Christina Stead Stead, Christina (Ellen) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christina (Ellen) Stead 1902–1983

Australian novelist, short story writer, translator, and editor.

Stead's masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), was neglected for twenty-five years until Randall Jarrell's laudatory afterword to the 1965 edition of the novel sparked interest in all of Stead's work. In his essay, Jarrell stated that "The Man Who Loved Children knows as few books have ever known—knows specifically, profoundly, exhaustively—what a family is" and that it "seems to me as plainly good as War and Peace and Crime and Punishment and Remembrance of Things Past are plainly great." Although Stead's reputation still rests largely on The Man Who Loved Children, most of her early works have been reissued in recent years, and current consensus maintains that Stead deserves to be regarded as a significant twentieth-century author.

Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Stead also lived in England, Europe, and the United States. The wide variety of geographical and sociocultural milieus in which Stead set her novels reflects her extensive traveling. The Salzburg Tales (1934), a collection of short stories, was written after Stead attended a music festival in Austria. House of All Nations (1938) and The Little Hotel (1973) are both set in Europe. The former deals with high finance and the destructive avarice of the protagonists; the latter concerns a group of expatriates immediately after World War II, living in isolation and fearing the loss of their limited wealth. In Cotters' England (1966), Stead recreates England's dismal, industrialized north.

Stead is often compared to Charles Dickens and other nineteenth-century novelists for the density of realistic detail in her novels and for her commentary on social conditions and social relationships. However, despite its prominence in Stead's work, setting is secondary to characterization. She is noted for her keen power of observation and her precision in recording human nature. Without being judgmental, Stead explores the human psyche in its darker manifestations. Critics agree that through the characters of Sam, Henny, and Louisa Pollitt, family members portrayed in The Man Who Loved Children, Stead offers a view of family life which is at once horrifying and astonishingly realistic. One of Stead's major themes, personal and artistic fulfillment, finds its most dramatic realization in this novel as Stead shows how circumstance, environment, and heredity combine to shape the young artist.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, 8 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed., Vol. 109 [obituary].)

Michael Wilding

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seven Poor Men of Sydney and For Love Alone can profitably be discussed together, not merely because they share an Australian setting, but because they have thematic concerns in common, and because the later book to some degree restates the themes of the earlier one, and offers a development from them. The Australian settings—mainly of Sydney—are emphasized in both, and sometimes seem a restriction when documentation becomes a substitute for creation…. Even for a reader who knows Sydney, these passages hardly succeed; the need to create a mental map, to correlate names with street signs, dissipates the attention. To someone unfamiliar with the city, the details can only be boring. They are not at all evocative; they are supported by hardly any description or imaging. The streets and views may have been meaningful to Christina Stead, but nothing is communicated to the reader except a provincial lack of proportion, a lack of realization that places need to be created, not just names; the centre of one's own world is not the world's centre.

It is something of a paradox that the cosmopolitan expatriate—as she has tended to be viewed by Australian critics—should show what seems to be such provincialism. It cannot be explained as prentice work since the features appear not only in her first novel [Seven Poor Men of Sydney], but in For Love Alone, which was her fifth. [In his Australian Literature, Frederick] Macartney, noting that Seven Poor Men is her only novel set wholly in Australia, adds a rider—"though the references to the locale are overlaid by her intellectual grotesquerie." The "though" sounds disappointed—but rather than agreeing with such disappointment, we might argue that the "references to the locale" are successfully imagined only when they are so overlaid.

It is this grotesquerie that marks Christina Stead as so distinctive a writer. She uses the setting of Sydney in the depression, but makes of it far more than her social-realist contemporaries could. Certainly she is concerned with the social-realist aspects of poverty; the provincialism of the place-naming is perhaps an attempt to establish a "real" setting; and she deals with the social aspects of poverty, the economic factors determining it. But her picturing of the streets of depression transcends the merely limited socio-economic, historic reportage. She is brilliantly successful when, from the documentation of cartography, she reaches out to a phantasmagoria…. (pp. 20-2)

[At times, the grotesquerie leads] to allegorization and Gothicizing—a tendency always present in these novels, and running riot in the adolescent-like fantasy and whimsy of The Salzburg Tales. In the novels her control is firmer; even such shamelessly Poe-like Romantic touches as Kol Blount's hearing Michael's voice calling him in a dream as Michael is committing suicide, are carried off in Seven Poor Men.

The problem in the novels is not that of the grotesquerie becoming wildly Romantic, but of becoming boring, of becoming not macabre but dully descriptive…. (p. 23)

The less Christina Stead strives for realism, the more successful she often is, because her realistic mode drops too easily to mere listing (of place names or objects) or to an imaginative thinness. (p. 24)

There is a disjunction in Seven Poor Men ultimately between the overall theme and organization of the book (poverty), and the individual successful imaginative passages, between the Romantic and the low-life caricature…. [There] is not a strong enough structure of action, plot or image to make a total unity of the disparate elements of Seven Poor Men. And the disjunction leads to a sort of compartmentalization in treatment of characters. Winter, for instance, is limited because he is shown only in this socio-economic context; similarly the young theorist, Baruch Mendlessohn, is presented mainly as someone who gives long, and tedious, analyses of the social and political situation: whereas Michael and Catherine are given a much fuller characterization, yet hardly fitted into the socio-economic aspect of the novel.

