Christina Stead: A Life of Letters, Chris Williams

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016

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Chris Williams is a journalist who has done a fine job of relating the life of one our great novelists. If I previously used the word ‘journalist’ pejoratively, and I did, then I am sorry. This is not a rushed or made up account but a life carefully and comprehensively documented at every step. However, I can’t tell you much about Williams except that she worked for some time with the ABC and ‘has two daughters’.

Christina Stead was born in Sydney in 1902, the first child of David Stead, a marine biologist then aged 25, and Ellen who was dead within two and a half years, of a burst appendix. Later, Christina wrote a number of accounts of a little girl at her mother’s deathbed attempting to present her with flowers, evidence inter alia of Williams’ meticulous research through Stead’s unpublished papers.

For Williams, Stead’s most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children, is central to understanding her formative years. Williams quotes from a 1980 ABC radio interview:

[Rodney] Wetherell: Does The Man Who Loved Children have any connection to the life you lived at Watson’s Bay?

Stead: Of Course. It’s exactly word for word. And plenty of words. Of course, she didn’t try to poison her stepmother, but she thought about it, because of the fearful unhappiness.

David Stead re-married (Ada) when Christina was 5, resulting in 6 more children whom Christina felt obliged to mother. The family lived for 10 years in a house belonging to Ada’s father, and on his death moved to Watsons Bay. David Stead was intelligent, bombastic and a socialist, and used his relatively senior NSW Public Service position to establish a state-owned fishing fleet. In the way of these things, this faced fierce opposition and was sold off (to operate successfully with private owners for another 50 years). Stead had other Public Service positions but was eventually ‘let go’ just before he was eligible for what would have been a substantial pension. Later, Stead abandoned Ada and took a third wife, Thistle.

Although she says at one stage her father attempted to persuade her to leave school, Christina received a good grounding in science and languages and in 1919 matriculated from Sydney Girls’ High School. Her father wouldn’t allow, or couldn’t afford for her to go to university so she studied for 3 years at Sydney Teachers’ College and then while working as a research assistant, did 2nd year psychology at Sydney Uni. She had a number of teaching positions but was unsuited to the work and eventually took a secretarial position in a factory in order to save to go overseas.

This is the story she tells in For Love Alone (1944), of starving herself and walking prodigious distances to save pennies, of her unrequited love (for Keith Duncan, a scholar of whose circle she was a member), and of her arrival in London.

From her school days there were three aspects of Stead which were constant: she was an atheist, she was a communist and she was romantic. She was probably also gawky and reserved. But in London in 1928 she met, indeed she found a job working for, a man who was perfect for her. Bill Blake (Wilhelm Blech), 5 years older than Stead, was an American of German Jewish parents, a Marxist who could and did write political and economics texts off the top of his head, a novelist and a banker. He was also married, with one daughter, Ruth, with whom Christina would never be close, and he was to be her partner, and later her husband, for the rest of his life. He died in 1968.

Blake chased off Duncan, who Christina was still seeing, and the following year she left the digs she was sharing with Australian novelist Florence James and followed him to a new banking position in Paris. These were undoubtedly the most prosperous years of her life, travelling widely in Europe for the bank, dining out with Blake in Paris, and mixing with, although not of, the arty set around Sylvia Beach’s book shop. (They saw Marcel Duchamp’s work ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even’, and I wonder if that is the origin of Nikki Gemmell’s book title).

Before leaving home she had offered a book of short stories to Angus & Robertson but as was their wont they failed to recognise her and she remained unpublished in Australia for another forty years. By 1934 Seven Poor Men of Sydney, based on her old home at Watsons Bay, was ready for publication but the publisher, Peter Davies, requested a ‘more conventional’ work and so she produced The Salzburg Tales, an ambitious homage to The Canterbury Tales and that was published first.

During this period Williams says Christina was romantically and maybe sexually involved with a friend of Bill’s, Ralph Fox (Harry Girton in For Love Alone). They were both on the committee of the British section of the Writers International and, with Nettie Palmer, attended an International Congress against fascism in Paris in 1935. In 1937 Fox was with the International Brigade in Spain and died in action. Williams writes:

Christina’s affair with Fox was more than a simple love affair; when considered beside her love for Bill, it can be viewed as the beginning of her exploration of love as a creative force.

The Paris period, which ended with the failure of the bank in 1935, provided the material for her next two novels, The Beauty and Furies (1936)* and House of All Nations (1938). By 1937 Stead and Blake were living in the US, mostly writing, novels and for communist journal New Masses, and for a while script writing in Hollywood. In this time Stead produced her two greatest works, and they were widely recognised as such, although not much read in Australia, The Man Who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1944). Laughably, her next novel, Lettie Fox, Her Luck (1946), was banned by the Australian censors.

