Perfect Companions

C.K. Stead

  • 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.’

The story of Christina Stead’s life is also the story of Bill Blake’s. They lived together unmarried for 23 years until his first wife gave him a divorce, and remained together until he died in 1968, the 40th year of their association. He, too, aspired to be a writer; but as men did in those days, he saw it as his first responsibility to support his women – his wife and daughter, his mother, Christina. So while the two worked together in the firm, they contrived that she would also have time to write. It was partly for this reason, and in recognition of the professional support she had had from men, that Stead in the Seventies angrily rejected the feminist representation of men and women as oppressors and oppressed. She was too honest not to acknowledge her debts, and too proud to have any appetite for the role of victim. Nor did she think there was any honour in being a ‘woman writer’.

In meeting Blake, Stead often said, she had won first prize in the lottery. In 1929 she wrote to a friend:

Heavens, what a Niagara of energy from morning to night: he gets up at eight in the morning, he works, discourses, reads, finds situations for his friends, writes, attends to everything with vivid interest, gets home at midnight, refuses to go to bed until 1.30 or 2 because he must read ... seven days he does this, the eighth day he perishes in his tracks ... Girl, what a life! But what fun!

Blake was, or would become, banker, economic theorist, teacher, historical novelist. But it was the energy of her ‘small Vesuvius’, his charm, his jokes, his mimicry, his verbal games, that endeared him most to Stead and enlivened her days. He offered her love; but he also offered her intellectual companionship – something rare for a woman of her powers.

The fact that Bill Blake was American and involved in international banking and business turned Stead the colonial into a cosmopolitan, bypassing the common escape route of those times, which was to become imitation-English. With him she gained confidence, learned languages, even discovered the pleasures of high fashion. In 1935, when the Australian writer Nettie Palmer attended the International Congress for the Defence of Culture in Paris, she was surprised to find Christina Stead ‘light-foot and assured, perfectly dressed, gloves-bag-hat, shoes, all dark blue’. ‘Elegant, poised’, Stead talked about the Paris midsummer fashions, yet proved to be more hard-line and radical than Palmer. And she annoyed her compatriot by sitting with the British writers rather than helping to make up an Australian contingent.

Over the years Stead and Blake would live in many cities – London, Paris, Boulogne, Antwerp, Brussels, Lausanne and others in Europe, and New York and Los Angeles in America, and her novels reflect this. She is the least provincial of writers. Cotter’s England and Miss Herbert are set in Britain, The Beauties and the Furies and House of All Nations in Paris, Letty Fox: Her Luck, The People with the Dogs, and A Little Tea, a Little Chat in New York, I’m Dying Laughing in Hollywood, The Little Hotel in Switzerland.Seven Poor Men of Sydney is set entirely in Australia, and For Love Alone begins there; but the novel about her childhood, The Man Who Loved Children, which ought to have been among the two or three greatest Australian novels, had its subject relocated (conscientiously, but also rather awkwardly) to Boston and Baltimore. The reasons for this, it appears, were commercial: at the time Stead desperately needed a novel that would interest American publishers.

Yet Stead has been belatedly reclaimed by Australia, and always thought of herself as characteristically Australian. She talked of an Australian walk, an Australian attitude to Britain, and an Australian radical tradition which had its roots in the convict settlement. This latter fact she touches on in an interview with a delicacy (the word ‘convict’ is not uttered) which indicates her awareness of how sensitive a subject it then was. She is speaking of Australian radicalism:

CS: We know how it was formed and this very gloomy background which is expressed by Marcus Clarke in For the Term of his Natural Life, you know that, everybody knows that ...?

INT.: Yes.

CS: ... forms a background, or did then, the background to an Australian’s thoughts.

So she was able to see her Australian roots as making it easy for her to follow Blake’s Marxism. Together they experienced the highs and lows of the Left in the Thirties, and the dramas of McCarthyism in post-war America. Blake’s faith was never shaken and Stead never questioned it, even when he aspired to become a university teacher in East Germany, a move fortunately blocked at the last moment by East German fears that an American, even a Party member, might be a spy. Blake died in 1968 at the time of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam – another adrenalin-rush (as I vividly remember it) for the Left. What he would have made of the Eighties is difficult to imagine.

