‘She was famous for being neglected,’ Lorna Sage once said of Christina Stead. In 1955, Elizabeth Hardwick, writing in the New Republic, described trying to obtain Stead’s address from her last American publisher. Only a few years before the New Yorker had called her ‘the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf’. Yet, Hardwick wrote, ‘the information came forth with a tomba oscura note: all they had was a poste restante, Lausanne, Switzerland, 1947 … She is, as they say, not in the picture.’ Randall Jarrell tried to revive interest in Stead a few years later with a laudatory essay about The Man Who Loved Children (1940). Stead wrote to him: ‘It is quite the loveliest thing that ever happened to me in “my literary life”. That is only an expression. I do not have a literary life different from any other life.’ Jonathan Franzen did his part in 2010, with a rapturous essay in the New York Times about the same book. ‘I’m convinced that there are tens of thousands of people in this country who would bless the day the book was published, if only they could be exposed to it,’ he wrote. In response, Picador announced a new edition, with a print run in the thousands. From what I can tell, the book is not currently available in most bookshops.
It’s not altogether surprising that Stead doesn’t have a wide audience. Her books are unusual and odd, overlong, and written in an untamed, wild way. ‘Christina Stead is not a very good writer,’ an Australian critic said in a review of her novel Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), and in some ways he was right. Few novelists would spend hundreds of pages introducing the protagonist’s parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, uncles’ mistresses and aunts’ friends, as Stead does in Letty Fox. Her personality probably did not help her reputation either. She ‘had a knack for arousing hostility’, according to her biographer Hazel Rowley. Rowley describes Patrick White inviting Stead to lunch. White had championed her in her old age, loudly praised her work and supported her with cash transfers masked as prizes. Stead, at this point a heavy drinker, ‘arrived in a taxi, with a bag of empty bottles which she asked White to put in his rubbish bin’ and then spent the meal bragging about her self-sufficiency.
Born in 1902 in a suburb of Sydney, she grew up in a home similar to the one she would describe in The Man Who Loved Children. Her mother died when she was very young and she lived in the chaotic, messy household of her father and his second wife. Her father was a respected naturalist who decorated the house with dried human heads, a snake’s skeleton and ‘the kneecap of some monster extinct millions of years before’. He took a special interest in Christina, his eldest child, whose intelligence he both cultivated and ridiculed. He confided in her on every topic – the natural world, his travels abroad and the women he found attractive – while telling her that ugliness – she wasn’t pretty – was a physical deformity and calling her a ‘lazy fat lump’.
In The Man Who Loved Children, Sam mocks his daughter Louisa seemingly to demonstrate his power over his offspring:
‘Loochus, why did you go without shoes?’
‘You said it would be better if the whole population went without shoes, it would harden them.’
Sam looked and suddenly popped with laughter, then cried: ‘You’re a fathead!’
A fear of being undesirable took hold early. Stead trained to be a teacher but quit; she worried that teachers ended up as old maids. ‘There was a glass pane in the breast of each girl,’ the young Australian teacher Teresa reflects in her novel For Love Alone (1944). ‘There every other girl could see the rat gnawing at her, the fear of being on the shelf.’
She left Australia at 25 to follow a crush and lived an itinerant life on the fringes of European and American society. She met her life partner, Bill Blake, a Jewish-American banker, in England. He was lively, bright, devoted to socialism and to her. ‘A small Vesuvius,’ she called him. They left Europe for New York to escape the war, then travelled back to Europe during the McCarthy hearings. (In a letter to a friend she calls herself ‘the wandering planet Chris’.) But Blake was already married with a daughter when they met. Stead spent 23 years waiting for his wife to grant him a divorce. When the pair finally married, they didn’t even tell their friends.
‘The person who is genuinely original – and I am, in the sense that I was cut off from literature, and I was even cut off from family life in that I was an orphan from my first family – is not looking for patterns,’ Stead once said. Her novels vary tremendously from book to book but also within the books themselves. Her first novel was a study of sailors living in Australia. She then wrote a series of fantastical tales modelled on Boccaccio. An 800-page fictional study of the banking industry in Paris earned praise from reviewers for an understanding of ‘bucketeering and grain options, of foreign-exchange speculation and account gathering’ that was ‘little short of miraculous’. She turned to autobiography, with two books on her childhood in Australia and her move to England, but worried that this was lazy. ‘Warning sign: I have written my last two books about my childhood and youth. Bad,’ she wrote to Blake. Later books discussed radicals in Hollywood and publishers in England. Stead often said she had invented nothing in her novels. ‘Keep sketches, keep notes mental or otherwise of people who will serve as models,’ she told students at NYU. ‘Do not be ashamed to ring up a model. You can tell him (or not) as you please.’
Stead’s ability to copy mannerisms and sound is in full view in Letty Fox, as Tim Parks notes in his introduction. The book is a long satirical account of the life of a young woman in 1940s Manhattan, drawn from the world Stead knew through Blake and the years she spent living with him on 14th Street. We know exactly where we are as soon as the book opens:
One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad.
