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 know many of her books, including last week’s two. However, this week’s books are less familiar to me.
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.
The 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.”
House 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.