Unhappy Families

Angela Carter on the scope of Christina Stead’s achievement

  • The Beauties and Furies by Christina Stead
    Virago, 329 pp, £3.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 86068 175 0

To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness. Yet this revelation is apt to precipitate a sense of confusion, of strangeness, even of acute anxiety, not only because Stead has a devastating capacity to flay the reader’s sensibilities, but also because we have grown accustomed to the idea that we live in pygmy times. To discover that a writer of so sure and unmistakable a stature is still amongst us, and, more, produced some of her most remarkable work as recently as the Sixties and Seventies, is a chastening thing. Especially since those two relatively recent novels – Cotters’ England (1966) and Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife) (1976) – contain extremely important analyses of post-war Britain, address the subject of sexual politics at a profound level, and have been largely ignored in comparison with far lesser novels such as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. To read Stead, now, is to be reminded of how little, recently, we have come to expect from fiction. Stead is of that category of fiction writer who restores to us the entire world, in its infinite complexity and inexorable bitterness, and never asks if the reader wishes to be so furiously enlightened and instructed, but takes it for granted that this is the function of fiction. She is a kind of witness and a kind of judge, merciless, cruel and magnificently unforgiving.

Stead has just reached the age of 80 and, according to Australian newspapers, is still writing. Born in Australia, she has lived in Britain, Europe and the US and has written novels set in cities in various countries as if she were native to them all. This phenomenon of ubiquity helps to explain her relative obscurity: she appears to acknowledge no homeland and has therefore been acknowledged by none until her return to her native country after almost a half-century of absence. Lawrence, in exile, remained British to the core; Joyce took Dublin in his back pocket wherever he went. Stead becomes absorbed into the rhythms of life wherever she finds herself. Furthermore, although she has always written from a profound consciousness of what it is to be a woman, she writes, as they say, ‘like a man’: that is, she betrays none of the collusive charm which is supposedly a mark of the feminine genius. As a result, because she writes as a woman, not like a woman, Randall Jarrell could say of The Man Who Loved Children (1940): ‘a male reader worries: “Ought I to be a man?” ’

Jarrell thought that The Man Who Loved Children was by far Stead’s best novel and believed its commercial and critical failure blighted her subsequent development. (Why did he say that? Was it revenge for having his machismo deflated?) However, at least three of her other novels – I’d say For Love Alone (1945), A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948) and Cotters’ England (1945) – equal that extraordinary novel, and in some ways surpass it, while Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) is, unusually for Stead, a fully-achieved comic novel of a most original kind. But none of her work is negligible.

However, it wasn’t surprising that The Man Who Loved Children should acquire the romantic reputation of a unique masterpiece – especially when it was the only novel of hers in print. The single-minded intensity of its evocation of domestic terror gives it a greater artistic cohesion than Stead’s subsequent work, which tends towards the random picaresque. And Stead permits herself a genuinely tragic resolution. The ravaged harridan, Henny, the focus of the novel, dies in a grand, fated gesture, an act of self-immolation that, so outrageous has been her previous suffering, is almost a conventional catharsis. One feels that all Henny’s previous life has been a preparation for her sudden, violent departure from it and, although the novel appals, it also, artistically, satisfies, in a way familiar in art. Later, Stead would not let her readers off the hook of life so easily. She won’t allow us the dubious consolations of pity and terror again.

Since Stead went home, she has become more and more known as an Australian writer. This geographical placement is, of course, only right and proper and geographically correct, and contains within it the enticing notion of a specific kind of post-colonial sensibility which might serve as a context for her illusionless power. But only one of her novels has a wholly Australian setting, and that the earliest, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934). Even here, she has already established her characteristic milieu as that of the rootless urban intelligentsia, a milieu as international as it is peculiar to our century. Teresa Hawkins in For Love Alone is the only major Australian character in Stead’s later fiction, and Teresa is the most striking of these birds of passage, who sometimes become mercenaries of an ideology, sometimes end up as flotsam and jetsam.

Stead is also one of the great articulators of family life. There is no contradiction here. Stead’s families – the Pollitts in The Man Who Loved Children, the Foxes in Letty Fox: Her Luck, the Hawkinses in For Love Alone, the Cotters of Cotters’ England – are social units that have outlived the original functions of protection and mutual aid and grown to be seedbeds of pathology. These are families in a terminal state of malfunction, families you must flee to preserve your sanity, families it is criminal folly to perpetuate – and, on the whole, Stead’s women eschew motherhood like the plague. (Stead’s loathing of the rank futility of home and hearth is equalled, in literature, only by that expressed by the Marquis de Sade.) These are degenerated, cannibal families, in which the very sacrament of the family, the communal meal when all are gathered together, is a Barmecide feast at which some family member, wife or child, is on the emotional menu. One characteristic and gruesomely memorable family dinner, with its exaggerated hysteria and elements of high, diabolic farce, is that in Cotters’ England, at which raw chicken and dementia are served. Once away from the nest, Stead’s birds of passage tend to eat in the neutral environments of restaurants – as do the runaway lovers in The Beauties and Furies. When they do not, something is up.

These rancid, cancerous homes may provide a useful apprenticeship in the nature of tyranny (several times in The Man Who Loved Children Stead stresses that children have ‘no rights’ within the family): that is all. The only escape is a plunge into an exponential whirl of furnished rooms, cheap hotels, constant travelling, chance liaisons, the blessed indifference of strangers. Stead’s families, in fact, produce those rootless, sceptical displaced persons she also describes, who have no country but a state of mind, and yet who might, due to their very displacement and disaffection, be able to make new beginnings.

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