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.

In For Love Alone, we actually see Teresa Hawkins performing this trajectory, from the mutilating claustrophobia of her father’s house – ‘home’ in Stead is almost always the patriarchal cage – into that homelessness which is the prerequisite of freedom. In The Beauties and Furies this process founders. Elvira leaves her husband in London for a lover in Paris, but Elvira is a dreamily narcissistic, emotionally contingent being, who scarcely knows what freedom is and who will, inevitably, return home. (There is a remarkable consistency in Stead. Elvira, the romantic, self-obsessed Englishwoman, of this, one of her earliest novels, has much in common with the Eleanor Herbert of her latest.) But Stead does not direct us to condemn Elvira – nor to pity her. Stead’s greatest moral quality as a novelist is her lack of pity. As Blake said,

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody poor,

and, for Stead, pity is otiose, a self-indulgent luxury that obscures the real nature of our relations with our kind. To disclose that real nature has always been her business. Essentially, she is engaged in the exposition of certain perceptions as to the nature of human society. She does this through the interplay of individuals both with one another and with the institutions that we created but which now seem to dominate us. Marriage; the family; money.

She has, obviously, from the very beginning – her first publication was a collection of short stories modelled on the Decameron – been a writer of almost megalomaniac ambition. The literary project of Louie, the unnatural daughter of The Man Who Loved Children, was to compose for an adored teacher ‘the Aiden cycle ... a poem of every conceivable form and also every conceivable metre in the English language’, all in Miss Aiden’s praise. This seems the sort of project that would attract Stead herself. Hers may even be the kind of ambition that is nourished by neglect, of which she has received sufficient. (Had people believed Cassandra, she would have known something had gone badly wrong.) To read some of Stead’s more possessed and driven novels – Cotters’ England and A Little Tea, A Little Chat, in particular – is to be reminded of what Blake said about his Bible of Hell: ‘which the world shall have whether they will or no’. If, as seems the case, we are now ready to accept Stead as one of the great writers of our time, this does not mean the times are going well.

It is possible to be a great novelist – that is, to render a veracious account of your times – and a bad writer – that is, an incompetent practitioner of applied linguistics. Like Theodore Dreiser. Conversely, good writers – for example, Borges – often prefer to construct alternative metaphysical universes based on the Word. If you read only the novels Stead wrote after The Man Who Loved Children, it would seem that she belonged to the Dreiser tendency. She patently does not subscribe to any metaphysics of the Word. The work of her maturity is a constant, agitated reflection upon our experience in this world. For her, language is not an end-in-itself in the current, post-Modernist or ‘mannerist’ mode, but a mere tool, and a tool she increasingly uses to hew her material more and more roughly. Nor does she see the act of storytelling as a self-reflexive act. Therefore, as a composer of narrative, she can be amazingly slipshod. She will even allow utterly careless lapses in continuity. People can change names, parentage, age, occupation from page to page, as though she corrected nothing. They can also slip through holes in the narrative and disappear. Miss Aiden is honoured, arrives for a typically atrociously vile family supper with the Pollitts and is then written out of the script like a soap-opera character with a contract elsewhere. All this would be unforgivable if, in Stead, narrative mattered, much. It does not. Her narrative is almost tachiste: she composes it like a blind man throwing paint against a wall. Her narratives shape themselves, as our lives seem to do.

Interestingly enough, however, she started her career as a very mannered writer indeed. The Salzburg Tales of 1934 is a massive collection of glittering, grotesque short fictions, parables and allegories not dissimilar to the Seven Gothic Tales that Isak Dinesen published in the same year. The Salzburg Tales are contrived with a lush, jewelled exquisiteness of technique that recurs in The Beauties and Furies, which first appeared in 1936. At one point in that novel, Coromandel, the antique-dealer’s daughter, recites just such a little Gothic tale, ‘The Story of the Hamadryad’. Oliver’s adventures in the Club of the Somnambulists at the end of the novel and the dreams of several of the characters have a similar overblown, highly decorated, romantic extravagance. It is rather unusual for Stead’s characters to dream with quite such abandon – ‘She saw a rod with two headless snakes emerging from a dusky ivory egg ...’ – and it is tempting to hypothesise some influence from the Surrealists, especially since this novel takes place in a Paris that is decidedly Paul Eluard’s capitale de la douleur. And, at this stage, Stead is omnivorously assimilating influences from every conceivable source. She is also a self-consciously brilliant young writer. The Beauties and Furies is evidence of a love-affair with language which produces felicities such as: ‘Not a blade of grass moved and not a bird flew down the perspective of the great water, but, under thickety trees, officers and children skated with coloured cloaks and gloves over a pond. Beyond, dazzling and enchanted, lay the leafless forest.’ Very finely crafted, too, though this love-affair can induce logorrhoea, and the same novel contains much purple: ‘Imprisoned by her marauding hair, she lay, and turned dark, silent eyes upon me.’ And so, on. Fine writing must have come easily to her; roughness, ungainliness, ferocity were qualities for which she had to strive.

