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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