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Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead’s 1930s, Beauties and Bankers

January 20, 2020

Today’s Monday Musings post is the second of two on Christina Stead that I promised for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week. These two posts – last week’s and this – focus on contemporary Australian responses to her four 1930s-published books, based primarily on my research of Trove.

Last week’s post looked at The Salzburg tales (1934) and Seven poor men of Sydney (1934), so this week The beauties and the furies (1936) and House of all nations (1938) get their turn. Although I’ve only read For love alone, plus some short stories of hers, I have know many of her books, including last week’s two. However, this week’s books are less familiar to me.

Book cover

The beauties and the furies was not one of Stead’s most successful books, it has to be said, and I had to dig a bit deeper in Trove to find reviews. It’s the story of a woman who, married to a boring man, runs off to Paris to be with her student lover. The reviews were not kind, mostly for the writing than the content.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer (22 May 1936) writes that her “definite tendency to develop an artificial style” appeared in her second book, but suggests that

That “visionary imagination,” for which she has been commended, runs away with reality altogether in “The Beauties and Furies” at times.

S/he then quotes from the book, and, I must say that out of context at least it is a little over-the-top, but the review isn’t all bad, saying that despite these passages and “a leaning towards redundancy”, Stead has “a definite flair for delineation of character and a good sense of dialogue and situation”. The book is, however, “too long”, presumable because of the redundancy.

Book coverThe Mail’s review (30 May 1936) is similarly critical, and is titled, in fact, “Not recommended”. This reviewer attacks both the writing and the content, describing the story as

merely a sordid one, not of a beautiful comradeship, but of an illicit love affair between two people, whose ideals are about as spiritual as those of a pair of monkeys.

S/he ends the review with the parenthetical comment “(Censors please note)”. However, even so, this reviewer does see skill, saying “she can write vigorously, yet with simplicity and charm”.

The Australian Women’s Weekly (20 June 1936) joined the chorus:

A good story spoilt by a maddening cascade of words to water the purple patches of the plot. Of course, some of them have their uses. “Endoped dome of misery” might be applied to the reader’s head after ploughing through some of these passages. It seems a pity, for the book might have been a good one had the author stuck to her undoubted gift for descriptive phrases only as the means of telling her story.

The best “review” comes from Melbourne’s The Herald (18 June 1946) which quotes America’s New Yorker critic, Clifton Fadiman, who sees more to admire than criticise:

again declares that Christina Stead, the Sydney woman who wrote “The Salzburg Tales,” “Seven Poor Men of Sydney,” and “The Beauties and Furies,” is “a simon-pure genius, showing not a trace of workaday talent.” “I say this,” he temperately adds, “knowing that ‘The Salzburg Tales’ had its excesses and that ‘Seven Poor Men of Sydney’ was no less flawed … ‘The Beauties and Furies’ though her finest book to date, is also imperfect. Yet it discloses such streaming imagination, such tireless wit, such intellectual virtuosity, that I cannot see how anyone who reads it carefully— and there is no other way to read it — can deny Miss Stead’s position as the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf. . . . The style is indescribable, the wit hardly suggestible.”

Book coverHouse of all nations (1938), which satirises bankers and financiers, garnered far more positive reviews overall. Edgar Holt in The Herald (9 July 1938) starts with

That I was not very familiar with her work before is an appropriate commentary upon the indifference of most of us to our Australian novelists. “House of All Nations” is a brilliant and exhilarating book, a superb performance of sustained wit, a crushing satire on the world of international finance.

Holt shares many quotes to show the quality of her writing, saying Stead “revels in words. They spurt from her pen, fountain-like”. He does have some criticism but, like Fadiman, is impressed, concluding that

The scope of this book is almost too ambitious; but instead of failing in an exceptionally difficult undertaking, she has written a novel which will command universal admiration.

We should be very proud to include her in the forefront of Australian novelists.

Like Holt, who described the book as a “mosaic”, Adam McCay, in Sydney’s The Sun (10 July 1938) also discusses the novel’s construction:

According to current literary jargon, “House of All Nations” might be called a cavalcade, or a pageant: but its plan is too well-made, not accidental enough, to let it be named a kaleidoscope. Looking for a word, we might say that it is a symphony, with privateering international finance as leitmotiv, and it is written wholly in scherzo movements.

McCay is fulsome in his praise, saying, among other things, that:

In her perception of financial intrigue, as well as in her naked studies of fraud, gluttony, perversion, avarice, and adultery, Miss Stead has eyes as ruthless as a studio light. It is a rare woman who can furnish scepticism and satire as unabashed as Voltaire’s.

I will just note here, in passing, the sexism in some of the commentary. It was the 1930s.

The writer in Brisbane’s The Telegraph (14 July 1938) starts by sharing the qualified assessment made by that American supporter of Australian literature, C Hartley Grattan, then goes on to quote English critic Ricard Church who said that:

Such variety of character, presented with so original and vivid a style, makes this book quite outstanding. And as for the author’s mastery of the details of the international money-market; well, that is worthy of Zola.

So far, then, Stead has been compared favourably with Virginia Woolf, Voltaire and Zola. The aforementioned Adam McCay writes in another article that while one English reviewer sees her as “the most important woman novelist in English since Virginia Woolf”, he’d “go back past Mrs. Woolf to George Eliot”.

One-time Stead friend and supporter, the Australian journalist Florence James, wrote various articles about Stead’s career during the 1930s. In The Sydney Morning Herald (22 September 1938) she noted that

at last Australia is waking up to realise that in London and New York this young Australian is considered by many famous critics to be the most important woman writing in the English language to-day.