In House of All Nations (1938), which comes after The Beauties and Furies, the puppy-fat is already beginning to fall away from the bare bones of Stead’s mature style, and of her mature purpose, for this is a novel straightforwardly about the root of all evil: that is, banking. However, the complications of its plotting recall the Jacobean drama at its most involuted, so that it is quite difficult to tell exactly what is going on. In fact, the elaborately fugal plotting of House of All Nations is beginning to dissolve of its own accord, just because too much is going on, into the arbitrary flux of event that characterises Stead’s later novels. And she is beginning to write, not like a craftsman, but like an honest worker.

At the time of The Man Who Loved Children, she relinquished all the capacity of the language of her narrative to bewitch and seduce. But Sam Pollitt, the father almighty or Nobodaddy of that novel, uses a babbling, improvised, pseudo-language, a sort of Pollitt creole, full of cant words – ‘cawf’ for coffee, ‘munchtime’, ‘orfus’ – with which to bemuse, delight and snare his brood. This is the soft, slippery, charming language of seduction itself. Louie invents an utterly opaque but grammatically impeccable language of her own and confronts him with a one-act play in it, acted by her siblings. ‘Mat, rom garrots im.’ (In translation: ‘Mother, father is strangling me.’) Sam is very angry. Louie’s ugly language is vengeance. Stead does not go as far as Louie. Her later style is merely craggy, unaccommodating, a simple, functional, often unbeautiful means to an end, which can still astonish by its directness: ‘With old Mrs Cotter after the funeral, time had been, time was and time might be again, but it was all one time: she knew no difference between the living and the dead.’ So, without pathos or elaboration, she depicts senility in Cotters’ England.

Since she is technically an expressionist writer, in whose books madmen scream in deserted landscapes, a blue light turns a woman into the image of a vampire and a lesbian party takes on the insanely heightened melodrama of a drawing by George Grosz, the effect is the thing, not the language that achieves it. But there is more to it than that. The way she finally writes is almost as if she were showing you by demonstration that style itself is a lie in action, that language is an elaborate confidence trick designed to lull us into acceptance of the intolerable, just as Sam Pollitt uses it on his family, that words are systems of deceit. And that truth is not a quality inherent in any kind of discourse, but a way of looking at things: that truth is not an aspect of reality but a test of reality. So, more and more, Stead concentrates on dialogue, on language in use as camouflage or subterfuge – dialogue, or rather serial monologue, for Stead’s characters rarely listen to one another sufficiently to enable them to conduct dialogues together, although they frequently enjoy rows of a polyphonic nature, in which it is not possible for anybody to hear anybody else. If the storytellers in The Salzburg Tales reveal their personalities through the gnomic and discrete fables they tell, Stead’s later characters thunder out great arias and recitatives of self-deceit, self-justification, attempted manipulation, and it is up to the reader to compare what they say with what they do and draw his or her conclusions as to what is really going on. The monologue is Stead’s forte, dramatic monologues comparable to those of Robert Browning.

In Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) she extends this form of the dramatic monologue to the length of an entire novel. It is an elaborate imitation autobiography almost in the manner of Defoe, a completely successful impersonation of an American woman, in which we are invited to extract bare facts from Letty’s account of her own life – the life of a ‘generous fool’ who has no luck with men because of the careless magnificence with which she throws herself away on them – and construct from the bare facts the real life of Letty Fox. Letty, it turns out, is joylessly promiscuous, hysterically demanding, a self-righteous bitch and a heartless betrayer. But Letty does not know any of these things about herself and when, as from time to time happens, her friends tax her with them, she hotly denies them. The disjuncture between what she is and what she thinks she is is wonderfully comic. It is, curiously, not comic at Letty’s expense. Letty finally does no harm to anyone but herself, and Stead graciously allots her the best one-liner in her entire oeuvre: ‘Radicalism is the opium of the middle-classes.’ Letty is as full of bad faith as Nellie Cotter but is saved by her unpretentiousness and by what Stead calls somewhere the ‘inherent outlawry’ in women. Letty is not named after the predatory and raffish fox for nothing and if her only ambition is to marry, which defines her limited aspirations, it takes two to tie the knot. Letty longs for children and is only truly happy when pregnant, but any social worker would recommend a termination when, at the novel’s end, we leave her pregnant, in a cheap hotel, with a penniless playboy husband – all she has finally managed to ensnare. The final joke is that this greedy vixen of an amateur prostitute will, as a wife, be the perfect poacher turned gamekeeper: all her life she has been a matriarch manquée – hence her ill-success as a free woman – and now the matriarch has found herself and can begin. The amoral predator will become the solid citizen. Why rob banks when you can run them, to paraphrase one of the maxims in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, and Letty is too dishonest to live for long outside the law.

