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

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.

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.

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

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.

Christina Stead, Ocean of story, Pt 1: The early years – Australia (Review)

Christina Stead, Ocean of storyContribution no. 2 for Lisa’s Christina Stead Week from Ocean of story: the uncollected stories of Christina Stead.

My first post was on the titular story, “Ocean of story”, which is also used as the collection’s Introduction. After this Introduction, the stories have been organised into 7 sections by editor RG Geering. These sections are presented chronologically, Geering says, reflecting Stead’s timeline, not when they were written. The first is, therefore, logically titled “The Early Years – Australia”. It contains three stories – “The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon” – all of which have children as their central subject, which is, perhaps, interesting given Stead had none of her own.

Now, if you ever went to primary (or elementary) school, and that’s all of you I presume, you will enjoy “The old school”. If you were a girl, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. “The old school” was, Geering says, one of the few things Stead worked on in the last years of her life. It was published in Southerly in 1984. It’s like a little slice of life, and like the other two stories, starts with a fairly detailed setting of the scene before she gets to her main subject matter.

So, “The old school” starts with a description of the school, followed by a description of what happens at the school, or, more precisely of what the rumours say happens. But, we are told, in spite of this, “cause and effect” are clearer at school than at home, and “mostly concerned the boys”. Boys who are bad – who truant for example – will go to “the reformatory”. And if you go to the reformatory, your next stop will be prison. And who knows all this? Why “the informants” of course. And who are these “informants”, these “small sages”? Well, Stead writes, they are the “natural moralists, two or three to a class and as far as I knew, all little girls”. From here we are regaled with stories about these informants’ moral pronouncements by this “I”, this “I” who appears in two of the stories and who is an observer, rather than a participant, from within. In “The old school” then, the “I” is a student at the school.

The rest of the story explores the “moral questions” debated by these “informants”, whom Stead describes in more detail:

The informants, our moralists, had clean dresses, pink, blue or sprigged, patent leather shoes and white socks, and curls natural or rag. They did clean school work too, even when we got pen and ink. Goodness alone knows how, with their pink cheeks and shiny curls and neatly dressed brink little mothers, they got all this news about jails, reformatories, judges and sentences, lashings, canings, bread and water.

They are, of course, often little tyrants, deciding which child will be approved and which won’t. The rest of the story chronicles some of their pronouncements and their impacts on their peers. Whenever anything happened in the school “they knotted together, a town moot: they discussed, debated and delivered an opinion.” What the teachers said was to them only “hearsay”. Our “I” character doesn’t have an opinion. She “thought then that cruelty and injustice were natural and inevitable during all of a poor creature’s life”. (The use of “then” would be worth exploring.)

The main story concerns poor little Maidie Dickon who is, literally, “poor” and thus ostracised by our “natural moralists”. She didn’t have the right shoes, didn’t bring the right notes from her mother, and didn’t have her own pen and paper and so would be given some from the school supply. “It isn’t fair” cry the well-provided “informants” who also prove, mystifyingly to our “I”, to be excellent “newsgatherers”. They somehow know about Maidie’s roadworker father, who is (illegally, in those days) striking, and washerwoman mother.

You are getting the drift I’m sure of the story and will be realising that Stead’s focus is on the “natural” justice delivered by these “sages” or “moralists” to those less able to defend for themselves, while the “I”, Stead’s young self, tries to make sense of it all, of how the world works. The ending is gorgeously sharp. The story could take up a whole post – I loved its vivid picture and its passion – but I’ll move on.

“The milk run” was published in The New Yorker in 1972 (and later appeared in a Penguin anthology, The Penguin book of the road, published in 2008). It is set in the same area of southern Sydney as “The old school”, but it tells the story of a family and a little boy whose job it is to get the family’s milk from the grandfather’s dairy a mile away. Stead takes some time setting the physical scene, and describing the family and the boy, Matthew, who worships his father.

It is a beautifully detailed story of a particular place and time. Stead captures ordinary family life and tensions with such precision – a comment here, a brief conversation there, convey all we need to know about the various relationships. It conveys a child’s eye view of the world, the child’s incomprehension of adult behaviour. Things happen. Sometimes they make sense to Matthew, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the father he worships supports him, sometimes he doesn’t. But, after a lucky find, Matthew gathers to himself a warming thought, something that offers him comfort when all else is uncertain.