Both, it has to be said, were capable of ideological naivety and wilful blindness. After the war Blake helped raise money from ‘the fraternal Jewish population’ in America for the settlement of Jews in Birobijan in the Soviet Union – a scheme which proved a disaster. He and Stead accepted the Party line that the victims of Stalinist trials of the late Forties were traitors and turncoats. When Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 and there were mass resignations from the Party, Stead wrote to a friend deploring ‘the curious traits of intellectuals, the liberal bourgeoisie’ who seemed to ‘think feudalism changes to capitalism by soft methods’.

But politics, which was so large a part of their external life, was allowed no controlling say in Stead’s fiction. At times this worried her. She wrote novels full (as she put it) of ‘scallywag characters’; but she was kept awake at night by a review which said her fiction lacked ‘virtue, seriousness, morality’. It was a contradiction like the one that puzzled Nettie Palmer – the fashion-conscious sensibility, the puritan intellect. When Stead was asked to become active in support of the anti-Fascist cause in Spain in 1936 she wrote to a friend: ‘I feel it is my duty not to do my duty.’

In May 1935 the bank Blake had been working for in Paris collapsed in circumstances which meant its top officials might go to jail. Blake fled to America with his mother and Stead. He had been overworked and unsatisfied by the world of banking; now, they decided, he, too, would write. A year later they were in Spain, he writing The World is Mine, she House of All Nations, both novels on the theme of high finance. Though he was industrious and was to have his successes (sometimes surpassing hers), Blake’s was not a significant literary talent, and in many ways it would have been better if he had been only a banker – a rich and successful one willing to go on protecting and fostering Stead’s talent.

As a writer Stead was too quirky, headlong, original, intelligent, too literary (most of her chief characters are writers) – probably, simply, too good – ever to have had instant success. She would not have won a Booker Prize. Her work took readers and reviewers by surprise; and by the time the next book, or the one after, was disconcerting them, they were saying how much more they admired the one previously slighted and now out of print. Her own friends, she recorded, all read and talked about the novels fashionable at the time (mostly long since forgotten) and did not read hers – though they sometimes hinted that a free copy would be nice.

She needed a patron. Instead, she had a wonderful companion, ally and defender who wanted to work beside her at the typewriter, and who had a wife, a mother, a daughter he felt obliged to support.

Nor did her great love of, admiration for, and gratitude to ‘Bill, my true companion’, prevent Stead from falling in love with other men, though this appears to have been mostly in the mind, or imagination, and neither she nor Blake seemed to feel it was inappropriate or a threat to their pairing. Apart, they missed one another; and their letters show how significant in both their lives their habit of communication had become. When he died she was afflicted by ‘one hundred thousand regrets’; and though in the 15 years that remained to her she always said she was writing, nothing was completed.

But the last two decades of their life together make a depressing record, not because there was a serious decline in the quality of their companionship, but because nothing went right for them as professional writers. In 1947 they left the United States; and after that date Rowley records a fundamental change. Stead ‘lost something of her fire, her joy in life’; and this change is apparent in her letters and in her fiction.

By now she was 44, had published seven books and achieved a certain succès destime; but nothing of hers had ever been simply and unequivocally praised and welcomed, and the continual giving with one hand and taking away with the other seriously undermined the confidence of one whose ambition had been to write work that would last. To an old friend she wrote: ‘I have been a writer quite unsuccessfully for twenty years.’ She became depressed, listless, drank too much. Her view of herself was inextricably bound up with her books. The world which had found the child Christina less than attractive found the books likewise – or so it seemed.

In Australia, which might have beckoned as a haven, Stead’s work had been largely ignored. In 1947 Letty Fox: Her Luck was banned by the Australian Censorship Board as ‘indecent and vulgar’. It was nonetheless reviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald by the kind of envious dogfish that flourishes in literary backwaters. ‘Christina Stead is not a very good writer,’ Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie declared. ‘She has told the tale ... with about twice as many words as any competent romantic novelist would use.’ This is one of the two novels which, 35 years later, Angela Carter would rate as more important than The Golden Notebook.