By 1946 Blake in particular was under pressure from the rising tide of McCarthyism and they returned to Europe, living in increasingly impoverished circumstances. Stead produced two more, minor, novels but by 1952, coincidentally the year she and Blake finally married, she had effectively dried up. During the next 13 years, Stead as was often the case with her, had numerous manuscripts on the go – or at least, in stacks on the table before her – in particular, Cotter’s England, the stories which later made up The Puzzleheaded Girl and I’m Dying Laughing – but made little progress. In what may have been a first, hesitant approach to her homeland, she and Blake contributed some articles to the journal of the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society. In 1959, in a hostile review, she described Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago as “a thesaurus of middle-class commonplaces against the revolution”, adding, “Publishers are always on the look-out for an anti-Soviet sensation”.

In the years since the war, Stead had been on the radar for Commonwealth grants, but her communist associations and her absence from Australia, which she was now too poor to rectify, counted against her. Williams thinks that her absence left the field open to her critics and quotes Miles Franklin in her posthumously published Laughter, Not for a Cage (1956) likening Stead to “a very big toad [in] our backyard puddle” who “limned … with the impetus of souring licence.” In 1967 a committee including Clement Semmler and Geoffrey Dutton recommended that Stead be awarded the $10,000 Britannica literary prize for Cotters’ England which had come out the previous year, but they were overruled by the Chairman on the grounds that Stead was no longer Australian, and the prize for that year was withheld. Ironically, the following year it went to NZ-born poet, Douglas Stewart. Stead was soon after granted a bursary of $2,500 by the British government, and in 1974 Patrick White who had been incensed by the withdrawal of the Britannica prize, made her the initial recipient of the Patrick White Award out of the proceeds of his Nobel Prize.

In 1969 Stead took up a residential fellowship at ANU in Canberra, where she was feted and became friends with, amongst others, Elizabeth Harrower and Dorothy Green. She returned to England for four more years to live in a falling down apartment building and then, finally, returned to Australia for good in 1974. She died in hospital in Sydney on 30 March 1983. I’m Dying Laughing, the story of an American novelist and her communist husband was published posthumously in 1986.

I read For Love Alone a decade ago for my dissertation, ‘The Independent Woman in Australian Literature’, but Teresa’s hopeless love did not fit in with Sybylla and Steve’s resolute rejection of marriage. If I’d had this quote from the Bulletin (21 Sept 68) at the time, I may have been forced to make room for Stead after all:

As in a cubist portrait, the writer has split the head to show both profiles plus the back and front … The Puzzleheaded Girl is a remarkable picture of a modern phenomenon, the independent woman.

Williams has written an excellent biography, of Blake as well as Stead, though I haven’t paid him much attention, with extensive documentation, from letters and interviews, on every page.

 

Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1989

See also ANZ LitLovers Christina Stead page (here)

Stead’s novels are listed below with details of first publication.


* New Yorker (25 Apr 1936) ‘ … the discovery that Christina Stead is a simon-pure genius showing not a trace of mere workaday talent will take its place among my major reading experiences … the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf.’

New York Times Book Review (3 May 1936) ‘Christina Stead’s lavish imagination has not dulled since it produced The Salzburg Tales. For we are forced to praise in Miss Stead’s work everything that we would ridicule as stilted overambition and pretention in a less gifted writer.’


The Salzburg Tales, Peter Davies, London, 1934 (Review)

Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Peter Davies, London, 1934

The Beauties and Furies, Peter Davies, London, 1936

House of All Nations, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1938

The Man Who Loved Children, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1940

For Love Alone, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1944

Letty Fox Her Luck, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1946 (Review)

A Little Tea, A Little Chat, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1948

The People with the Dogs, Little Brown, Boston, 1952

Dark Places of the Heart, Holt Rineheart & Winston, New York, 1966 (published in England as Cotters’ England, Secker & Warburg, London, 1967) (Review)

The Puzzleheaded Girl, Holt Rineheart & Winston, New York, 1967

The Little Hotel, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1973

Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife), Random House, New York, 1976 (Review)

Ocean of Story, Viking Penguin, Melbourne, 1985

I’m Dying Laughing, Virago, London, 1986

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23 thoughts on “Christina Stead: A Life of Letters, Chris Williams

  1. Glad to see this book reviewed! I’ve written a chapter for my PhD on biographical technique in Hazel Rowley’s biography of Stead; in one section I compare her work with this earlier biography by Williams. At one stage there were four people simultaneously working on Stead biographies – but only two were finished / published. Rowley’s work received both a lot more praise and criticism; Williams seems a more cautious work and less focused on Stead’s personal life. How “good a read” did you find it?