And finally, “A little demon”, which was published, Geering says, in “an almost identical version” in the Harvard Advocate in 1973. It’s a satire, which again starts with setting a wider scene by describing a large and successful but rather insular family, the Masons. On the surface, they seem to be perfect, but asides and hints suggest that the surface is just that. There’s something a little claustrophobic and inward-looking about them with their “same notions” and suspicion of travel.

Into this family is born Stevie, the titular “little demon”. We hear a lot about him – the horror of his behaviour and what a trial he is to his mother, though, strangely, not to his teacher who finds him “very good” – but we don’t meet him until the last couple of pages. We are told what an “adorable” person his mother is, and how much she loves her two dogs, Duff and Rags. And here come some hints about who this adorable Mariana really is because, you see, she loved Duff and didn’t want her to ever have puppies. Why would you, after all, “spoil” that beautiful dog by letting her have puppies? Hmm, does this tell us something about Mariana’s attitude to motherhood? Ironically though, she falls in love with Rags, one of Duff’s unwanted puppies, the irony doubled because she doesn’t love her own offspring.

It all starts to go bad for Stevie when the cat that he found upset the dogs. He took the cat’s part, “just for a day or two; and then he saw which way the wind was blowing and lost interest”. And here the rot sets in. Stevie is depicted as having no feelings for animals, and as doing everything he can “to be disagreeable, to annoy, to tease”. How old is this Stevie that everyone – except perhaps his grandmother who defends him – hates? About 5!

It’s a satirical story in which Stead skewers shallowness and self-centredness, not to mention lack of maternal feeling. The language here is more heightened, using exaggeration and exclamation, than the more natural language of the previous two stories. It also has a somewhat stronger plot: we are set up to want to meet this Stevie, and there is a delicious little twist or sting in the tail, which the other two stories don’t have.

I’ve enjoyed reading these stories for Christina Stead Week. I’ll try to read more down the track, but in the meantime they have given me added insight into Stead, into the variety in her writing and into some of her broader themes. Thanks Lisa for the little push to read at least a bit of Ocean of story!
AWW Logo 2016

Christina Stead
“The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
ISBN: 9780140100211

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1902 in Australian literature

Why, you may be asking, have I chosen 1902 for this post? After all, it’s not a nice round number of years ago, like 100. I could tease you with hints, but I want to get onto the post proper, so I’ll just tell you: it was the year Christina Stead was born. And, as you’ll have realised if you read yesterday’s post, this week in Lisa of ANZLitLovers’ Christina Stead Week. Now, of course, Stead wasn’t particularly sentient that year, but I thought it might be fun to see what was happening in literature in the (Aussie) world she was born into.

But first, let’s look at who else was born in 1902. Most interesting to me is Dymphna Cusack, whose memoir of her teaching days, A window in the dark, and first novel, Jungfrau, I’ve reviewed here. My research of the National Library of Australia uncovered that Cusack and Stead corresponded with each other, though I think Stead had a closer relationship with Cusack’s literary collaborator, Florence James. Anyhow, also born this year were Alan Marshall, famous for his autobiography I can jump puddles, and a lesser known author, Dorothy Cottrell, who had two novels adapted for film, one of them in her lifetime, Orphan of the wilderness.

Now, what was published in 1902? I’m going to focus on novels and short stories, because these were Stead’s main forms, and I’ve selected names that are reasonably well-known (to my mind anyhow). Here goes:

  • Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies (my reviews can be found here)
  • Rolf Boldrewood’s The ghost camp or, the avengers
  • Henry Lawson’s Children of the bush, plus individual stories
  • Louise Mack’s An Australian girl in London (I have Mack on my TBR)
  • Rosa Praed’s The insane root: A romance of a strange country and her autobiography, My Australian girlhood (I’ve read her The bond of wedlock)
  • Ethel Turner’s Young love (I have reviewed her Juvenilia)

There are others, but most are writers who are not known now, such as Hume Nisbett and Ambrose Pratt.

The interesting question is whether any of these writers influenced Stead? Did she read them as she was growing up? Not having read any biographies of her, I can’t say. However, Baynton and Mack went overseas in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, seeing it as important for establishing a writing career. Expatriation could offer better access to publishers and “a freer life” (Carole Ferrier). Stead also went to England (and later the US) a couple of decades later. She may not have explicitly “followed” them,  but it was a popular path for serious writers. There is an argument – both in her time and now – that Stead’s lack of recognition in Australia stems partly from the lengthy time she spent overseas. You can, it seems, be away from “home” too long! According to Wikipedia, she ‘only returned to Australia after she was denied the Britannica-Australia prize on the grounds that she had “ceased to be an Australian”‘.