Others in Stead’s gallery of monsters of existential bad faith – Sam Pollitt, Nellie Cotter, Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat – are not treated so genially. They are killers. They precipitate suicide and madness in those who come close to them. Letty uses bad faith to bolster her faltering self-respect: these pernicious beings base their entire self-respect on bad faith. The mouths of these grotesque, nodding carnival heads are moving all the time as they rage, bluster, cajole, manipulate, provoke, enlightening us as to what bad faith does.

Stead’s fictional method obviously presupposes a confidence in the importance of fiction as the exposition of the real structures on which our lives are based. It follows that she has gained a reputation as a writer of naturalism, so much so that, in her introduction to the Virago edition of The Beauties and Furies, Hilary Bailey seems disconcerted that ‘this great writer of naturalism’ should have produced a novel so resistant to a naturalist reading. (Any novel in which a prostitute advertises her wares by reciting the poetry of Baudelaire is scarely in the tradition of George Gissing.) Stead is certainly not a writer of naturalism nor of social realism, and if her novels are read as novels about our lives, rather than about the circumstances that shape our lives, they are bound to disappoint, because the naturalist or high-bourgeois mode works within the convention that there exists such a thing as ‘private life’. In these private lives, actions are informed by certain innate inner freedoms and, however stringent the pressures upon the individual, there is always a little margin of autonomy which could be called ‘the self’. For Stead, however, ‘private life’ is itself a socially-determined fiction, the ‘self’ is a mere foetus of autonomy which may or may not prove viable, and ‘inner freedom’, far from being an innate quality, is a precariously-held intellectual position that may be achieved only at the cost of enormous struggle, often against the very grain of what we take to be human feeling.

Teresa Hawkins achieves selfhood only through a fanatical, half-crazed ordeal of self-imposed poverty and an act of willed alienation which takes her across half the world, from Australia to England. But this ordeal does not prepare Teresa for any reconciliation with the world: it only toughens her up for what is going to happen next. Louie, in The Man Who Loved Children, plots her parents’ murder and succeeds in abetting her stepmother’s death to a point beyond complicity. Then she runs away, leaving a houseful of small children to the tender mercies of Sam Pollitt. That is what Louie must do, in order to enter the fragile state of freedom-in-potential which is all Stead will offer in the way of hope. (She sometimes reminds me of what Kafka said to Max Brod: ‘There is hope – but not for us.’) But many, in fact most, of Stead’s characters remain trapped in the circumstances which have produced them. These include Sam Pollitt, Letty Fox, Nellie Cooke and her brother, Robert Grant and his blonde, fatal mistress – and the eponymous ‘Miss Herbert, the Suburban Wife’. (Miss Herbert is one of the oddest novels and, after much thought, I take it to be a reversion to certain allegorical elements present in her earliest writing and always latent in it: to be nothing more nor less than a representation of the home life of Britannia from the Twenties until almost the present day.) The lovers in The Beauties and Furies are incapable of responding to the challenge of their romantic attachment: they drift, vacillate, betray one another and all in a kind of lapse of consciousness – like the sleepwalkers their friend Marpurgo says they all are. ‘I prefer to be a somnambulist. I walk on the edge of precipices safely. Awake, I tremble.’ Earlier, Elvira has said: ‘I am a dead soul; life is too heavy for me to lift.’ Happily for them, they never wake; happily for her, she never gets sufficient grip on life to give it a good shove.

The hard edges and sharp spikes of Stead’s work are rarely, if ever, softened by the notion that things might be, generally, other than they are. It is tempting to conclude that she does not think much of the human race, but it is rather that she is appalled by the human condition. It is illuminating that Teresa, in For Love Alone, says to herself, near the end of the novel: ‘I only have to do what is supposed to be wrong and I have a happiness that is barely credible.’ Teresa has freely chosen to be unfaithful to her beloved lover, to follow her own desire. To become free, she has exercised her will; to remain free, she follows her desires. Stead rarely states her subversive intent as explicitly as this, nor often suggests that the mind-forged manacles of the human condition are to be so easily confounded. But when Teresa meditates, ‘It was easy to see how upsetting it would be if women began to love freely,’ she is raising the question of female desire, of women’s sexuality as action and as choice, of the assertion of sexuality as a right, and this question, to which she returns again and again in various ways, is at the core of Stead’s work. The latter part of For Love Alone, the section in London where Teresa learns to love freedom, is rendered as a mass of dense argument within Teresa herself, unlike the discussion of women and marriage that occupies most of the earlier, Australian section of the book, where it is dramatised through the experiences of women in Teresa’s circle. As a result, the triumph of desire simply does not strike the reader as vividly as the early grisly tableaux vivants of repression, such as Malfi’s wedding. Perhaps Stead found this subject of the triumph of desire almost too important to be rendered as pure fiction; it is the exultant end of Teresa’s ordeal.

