Christina Stead Essay - Stead, Christina (Vol. 8)

Stead, Christina (Vol. 8)

Stead, Christina 1902–

An Australian novelist and short story writer, Stead has successfully relied on personal experiences and travels for much of the material of her fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

[In The Little Hotel, Christina Stead's] small hotel in Switzerland holds, embraces, madmen and predators, snobs and sentimentalists. Her laconic brittle style, with transitions that look blind in their curtness but nevertheless allow us to glimpse some haunting insights, finds its dramatic correlative in the narrative voice of the woman who runs the limping hotel. "My English is not very good," the woman may say, but such words take their place within the way in which Miss Stead's English is very good….

[Miss Stead depicts] a tragicomic shabby-genteel world, in which the upper lip is stiff and the lower one is trembling, and [she] has a great gift for sensing the words that escape from just such a divided mouth…. The desiccation of such a life, its fear of sexuality, its embittered clutch upon its ancestors and its descendants—all this makes The Little Hotel at once painfully impressive and yet painedly narrow, like a wince. The allied ironies which coursed through what is still Miss Stead's best book were more ample, for The Man Who Loved Children was open to larger failures of imagination in its terrifying family than those which fret and lacerate the denizens of the little hotel. (p. 14)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), June 26, 1975.

["The Little Hotel"] takes place in Lausanne, and has for a narrator Mme. Selda Bonnard, the proprietress of a small Swiss pension patronized for its moderate rates and tolerant management. Beginning in the breathless, flustered voice of a stage monologuist, Mme. Bonnard tells us of her guests, concentrating upon the Mayor of B., a Belgian official boisterously suffering from a nervous breakdown; the subtle portrait of his derangement is too real to be funny. A globe deranged seems implied in the sketches of the other guests…. [A] "Magic Mountain"-like microcosm of Europe appears intended, though on a less Alpine scale. Yet the book never quite takes hold as that; its locus in time seems vaguely scattered, as if it had been composed over a long stretch of years. Wilson's Labour Government appears to rule England, but a more immediately postwar atmosphere colors the financial manipulations and political anxieties of the characters. Rather indistinguishably aged and reactionary, they all agree that the Russians are about to invade Switzerland. Thus immersed in the Cold War, the book is slow to thaw, though chips of icy vividness fly when Miss Stead gives a character more than a passing glance…. A deep experience of life speaks in such phrases as "the unmistakable trotting and nodding of the long-married" and "the fresh beauty of blood newly mixed." Yet for much of the book the reader feels about these glimpsable guests as Mrs. Trollope [one of the guests] does: "I can see everything that everyone does; and it all has nothing to do with me."

This compact novel, full of anecdotes, seems to lack a story; we only slowly realize that, by a remarkable technical sleight of hand, the story has become Mrs. Trollope's. The narrator, Mme. Bonnard, begins to tell us of conversations at which she was not present, and in the end enters very intimately into the private emotions and history of this Mrs. Trollope…. Though the other characters continue to pose, to flaunt their individual terrors and cruelties with increasing shamelessness, our interest remains caught up in this middle-aged, kindhearted half-caste's brave, hopeless, and salutary effort to end a liaison prolonged to the point of degradation. (pp. 79-80)

Throughout, money or its lack is crucial, and it is the women, rich and poor, who are exploited, Mrs. Trollope's decisive, revolutionary gesture is to give money meant to buy her lover a car to the dying Miss Abbey-Chillard, for her medical expenses. Miss Stead, an outspoken left-winger, enriches her perceptions of emotional dependence with a tactile sense of money as a pervasive, unpleasant glue that hold her heroines fast, in their little hotels of circumstance. (p. 80)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 18, 1975.

Readers of Christina Stead will find her ninth novel, The Little Hotel, a refinement of the riches that delighted them in her House of All Nations and The Man Who Loved Children. They have come to expect abundance, even to put up with the "mechanical superabundance" which Randall Jarrell, one of her most perceptive critics, acknowledged while celebrating her gift for concentration and swift conclusiveness. They will not be disappointed now, for in spite of this book's much smaller frame she does not stint. Yet neither is there excess, although not until we finish The Little Hotel do we realize the significance of the information so casually given—almost thrown away—in the course of a brief, crowded narrative. (p. 21)

It is difficult to convey Christina Stead's special style without quoting her, and difficult to quote without … suggesting that she is compiling a postwar bestiary of the lunatic Right. She is caricaturing, in a way, but the constant criss-crossing of relations, influenced less by ideology than by small social snubs, stinginess and generosity, boredom and amusement, affection and hatred, cuts across political lines, and keeps these grotesques from being the mere cartoons they might have become in other hands….