A significant person active at the time of Stead’s birth is Vida Goldstein, the politician and women’s rights activist. In 1902 she was the Australian delegate at the International Women’s Suffrage Conference in Washington, DC. Again, whether Stead knew of her, I don’t know, but she was a person worth knowing and was part of a long tradition of Australian women who cared about women’s rights and broader social reform. Stead’s first novel, Seven poor men of Sydney, documenting “the relentlessness of poverty”, demonstrates her interest in similar issues.

I know this little post doesn’t tell us much about Stead, herself, but I found it interesting to research and think about. More useful might be to look at literary life around the time she turned 21? We might then find and think about those who were more likely her peers. Hmmm …


  • 1902 in Australian literature (Wikipedia)
  • Hooton, Joy and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian literature, 2nd ed. Melbourne: OUP, 1992
  • Trove (various newspaper articles!)

Christina Stead, Introduction: Ocean of story (Review, possibly)

Christina Stead, Ocean of storyI am so glad Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has given me an excuse, her Christina Stead Week, to finally pick up Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead. I bought this book, in 1991, from a sale table for all of 98 (Australian) cents! What a bargain. I then popped it on my Australian literature TBR shelves, where it has sat, and sat, and sat – until now.

Before I get to it, though, I must confess that this post’s title is a bit of a lie. Christina Stead just called this story “Ocean of story”, but RG Geering, the editor of this “uncollected” collection, made it the Introduction to the book. I decided that I could use this to differentiate in my post title that the post is just about this introductory story. Fair enough?

Now to the overall collection. I am on record as stating that I don’t read introductions to books before I read the book itself. I would in fact prefer these “introductions” to be called “afterwords” and placed at the end. And that’s what Geering has done here except, being perverse, I’d rather that for such a “curated” collection it had been at the beginning! Consequently, I didn’t see it until I’d read the first story and, finding it a little unusual, wondered why there wasn’t some sort of editor’s introduction. So, I went looking. And there, at the end, was his Afterword!

Geering writes that the book

brings together for the first time most of the short prose writings that appeared in various places (journals, magazines and newspapers) outside the thirteen volumes of fiction published during her own life, along with other unpublished pieces found among her personal papers after her death.

And then he says that he has grouped the pieces “according to their settings and contents rather than chronologically”. In this way, they will “follow the contours of [her] somewhat wandering life.” Then, right towards the end of his Afterward, he finally describes the opening piece: it’s

a contribution to ‘The International Symposium on the Short Story’ in Kenyan Review, 1968 … [and] is a highly personal essay, rather than a conventional article.

And that is exactly what it is, a “highly personal essay”, one that, by its end, has given us a “highly personal” understanding of what stories, and particularly short stories, meant to Stead. It starts:

I love Ocean of Story, the name of an Indian treasury of story; that is the way I think of the short story and what is part of it, the sketch, anecdote, jokes cunning, philosophical, and biting, legends and fragments. Where do they come from? Who invents them? Everyone perhaps. Who remembers them so that they pass endlessly across city life? I know some of those marvellous rememberers who pass on their daily earnings in story; and then they are forgotten to become fragments, mysterious indications. Any treasury of story is a residue of the past and a record of the day.

I love the open-endedness of her conception. It’s a free-flowing one that allows stories to take all forms. She goes on to say that “what is unique about the short story is that we all can tell one, live one, even write one down.”

Then she turns autobiographical, starting with her childhood with her father. She was, she says, “born into the ocean of story, or on its shores”, the daughter of a “lively young scientist”. He

told his tales. He meant to talk me asleep. He talked me awake.

Ha, the impact of stories on an imaginative child, which Stead clearly was. He told her stories drawn from his zoological work, and “stories of the outback…and even a few historic events.” But then comes the important thing – the thing that is important to all who read – that is, what stories do for us. She writes that the thousand stories she heard between two and four and a half

formed my views – an interest in men and nature, a feeling that all were equal, the extinct monster, the coral insect, the black man and us; and another curious feeling in me, of terrestrial eternity, a sun that never set.

This feeling came via her father’s nature-related stories which taught her that while death was necessary, there was always “a frail print” left. However, the storytelling – these times that allowed her “to see the unseen” – ended when she was four and a half and her father remarried. The magic was imprinted by then though!

