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....
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