Christina Stead, For love alone (Review)

In a recent communication with local author Nigel Featherstone about reviewing, he reminded me of Peter Rose’s advice for new reviewers for the ABR. One of the points Rose makes is:

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 …

Australian Women Writers ChallengeThis is a delicious book – rich in ideas, gorgeous in writing, passionate in conception, and complex in psychology. The more I delve into it, the more I want to say. Perhaps, I will another day.

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.

Christina Stead
For love alone
Carlton, The Miegunyah Press, 2011 (orig. pub 1945)
ISBN: 9780522853704

* The novel is autobiographical, but by no means autobiography. Here is an article on Keith Duncan who inspired Jonathan Crow.

27 thoughts on “Christina Stead, For love alone (Review)

  1. Wow, what a coincidence! I am plodding through Hazel Rowley’s exhaustive biography of Stead, and this is of course one of the books about which she has gone into great detail. She says that all Stead’s characters are based on people that she really knew, and also, tellingly, that Stead had to work herself up into torrents of rage to be able to write, to dash off her thoughts in a passion, as it were. I think this is what makes Stead so exhausting to read.

    BTW LOL I have the same problem working up my current review of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. What on earth can I say that hasn’t been said before?

    • Ah yes, Lisa, I’ve been thinking I’d like to buy that. I’ve read her Franklin and Eleanor but of course this one about our own writer is the one I really want to read. I didn’t know ALL her characters were based on real people, but was aware that the main characters here were and that The man who loved children was based on her life, so I guess I’m not surprised.

      I didn’t really find this novel exhausting to read – though I think The man who loved children might be more so. I read this for my reading group and I guess I need to be honest and say that I was the only one who finished it by the meeting because the others found it exhausting to read! But me, I really liked her writing and if I can get myself organised I might write a post on that aspect of the novel but again, I fear doing so!

      These classics are daunting aren’t they!

        • Oh, that would be nice Lisa but it would probably take me forever to read it given the pile I have now. I’d be worried because it’s one you’re sure to want to keep. I wish I could get through as many books as you but somehow I keep getting distracted by other things such as cataloguing our photos.

        • Ah yes, cataloguing the holiday photos!
          I am *still* scrapbooking our trip to Russia last year – I have just finished Moscow and have started St Petersburg, with Berlin and Paris to go.
          One thing has helped a lot: I took my laptop, with Windows Essentials installed. It automatically dates everything and you can GeoTag multiple pics at a time. In the evenings after dinner, we would spend about 15-20 minutes tagging the day’s photos, and add anything special that we thought we’d want to remember in comments. It made it a lot easier when I got home because all I had to do was to move the collection into named folders, and when I can’t remember why I took a particular shot, the tag and comment tells me.
          I assume Applemacs have something similar? The only hard part is finding that 15 minutes at the end of the day.
          I have a camera that will record audio so I could also use that to tag, but I’ve never used it, I would feel a real dill talking to a camera. (It’s my age, I guess…)

  2. I loved that book! i remember my copy fell to bits just before leaving Sydney for Paris. it was my bible in terms of language and passion and I had even been seeing a really cruel jerk! I think it’s time for a reread. I have the biography somewhere in this house and also read Rowley’s ‘Tete a Tete’ this summer. Mesmerising!

    • “Bible in terms of language and passion”. I love that and can see exactly what you mean, Catherine. It’s what appealed to me too. (Fortunately though I’ve never really dated someone really cruel so I can’t relate to that!)

      Such a shame that Rowley died so young … she was a good biographer.

  3. What incredible comments by her peers. Truly sounds quite wonderful. I’m on an audiobook bent at present (I rarely get a seat on my commutes, so reading a physical book is out)… I doubt they’ll have this one in the library system though!

    • Pretty impressive comments eh? You never know. She might be in the library system as, unlike many Aussie writers, she does have a bit of a presence overseas. If I remember correctly Jonathan Franzen loves her.

  4. I loved this review, and I love the book too. I’ve read it more than once and will read it again; and when I was leading a workshop in creative writing last year, I used passages from it as an example of narrative description that interfuses the main character’s consciousness seamlessly with sensual imagery; the part where Teresa walks down to the harbour shore at night on a full moon, and hears lovers moaning in the bushes, and thinks about what the consequences might be. I loved the passion of it, the passion of the main character, and way secondary characters like Jonathan Crow, Teresa’s father, James Quick, are presented with light and shadow, quirks, eccentricities, contradictions, full of vibrant ambiguous life. The one purely good character is James, the ‘good’ lover, though even he has his excesses, as you suggest, in his love for Teresa. Love, for Stead, is a dark and turbulent torrent, no shallow stream. I must read Rowley’s biography of her; I loved her biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Tete a Tete.

    • Thankyou Christina, that means a lot as this is one of those reviews I slaved over a bit. What to focus on I kept thinking without writing 3000 words!? I am seriously thinking of a second post just on the language.

      I think it’s the “vibrant ambiguous life” that I enjoyed so much about it … nothing, really, was black and white. Even Jonathan had his pathetic aspects alongside his misogynistic, sadistic side.

  5. I had the privilege of meeting Christina Stead when she was a Writer in residence at Monash University in the 1970s, and I sent her a manuscript of mine. (I won’t tell you what she said about it.) But she was generous with her time, and of course I hung on every word, being already an enormous fan. Stead did answer my questions about her approach to writing, and I remember asking her about her treatment of characters and the nerve it took. I was thinking particularly of the suicide in ‘The Man Who Loved Children’, but she chose to answer in a general way. ‘I could be violent with them,’ she said, ‘because I was violent with myself.’

    • Oh, what a great experience, Dorothy – at least, I hope it was a great experience. She does sound like a very passionate woman who was as hard on herself as she apparently could be on others. The NLA article on Duncan comments on the novel being “writer’s revenge indeed”. It was fiction but people clearly knew he was the inspiration. Not easy to live with that I reckon. You’d have to be a tough writer to write it.

  6. That’s one of the things I love about her writing in For Love Alone; she is tough on all her characters, yet there is that undertone of compassion and deep commitment that makes them lift off the page. Another passage I love is chapter 4, after the wedding that is one of the bravura opening scenes in the book. Aunt Bea and her daughter live ‘in a single front room in a small brick bungalow in Rose Bay’, and Teresa goes back there with them after the wedding. I won’t try to summarise this wonderful chapter, but it so exactly captures the fringe lives of women who are not married, widows, unmarried daughters reaching the age when they would be considered ‘on the shelf’ and women whose husbands were absent for various ambiguous reasons…. women on the margins, struggling to stay decent. Aunt Bea is a delight, full of stories and ‘irrepressible foolishness’. But there is tragedy under the surface. The chapter ends with Teresa finding her cousin writhing on the bathroom floor, crying… because she is not married.

    • Oh yes, that scene is great. Even some reading group friends who were mixed about the book, loved Aunt Bea and this chapter in particular. She’s so much fun, but then we discussed that it wasn’t such fun for Anne (I think that’s the cousin’s name). I loved how the book kept me guessing, kept me on my toes, regarding characters and their nature/motivations etc. Even Crow!

      I can see you love/know this book well.

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