Stead's direction is clear, her vision all of a piece. She is too subtle … to stress the obvious continuity between House of All Nations and The Little Hotel, and too original to exploit the foregone, sententious "ship-of-fools" convention. (p. 22)

Ruth Middleton Mathewson, "A Bestiary of the Lunatic Right," in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), September 29, 1975, pp. 21-2.

If [Miss Herbert] came from an unknown author, it would be described as parts of three separate novels, shakily dovetailed by the presence of a single heroine who is necessarily (since she must operate in widely different areas) of vaporous character and indeterminate abilities. Eleanor begins as a liberated Bohemian type, a would-be writer supported more by her lovers than by her talentless pen. She next appears as the wife of a dismal twerp, dedicating her time to children, house repairs, and bad cooking. Ultimately, she is a middle-aged divorcée scratching along on fringe literary jobs. Her literary activities, incidentally, do not hold the episodes of the novel together because they are unbelievable; she simply has no ability whatsoever and even her modest success as an agent and manuscript reader is incredible. Each of Eleanor's incarnations trails loose ends—a mysterious religious sect, an experimental farm, a man who is either a blackmailer or a spy; one learns no details and nothing ever comes of these intriguing items.

The action of the novel runs from some time after World War II to the present, but much of the conversation, particularly the sexual opinions, suggests the 1920s, while such descriptions of costume as occur are vaguely out of period. Eleanor always wears silk stockings, for example, in this age of nylon. Throughout her adventures, Eleanor remains invincibly self-centered and boneheaded, her mind functioning in a string of clichés whether the topic is a woman's right to erotic experiment, the noble duties of a wife and mother, or the merits of hard work and independence. These clichés, which eventually become quite amusing, account for the structure of the book. Miss Stead puts her heroine through three cliché feminine roles—trollop, house-wife, and worker—and demonstrates that a girl is bound to lose at all of them. (p. 87)

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), August, 1976.

Christina Stead is a caustically keen observer of a wide spectrum of human scenes; she writes a direct prose that can rise to all but the largest occasions of poetry; she is politically thoughtful without being propagandistic, giving her characters a sufficient but not crushing burden of ideological significance; and she has travelled well in the human interior and can be devastatingly clear about some of its uglier turns. The portrait, for instance, in ["Miss Herbert"] of Eleanor's husband, Heinz (he rechristens himself Henry), gives us the very anatomy of a pill, of a prissy, snobbish, rigid, parentally babied Swiss petit bourgeois who turns vicious and hysterical in divorce without surrendering his self-righteousness and cunning. Though he is absent from most of the novel's pages, he remains the best and the worst thing in it, and the female antagonist sheds her air of inert, trivial enchantment whenever he touches her. It is an odd, and possibly unintended, comment on the state of women that this woman, drifting through squads of dream men, comes to life chiefly in connection with her horrid little husband; this may be the point of "Miss Herbert's" uneasy subtitle, "(The Suburban Wife)."

Among the gifts Miss Stead does not conspicuously possess is that of joy, which translates, in the narrative art, into the gift of lubrication. Her plots move chunkily, by jerks of hasty summary and epistolary excerpt; her dialogues are abrasive, full of dry, twittery self-exposition and clichés that may or may not be deliberate…. The historical background is vague. Eleanor sows her wild oats in what must be the thirties, appears to sleep soundly through the Second World War, and awakens to middle age in a postwar world soured by discontented allusions to America and its dollars. This softness of periphery would not matter if Eleanor were herself firmly in focus, but she is not…. How much—the novel's central uncertainty—are we meant to like her? Is she a woman embodying a universal femininity, or is she seen throughout as a hopeless English woman—pink, hearty, energetic, romantic, tame, futile, essentially stupid? (pp. 75-6)

If some heroines seduce their own creators into liking them, some heroes, such as the narrator of Camus's "The Stranger," are meant to challenge our notions of what likability is. What we like, in the end, is life, and Eleanor Brent lives too little in what she does. We are pleased that she is handsome, and appreciate her capacity for hard work; but good looks and daily works are not defining actions in the Aristotelian sense: "Life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality." The "Poetics" continues, "Now, character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse." Eleanor's actions are chiefly acts of avoidance…. The sad, and clearly intended, irony is that we have been made to feel, after three hundred pages, that not much of a life has been lived…. Well, what actions has society made available to women? Not every woman can be Clytemnestra, as Aristotle should have realized. Nor an empire builder, as even Ayn Rand might admit. The moral stature that Jane Austen gave to the search for a husband can no longer be assumed; and even the decision to betray the marriage bed—the nineteenth-century wife's revolutionary alternative—no longer seems momentous. If there is such a thing as a "woman's novel," it finds itself bound, at least in the honest hands of [Miss Stead] to the figurative description not of an action but of a quality—the quality of feminity, static and wary, hugging to itself the bleak dignity of solitude. (pp. 76-7)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 9, 1976.