For Love Alone is an account of a woman’s fight for the right to love in freedom, which the anarchist Emma Goldman claimed as ‘the most vital right’. (All Teresa’s meditations on free union recall Goldman.) This is a fight we see one woman, Teresa herself, win: Teresa, who has the name of a saint, and also – Hawkins – kinship with a bird of prey noted for its clear vision. Stead then published Letty Fox: Her Luck, a crazy comedy about a girl who fights, and fights dirty, to get a ring on her finger. It is as if Stead were saying: ‘There is Teresa, yes: but there is also Letty.’ (‘Letty Marmalade’, as she signs herself, ‘Always-in-a-Jam’.) Thesis and antithesis, as if the successive novels were parts of one long argument.

Stead’s work always has this movement, always contains a movement forward and then a withdrawal to a different position. A Little Tea, A Little Chat, her New York novel of 1948, presents us with another kind of woman: the thoroughly venal Barbara Kent, who is depicted almost exclusively from the outside. She is a mystery, with a complicated but largely concealed past, and she does not say much. She is like a secret agent from the outlawry of women, on a mission to destroy – but that is not her conscious intention. She and the shark-like war-profiteer, Robert Grant, form a union of true minds. They are both entrepreneurs, although Barbara Kent’s only capital is her erotic allure. However, she is able to, as they say, screw him. Grant, for himself, screws everything that moves. The novel makes a seamless equation between sexual exploitation and economic exploitation. It thoroughly trashes all the social and economic relations of the USA. It etches in acid an impressive picture of New York as the city of the damned. It is also, as is all Stead, rich in humour of the blackest kind. It occurs to me that Stead has a good deal in common with Luis Buñuel, if it is possible to imagine a Buñuel within a lapsed Protestant tradition. A Calvinist Buñuel, whose belief in grace has survived belief in God.

However, this definitive account of a New York fit to be destroyed by fire from heaven is followed, in 1952, by The People with the Dogs, a description of a charming clan of New York intelligentsia who are modestly and unself-consciously virtuous and, although bonded by blood, are each other’s best friends. Why is Stead playing happy families, all of a sudden? What, one wonders, is she trying to prove? Perhaps, that amongst the infinite contradictions of the USA, where anything is possible, even Utopia might be possible. In the USA, Utopias have certainly been attempted. The generously loving Oneida Massine, not matriarch – that would be too much – but principal aunt of this extended family, is named after one of the Utopian experimental communities of 19th-century America. And, like perfect communards, the Massines exist in harmony and tolerance with one another in a New York which has transformed itself from the City of Dreadful Night into the shabby, seedy, comfortable kind of place where birds of passage, Stead’s habitual displaced dramatis personae, can all roost happily together – a city of strangers, which is to say a city with infinite possibilities. Tiring of the city, the Massines can enjoy pastoral retreats in an idyllic country house left them by a wise father who has had the decency to die long before the action begins. Stead seems to be saying that, given a small private income, beautiful people can lead beautiful lives, although the very circumstances which nourish their human kindness are those which succour the morally deformed profiteers and whores of A Little Tea, A Little Chat.

But there is something odd about The People with the Dogs, as if the dynamo of her energy, ill-supplied with the fuel of distaste, were flagging. She permits the Massines to be charming and even writes about them in a charming way, as if she herself has been moved by the beautiful promise of the Statue of Liberty, which always touches the heart no matter how often it is betrayed. There is nothing fraudulent about this novel, although, perhaps revealingly, it is exceedingly carelessly written. It would be interesting to know whether an unpublished novel, I’m dying laughing, set during the period of the HUAC investigations, was written before or after The People with the Dogs. According to a recent Australian newspaper article, this novel remained unpublished because of subsequent tragedies in the lives of the people involved. Certainly The People with the Dogs may be softening up the reader for a blow which, in the end, was never delivered.

An internal logic of dialectical sequels connects all Stead’s work in a single massive argument on the themes of sexual relations, economic relations and politics. There has been scarcely any large-scale critical appraisal in the UK, to my knowledge, though at the moment more of her fiction is in print, here, than at any single time before. If I were to choose an introductory motto for the collected works of Christina Stead, it would be, again, from Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It would be: ‘Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.’ One might take this as a point to begin the exploration of this most undervalued of our contemporaries.