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    • First, I haven’t read Rowley’s biog, and I have put off reading Lisa’s review of it, not wanting to influence my own. Williams documents every single statement she makes, nevertheless I found her book both compelling and readable, that is, the reader doesn’t get bogged down in the detail. I haven’t paid Stead enough attention, though I’ve read at least four of her books, but found her (and Blake’s) life as an author and as a communist fascinating. No mention of her running into KSP but I don’t think Stead and Blake were ever Party members. I didn’t have space to fit it in, but they greatly enjoyed their stay in East Germany spending up their book royalties.

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  2. This is wonderful, Bill, I did not know about the Britannica Prize. (Geoffrey Dutton was a good thing, wasn’t he? I have one of his books on my TBR and I must read it before long). (This on-off prize may have been mentioned in the Rowley Bio, but if it was I don’t remember it, it was such a comprehensive bio, it’s impossible to remember everything.)
    And Miles Franklin! Sheesh! I know from reading her bio by Jill Roe that she never did come to grips with modernism and her own failure to get published made her a bit peeved with others who were more successful. It was a difficult time for Australian writing, but she was not always as supportive of her peers as her generous legacy would imply…

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    • Poor old Miles was a bit bitter and twisted about women authors ahead of her in the recognition stakes – particularly CS and HHR – though why she was so public about it, I’m not sure. As for the prize, I think Australia was way behind the US and England in recognising Stead’s genius, after all she wasn’t published here until the late 1960s and by then there was a 20 year gap back to her best writing

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  3. Yes, her acerbic comments certainly give the lie to the claims that Miles was a great feminist. I think what she did with the prize was magnificent, but she’d certainly ruffled a few feathers.
    Even now, Australians can be a bit churlish about Stead, and Patrick White as well. We will just have to do our bit to set ’em straight, eh?

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  4. Great write up Bill. I don’t think we should ever generalise about professions, like journalism. Like any there are the good and the not so good.

    Anyhow, re Miles Franklin, I regularly do into her letters and more often than not she’s snaky about someone, which is a shame because it doesn’t win you anything usually, but can lose you a lot!

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    • I was thinking about the Ernestine Hill biog. which was so disappointing, but this is just the opposite – written completely to the facts or at to what seems to have been extensive documentation.
      And the MF quote is even more ridiculous because it’s from a lecture which she knew would be published.

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      • There are some pedestrian bios written by journalists I know, but I don’t think we should tar them all with the same brush.

        I guess re MF we should be pleased that she wasn’t afraid to say what she thought (even if we think she was ridiculous to do so.)

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  5. Thank you again Bill for such a thorough, comprehensive review.

    Hearing about Stead’s father (and indeed, Stead herself) makes me think that so often, people living at the beginning of last century lived such daring lives – I somehow think that the lack of media and communication tools meant that far more often, people could live life as they chose (for example Stead being “an atheist, …a communist and …a romantic.” or her father finding new partners), albeit constrained by different and more limiting social expectations. But for those who had the nerve to strike a different path – as Stead did – it made for a fascinating life.

    I say all of this (poorly articulated, I know, but I hope you get my drift) because on my husband’s side of the family, recent research into their history revealed some surprising things. They have a fairly common name however their spelling is unusual. We had been told that my husband’s great-grandfather changed the spelling on arrival in Australia, because a Welsh name was too difficult to spell out. Turns out there’s no Welsh in my husband’s family at all! Instead, his English great-grandfather had different wives in different countries and changed the spelling of his name slightly as he moved around. It’s one of many stories!

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  6. I come from very boring families and I’m pretty sure I’m am the first to be divorced on either side (and the first atheist and the first ‘communist’) but you at least have something to write about, though I imagine it was a bit hard on the wives! Currently I’m working on Cosima Wagner who was pretty cavalier about swapping husbands.
    Stead’s father and husband both abandoned wives, and Stead herself seems to have had at least one affair (with Fox). I think the difference between then and now is that then it required more daring because there was more disapproval.

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  7. I was curious to know whereabouts in Balmain Stead was when she died. From what you’ve said above, it was in the hospital, which looms over my apartment across the street, as I type.
    In 1983 the Indy bookshop where I work, had been open for nearly 20 yrs – I wonder if she ever wandered in during her time here? I’ll check with my boss tomorrow.

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    • Thanks for checking me out. Yes, CS died in Balmain Hospital. In 1982 she had been living at her brother’s in Lindfield and with her sister in Cremorne. Then after period in hospital, moved to The Abbey in Johnston St, Annandale, the home of her doctor.

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