I don’t even get bananas

Madeleine Schwartz

  • The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
    Apollo, 528 pp, £10.00, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 78497 148 9
  • Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead
    Apollo, 592 pp, £14.00, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 78669 139 2

‘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.

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[*] Angela Carter wrote about Stead in the issue of 16 September 1982.