Stead and Blake both began to fail commercially. For the first time both wrote books no publisher would take. By 1952 they were married at last and both (he 57, she 49) looking for work. Small cheques came from one of Blake’s admirers. With almost no possessions, they moved from one cheap hotel to another, first in London, then Paris, then The Hague. Stead suggested she might review for the TLS but was offered nothing. On the recommendation of her former publisher that she was ‘a species of genius though impossible to sell’, she got work as a publisher’s reader. Collaborating at the ‘mean, contemptible business’ (as Stead called it) they made £10 a week – a single labourer’s wage. A visiting Australian cousin was appalled to discover their distressed state. This is the period that provided material for The Little Hotel and Miss Herbert, both rejected at the time of writing and not published until 1973 and 1976. So it went on. They were to achieve a reliable income only by becoming old age pensioners.

The upturn in Stead’s literary fortunes began in America when Randall Jarrell discovered The Man Who Loved Children. It was reissued in 1965, 25 years after its first appearance, with his introduction describing it as a book like Moby Dick – a masterpiece which at the time of publication ‘nobody praised and nobody read’. Reading Jarrell’s praise, Stead wept. She wrote to him: ‘It is quite the loveliest thing that has happened to me in “my literary life”. That is only an expression. I do not have a literary life.’

The republication was a great success. Stead was to have from that time on powerful literary support: Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow, Theodore Roethke, Lillian Hellman, Peter Taylor, Elizabeth Hardwick in America; Patrick White in Australia. Books previously declined were now published. There were reprints. There was an interest, and it would grow. It was all good, but it had come too late.

In 1968 Bill Blake died and Stead was consumed with grief and remorse. At that point her writing life came to an end. After 40 years away, she returned to Australia, where she was celebrated, and where she kept up appearances as a writer, but it was always old material she worked on and nothing was completed. She planned to write a book about Blake, but it was not even begun.

Lonely, missing the friends she had made abroad, drinking far too much, seeking a companion, she remained during her final years homeless as she had always been, shifting from one temporary arrangement to another, supported now by her own income and by family, admirers, universities. She told friends that only the love of a man could really get her writing again, and from time to time deluded herself that such a person existed; but always the love object, once he discovered the role assigned him, retreated or vanished. She died in April 1983 at the age of 80.

Rowley’s account is full, well-told, fair, persuasive, and I find myself arguing only on one significant matter. Rowley suggests that Stead’s expressed dislike of lesbians, and a preference for men’s company so strong it could sometimes seem a dislike of women, must really have been the repression of a lesbian side in herself; and she cites two instances where Stead’s intensity made women feel that this was so. Apart from my sense that there is a logical flaw here (disliking and liking women being offered equally as evidence of lesbianism), and setting aside the fact that moments of intensity are always capable of being misread, I think the important thing is that Stead was honest and plain speaking. If she stressed her heterosexuality it was not in order to hide something else.

If there is anything to be explained here it lies in her childhood. What is extraordinary about Sam Pollit, the David Stead figure of The Man Who Loved Children, is the extent to which he has supplanted his second wife in the children’s eyes – so much so that when she dies they seem hardly to notice. This may not have been the case in reality; but it was Stead’s perception. Her stepmother in the novel is a ranting figure upstairs, while downstairs, Sam is mother and father, provider and protector, wild playmate and authoritarian busybody. Stead was in consequence (could it be said?) a person who knew only how to love the opposite sex. The idea of love between women was mysterious to her, and repellent, and she was too primitive, too uninhibited, too unguarded to pretend otherwise.

Stead’s friend Edith Anderson wrote: ‘if you care to look closely [at her] you may be terrified. I don’t think there is any thought Christina is afraid to think.’ Christina Stead’s life is one of those exemplary stories from which the lessons have always to be relearned. Australia, in the classic pattern of the ‘client culture’, ignored her because she declined to live at home, then celebrated her because she became famous abroad. Publishers in England and America, operating (as they always do) in terms of yesterday rather than tomorrow, failed to give her the support she needed and the promotion she deserved. There was a time, Rowley records, when she was being urged by Viking to write like Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down (‘That brainless pamphlet of monosyllables’, Stead called it) and by Simon and Schuster to do something like Gone with the Wind.

With writers of Stead’s kind there is often, at least in the short term, a commercial problem in that the work does not only offer treasure, it makes demands. Henry James suffered in the market place. James Joyce was too outrageous ever to figure there; he passed directly from anonymity to classic status, with no intermediate phase. ‘In the end,’ Stead once wrote, ‘nothing has so much success as an intelligent ferocity.’ ‘In the end’ she was proved right, but it took a lifetime.