“the million drops of water”

Indeed, she sees stories as “magical”. You only need for someone to say, she says, “Here’s a story; it happened to me” and all will listen. We seek stories – even those “twisted, inferior, cramped, and sterile stories on TV” – because we hope to recognise and “have explained our own existence”. She’s right – on both superficial (what am I doing) and deeper, more psychological (who am I) levels – don’t you think? She continues:

It isn’t necessary that these stories should be artistic or follow formula or be like Chekhov or the last metropolitan fad, or anything. The virtue of the story is its reality and its meaning for any one person: that is its pungency.

She argues that while the “masterpiece” might be appropriate for professionals, “the essential for us is integrity and what is genuine.” She then, interestingly given she wrote this in 1968, harks back to stories of the 1930s:

not all are memorable (some are) but all record the realities of the days when America was suffering and looking for a way out and thinking about its fate; and – look at those same today – they are a vivid and irreplaceable memento. That is what is best about the short story: it is real life for everyone; and everyone can tell one.

In other words, “the story has a magic necessary to our happiness”! We seek “the powerful story rooted in all things which will explain life to us”. I love all this. It is such an argument for the importance and value of the arts.

Stead concludes by telling a story about a group near London that she once joined. All were asked to stand up and tell a story, and

everyone, those stuffy and snug people came to life, became mouths out of which bubbled stories poor and ordinary or before unheard of.

There it was, she says, “the ocean of story”. And this happens everywhere, anytime. So,

The short story can’t wither and, living, can’t be tied to a plan. It is only when the short story is written to a rigid plan, or done as an imitation, that it dies. It dies when it is pinned down, but not elsewhere. It is the million drops of water that are the looking-glasses of all our lives.

I classed this post as “(Review, possibly)” because I haven’t really written a review. Rather, I’ve described/shared Stead’s attitude to stories – and to story-making and storytellers. I love her egalitarianism, even when describing stories that are “poor and ordinary”; I love her flexible idea of what makes a story; I love her chatty, idiosyncratic style; and most of all I love her passion for the importance of stories (particularly short stories) to our lives. I look forward to reading at least some of those in this book.

AWW Logo 2016Christina Stead
“Introduction: Ocean of story”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
ISBN: 9780140100211

Thoughts on Christina Stead’s writing in For love alone

I can’t resist writing another post on Christina Stead‘s For love alone, which I reviewed recently. Usually in my reviews I make some comments about the writing, but that review was getting so long that I decided to leave that discussion for another day.

I’m embarrassed to admit that For love alone is my first Stead. I’ve been wanting to get to her for the longest time, but somehow other books kept getting in the way. I’ll admit too that I was a bit nervous – as I’d heard over the years that she was difficult to read, or that her books were too miserable. Fortunately, I found neither of these to be the case with this novel. From the first chapter I was hooked. The book does have a little prologue which I enjoyed, but it was the first chapter that really got me in – and it got me in primarily because of its writing.

I love writing that plays with words and this is what I found in chapter one. Take for example this use of the word “bending” in an exchange between the heroine Teresa and her father (pp. 11-12):

“… I am in love again, with a young woman, a woman of thirty, a – ” His voice dropped. He came towards her, seized her arms and looked into her face without bending. “A wonderful, proud looking woman, pure in soul. “My whole life is wrapping itself around her, so I’m glad you brought it up for you will understand later on -”

She angrily shook her arms free. “Don’t touch me, I don’t like it.”

He sighed and turned his shoulder to her. “That is no way to treat men, men don’t like an unbending woman.”

“I am unbending.”

“You will be sorry for it.”

Then a few sentences down, her father says to her about flirtatious, coaxing behaviour in women:

“If, I say, you should ever be tempted to tricks like that, thinking to please some man, remember that they detest those tricks and see through them. They know they are traps, mean little chicane to bend them to women’s purpose.”

This is such a clever and telling exchange. It immediately tells us something about the father, the daughter and their relationship, about the likely themes of the novel (particularly given the title) and, though we don’t know it, it sets up future exchanges with Jonathan Crow who often talks of women trapping men.

A couple pages on is a another exchange in the family in which the idea of “honour” is played with and twisted. Stead, I sensed, was a writer I was going to like.

This, however, is not all that captured me in the first chapter. There were also several oxymorons (oxymora?) that added to the sense of slipperiness. Teresa’s room is described as “an inviting cell” and her brother, Lance, as “chaste and impure”. In the next chapter, a womanising dockhand is “agreeably sinister”.

