The Salzburg Tales, Christina Stead

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The Salzburg Tales (1934) is a collection of often fantastical tales told to each other by a group of visitors to Salzburg, there for “the August Festival, the great event of Salzburg men”, and with spare time during the seven days of the Festival to wander in the woods and pastures outside the town. We know that Stead is a wonderful writer, but the virtuosity of these tales with all their different styles and settings is amazing. And Stead’s daring in making her first published work a take on The Canterbury Tales, one of English literature’s earliest and best-known works, is breathtaking.

The story behind the book is that for some years Stead had been working on, and her partner Bill Blake had been attempting to find a publisher for, Seven Poor Men of Sydney. Eventually Blake came up with Peter Davies – apparently the adopted son of JM Barrie and the model for Peter Pan – who gave her a contract with the condition that she write something else as well, which she did, taking about a year.

When she presented this second work to Peter Davis he said that his company did not like to begin with a book of short stories, to which she replied ‘too bad’. He did however publish The Salzburg Tales first and it was a succès d’estime. (Williams)

We know, in later years at least, that Stead always had two or three manuscripts on the go, and my guess is that that was the case then too. She had already begun on ‘Lovers in Paris’ that was to become her third novel, The Beauties and Furies, and I’m guessing that she had also already begun the stories that make up The Salzburg Tales, enough at least to make an informed pitch to the publisher.

The Canterbury Tales begins with a Prologue which includes portraits of the travellers, and then goes on to the travellers’ tales. The Prologue begins: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root/And bathed each vein with liquor that has power/To generate therein and sire the flower …”.

The Salzburg Tales begins also with a Prologue, with the opening lines:

Salzburg, old princely and archiepiscopal city, and its fortress Hohen-Salzburg, lie among the mountains of the Tyrol, in Salzburg Province, in Austria. The river Salzach, swift and yellow from the glaciers and streaming mountain valleys, flows between baroque pleasure-castles standing in glassy lakes, and peasant villages pricked in their vineyards, and winds about to reflect the citadel rising in its forests, single eminence in the plain.

Here is a photo, though with words like that you hardly need it.

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Salzburg

Stead, then living in Paris with Blake, had holidayed in Bavaria and Austria in the summer of 1930, spending August in Salzburg for the Mozart Festival. The publishing contract was secured the following April, and Stead:

… sat down in the kitchen of her flat and immediately wrote The Salzburg Tales, one day a story, the next day editing and ‘connective tissue’ … from beginning to end ‘because I’d just come back from Salzburg and was inspired by Mozart, because he has the most marvellously connected and creative brain in the whole world, I think.’ (Williams)

The Prologue is short and is followed by a chapter on The Personages. Stead describes actors and audience entering an open area before the cathedral for a performance of Jedermann (Everyman) which she herself had attended on August 1, 1930, and provides vignettes of all the ‘personages’ who will meet over the following seven days and tell stories for the amusement of their fellows.

According to Williams, many of the characters were based on people Stead knew. The Centenarist, who tells a number of stories, ‘was not pleased to find a copy of himself in print’; though the English Gentleman and the New York Doctor of Medecine were flattered. Bill Blake was the model for the Critic of Music as well as for some of the characters in the stories – Ernest Jordain, a polymath and Isidor, a poor Jewish boy. There is also a Little Old Lady in two of the stories who is probably Bill’s mother Rosa, who was living with them at the time, and with whom Stead had a difficult relationship.

The ‘connective tissue’ of the stories is that a few people gather and call on one or another of their number to tell a story. So, on the first day “a party from the ‘Hotel Austria’ went up into the monastery wood on the Kapuzinerberg in the morning to listen to the bells of the town and rest for some hours on the wooded height” and the Town Councillor tells the first tale, The Marionettist.

The tales themselves are difficult to place in time, most of them have a nineteenth century feel, though every now and again a car or even a television is mentioned. Only right near the end does the 1914-18 War come up, and even then it’s just mentioned in passing. I’m sure you could do a PhD on themes in the stories and their relation to stories in The Canterbury Tales, and for that matter in the Decameron and the Arabian Nights, but it is beyond the scope of this review, and beyond what I could glean out of a single reading (fractured over the past month).

Mostly the stories have the feel of tales being told, rather than the mixture of speech and action which characterises ordinary novel writing, but Stead is very clever at differentiating the tellers’ styles one from another. The tales are from all over. Some probably come from Blake’s Jewish heritage, some involve magic or ghosts, some are straight accounts of small incidents in the teller’s life, and there are two or three in which it gradually becomes apparent that the setting is Australia.

[Two young women mistake their way while walking in the Blue Mountains] They looked down and still saw the rolling ravined bottoms, full of tree-ferns, eucalypts and patches of burnt-out scrub.

“We will follow the same path tomorrow. I have heard of a new path for the descent: we strike off to the left and reach more shortly the Burrogorang Valley; there, where you see a clearing glimmering in the forest.”

Lilias looked down at the night assembling and massing in the gullies. It was there in its cohorts; its sentinels were climbing to the eyries of the cliff, it reconnoitred in the lofty escarpments. It was there in the clefts and scoriations of the precipice: it was running instantly and languorously, with the movement of irresistible floods over the endless sky. (The Schoolteacher’s Tale, On The Road).

