Australian-born novelist Christina Stead (1902-1983) is best remembered as the author of The Man Who Loved Children (1940), a depiction of dysfunctional family life based to a significant extent on her own childhood in suburban Sydney. Living the greater part of her life outside Australia, Stead employed a variety of settings in her fiction, including London, Paris, and Washington, D.C., and often used her fiction to highlight such political and economic issues as the oppression of workers and the parallels between paternalistic colonial authority and gender inequality.
Stead was born in Rockdale, near Sydney, on July 17, 1902, the daughter of David George and Ellen Butters Stead. Her father was a marine biologist who worked for the government and supported socialist ideals. Her mother died when Stead was two years old, and her father remarried in 1907. With his new wife, David Stead had six more children, and the ensuing dissatisfaction of their domestic life provided the basis for Stead's best-known novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Stead was educated in Sydney and enrolled in Sydney Teachers' College in 1920. She began teaching in 1923, working as a demonstrator and lecturer in psychology at the college, but it proved a short-lived career, and she turned to clerical work while writing children's stories in her free time.
In 1928 Stead left Australia for England, following Keith Duncan, a graduate student with whom she had begun an affair in Australia. She took a job in London as a secretary in a grain company, where she met William Blech (later Blake), a Marxist economist and a married man who was to become her life partner. She moved to Paris with Blake in 1929, where he took a position in an investment bank, but they did not marry until 1952 when he finally obtained a divorce from his wife. During the early 1930s Stead worked as a bank clerk in Paris while seeking a publisher for her novel Seven Poor Men of Sydney and for the short story collection The Salzburg Tales, both of which were published in 1934.
Seven Poor Men of Sydney offers an impressionistic portrait of seven working-class men (and one woman) and through them, Stead examines issues of class oppression and colonialism in Australia during the opening decades of the twentieth century. Among the central characters, Michael is a shell-shocked veteran of World War I who commits suicide by jumping off a cliff into Fisherman's Bay, and his sister, Catherine, is a woman so marginalized by the male-dominated political and economic structures that she spirals downward through society and ends in an asylum for the mentally ill. One character espouses Communist ideals as a means of transforming society, while another immigrates to the United States in pursuit of a better life. None of the seven is able to achieve a satisfying, economically secure life in Australia.
During the mid-1930s Stead also became involved in various leftist causes and attended the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Paris in June 1935. She later produced "The Writers Take Sides," an account of the proceedings, published in the periodical Left Review. She and Blake traveled to Spain in 1936 on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. That same year her novel The Beauties and Furies, a chronicle of a disappointing love affair, was published. After briefly returning to London, Blake and Stead moved to the United States, where they remained until 1946. In America she was associated with leftist journals and for a time worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
In Stead's next novel, House of All Nations (1938), which is significantly named after an infamous Parisian brothel, she presented an epic fictional treatment of the world of international finance that also provided a Marxist critique of global capitalism. Focusing on the fictitious Banque Mercure, headquartered in Paris and based on the bank in which Stead and Blake worked during the 1930s, the novel depicts the cunning schemes and illicit deals that lie beneath the surface of international monetary operations. Biographer R. G. Geering, quoted in Contemporarty Authors judged House of All Nations as "Stead's greatest intellectual achievement—its knowledge of the workings of international finance and its revelation of the greed, the ruthlessness, the energy, the sheer luck, and the genius that go into money-making, are by any standards remarkable."
The Man Who Loved Children
The Man Who Loved Children, which was described by Pearl K. Bell in the New Republic as a "profoundly original triumph of imagination and memory," is an ironically titled work that describes a dysfunctional family whose life together is characterized by bitterness, violent outbursts, and gender inequities. Though the story is set in the United States, the novel is based Stead's own experiences growing up in Australia. Sam Pollitt, modeled on her father, David Stead, is a tyrannical, self-centered civil servant whose escalating quarrels with his embittered wife, Henny, spark murderous thoughts in their adolescent daughter, Louisa. In the end Henny commits suicide, and Louisa, like Stead, leaves home to start life abroad. Bell concluded that its achievement earned "this remarkable writer a permanent place in the pantheon of literature."
