In interviews and essays, Stead repeatedly confirmed that her work was highly autobiographical, yet her fiction is not merely a retelling of her life. Significant events she experienced are closely connected to her representation of these events in her fiction. Her two best-known novels, The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone (1944), are often mistakenly read as autobiographical documents rather than the accomplished works of fiction they are.
The generally loose structure of most of Stead’s novels consists of series of scenes in which there is little description or interpretation and almost no authorial comment. Stead sets up a scene and lets the characters speak. They present and, in a sense, betray themselves; the reader follows their dramatic monologues, dialogues, stream of consciousness, oration, argument, and justification. Her characters reveal themselves through fantasy, dreams, and the subconscious as well as through rational ideas. The hidden and fantastic are as important to each character’s reality as the obvious and the rational, lending complexity to the characters and additional layers of meaning to the novels.
Stead declared that she was a naturalist and that she had been trained by her naturalist father. This training began when Stead was very young; she recalled sleeping for a time in a packing case filled with zoological specimens and being told realistic bedtime stories of bird, sea, and animal life. Later, she read books from her father’s library on geography, biology, and evolution, as well as William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Her family background in natural history provides the realistic details that underpin Stead’s work. Naturalism in the novel usually includes the idea that character is formed by heredity and environment, with no connection to a spiritual world. This is a concern that Stead grappled with all of her life, and which she dramatized in her posthumously published novel, I’m Dying Laughing: The Humourist. Moral issues of individuality versus conformity lead to a tragic conclusion in the novel. While Stead took care to imply the social influences that drive her characters, she infused them with such spirituality that they transcend what is usually expected of naturalism in fiction.
Love is another major theme in Stead’s fiction, a theme brought into sharp focus in her novels For Love Alone and Letty Fox: Her Luck, both written after Stead had formed an intense relationship with Marxist writer Ralph Fox. He appears in For Love Alone as the character Harry Girton, for whom the heroine develops a passion at the same time she is in love with her devoted husband. Stead declared that For Love Alone was the first novel she had written about love, a subject very important to her. Although Stead’s love for her William Blake was deep and lifelong, her love for Fox marked the beginning of her exploration of love as a creative force.
Letty Fox: Her Luck explores the love theme through one of Stead’s recurrent character types: the young woman trying to break free of the bonds of tradition in order to achieve self-realization. This character type first appears in Seven Poor Men of Sydney as Catherine, who rejects family ties and respectability, but fails to achieve fulfillment. Letty Fox’s picaresque tale is told in the first person and was one of the first novels in English to speak frankly about subjects such as impotence and female sexual aggression. Although Letty pursues a promiscuous life, exploring “free love,” she finds her experiences costly, repetitive, and often painful. She finally settles for marriage and pregnancy to provide the self-fulfillment for which she has been looking. Yet an irony exists in Letty’s cheerful acceptance of her fate; there is a strong suggestion that Letty is lying to herself as well as to the reader.
Perhaps the most important character type in Stead’s work is the tyrannical father. He appears briefly in Seven Poor Men of Sydney and in the story “Overcote” in The Salzburg Tales. In the latter he is the smug, egoistic schoolmaster who denies his children independence, spoils their chances of marriage and a career, and then sinks into self-pity when they turn away from him. The same type of character appears as Andrew in For Love Alone and as Sam Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children. The tyrannical father is modeled on Stead’s own father, yet the fictional representation of him is so powerful that some critics have considered Sam and his fictional wife, Henny, to be almost mythical figures.
Two of Stead’s later novels show a deep disillusionment with ideas of social and political liberation that dominated the intellectual scene between the two world wars. Dark Places of the Heart (1966; published in England as Cotter’s England, 1966) and I’m Dying Laughing: The Humourist focus on the mundane details of daily life, but the heroines play out their personal power struggles amid countless political debates. The major stylistic techniques of these two novels are contrast rather than connection, movement rather than reflection or explanation, and repetition and accumulation of detail. One of the great achievements of Dark Places of the Heart is the successful blending of the realistic and grotesque into a single vision. These techniques tend to diminish the author’s narrative voice and trivialize political concepts in favor of the characters.
Stead’s subject is that most traditional of novelistic subjects: human character. Stead’s characters are fairly common sorts of people who have a capacity to express themselves more fully than men and women usually do in real life. The people who are overwhelmed in her novels go under because they cannot compromise their individuality; the most memorable of her characters remain stubbornly unique. In every case, there is more to them, and they are more interesting than the environments that shaped them....
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