If you are at all interested in Christina Stead, or if you are a fan of Angela Carter, say, then read this book. You don’t have to rush, read it one or two tales at a time before you switch out the light at night. I think there are more than a hundred, so it will take a while, but you won’t be disappointed.

 

Christina Stead, The Salzburg Tales, first pub. 1934, My edition Sirius, 1989

I have reviewed Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here) and a number of her novels (click on ‘Stead’ under Tags in the sidebar) but the best place to start is at ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page (here)

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Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

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First edition cover

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.

see also:
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)

Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016

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The copy of Letty Fox I have is not that pictured above but one from Imprint (A&R) in 1991 with an Introduction by Susan Sheridan which begins:

Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) is the first of a trio of satirical novels which Christina Stead wrote about the sexual and political lives of New Yorkers as she had observed them while living there before and during the Second World War.

Without further ado, here is the first paragraph (a review will take much longer, sorry).

“One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled 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. My debts were nearly six hundred dollars, not counting my taxes in arrears. I had already visited the tax inspector twice and promised to pay in installments when I had money in the bank. I had told him that I was earning my own living, with no resources, separated from my family, and that though my weekly pay was good, that is sixty-five dollars, I needed that and more to live. All this was true. I now had by good fortune, about seventy dollars in the bank, but this was only because a certain man had given me a handsome present (the only handsome present I ever got, in fact); and this money I badly needed for clothes, for moving, and for petty cash. During the war, I had got used to taking a taxi to work. Being out always late at night, I was sluggish in the morning; and being a great worker at the office, I was behindhand for my evening dates. Beyond such petty expenses, I needed at least two hundred and fifty dollars for a new coat. My fur coat, got from my mother, and my dinner dress, got from my grandmother, were things of the past and things with a past, mere rags and too well known to all my friends. There was no end to what I needed. My twenty-fourth birthday was just gone, and I had spent two hours this same evening ruminating upon all my love affairs which had sunk ingloriously into the past, along with my shrunken and worn outfits. Most of these affairs had been promising enough. Why had they failed? (Or I failed?) Partly, because my men, at least during the war years, had been flighty, spoiled officers in the armed services, in and out of town, looking for a good-timer by the night, the week or the month; and if not these young officers, then my escorts were floaters of another sort, middle-aged, married civilians, journalists, economic advisers, representatives of foreign governments or my own bosses, office managers, chiefs, owners. But my failure was, too, because I had no appartment to which to take them. How easy for them to find it inconvenient to visit me at my hotel, or for me to visit them at theirs when they were dubious or cool. It seemed to me that night that a room of my own was what I principally lacked.

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, First pub. Harcourt Brace, New York, 1946. My edition: Imprint, Sydney, 1991. Introduction by Susan Sheridan, Women’s Studies, Flinders University, 1990

Cotters’ England, Christina Stead

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016

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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)

Why I write, Christina Stead

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016

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note the misplaced apostrophe!

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers has been posting the opening pages of Christina Stead novels. She suggested I put up an excerpt from Cotters’ England (1966), which I am planning to review. Here on pp 37-38 Stead’s protagonist Nellie, talking to her friend Caroline, gives a pretty good definition of the Social Realist novel:

“You’re all alike, you amateurs. Everything is grist to your mill. You don’t see the warm natural human material. You see a subject …  I understand the urge [to write]. But you’ll need more experience. That’s not enough, the seamy side. You can’t butcher them to make a holiday in print. Writing’s not just a case of self-expression or conscience clearing. The muckrakers did their work. Now we want something constructive. You see, sweetheart, just to photograph a refuse yard with its rats, that wouldn’t help the workers one tiny little bit. It would only be glorifying your own emotions.”

“What would you write about, I mean given your experience? Of course, I can never rival your experience.”

“No, I’ve been up to my ears in it all my life. I always knew reality.”

“Well, what would you begin with, say?”

“You just write what you see, Caroline sweetheart. Stick to reality; and when you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be all right. I knew I had something to say when I started out, pet; but when I saw the paper-spoilers, I said, I’ll never do that, so perhaps something great is lost; but that’s my feeling.”

“I have to see it myself, I know.”

“Aye, but you don’t want to dress it up in romantic illusion or disillusion. You want to give stark staring reality, straight in the face. And no destruction, nothing depressing. The lives of the workers are depressing enough. You want to cover it with a rosy veil, a mystery.”

“No destruction. Yes, I said to myself I never heard talk about retreat and failure from Nellie Cook. And I wanted to come and learn from you.”

Nellie was charmed. “Did ye, pet? That was wise and good of you, sweetheart. The workers, pet, were walk-ons in all this glorious history. Their play has got to begin.”

 

Christina Stead, Cotters’ England, first pub. 1966. This ed. Sirius, Sydney, 1989 (cover above from another edition)

See also ANZ LitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016 (here)

Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (my review here)

Christina Stead, Cotters’ England (my review here)

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 Week Nov 14-20 2016 (here)

Stead’s Wikipedia entry (here) lists all her novels and short stories and also 3 compilations of her letters (which is what I originally thought this was!)


* 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.’