Yorker critic, Clifton Fadiman, on reading House of all nations, claimed Stead and Virginia Woolf were “the two most important women writing in the English language”.

James, who shared “digs” with Stead for a time in London while she was writing Seven poor men of Sydney, outlines how Stead supported herself in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She started as a private secretary for a firm of grain-brokers. She then worked in a private bank in Paris rising to an important confidential position, and she did “some special financial work in London [which] was regarded with astonishment by conservative London financiers”. A young colonial, and a woman, no less! That would probably never do! Her third novel, House of all nations (1938), is about high finance and has been described by Kate Jennings as one of the best novels ever written about banking.

James describes Stead as follows:

At first shy and reserved, with her friends she is wonderful company. Her talk is as witty as her writings, and although she has a masculine [masculine?] grasp of business and is a scholar and linguist, her simplicity of manner and directness of approach immediately put people at their ease.

I do like reading contemporary articles (or reviews) like this … not only do we learn about the subject but we learn, unintentionally on the part of the writer we are reading, so much about the thinking of the time. Thank goodness for libraries and archives, eh?

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead

  1. From my understanding, it was the poet-critic Randall Jarrell who started the ‘Man Who Loved Children’ bandwagon rolling in the United States. I know that is what brought me to the novel. HIs piece on ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ is one of the most famous ever. Jarrell also wrote one wonderful novel himself, ‘Pictures at an Institution’.

    • Oh thanks for sharing this Tony. I had never heard of Randall Jarrell but I’ve just “googled” him of course. Sounds like a bit of a tortured soul. I’ll try to check out his poetry and, when I’ve read Stead’s Man, his piece on it.

      • I’ve tried reading Jarrell’s poetry, and it hasn’t worked for me. He left some great literary criticism and that one excellent novel though. I think his piece on ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ was actually a foreword and was meant to be read before reading the novel. You might want to look at it before reading the novel, because Jarrell’s foreword to ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ probably set the standard for literary criticism.

        • Or, would I read it after? I tend to like to read a novel fresh, if you know what I mean … even though publishers often do include “introductions” for classics. However, I certainly will read it after I’ve read the book.

  2. Jarrell’s essays has been the standard Man foreword for years although that might change now that they’ve got Franzen doing the same job. And this is a pity, I think, because Jarrell-on-Stead is better than Franzen-on-Stead, more thoughtful, more graceful, more wise, deeper, and more ecstatic. There’s a good discussion about the book over at Slate and another one in the Guardian. Lots of others as well, online, but those two are among the best.

    The Melbourne Age has written about the book several times. Here in 1976 they write an overview “for senior students.”

    James’ daughter and granddaughter said that Stead partly based the title character of Miss Herbert: the Suburban Wife on James — but no, says Hazel Rowley, the author was “inspired partly — but only partly,” and she goes on to call the character an “amalgamation” of different women. Miss Herbert is not a character anyone would want to serve as the inspiration for, and the daughter and granddaughter were angry. (I’m reading all of this in Anne Pender’s book, Christina Stead, Satirist.) But in her letters to her husband Stead sounds friendly towards James, who lent her money at least once when things were tight (five pounds, she says in one of the letters, and I’m getting this from The Letters of Christina Stead and William Blake, which has a brilliant index, thank you Margaret Harris).

  3. Incidentally, if you have the Letters of Henry Handel Richardson (the last volume, I think, vol. 3), she mentions Stead too. Disparagingly — sighingly — overwhelmed — repelled — paraphrased: she’s too clever — she’s too visible on the page — as for me I like the Tolstoy style, I like to make myself invisible.

    • Sounds a bit like Garner’s initial reaction to Astley. She found her “too too” if you know what I mean. Garner wrote on Astley’s An item from the late news: “Great story, great characters … Stylistically, however, this book is like a very handsome, strong and fit woman with too much makeup on … This kind of writing drives me berserk”. (From Wikipedia, where I put it!!). I like Astley (and Garner, really) so I’m expecting to like Stead, but who knows!

      • Too overloaded, too much dramatic emphasis, too much semi-magical-realism? (Now I’m thinking of that hut with the women in it, floating away during It’s Raining In Mango.) I checked Rowley’s Stead biography after I made that last post, and she says that James and Stead had grown apart by the time Miss Herbert was being written. More accurately: Stead had grown away from James. James recognised herself in the character and felt hurt. So I’ll modify my “sounds friendly towards.” But that was a long, long time after they lived together in London.

