Until the 1960’s, Christina Stead was either unmentioned in Australian literary histories or briefly alluded to as an expatriate writer who had inexplicably attracted the attention of British and American readers and critics. Her work had never been published in her own country. By 1990, however, she was regarded as the most important writer of fiction in the history of Australia after Patrick White.
Christina Stead was born in Rockdale, a working-class suburb of Sydney, and attended first St. George High School and then the academically selective Sydney Girls’ High School; subsequently, she went to Sydney Teachers’ College and later became a demonstrator in psychology at the university. She developed an interest in modern fiction and in writing at college, and her novels and short stories all attest a keen perception and understanding of psychological problems and their subtle manifestations. In this respect she has been compared with Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski, not without justification.
Seven Poor Men of Sydney was written in Europe, after Stead had left Australia in 1928. It is a study of poverty in an urban environment but (like almost all of her later writing) is directed at an understanding of interpersonal relationships rather than of political and social phenomena. Especially compelling is the treatment of the latent incestuous feelings of Catherine Bagenault and her illegitimate half brother Michael, a veteran who is unable to take action. The descriptions of various locations in Sydney are impressive both in natural detail and in evocation of atmosphere supportive of the story. The Salzburg Tales (which includes four stories written while Stead was training to be a teacher) and The Beauties and Furies (about a married Englishwoman who goes to live with a younger man, a student in Paris) cannot be said to have advanced Stead’s art, though they do demonstrate her interest in certain character types: the prevaricator, the charmer, the domineering father, the doctrinaire, and the nascent feminist.
With House of All Nations, Stead entered a new area of fiction: the world of international finance, centered in Paris, and an almost journal-like narration of events. What results is a prolix account of the machinations of Jules Bertillon and his Banque Mercure that result in his personal wealth and the bank’s failure. The novel uses as its epigraph Bertillon’s observation, “No one ever made enough money,” and a Balzacian array of minor characters shows humankind’s attempt to overcome the shortfall with the aid of the charming confidence-man banker. Because the House of All Nations is a chic Parisian brothel, the novel’s title suggests Stead’s satiric intent. (Her husband, William Blake, was a stockbroker and banker, so the details of financial manipulations are presumably reliable.) If the Great Depression made House of All Nations a contemporary success, its interest has since diminished; its length and overcrowded canvas of minor characters are clear weaknesses.
Stead’s next two books, The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone, are certainly her greatest achievements, though the former was not recognized fully until its republication in 1965 with a long and detailed appreciation by the respected critic Randall Jarrell. In many ways, The Man Who Loved Children, which is set in Washington, D.C., is a brutal picture of family life: Sam Pollitt, “a subaltern bureaucrat,” and his second wife, Henrietta (Henny), a scion of a wealthy Baltimore family, yet one who could be “beautifully, wholeheartedly vile,” have grown apart, and their children are the stakes in their bitter battles. The oldest child, Louisa (by Sam’s first wife, now dead), aged twelve, is swept into the vortex of the parental conflict and exhibits extraordinary perceptiveness of the psychological forces at work. Yet she plans her parents’ murder. Because of its study of family relationships, emotional shortcomings, and personal priorities, The Man Who Loved Children is an acute and meaningful study of modern bourgeois life.
Hardly less compelling and authoritative is For Love Alone, Stead’s best exposition of the theme of personal discovery through casting off of family, unworthy models, and lovers. Teresa Hawkins (like Stead, a teacher trainee) seeks self-fulfillment–first through adoration of Jonathan Crow, a minor university teacher in Australia, then through attachment to James Quick, an American businessman in England–and escape from her insensitive father, who personifies the belief that women must accept a role of social and sexual dependency. Many readers assumed that this was an overtly feminist novel, but the author vehemently denied this, asserting that it was yet another exploration of the forces that motivate individuals to think and act. Indeed, Stead excels in the analysis of motivation, the description of passions, and the differentiation of male and female speech, particularly in dialogue. In almost every respect, Stead’s art is advanced in For Love Alone: There is greater economy of plot and characters, the prose is more beautifully textured, and the theme is more clearly and effectively developed.
In Stead’s next novel, Letty Fox: Her Luck, a study of free love, the texture of the prose and the pace of narration seem inharmonious with the subject and theme. Detail often buries interest and obscures the view. Some critics think this Stead’s weakest novel, though others reserve that place for A Little Tea, a Little Chat, a quite untypical work that takes as its subject matter the search for money and the pursuit of sex of a middle-aged Wall Street manipulator, Robbie Grant.
The People with the Dogs is a book about an American family. The Massines, New York descendants of nineteenth century Russian liberals, live in a typical brownstone and yet own a thousand-acre unproductive farm. They accommodate their European culture and refinement to the haste and materialism of their immediate environment. As Stead commented, “The Massines have joy and they love each other and live for each other.” They personify, somewhat ironically, rootedness in transience, democracy in an aristocratic tradition, and rural simplicity amid urban sophistication. It is a compassionate study.
Dark Places of the Heart purports to be a proletarian novel about Nellie Cotter, a London journalist and bohemian from a Tyneside family who has incestuous impulses (like those of Catherine Bagenault in Seven Poor Men of Sydney) and who is married to and deserted by George Cook. Again, Stead details a search for love and friendship, for self. The Little Hotel, with its wider range of eccentrics and poseurs, is a more satisfactory fiction set in a nondescript Swiss pension: the genteel poor and their vanities are subjected to Horatian satiric study, and the examination is livened by an almost uncharacteristic levity.
One posthumous work, I’m Dying Laughing: The Humourist, set in the milieu of the American Left in the 1930’s and 1940’s, draws on the basic elements of all Stead’s earlier works: political and social commitments, family feuds, sexual fantasies, political and personal infidelities, betrayals, and the search for love and self-realization. It suggests the impossibility of being both morally upright and rich. Stead’s novels have established her as a major modern writer in English and not merely a major Australian author, and The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone remain her most successful fictions.