In a work that extends themes introduced in The Man Who Loved Children, For Love Alone (1944) focuses on a young woman whose background is similar to Louisa. In this novel, Teresa Hawkins emigrates from Australia to England, where she hopes to escape her domineering father and the stifling atmosphere of provincial political and economic life. She succeeds in London, where she falls in love and embarks on a literary career. For Love Alone was closely followed by Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), a satirical novel set among the intellectual Left in New York.
Following World War II, Stead and Blake returned to Europe but established no permanent home until 1953 when they settled in London. During these years Stead continued writing, but her works found little favor with publishers, and only A Little Tea, a Little Chat (1948) and The People with the Dogs (1952) were published. Set in New York during the war, A Little Tea, a Little Chat comprises a piercing character study of a scoundrel told largely through his own self-serving monologues. However, the novel was faulted at the time as overlong, and later critics have relegated it to minor status. The People with the Dogs fared better with critics. Centering on Edward Massine, a wealthy New Yorker with a country retreat in the Catskills, it was praised for its insightful examination of American manners and its sharp presentation of character. According to Bill Greenwell in New Statesman, The People with the Dogs is "an astonishing novel, one which sprawls, ripples and explodes beneath the fingers… . The People with the Dogs is genius on the loose."
Career Revival in the 1960s
Coinciding with the Cold War years in international politics, the blacklisting of Communist writers, and the general turn away from Marxist influence in literature, Stead had difficulty securing publication of her works. She and Blake wrote journalism and worked as researchers in an effort to meet the barest financial needs. This situation was at last relieved when The Man Who Loved Children was reissued in the United States in 1965 with a highly approbatory introduction by the American poet Randall Jarrell. Stead's financial woes were somewhat alleviated by literary prizes and, rediscovered by the academic world, she became a fixture in the late-twentieth-century canon of feminist literature.
In 1966 she produced Dark Places of the Heart (also published as Cotter's England), an examination of English society in the postwar era, when working-class empowerment gave currency to socialist ideals. Focusing on the Cotter family, particularly on Nellie Cotter Cook, a writer married to a labor organizer, and her philandering brother Tom, the novel presents a bleak assessment of contemporary British culture and politics. According to Louise Yelin in British Writers: "Left-wing political theory, like political action, reaches a dead end in Cotter's England," and Nellie effectively represents "the rage and despair that characterized Stead's life during the Cold war years, when she wandered from one European city to another and struggled to support herself by writing." A lesser work, the novella collection The Puzzleheaded Girl was published in 1967. In the four short works included in the volume, Stead followed four American, female protagonists navigating the changing social and sexual landscape of the postwar era.
Later Career and Reputation
In 1974 Stead drew on her travel experiences in Europe for the novel The Little Hotel, and in Miss Herbert (1976) she traced the career of an English beauty from her youthful pursuit of conventional happiness through marriage and motherhood to maturity. According to Helen Yglesias in a review in the New York Times Book Review, Miss Herbert is a "supremely English novel, infused with the troubled, cocky and half-defeated spirit of contemporary England." She concluded, "Stead has created a stunning addition to her stunning body of work."
Blake died in 1968 and shortly afterward Stead visited Australia for the first time in forty years. In 1974 Stead returned to live in Australia and remained there until she died, in Sydney on March 31, 1983. Since her death Stead has been elevated in critical circles to the position of a beloved, major writer, particularly in Australia where her works were not even published until the mid-1960s. In response to growing interest in Stead, several new collections of her fiction have been issued as well as reprint editions of her works. Her writings remain a fertile source for academic research. Yglesias commented in the New York Times Book Review that "Stead novels are great to read-long rich, funny, moving, utterly surprising in their rambles through a marvelously rendered and varied scene, the whole built solidly on ground chosen and controlled by a master." And the English novelist Angela Carter concurred in the London Review of Books in 1982, writing, "To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness."
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Geering, R. G., Christina Stead, Twayne, 1969.
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Rowley, Hazel, Christina Stead: A Biography, Holt, 1994.
Yelin, Louise, British Writers, Supplement 4, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997.
London Review of Books, September 16, 1982.
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New York Times Book Review, June 13, 1976.