It is language like this – ironic, satirical, biting – that keeps me reading, particularly in early stages of books where I’m not sure what is happening. I enjoy this sort of language because it challenges our preconceptions and can set a strong tone. (I do like a strong tone.) Mostly, though, such language tells me that the novel in question is likely to be multi-layered and that I’d better be ready to look beneath the surface.

Stead also writes beautiful, evocative descriptions. Christina Houen, commenting on my review of the book, referred to Stead’s description of Sydney. Stead herself grew up on Sydney Harbour. Here is the description Christina referred to. It occurs as Teresa is returning home after the wedding that opens the book:

It was high tide at nine-thirty that night in February and even after ten o’clock the black tide was glassy, too full for lapping in the gullies. Up on the cliffs, Teresa could see the ocean flooding the reefs outside, choking the headlands and swimming to the landing platforms of jetties in the bays. It was long after ten when Teresa got to the highest point of the seaward cliffs and turning there, dropped down to the pine-grown bay by narrow paths and tree-grown boulders, trailing her long skirt, holding her hat by a ribbon. From every moon-red shadow came the voices of men and women; and in every bush and in the clumps of pine, upon unseen wooden seats and behind rocks, in the grass and even on open ledges, men and women groaned and gave shuddering cries as if they were being beaten. She passed slowly, timidly, but fascinated by the strange battlefield, the bodies stretched out, contorted, with sounds of the dying under the fierce high moon. She did not know what the sounds were, but she knew children would be conceived this night, and some time later women would marry hurriedly, if they could, like one of her cousins who had slept the night with a man in one of these very grottoes; and perhaps one or two would jump into the sea. There were often bodies fished up around here, that had leapt when the heart still beat, from these high ledges into waters washed around these rocks by the moon. (Beginning of Ch. 5)

I won’t even try to unpack all this, but I’m sure you can see how intense and dense it is. It’s ambiguous about love and sex – and this ambiguity underlies the whole book, right through to – and beyond – its resolution.

Oh, and then there’s her facility with dialogue, her imagery, her literary and classical allusions – but again this post is starting to get long. Maybe another day!

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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead

I have mentioned Christina Stead several times on this blog – and yet she remains the guilty gap in my reading. I thought 2011 would be Stead year, but things have conspired to restrain the rate of my reading this year. Maybe 2012! I have also written several posts inspired by articles in The ABC Weekly, and I’m returning to this paper for today’s Monday Musings, this time to an article by novelist-journalist Florence James. It’s titled “Young Australian Wins Fame Abroad” and was published on 7 December 1940, at which time Stead would have been 38. This was the year her most famous book, The man who loved children, was published, but James does not mention it by name in her article. (She does though refer to Stead “correcting the galley proofs of a new book”).

James commences her article with a telling comment:

A Sydney girl [girl?] whose name and work are much more widely known and appreciated in England and the United States than in her native Australia is the writer Christina Stead.

I can’t help thinking that little has changed 7 decades on, at least in terms of her recognition here. She is certainly known, but she is not on the tip of everyone’s tongues the way I suspect she ought to be.

James then documents some of this acclaim:

  • English critic John Squire who, on reading her short stories The Salzburg tales (1934), said he’d discovered a “second Sappho”;
  • Poet, and publisher’s reader, T. S. Eliot, who wrote that The Salzburg tales was “a work of genius – but doubtful as a popular success”; and
  • New Yorker critic, Clifton Fadiman, on reading House of all nations, claimed Stead and Virginia Woolf were “the two most important women writing in the English language”.

James, who shared “digs” with Stead for a time in London while she was writing Seven poor men of Sydney, outlines how Stead supported herself in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She started as a private secretary for a firm of grain-brokers. She then worked in a private bank in Paris rising to an important confidential position, and she did “some special financial work in London [which] was regarded with astonishment by conservative London financiers”. A young colonial, and a woman, no less! That would probably never do! Her third novel, House of all nations (1938), is about high finance and has been described by Kate Jennings as one of the best novels ever written about banking.

James describes Stead as follows:

At first shy and reserved, with her friends she is wonderful company. Her talk is as witty as her writings, and although she has a masculine [masculine?] grasp of business and is a scholar and linguist, her simplicity of manner and directness of approach immediately put people at their ease.

I do like reading contemporary articles (or reviews) like this … not only do we learn about the subject but we learn, unintentionally on the part of the writer we are reading, so much about the thinking of the time. Thank goodness for libraries and archives, eh?