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Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead’s 1930s, Salzburg and Sydney

January 13, 2020

My first Monday musings on Christina Stead (my posts on Stead) was barely introductory, so I’m planning two more to coincide with Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week. These two posts – this week’s and next – focus contemporary Australian responses to the four books she published in the 1930s. I’m keeping this focus tight because Stead is such a complex figure in Australian literary history, and so much has been written about her already, including Hazel Rowley’s well-regarded biography. (See Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers). However, I enjoyed reading, in Trove of course, what some contemporary Aussies had to say about her, and wanted to share them.

To start though, a very brief bio relevant to this period. Stead, born in Sydney in 1902, went overseas, to England initially, in 1928. She then lived, and worked in a bank, in Paris from 1930 to 1935, before spending time in the USA, Spain and England with her husband-to-be William Blake (Wilhelm Blech). In 1937, they moved to the USA. She didn’t return to Australia to live until 1968. Her first four books were published in the 1930s: The Salzburg tales (1934), Seven poor men of Sydney (1934), The beauties and the furies (1936), and House of all nations (1938).

Although over the years Stead experienced a mixed reaction from Australia, some critics denouncing her as “expatriate”, it’s clear that in the 1930s, at least, she was well-admired by Australian newspaper reviewers. It’s also clear that she was seen as both a modernist and a realist, with no nods to our bush and pioneer traditions.

Book coverThe Salzburg tales was her first published book and it immediately received positive attention from Australian newspaper reviewers. I was tickled by the writer in Melbourne’s Argus who wrote that “Many times it has been said that there is no particular demand for writers’ collections of short stories but there are authors and publishers who continue to issue books of the kind and apparently the stories find readers.” Plus ça change, it seems.

Reviews of this book noted its inventiveness and original style. For example, S.E.N., wrote in the Daily Mail on 4 April 1934, that

her book is remarkable not only for its inventiveness, but for its original style. It commingles modernism and mysticism, realism and romanticism, the dramatic and the uneventful, love, law, life, laughter, and letters in an olla podrida which is both attractive and unusual. Some of the stories are, like that of the Wanton, a little too highly spiced here and there for the less sophisticated reader; but on the whole Miss Stead has given us a collection of tales which are admirably told and admirably contrasted.

There we have it – “modernism” and “realism” – two styles/approaches that were significant the 1930s literature, and of which Stead was a major exponent. The unnamed reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald (3 May 1934) remarked that “Miss Stead … really seems to belong in a class by herself”. This reviewer praises the variety, and concludes that “there seems no end to Miss Stead’s inventiveness and no limit to her powers of expression”. Jean Williamson, writing in the Australian Women’s Weekly (7 July 1934), is no less admiring, calling it “extraordinary in its concept, its vocabulary, its technique and its imagery.”

The reviewer in the Townsville Daily Bulletin (7 August 1934) states:

This author is, I understand, an Australian, who now lives in Paris. How long she has been there I do not know but she has accumulated experience, impressions, fed her imagination in a way that would not be possible for an author writing from this side of the world. It is not only that Miss Stead has set her scenes in such a town as Salzburg, and peopled her many pages with remarkable people. Most authors could have done that, but her story is saturated with her personality, lit up humor, knowledge, penetration, and is decidedly original.

This is an interesting comment in the context of Drusilla Modjeska’s book Exiles at home (posted on by Bill). Modjeska’s book is about “the ones who stayed” in Australia … tackling … how to live and work in this country as women and as writers and how to build a culture that has its roots in Australian histories and conditions, rather than in a foreign past” (from Introduction to Reprinted Editions.) Of course, the thing about Stead is that she too forged a contemporary literature, some of it set in or drawn from her Australian experience … which brings me to …

Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of SydneyStead’s second book, Seven poor men of Sydney, which garnered similarly positive reviews. However, the reviewer in The Newcastle Sun (22 November 1934) makes no bones about its grittiness. It has no “Australian local color of the wattle blossom and stockwhip kind”. S/he describes it as high art, and says “it gives evidence of intuition, of skill in handling of character and of words and of high achievement in the depicting of realities.” For this writer, though, there is such a thing as being too modern, too real:

And while no one can reasonably suggest that a writer should ignore the gutter, it is not necessary to bring in the language of the gutter. It is, indeed, a great pity that a writer who shows abundantly that she is capable of far better things, should think it necessary to be “modern” in this particular way.