There were, of course, naysayers who did not like Stead’s exuberant, untamed style, but we can put that down, in part at least, to the fact that her modernist style was new and innovative. Not everyone likes innovation.

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

24 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2020 05:42

    This post goes to show that reviewers are definitely not all cut from the same cloth. eh, ST ? – especially with regard to ‘The Bs and the Fs’. Mebbe that was due to the subject matter .. I’m on the side of the one who mentioned the endoped dome of misery, there.
    (In 1938 a novelist was writing a satire on the world of international finance ? – plus ça change !)

    • January 21, 2020 05:46

      It’s interesting, I think, M-R, to realise exactly that, ie plus ça change, because I think sometimes believe we invented the wheel. Kate Jennings, who wrote Moral hazard about the world of finance, and who also worked in it for a while, admires this book.

      • January 21, 2020 05:48

        My only experience of a novel touching on this is Iain Pears’ “Stone’s Fall”, which I found absolutely fascinating.
        Sighh .. sorry: there I go again, off-topic-ing.

        • January 21, 2020 09:21

          That’s not off-topic-ing, that related-topic-ing and perfectly allowed M-R!

        • January 21, 2020 18:36

          [bows in gratification]

  2. January 21, 2020 09:02

    Ouch! Those reviews of The Beauties and the Furies – it’s my favourite Stead because Elvira is such a fabulous creation and a feminist after my own heart!
    I was tossing up whether to read House of All Nations or Marr’s bio of Patrick White … I like to read something long in that week between Christmas and New York when nothing much gets in the way of the reading, but then we had the fires which took all my attention, and my eyes got sore, and so I never got to either of them…
    PS I forgot last week, I’ll add both of these Whisperings to my CS page.

    • January 21, 2020 09:20

      Oh, I didn’t realise it was your favourite Lisa. I suspect that later readers, with more modernist writing and more risqué writing, too, under their belts, might react differently.

      BTW I didn’t link to your review specifically, which I hope you don’t mind but to your page, as there are so many reviews there for people to check out. Didn’t think about your adding these to it, but thanks.

      As for not reading those books, it’s been such a disorienting start to the year hasn’t it, even for those not directly affected.

      • January 21, 2020 10:32

        Actually I’m surprised that it didn’t get banned by the censor. From my reading of Nicole Moore’s The Censor’s Library, the fact that Elvira’s boyfriend is a socialist and that a Marxist newspaper gets bandied about would have spelled trouble, not to mention Elvira getting pregnant out of wedlock and not being in any hurry to marry…

        • January 21, 2020 13:46

          Hmm… Interesting then. You can never tell with censors it seems.

  3. January 21, 2020 09:28

    ‘Eyes as ruthless as a studio light’ – I like it!

    • January 21, 2020 09:33

      Some of those reviewers have some wonderful turns of phrase don’t they, Carmel. Glad you like it.

  4. January 21, 2020 09:35

    This is great, Sue. If you’ve only read For Love Alone I’m guessing you were at Sydney University at about the same time as I was, and read it as part of he AustLit course. I remember writing an essay in response to a quote about the dun-dreariness of Australian novels before 1950, in which I discussed For Love Alone – which absolutely didn’t fit the generalisation. Thank you for ‘endoped dome of misery’.

    • January 21, 2020 13:45

      Sorry but no Jonathan, I didn’t read it until a few years ago. I thought dun-dreariness came more with White!

      • January 21, 2020 13:56

        Haha! I think it was White who used the term to describe what he was reacting against, in a notoriously vitriolic essay on Australian suburbia. He certainly can’t have been thinking of Christina Stead.

        • January 21, 2020 13:58

          No, he can’t have!

        • January 21, 2020 14:11

          I’ve just gone searching. I thought he used the phrase ‘dun-dreary naturalism’ in his 1958 essay The Prodigal Son, but maybe I made that up. All I could find in a quick search was several references to this: ‘In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves’.

        • January 21, 2020 16:06

          What a wonderful quote – it’s all good, but I love “beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes”.

  5. January 21, 2020 10:45

    I’m glad you’re able to demonstrate that Stead wasn’t completely ignored working and being published outside Australia. And recognized as a writer of genius, which of course she was, even by her critics. “A maddening cascade of words “. Exactly!

    I hope the critic who invoked the censor had the grace to be ashamed when Lettie Fox was banned a decade later.

  6. Moira Nolan permalink
    January 21, 2020 11:05

    Inspiring language from the reviewers – worthy of reading the work itself! I will have to get onto it…

  7. Meg permalink
    January 21, 2020 14:33

    Hi Sue, you like reading older reviews. I wonder if you have read this one in Australian Literature by Cecil Hadgraft.(1955) He says of Christina Stead:…”One novelist seemed blessed early with more talents and brilliance than have been the lot of almost any other Australian novelist. This is Christina Stead. Her early studies, her travels, her various jobs, all were additional aids to the growth of a personality that seemed at one period capable of anything in fiction – except perahps writing a really great novel” (!!!!) On ‘The Beauties and Furies’ .. “after this her style is to alter, the themes are to become longer in the telling, and the characters, are to be more closely connected with one another. On ‘The House of All Nations” three times the length of most novels, gives an intimate and revealing account of international banking. Formidably technical in many sections, it is a tribute to her assimilation of background during her business experience in London”

    • January 21, 2020 16:07

      Thanks so much for searching this out and typing it all in Meg. Love that comment that you’ve emphasised.

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