Christina Stead Biography

Biography

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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Biography

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.