Cotters’ England (1966) is set in dreary 1950s post-war England, though Stead took so long to write and revise it that by the time it came out – into the England of the Beatles, Carnaby St and so-called ‘swinging London’ – it was slightly out of date. The Cotters are from (presumably fictional) grimy, industrial Bridgehead in the Tyneside in northern England, and this novel, as does Seven Poor Men of Sydney, reflects a desire that Stead expressed early on, to write “the lives of obscure men” (Williams, 1989, p.41). Interestingly, although it is often spoken of as a novel of the working class, the Cotters are in fact lower middle class, white collar workers with whom Stead was probably more comfortable.
By the 1950s Christina Stead had lived in Sydney, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and was back, in relatively impoverished circumstances, living in London. We know that her philosophy of writing was to write what you know, so why was she writing about the north of England ‘working class’ about which, without research, she knew nothing? My guess is a literary one. Her first book, Salzburg Tales, was an homage to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and her next few books, from her time in Paris in the 1930s, are said to reflect the influence of James Joyce. So is it possible that Cotters’ England was written with a nod in the direction of DH Lawrence? The north is his home territory and the writing reflects his close descriptions of everyday life and thought.
Stead’s research for this book began in 1948 when she met (and later lived with) Anne Dooley and Anne’s brother, Peter Kelly, Communists who had grown up in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. In 1949 Stead wrote to her sister Kate:
They [the English working class] are … another nation from ourselves. The language is the same … but their ways, past, future as they think it, and their helplessness, mild hopelessness, their dependence is quite alien and perhaps all this comes from their many, many years of underfeeding.” (1989, p.186)
The central characters of Cotters’ England are Nellie Cook (née Cotter) and her brother Tom. They are surrounded by a host of secondary characters – their sister Peggy, their parents and their mother’s brother in the family home; and in Nellie’s London home, Eliza Cook (introduced as Nellie’s sister-in-law, but later revealed as her husband’s first wife), and mobs of women passing through, Gwen, Caroline, Camilla, Johnny. Nellie is a socialist journalist, her husband George, of whom we see very little, is a trade unionist moving on to bigger things with the ILO in Geneva, and Tom, who was in the airforce during the war, is a factory manager.
In Cotters’ England’s early iterations, and it must have had a few over fifteen years, Peggy was the victim of incest, but remains housekeeper in Bridgehead for her mother and father and uncle after Nellie and Tom take off for London. [Sue: two earlier names for this story were ‘Branch Line’ and ‘Uncle Syme’, do either appear in the collection you reviewed, Ocean of story?]. In Cotters’ England Peggy is only a minor character, still housekeeper after a spell in an institution, caring for her mother who clearly has dementia, keeping everything right for her demanding father, a hard drinking, garrulous insurance salesman, and fighting with her Uncle Simon whose pension, with what little is sent by Nellie and Tom, pays the bills.
The bulk of the story concerns Nellie talking, talking, talking to maintain her waning influence over Tom. Driving her husband away with her constant talk. Attempting and largely failing to tie to her women in need of help, driving away any men, including Tom, whom she sees as preying on them. Drinking, smoking constantly, wracked with ‘bronchitis’, emphysema more likely from the coal dust impregnated air of her childhood and the chain smoking.
Tom had gone around with [Nellie] on some assignments, sometimes to meetings. It was she who was the pitiful waif, the stray, the strange elf, all the things she saw in others. Nellie at a meeting of working women for example, cut a grotesque figure. In a green peaked cap with cock’s feathers, in boots lined with lamb’s wool against the cold and hardness of the streets and stairs she had to tramp, a muffler around her starved and diseased throat, some old dress she felt easy in, her bodice loose either so that she could cough more easily or because she thought a tight figure bourgeois, something of the sort, her perpetual cigarette, her terrible stoop and lunging stride – there was not one woman there of the hard-pressed working sort, who looked anything like her: and her weary old reporter’s drawl, her … northern affectations, set her apart, a draggled peacock in a serious busy barnyard.
There was something missing in her; she lacked self-criticism. She was always talking about introspection by which she meant drool; and confession, by which she meant spinning interesting lies, or sifting out people’s secrets.
Cotters’ England is a reasonable length at 350 pages, but it’s hard going. There is no plot to speak of – Tom is in a menage with a married woman and her husband(s), the woman dies, Tom spends a little time in Bridgehead then comes to London to stay with Nellie. Eventually he gets a job managing a factory out in the country. Nellie takes in Caroline, Tom gets interested in her, but he’s interested in most women. George, Nellie’s husband, calls in for a while, in between jobs in Rome and Geneva, but Nellie talks (and coughs) to him all night and he goes off to stay with friends – the interest is all in the writing, which is very, very good, and the characterisations.
I think Stead’s conclusion is that Nellie has chosen a wrong path, bohemianism instead of socialism, and perhaps talk instead of action:
There had been nothing in Bridgehead, Nellie said, to satisfy their youthful intellectual and moral hungers, so they had taken to drink, vice, unbridled chaotic speculation and gnawing at each other.
George and Eliza Cook and a good many others, plain folk with strong natures and tempers, had seen things were wrong and they wanted to save humanity, their nation in particular and the greater part of the nation, the poor worker, to which they belonged, from making a terrible mistake. Many mistakes had been made by the workers. But Nellie had chosen Bedlam and the lazaret as brothers and sisters.
In the end Stead winds it up nicely enough, a few people die, Nellie, Tom and even Peggy find some sort of happiness.And in case you’re wondering “Cotters’ England” is the England of the working poor, in shabby council houses, not properly fed, an England at the time of this book, already on its way out.
Critic Clement Semmler, who btw thinks that Peggy has (or had) an incestuous relationship with Tom, her brother, writes that “if one can survive the torrent of words … Cotters’ England is a formidable novel of human psychology and behaviour.”
Christina Stead, Cotters’ England, first pub. 1966, this ed. Sirius, Sydney, 1989 (front cover illustration, Bill Coleman, detail from Green Street Scene, 1970). Published in USA as Dark Places of the Heart, Holt Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1966
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1989 (review)
Clemment Semmler, The Novels of Christina Stead, in G. Dutton ed., The Literature of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1976
See also ANZ LitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016 (here)