C.K. Stead writes about Christina Stead

  • Ocean of Story: The Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead edited by R.G. Geering
    Viking, 552 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 670 80996 9
  • The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead
    498 pp, £4.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 86068 691 4

In 1965, in London, I met Robie Macauley, editor of the Kenyon Review, who had accepted a story of mine. He asked was I related to Christina Stead. I had never heard of her. He told me she had written one of the great novels of the century, The Man Who Loved Children. When my story appeared someone wrote to Janet Frame recommending it. She wrote to say how much she’d enjoyed it but asking why I was now writing as a woman. This confusion was sorted out when I found that the next issue of the Kenyon Review contained Christina Stead’s novella ‘The Puzzle-Headed Girl’. Occasionally since that time I have been sent proof copies of novels by American women, with a letter addressing me as ‘Ms Stead’ and asking for pre-publication comment. Names, of course, are always more significant to their bearers than to anyone else. I like to claim the major Stead as my Great Australian Aunt.

No doubt by the 1960s Stead’s work was becoming known in Australia, but even there her reputation doesn’t seem to have spread far outside of literary circles. It took the 1965 American reissue (1966 in London) of The Man Who Loved Children, with Randall Jarrell’s long introduction describing it as ‘one of those books that their own age neither reads nor praises, but that the next age thinks a masterpiece’, to jolt the Australian consciousness into reading Stead and reclaiming her. By that year she was 62 and had been publishing for more than three decades.

In 1969 she returned briefly to Australia after 41 years away. On her return to London she wrote

Under the soft spotted skies of the North Sea I had forgotten the Australian splendour, the marvellous light ... Everything was like ringing and bright fire and all sharpness. I was at dinner the other night, when someone said: ‘What was Australia like?’ ‘It’s the wonderful light, Bill,’ I said to the Texan next to me. ‘Yes,’ he affirmed; and the Indian lady murmured: ‘Yes.’ Three exiles. No more was said; and the others, Londoners, did not even know what we had understood ... When people ask, I feel like saying ‘It’s a brilliant country; they’re a brilliant people, just at the beginning of the leaps.’

There is no objective truth (or untruth) in such statements: but there is a vast reservoir of energy in what they represent, and one can’t help wondering (as also in the case of Katherine Mansfield) how much is lost when such talents expatriate themselves. It can be argued that it is all gain in that the writing gets done, and whether it would have been done without expatriation can’t ever be known. Also a larger world attends to these international voices as it seldom does to the stay-at-homes. On the other hand, one can see in Stead’s response to Australia in 1969 that this is a writer returning to her primary subject, and correspondingly that some of the fictional subjects she derived from foreign places, though important to her intellectually, touched her less deeply. The Man Who Loved Children is indisputably an Australian novel which only pretends in a very perfunctory way to be set in America; and there seems still to be wide agreement that it is her best book.

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