Christina Stead, For love alone (Review)
with major books, ones that have been reviewed extensively in the newspapers, submit reviews that add to our understanding of the book, not just repetitious codas to or echoes of earlier reviews.
This stands also, I think, for classics, for books that have become part of the “canon”. Stead’s For love alone is such a book. My problem then is how to say something about this book that isn’t same-old, same-old. I could be lucky here though, because while Christina Stead is part of the Australian literary canon she’s probably not as well read or as well-known as she should be.
To gain some idea of her reputation amongst the literati, just look at these comments … Patrick White described this book as ‘A remarkable book. I feel elated to know it is there’. Now that is really something isn’t it? Helen Garner has said ‘I could die of envy of her hard eye’, David Malouf wrote that ‘Christina Stead has the scope, the imagination, the objectivity of the greatest novelists’, while American critic Clifton Fadiman called her ‘the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf‘. He has qualified his praise with ‘woman’, but nonetheless, you see what I mean. What can I add to a discussion of a writer of this ilk?
Enough introduction. Those of you who don’t know the novel are probably wondering by now what it’s about. The title sounds a bit melodramatic, and the basic plot-line could suggest it, but in fact the book is low on drama. You don’t read Stead for page-turning excitement. The novel is set in Sydney and London, from 1933 to 1937. It concerns Teresa Hawkins, the 19-year-old daughter of an unloving, self-involved father. Neither she nor her three siblings are happy at home but seem tied to it, mostly for economic reasons. The novel opens with Teresa and her sister Kitty attending the wedding of their cousin Malfi, setting the scene for Teresa’s quest for love – for a real love, though, not for “some schoolfellow gone into long trousers”. Unfortunately, while she is an intelligent and resourceful young girl, she is also naive. She sets her sights on her Latin teacher, the 23-year-old Jonathan Crow*. Consider the name, and you might gain some insight into his nature!
“She believed firmly in the power of the will to alter things and force things to an end”
It’s hard when reading the novel not to think of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (surely it’s relevant that Teresa is also called Tessa?) and, even more, of Edith Wharton‘s heroines. However, while society’s rules and conventions underpin the plot, Stead is more interested in her characters’, particularly Teresa’s, psychology. What does Teresa mean by love, what is its impact on her, and how far will she go for it? Very far, we soon discover. She denies herself sustenance almost to the point of death, not once but twice, in the novel. Why?
Well, let’s look at Teresa/Tessa. Early in the novel, she’s idealistic. She will not, she says, compromise her life. “I’ll never give in” (p. 33) she says to her aunts, and a little later says to her cousin, “I’d work my fingers to the bone to keep my lover” (p. 127). As she becomes immersed in her love for Jonathan Crow, she enacts these vows: “I am killing myself for a man” (p. 314), she realises. “Love is hard” (p. 357). And yet, she continues for many more chapters, to believe in her idea of love (in which women can’t expect happiness) and in Jonathan. This, to her, is how love is. It’s an intriguing portrait of a woman who is strong and intelligent, and yet unable to let go of something that is patently going nowhere. When the inimical Crow describes her as “a true example of masochism and also a perfect example of mythomania”, it’s hard not to agree.
Teresa, then, is not a simple character. Her commitment to Jonathan is complicated: when opportunities arise for greater intimacy, she in fact pulls back. It’s significant that several times through the novel she mentions Ulysses:
she could sail the seas like any free soul, from Ulysses to the latest skipper of a sixteen-footer rounding the world.
Eventually, though, she discovers “true love … the love without crime and sorrow” but, as ABR editor Peter Rose also says “never give away the denouement”, I will leave it here. I’ll simply say that the ending is satisfyingly open and true to Teresa’s character.
“The world was hers and she had no doubt of the future”
The novel is, essentially, a bildungsroman. It’s Teresa’s coming of age, intellectually, psychologically and physically. Her youthful confidence takes quite a battering as she confronts the realities – presented by society and by Jonathan. She realises that society’s rules are counter-human:
Why the false lore of society? To prevent happiness. If human beings really expected happiness, they would put up with no tyrannies and no baseness; each would fight for his right for happiness. (p. 532)
This is not a social history. Despite the descriptions of poverty, the analysis of societal marriage conventions, the discussions about money and power, Stead is not writing a Dickensian novel. Rather, it’s about Teresa’s struggle to know herself as a mature loving women, something that is stunted for some time by her relationship with the slippery Jonathan: “In one speech he would be sardonic and naive, cruel and gay, tender and cold” (p. 380) And yet, Teresa cares for this man, and forgives, and forgives, and forgives again his erratic, careless, misogynistic treatment of her. In fact, she appears to be so in his thrall that her employer James Quick begins to wonder whether she is as intelligent as he’d believed:
What can she be, to tolerate such a contemptible, calculating worm […] this intellectual scarecrow (p. 477, 480).
However, she is, of course, intelligent and in true bildungsroman-style does experience “true” love. But this is Stead and it’s not simple. At one point her new love tells her:
he will send her to university – make a woman of her, make a brilliant woman of her … He would take her to Paris, and elsewhere, no-one who knew her now, would know her then; he would make her over entirely.
Oh dear …
Postscript: By coincidence, I finished For love alone just as the ABC’s Australian Story broadcast the strange story of revered Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley, her librarian husband and his daughter by his first marriage, Susan Swingler, whom he left in England without telling her the truth. The first thing that crossed my mind as the story – I have Swingler’s book, unread, on my shelves – unfolded was “the things people do for love”. Jolley’s novels, like this one of Stead’s, are emotionally intense and explore some of the darker sides of familial and romantic relationships.
For love alone
Carlton, The Miegunyah Press, 2011 (orig. pub 1945)
* The novel is autobiographical, but by no means autobiography. Here is an article on Keith Duncan who inspired Jonathan Crow.