Letty is a gold-digger of the same sort as Anita Loos’s Lorelei, but the world she navigates is darker and more cruel. She gets engaged to an Englishman, but he’s already married. She sleeps with another married man who hounds her and then moralises after sex. ‘Luke,’ Letty says to him, ‘I know that omnis homo post coitum castus est, but why must you be such a fraud?’ Anyway, he’ll never leave his wife either. She goes on holiday with a man who tells her that psychoanalysis might increase her sex appeal. ‘He recommended one, to whom his mistress also went.’
The discussion of sexuality is frank: ‘We rolled there, smoking and uneasy for some time, when Clays, with shocking calm, told me that his excessive love had made him impotent and that we would have to get up and sit talking for a while.’ It’s hard to think of a book published in the last few years, much less one from the 1940s, that so directly and coolly addresses such things as failed erections. Like much of Stead’s work, there’s little plot. Talk is the plot. Letty Fox is stuffed with conversation, speeches and letters. ‘It surprised me to find how easy it was to monologue by the hour,’ Letty says. Stead’s publishers usually asked her to pare down her writing. ‘I am fighting the Steinbeck-slick to the bitter end,’ she told a friend.
Letty joins the Communist Party. ‘It’s necessary to be moral and have principles, even in a really evil setting,’ she says at one point. She spends her free nights writing a novel about Robespierre. But do-goodery can’t compete with the game. ‘Altruism is a confession of ugliness.’ Stead once wrote in a letter that ‘nowhere else [but New York] is human love discussed in terms of the stock market.’ The characters in Letty Fox are constantly trying to upsell each other. Rarely in fiction is the cost of dating so clearly laid out. As the book opens Letty is separately begging each of her parents for money. ‘I had a very honest instinct. But I had not a penny.’ One of Letty’s lovers gives her money for an abortion, then pesters her for weeks with pathetic letters to get it back:
I am badly in need of d-o-u-g-h … I am so despirited and despirate [sic] that I cannot see my way clear to letting you have that money… I am sorry I ever got myself into this mess; women talk about love and they do not mean it, they only wish to haress you … I am coming to New York the weekend after this, can you have it by then.
Few reading these words would have realised that Stead was a Marxist. Since her marriage to Blake, she had been active in left-wing politics. Together they visited East Germany, where he was a popular author. Stead went to communist conferences and defended Stalinism long after many of her contemporaries had turned against it. Indeed, the editors at the New Masses were not pleased with Letty Fox. ‘To present [leftists] as Miss Stead does without the contrast of one genuine communist, distorts the picture beyond even the broadest limits of caricature.’
Yet Stead has no patience for ideologues in her novels. Idealists are fools and cheats, egotists who use their creeds to blind themselves to the world around them. Sam Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children is one of these. He spends his days in the New Deal Washington of the 1930s, thinking of new plans for his career as a naturalist. ‘Very often I have an idea and then find months, years later, that a man like our very great Woodrow Wilson or Lloyd George or Einstein has had it too.’ Lively and blond, fit and whistling, he has ‘always been free, a free man, a free mind, a freethinker’.
It does not take very long to realise that Sam is the man who loved children of the book’s title, and that his love is not of the selfless kind counselled in modern parenting books but something grasping. Of the many preening, demanding and manipulative narcissists who populate 20th-century literature, few are as wonderfully drawn as Sam. (Or ‘Sam-the-bold’ as he calls himself.) His marriage to his wife, Henny, died long ago. When the book begins, they’ve barely spoken for years. Children or letters serve as go-betweens. (‘Samuel Pollit: I have to talk to you about finances and about that child of yours.’) He confides in his offspring, especially his eldest daughter, Louisa, whose mother, like Stead’s, died when she was very young. He surrounds himself with his children, leads them and controls them. ‘Children with a father like you have need no school,’ he tells them. ‘When you get older and wiser, you will know your dad was always right. I make it rain, don’t I, kids.’
In one scene, Sam expounds a new system for human advancement:
‘My system,’ Sam continued, ‘which I invented myself, might be called Monoman or Manunity!’
Evie [Louisa’s sister] laughed timidly, not knowing whether it was right or not. Louisa said: ‘You mean Monomania.’
Evie giggled and then lost all her colour, became a stainless olive, appalled at her mistake.
Sam said coolly: ‘You look like a gutter rat, Looloo, with that expression. Monoman would only be the condition of the world after we had weeded out the misfits and degenerates.’ There was a threat in the way he said it.
Stead’s cutting observations are on display here too, but softened by the fact that the main voice of the novel, Louisa, is a child. Children are able to see cruelty and not judge it. Sisters fight. Henny dreams up new ways to punish her stepdaughter. Louisa looks out of the window and thinks: ‘If I did not know I was a genius, I would die. Why live?’ Stead simply comments: ‘That was family life. They were all able to get through the day without receiving any particular wounds; every such thing left its tiny scar, but their infant skins healed with wonderful quickness.’
