- Christina Stead: A Biography by Hazel Rowley
Secker, 646 pp, £12.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 436 20298 0
It would seem improper to begin a review of a biography by considering whether its subject was better described as ‘fair of face’ or‘ill-favoured’ if the subject were not Christina Stead (1902-83) and the question had not figured so importantly in her conception of herself. The pictorial evidence is contradictory; but it appears that as a young woman she had good features, a fine, keen, intelligent face, somewhat spoiled by prominent front teeth, which were removed when she was 40. She retained childhood memories of being rejected in favour of prettier girls; and in middle life she wrote of trying ‘to cure a serious feeling of rejection and discomfort which ... affects my relations with people’.
Two years before her death she wrote: ‘Always I felt like a cripple. Do we all? Why is it? I have never been a cripple – and I thought it was because my father thought I was ugly.’ There is a kind of ego that tends to think ill of itself no matter what positive reinforcement it receives, and the young Christina Stead was probably afflicted with that kind of sensitivity; but it must have been exacerbated by her father’s hearty carelessness with jokes.
Stead’s mother died when she was two and a half – too young, she says, to remember any sense of loss; and the maternal presence in the household was replaced by an aunt. The most important effect was to create a very close bond between Christina and her father, David; but then David Stead remarried. There was a stepmother, and soon a brood of half-brothers and sisters, which grew to number five. Christina felt the gap open between her and the man who had been mother and father; and at the same time she began to recognise his egotism, his sense that he could do no wrong, his do-gooding puritanism, and to see them in action on the battleground his second marriage became. All this, simplified perhaps, is the basis of her most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children.
One distressing form David Stead’s puritanism took was to associate beauty and purity, ugliness and moral depravity. As a scientist he worried about the decline of the human stock through protection of the weak, and was persuaded by arguments in favour of eugenics. There is a passage in The Man Who Loved Children – it must have been written in 1939, before the horror of the death camps had occurred – in which Sam Pollit, the father, tells the children in his amiable, garrulous way that if he had ‘supreme power’ he might arrange the killing off of nine-tenths of mankind ‘in order to make room for the fit’. This would be done by gas attacks on people living ignorant of their fate in selected areas, a sort of eugenic concentration camp.’ Louisa, the Christina figure, asks ‘unpleasantly’ whether he would keep himself alive, but gets no answer.
As a young woman Stead became a teacher, the profession she dreaded most because she associated it with spinsterhood. Like Teresa in For Love Alone she felt ‘the rat gnawing at her, the fear of being on the shelf’, and felt she went accompanied by ‘three hooded madmen ... desire, fear, ridicule’. Unlike many such young women of her time, it was not the social status she was concerned about, but sexual fulfilment. As Rowley writes, ‘Fourteen when she first experienced the “torment of desire”, Stead had to wait until she was 26 before she gratefully surrendered the burden of her virginity ... “Hunger of the stomach can be confessed,” she would write later, “but not sexual hunger.” The need to conceal it made her “fiercer, madder”.’
Amid suburban talk of hope chests and Mr Right, Stead yearned for passion, equality and Nietzschean freedom. These were unimaginable in Australia in the Twenties. Though poor, Stead was determined to get away. When she left in 1928 it was partly in pursuit of a young tutor at Sydney University, Keith Duncan, who had gone to London on a scholarship, but had continued to write to her. His rejection of her in London, represented in For Love Alone, brought back an adolescent sense of failure and self-loathing. She punished herself, walked everywhere to the point of exhaustion, and wanted to die. One of the illuminating sidelights in this biography is the brief account of Rowley’s 1987 visit to the Helping Hand Home in Adelaide to hear retired Professor Keith Duncan, terminally ill of cancer but still smarting at his representation in For Love Alone, complain about ‘that woman Christina Stead’, who had transferred her affections to another man with improper haste – something he assured Rowley he would not have done had he been in love with her!
The other man was one who had engaged Stead as his secretary. William Blech – Bill Blake as he was to become – was a New York Jew, autodidact, intellectual, Marxist, and investments manager of a grain firm then operating out of London. When Blake learned, from a disdainful remark of Duncan’s, that his secretary thought herself a writer, he asked to see a sample of her work. Next day he called her in. ‘He looked at me,’ Stead wrote many years later. ‘He had beautiful brown eyes ... and he looked at me with absolute astonishment.’