        • Well, it was nice that in 1940 – though, admittedly, before the book came out – James was willing to promote Stead. No obvious professional jealousy at least.

  4. I remember my copy of For Love Alone fell to bits I dragged it everywhere with me. Also loved The Man Who Loved Children and Hazel Rowley’s biography was marvellous. I ought to reread all of them! And still haven’t read Letty Fox. Shirley Hazzard is another Australian writer who is well read abroad. I don’t know how she is viewed in Australia now. I remember The Transit of Venus as being quite mind-blowing.

    • You atuned with DKS then, it seems. I haven’t read For love alone either. And I’d really like to read Seven poor men of Sydney. So many delights awaiting me still!

      And, I agree re Hazzard. Transit of Venus is a mind-blowing book and one well-worth re-reading. There was, as I recollect, controversy about her “The great fire” and the Miles Franklin. Was it “Australian” enough to meet the conditions of the award?

      • Just read The Great Fire controversy and am about to order book. The ‘not Australian’ enough theme strikes home with me as I write as an Australian, but have been abroad for yonks, and write about everybody/anybody, including Australians but not necessarily. I thought this type of thinking had passed a little.

        • I’ll be interested in what you think of the book. I liked it, though not quite as much as Transit of Venus. As I recollect, the Australian business was to do with the terms of the Miles Franklin award. Some interpret it more narrowly than others I think … my preference would be for a broader interpretation as it sounds like yours would be too!

  5. I haven’t reread Jarrell’s poetry in years, but remember a few of the poems as pretty good: “8th Air Force” and “90 North” come to mind. He was a persuasive critic, though of his enthusiasms there are some I found convincing–Wallace Stevens, Robert Graves, John Crowe Ransom, Whitman–and some not so much–Auden, Lowell, Shapiro. His academic novel Pictures From an Institution stands up to re-reading.

    • Thanks George for this added info. That’s what so great about blogging … all the extra information that I learn. I just hadn’t heard of him at all. Sad that he died as relatively young as he did, eh?

  6. James seems to have consistently supportive. She went on respecting Stead ad pretty much infinitum. But she was the one who had the fame, eventually, and the literary contacts, and the friendships, and the popular success, and meanwhile Stead was scrabbling around for recognition and growing bitter, and she didn’t think much of Dymphna Cusack and she didn’t think much of Spinner and eventually she didn’t want to write to her friend any more and that’s the end of the name Florence James in Rowley’s book. Is there such a thing out there as a good Florence James biography? I’d like to see this from the other side.

    • Not that I know of, I’m afraid. There’s Yarn Spinners, which I’ve dipped into but don’t have. Here is a description of it (but you probably know it): “From the correspondence between Cusack, James and Franklin across the years 1928 to the death of Franklin in 1954, Yarn Spinners: A Story in Letters has been shaped by a process of selection, editing, weaving and providing narrative links in order to develop a continuous narrative of the friendship, collaborations and inter-related lives of these three Australian women writers. The Prologue gives a biographical overview of each of their lives. Each of the five narrative Parts is briefly prefaced with its socio-historical context.” It probably doesn’t cover the Stead connect (much anyhow). The State Library of NSW has her (ie James’) papers so there could be some interesting correspondence to read there – if one were in Sydney! The papers include her correspondence with Rowley.

      • I’ve seen bits of it on Google books. (A pause here while I check the UNLV library catalogue. They’ve got it! I’ll take a look next time I’m there.)

        • Oh good. Seems like it’s a good uni library you have there. Who’da thought?! I should look at it again … really, it’s one I’d like to have but for some reason didn’t buy it when it first came out. Must have been one of those rare “I’ve been buying too many books times”!

  7. I’m sure there is some wordplay in there somewhere, inStead of Stead you read other things this year but in 2012 maybe you will be Steadfast? As for 1940, those were days where women weren’t supposed to worry their pretty little heads over business, their men were supposed to do that, and all females were girls and if you were elderly, you were an old girl, but still a girl. So glad times have changed.

    • Haha, good one Stefanie. And yes, you are certainly right about the 1940s and women – and it left so many of them vulnerable when their husbands died and they had no idea of how to mange their money. I know women now – from the middle of the baby boomer generation who are like this. Scary. Times have changed but not everyone had changed with them (at least yet!)

  8. Pingback: Exiles at Home, Drusilla Modjeska | theaustralianlegend

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