Stead wrote the book in 1940. Questions of a woman’s place in the home were very much on her mind. ‘There isn’t a woman alive who … is not perfectly aware of the ignominy, detestation and social death that awaits her if she does not conform,’ she wrote in a notebook at the time. Henny sees Sam’s hypocrisy clearly. ‘If love was got by a woman giving her last drop of blood to wash the clothes in and her last shred of skin to carpet the house with, I wouldn’t get it, and he wouldn’t notice it.’ But Henny isn’t a housewife of the sort Anne Sexton imagines in her poem ‘Housewife’: ‘See how she sits on her knees all day/faithfully washing herself down.’ She’s dark, angry, disgusting, unkempt. When Louisa’s teacher comes to dinner, she ‘was so startled that she hesitated for a moment when she saw come into the room a black-eyed, feverishly rouged hag with pepper-and-salt hair drawn back into a tight knot’. Henny is incapable of standing up to Sam; what good would it do? ‘She felt the dread power of wifehood; they were locked in each other’s grasp till the end.’ Instead, she broods and threatens; she mutters to herself and beats her kids. ‘Mother, are you going to kill the children?’ one of her sons asks. ‘Don’t be a fool; I’ll leave that to your father.’
There’s a thrill to listen in to the ‘wonderful Pollitry in action’: their fights, their jokes, their discussions and their nicknames. Just as the tension gets to be too much, Stead brings it down with a joke, a game, a snippet of the odd language the Pollits speak among themselves (one of Sam’s traits is speaking to his children in an advanced form of baby talk). But it’s likely that Henny’s rage made the book hard to swallow. In one scene, Sam becomes extremely upset because the house is out of bananas.
I don’t ask for much. I work to make the Home Beautiful for one and all, and I don’t even get bananas. Everybody knows I like bananas. If your mother won’t get them, why don’t some of you? Why doesn’t anyone think of poor little Dad?
Meanwhile, Henny tells Louisa in the kitchen: ‘I could wring his neck with pleasure.’ Had she hugged her children instead of beating them, the book might have become a feminist classic.
In Stead’s later books, the narcissists become darker; the gap between what is expounded and what is done even bigger. ‘I’m an honest man. Don’t like cheats. And then I’m a bit of a radical,’ the womaniser Robbie Grant says in A Little Tea, a Little Chat (1948). ‘Made money for me, being a Marxist.’ Later on, as World War Two is declared, he tells his colleague: ‘When the golden harvest has begun, take a scythe in your hand.’ ‘It’s not very “nice”,’ Stead wrote to a friend, ‘It’s merely true. Too bad. (New York City in wartime – everyone was not rolling bandages.)’
Stead’s distrust of ideology made her hard to place. What did this woman actually believe in? In the interviews she gave at the end of her life, you can sense her interlocutors trying to pin her down. Bill had died, she was old and had returned to Australia, where she lived in various homes and uneasily spent time with the family she had written about, but had not seen in forty years. What did she think of women’s liberation? ‘All the men I’ve known have been in favour of women’s success.’ Was she a leftist? ‘The Reds have done me a disservice by claiming me as one of their woolly sheep, when in reality I am a goat.’ She seems to take every opportunity to avoid answering, as if trying to avoid giving a clear picture of herself. ‘I never have any of this furrowed brow stuff that they always depict writers as having,’ she says in response to a question about method. ‘And as for this business about starting and tearing up a sheet and throwing it in the waste paper basket! Writers never do that. They don’t waste paper that way.’
Instead she insisted she was simply a naturalist, like her father. ‘When you’re a little girl and you look in an aquarium and you see fish doing this and that … you don’t criticise and say they should do something else.’ Her work was just an attempt to show that world as it is. People ‘are, and they exist that way, and that is the only way to see things truly, in my opinion.’ Angela Carter, writing about Stead’s work in the LRB, saw her many novels as one long debate.‘Stead’s work always has this movement, always contains a movement forward and then a withdrawal to a different position.’ Yet it’s possible she didn’t want to present any kind of argument at all. An argument also expresses a hope of resolution. All there is in Stead’s novels are people and their needs. In her lectures on writing, she suggested that to construct a world, the writer imagines each character thinking: ‘I will.’ ‘Radicalism is the opium of the middle class,’ Letty Fox says. Bare reality has a harsher effect.
When Louisa, at the end of The Man Who Loved Children, runs away from home and declares, ‘I have gone for a walk round the world,’ the reader has some hope that she might find happiness. When Letty Fox, pregnant and married to a penniless playboy, announces at the end of her account, ‘I cast off, the journey has begun,’ the reader knows this can only be a delusion. As for Stead, she spent the last few years ‘shovelled about’ from one home to another. No one wanted a cranky, alcoholic old woman as a houseguest. She died at the age of eighty in hospital. She had asked her brother to scatter her ashes in Botany Bay, where they grew up. But as Rowley writes, ‘her final will left no instructions, and after a year, when the family had not come to collect them, the ashes were tossed by an official onto the grounds of the crematorium.’