Christina Stead Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

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Christina Stead Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Christina Ellen Stead was born in Rockdale, New South Wales, on July 17, 1902. Her parents were David George Stead, a naturalist and fisheries economist, and Ellen Butters Stead. After her mother died of a perforated appendix when Christina was two years old, her father married Ada Gibbons, a society woman, and they had six children to whom Stead became big sister. Stead trained at the Sydney Teachers College, where she became a demonstrator in experimental psychology. As a public school teacher, she taught abnormal children and administered psychological tests in the schools. Stead suffered voice strain, however, and she later saw this as a symptom of her being unfit for the work. Like Teresa Hawkins in For Love Alone, Stead studied typing and shorthand to embark on a business career.

In 1928, Stead left Sydney, sailing on the Oronsay for England. She worked as a grain clerk and as a bank clerk in London and Paris, experiences that became background for her novel about finance, House of All Nations. By that time, Stead had met the economist and writer William Blake (born William Blech), whom she married in 1952. Stead settled in the United States from 1937 to 1946, publishing several novels and working for a time as a writer with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio in Hollywood. At the end of World War II, Stead returned to Europe with Blake, living in various places on the Continent and returning to England when she feared that she was losing her feel for the English language. In 1968, Stead’s husband died, and a few years later, in 1974, she returned to live with one of her brothers in Australia. She died in Sydney on March 31, 1983, at the age of eighty.

Christina Stead Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Christina Ellen Stead was born in a Sydney suburb on July 17, 1902, the eldest child of David Stead, a leading Australian naturalist. Christina’s mother, Ellen Butters Stead, was the last of ten children born to a gold miner. Ellen shocked her own devout mother when she married David, an avowed atheist, at the age of twenty-five. Christina was born eleven months later, but before the child was three, her mother died from a burst appendix.

David Stead’s sister, Florence, and her young daughter went to live with the Steads after Ellen’s death. About two years later, David Stead married a wealthy woman named Ada Gibbons and moved the family into a large house where the couple had six children in ten years. When the house had to be sold to pay off debts, the extended family moved to a modest home in Watson’s Bay, at the mouth of Sydney Harbor. An uneasy relationship with her stepmother may have contributed to Stead’s early desire to leave home, a story reflected in her autobiographical novel, The Man Who Loved Children (1940, 1965).

Stead trained at Sydney Teacher’s College and taught in the inner city in 1923, but she was transferred several times before she resigned in 1925, finding herself unsuited for teaching. She found an office job and saved for two years to earn money to go to Europe. Within a week after arriving in London, Stead found a job in a bank. Her boss, William Blech, who would eventually become her husband, was an American of Jewish background, steeped in left-wing politics and European art, culture, and history. Blech, although married, was estranged from his wife, who would not agree to a divorce.

Stead flowered under the intellectual stimulation Blech provided, and when he accepted a banking job in Paris in 1929, she followed him. Living with Blech in Paris, she obtained work at the same bank, which would later provide material for House of All Nations (1938). The worldwide economic depression confirmed Stead’s left-wing political convictions.

Stead had been writing steadily since she left Australia, and Blech, who believed in her talent, presented her work to publishers....

(The entire section is 886 words.)

Christina Stead Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Christina Stead staked out her territory exploring the myths and delusions that drive ordinary people. She writes with startling accuracy of the dark obsessions developed in that intense microcosm of society, the family. Her technique of portraying characters through each one’s own words, dreams, and imagination achieves a layered novelistic reality at odds with the details of scenery, interiors, and artifacts of daily life. Always interested in the effects of society on the individual, Stead writes about characters who are often from the lower rungs of the social ladder. Each character is more than a reflection of his or her times, despite the serious political underpinnings of Stead’s novels.