I know some readers who still feel this today … Anyhow, interestingly, Bookman writing in the Courier Mail (30 November 1934) has an opposing criticism, saying that “perhaps” the novel’s “weakest point” is that “the characters all talk too learnedly”! However, he too recognises the novel’s “stark realism”. He calls it “a remarkable book; the kind of book to which the word ‘powerful’ is sometimes applied”, but he also clearly fears its politics:

She has revealed the mentality out of which revolutions are made. That lesson is especially important in these days when thousands of lads, with more education than judgment, are being thrown into desperation and into the arms of extreme propagandists because all they can see ahead is blind-alley employment or no employment at all. In such conditions communism flourishes, and Miss Stead doubtless saw it thriving in Central Europe.

The aforementioned Jean Williamson, writing again in the Australian Women’s Weekly (9 March 1935) reports Stead’s own comments on the book.

The Seven Poor Men of Sydney is not so much a novel, I suppose, as a cast of characters battling through daily life, as much passion being expended or the small accidents of daily life as on any one of the great tragic themes; in fact the great tragic themes are all melted down and infused there. That was my feeling in writing the Seven Poor Men.”

Stead, a deeply committed socialist, also says that the novel shows she hasn’t forgotten Australia, nor “the importance of the Labor Movement in everyone’s daily life”.

So, two very different books, both written in a modernist style, both hailed for their inventiveness and her “phrasemaking” – and, put together, neatly reflecting her seemingly dichotomous existence.

Note: You can find bloggers’ reviews of various Stead works at Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2020 12:19 am

    I think S.E.N. was right on the money. Interestingly, these stories were offered to A&R before Stead left Sydney, but Robertson knocked them back. Then when Blake found her a publisher in London she was able to turn the stories into a new take on Canterbury Tales following a visit to Salzburg for a Mozart festival. Definitely a novel rather than a short story collection IMO.

    • January 14, 2020 8:29 am

      Thanks Bill. I rather thought a novel too, from what I’ve read, but Wikipedia and that reviewer at least had it otherwise. A bit like Winton’s The turning too perhaps. What is it? A novel? Or short stories? A novel, I’d say there too.

      • January 14, 2020 8:55 am

        Turning probably Winton’s most interesting novel as he is able to concentrate on character instead of veering off into action.

  2. January 14, 2020 1:57 pm

    This is great, Sue, being able to see what her contemporaries thought of her work:)

    *sigh* The Salzburg Tales is the only title I don’t have, I must do something about that.

    • January 14, 2020 2:04 pm

      Lisa, I have a number of your books that I’m no closer to reading. You are welcome to my copy of Salzburg Tales (as soon as I get home. I’m over this smoke! It’s as far out as Balranald and of course all down the Hume Hwy as it follows the Great Divide)

      • January 14, 2020 2:21 pm

        YOU’RE over this smoke!!! Come to Canberra for a while!

      • January 15, 2020 7:48 am

        Wow, thanks, that would be great.
        Yes, the smoke. We’ve never had it like this before.

    • January 14, 2020 2:20 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I really enjoyed doing this. I think there are recent editions of Salzburg tales, but dot sure how recent.

      • January 15, 2020 7:46 am

        I promised myself I would read House of All Nations for AWW, but I seem to have lost a whole week’s reading while I’ve been glued to ABC News 24…

  3. ian darling permalink
    January 15, 2020 2:10 am

    I enjoyed The Turning too. I used to own a copy of The Salzburg Tales but a book cull means that it is missing which is a great shame. I think that Steads’ books must have been exciting to encounter in the 1930s. I have a copy of For Love Alone and this post has nudged me to thinking about reading it.

    • January 15, 2020 8:22 am

      Oh yes, I think you’re right Ian about that. You can sense it in the reviewers. Surprise, astonishment but also thrill.

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