Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) seems at the beginning as if it is to be an account of the sexual adventures of a young woman in New York in the years leading up to and including the Second World War. I put up the opening page (here) last year for Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead Week. It begins
One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening. In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions…
This paragraph goes on for more than a page, and the whole book for 500pp, in a sustained tour de force of brilliant writing. But the story does not go on from this opening, rather Letty Fox takes us back, takes us through her upbringing, and her disjointed family, that has led her to being this person.
We have discussed elsewhere in ‘Christina Stead Week’ that Stead uses a writing technique we might call ‘stream of speech’. During the early 1930s Stead and her husband Bill Blake were members of the artistic community around Sylvia Beach and her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., the publishers a decade earlier of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which made extensive use of stream of consciousness, where the ‘action’ of the novel is carried forward by the reader following what the protagonists are thinking from moment to moment – and of course, they are often ‘off with the fairies’. So it is with Stead, except that she uses speech – or sometimes letters as a speech substitute – non-stop for pages at a time. And of course, as this is a first person narrative, even when Letty is not speaking or being spoken to she is speaking directly to us, so that the novel is basically 500pp of direct speech.
Letty as a girl is both precocious and naive. Her 25 yo self who is the book’s author is content to leave most of the exposition to the Letty being discussed so that Letty, who at a very early age discovers from the examples of her extended family that the best thing for a woman is to marry early, divorce, obtain alimony, repeat as often as required for comfortable living, tells us frankly what her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are doing in this regard and how she plans to do it better, and of course at the same time lets us see both how much and how little she really understands.
I wondered if another influence that Stead picked up in Paris might not be existentialism. Letty’s mother Mathilde was a would-be actress whom Letty thinks strikes poses rather than expresses ‘real’ feelings, what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’:
Even when she raised her hands to her ears and cried out, the attitude and pang were perfect; now she had no doubt of herself. In this role, written for her many centuries before, she felt at ease …
When … Mathilde was not worshipping her baby-in-arms, or portraying a female defending her young, or walking up and down with the child in her arms, representing to herself an unhappy and loveless woman, she was sitting in a chair … thinking distrustfully of their future.
The same theme comes up later when a woman admires Letty’s poise, though Letty is more self-aware than her mother:
“Mrs Headlong, I have had really, no experiences, but those I have told you.”
She started, “It’s impossible! Not the way you talk! You seem so very much the modern, sophisticated -” she halted.
I took up, “The overdone young woman, the girl about town? I do; but that’s play acting. My mother was an actress once, don’t forget… I acted little girl, I acted young girl, and now I act knowing girl.”
I suppose I must tell you a little of the substance of the novel, though the great joy is to follow Stead’s writing, or Letty’s speech which is the same thing, as Letty lurches into young womanhood.
Letty’s father Solander, is some sort of merchant banker – much in the same way as (Stead’s husband) Bill Blake – who wooed Mathilde by being so often in her presence that she felt unable to resist him, but after the births of Letty and her younger sister Jacky he starts living separately, a fact which Mathilde struggles to acknowledge, denying for years the existence of ‘the other woman’, Persia.
The matriarch of Mathilde’s family is Grandma Morgan who owns a number of private hotels in rural locations around the USA, but principally Green Acres, the home to which all members of the family routinely return.
For a number of years, while Sol and Mathilde attempt to overcome their differences, Letty and Jacky live partially with their Uncle Hogg (separated from Mathilde’s sister) and cousins on a family-owned farm. Perce Hogg’s housekeeper is his sister, ‘Mrs Dr Goodsir’ after the doctor who had got her pregnant and refused to marry her. Mathilde’s younger brother Phillip is also sometimes in the picture, constantly sleeping with and sometimes marrying young women. At one time later on, both Hogg and Phillip are in jail for refusing, or being unable, to pay alimony. The divorce laws are ferociously complicated, with divorces and second marriages being both legal and illegal at the same time in different states.
Grandma Morgan, herself not averse to romance, with an ex-husband she permits to sleep round the back in the stables, has a beautiful younger daughter, Phyllis who during Letty’s adolescence, must be introduced into the marriage market at the maximum price. Sol’s work takes him to London and then to Amsterdam. Mathilde and the girls follow, ending up in Paris, and Grandma Morgan brings Phyllis to join them there. With a friend, Phyllis makes her way as a chorus girl around Europe until finally the family has to rescue her from Egypt, before she is completely unsaleable. Phyllis returns to the USA and pops up occasionally thereafter divorcing and remarrying.
The last part of the family is Sol’s mother, Grandma Fox, a decrepit and dependent old woman who must also deny Persia, though sometimes living with her and Sol, in order to remain friends with Mathilde (the only person in the story who does not wish for remarriage despite the urgings of her family) and the girls.
Back in the USA aged 15 or 16 Letty is determined to ‘discover’ boys and at the new year’s eve party at Green Acres she does, later telling Grandma Fox, who hadn’t been invited, that she had danced with ‘eleven boys’ and got drunk.
… I was doing the Big Apple. Errol was my partner nearly all the evening, although I danced with a couple of other boys I’d just met, and there were a couple of old guys about forty or fifty tried to make me, and I danced with a couple just to kid them, but I wasn’t really having any; no grey hairs in my beer, I said to myself and I said it to them, too, not quite that, but pretty much that. They got it anyway … Well, we went out and we walked up and down … and we looked in every corner – well, frankly, for a place to neck – and we couldn’t find one place. Everywhere we went there were a couple of kids necking, and even more than necking. Gee, much more. And kids wasn’t always the appropriate word. Finally, we had to sit in a corner of a storeroom right behind the kitchen, where there were already three other couples.
But in the end she “was still as mother delivered me into the world, though how I can’t say.”
When Grandmother Fox dies, she leaves her savings, $5,000, to be divided between Letty and Jacky, and Letty spends much of the next few years both begging for portions of this from her father as she runs up bills, on Grandma Morgan’s accounts, for clothes appropriate to the attracting of boys, and holding it out as a bargaining chip in her negotiations with suitors.
Letty does well at school and is a member of a communist youth organisation where she meets Clays, an aristocratic, impecunious (and married) 30 yo Englishman. She determines to win him and does and gets the permission of her family to marry when she turns 17. They manage to spend a night together but laughably, Letty remains a virgin and Clays goes off to the war in Spain as a journalist before he can finalise his divorce. It’s another six months before Letty spends the summer with a friend of Clays whom she does not particularly like, gets pregnant; he pays for the abortion which Sol organises, and then chases her, and eventually her family, to be repaid out of the ‘inheritance’.
By this time, college seems to Letty to be peopled by “demi-virgins and pimpled youths” and she drops out, taking a secretarial job in the fashion industry, and chasing after men. To be honest, this girl-about-town part of the novel – the last quarter – which brings us into the war years, is also the least interesting.
Letty Fox came immediately after Stead’s two best known and most autobiographical novels, The Man Who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1945) and so is something of a departure – a Bildungsroman maybe, but not her own coming of age; and not so much a satire on marriage, as is sometimes said, as a satire on the behaviour of a particular sub-stratum of American society, the cosmopolitan, upper middle class. Of course, a novel will always contain something of the author, and perhaps Letty’s line, “It is impossible to resist the pleasure of love, once tried”, which is pretty much her motto, also represents Stead’s own experience.
Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, first published 1946. My copy Imprint Classics, 1991, with introduction by Susan Sheridan.
Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead page (here) for a full overview of Stead and her work.
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters,1989 (Biography – Review)
Letty Fox: Her Luck (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Excerpt)
Cotters’ England (Review)