And Christina Stead is much more successful with the bizarre or the Romantic than with the naturalistic; she fails with Winter and even with Mendlessohn. But the brilliance of the portrayal of Michael Bagenault is of a different order, there is a richness of psychological presentation, as well as of the macabre or grotesque. (pp. 24-5)

But his dizziness, his dreams "that he was suffocating or being attacked by bears, or being followed by gigantic funereal phantoms,"… his speculations—all these that so brilliantly establish his personality, have little to do with the novel's central theme. (p. 25)

The organization of Christina Stead's novels is not conventional. Various critics have indicated the lack of plot in Seven Poor Men; but lack of plot does not necessarily imply lack of structure. The novel deals with the lives of seven poor men, all of whom are connected by friendship, work, or family; the connections, though, are shaky and other characters—such as Michael's sister, or the Folliotts, or Montagu the financier—are at least as important as some of...

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Charles Thomas Samuels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Christina Stead] appeals through the oddness of her characters and the relentless, uniquely resourceful dialogue through which she creates them. But the very amplitude of her portraits demands a significance she finds difficult to establish. The baby-talking egoist Sam Pollit [in The Man Who Loved Children] never comes to represent colonial condescension, though Stead hints at the connection, just as Nellie Cotter, in last year's Dark Places of the Heart, never quite distills the cant of England's welfare state. Since the novellas which make up [The Puzzlehead Girl] are both short and witty, they don't seem aimless; but, for the most part, they are scarcely more edifying than her novels.

"The Dianas," for example, portrays a nervous, virgin tease, who is apparently an object of satire. Juggling dates like a busy executive, Lydia satisfies none of her admirers, preferring to give her attention to the love-crossed girlfriend [Tamara] she torments with unwanted solicitude…. Though Tamara ends a suicide, Lydia, who has littered Europe with wounded males, is back in America at the story's end, the bride of some special Acteon.

Lydia's machinations are amusing and her ultimate success through surrender is both ironic in itself and in contrast with Tamara's failure. But the implication that love conquers even so devious a maiden seems banal for such vivid eccentricity, while the hint that nice girls finish last is merely sarcastic. In its original magazine appearance, the story was called "The Huntress"; significant universality can't be achieved through a change in title.

In "The Puzzleheaded Girl," universality is the obvious goal, but this story only indicates how Stead's characters resist definition. Honor Lawrence, who...

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Rodney Pybus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The novellas [collected in The Puzzleheaded Girl] make an excellent introduction to Christina Stead. They are permeated by quirky spontaneity and a sense of threatening torment, a combination which one quickly learns is the distinctive note of her fiction. They reveal too her special gift for psychological exploration, and a passionate intensity…. More than most novelists writing today, she creates her own world: recognisably the everyday world, at least superficially, but occupied by the charged emotional relationships which stamp all her writing. These densely-textured, astringently observed, autonomous relationships strike one as compounded of almost too much hate and love, and with their radical insights they disturb many of our most comfortable prejudices and preconceptions. (p. 31)

Christina Stead is obviously interested, as Lawrence confessed he was not, in what her characters feel, in 'the old stable ego of the character'. At the same time, she is fascinated by that other ego which Lawrence referred to in his famous letter to Edward Garnett:

'another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we've been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element.'

In this seems to me to lie the success of Christina Stead's work, what makes her approach to the novel valid in the second half of the 20th century: she combines many of the virtues of the outmoded 19th century novel (Russian and French, rather than English), with the radical, uncomfortable insights of a sensibility as modern in its way as Lawrence's. I see no reason to expect Miss Stead to be modern in the sense in which Alain Robbe-Grillet or Susan Sontag might be said to be modern; she is after all part, I think a significant part, of that generation which links the 19th century with the post-war period.) The hallmark of [Cotter's England, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, For Love Alone, and The Man Who Loved Children] is what Dostoevski called the 'tragicofantastic element'; her recognition of it, and the tension between it and reality in the conventional sense, are what make her novels valuable. (p. 33)

Rodney Pybus, "The Light and the Dark: The Fiction of Christina Stead," in Stand, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1968), pp. 30-7.

Dorothy Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Man Who Loved Children] Christina Stead has created what is extremely rare in modern literature: three archetypal characters who have a life of their own, independent of their author; characters like Dickens's Uriah Heep or Mr Micawber, who can be known to those who have never read the books in which they figure. This is particularly true of Sam Pollit, 'the man who loved children'. The ironical title defines him as the phrase 'humble as Uriah Heep' defines Heep. Figures who take on mythic proportions in a literature, who become part of its language, nearly always have a touch of caricature about them: they are always larger than life. Quite often they are not drawn in any depth at all—like the...

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James Atlas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The long-windedness that tends to spoil [Miss Stead's] novels is nowhere evident in "A Christina Stead Reader."… [In] this "Reader," enforced brevity has served Miss Stead very well. There is nothing from "The Man Who Loved Children," for whatever reason, but 11 of her other novels are represented in chronological order, with succinct introductions by the editor to fill in the plot. A few of the selections are so brief as to be scarcely intelligible, even with these summaries; even so, to read them through is to receive a distinct, perhaps enhanced sense of her achievement.

Miss Stead's considerable powers of evocation were manifest from the start, in "Seven Poor Men of Sydney," set in her native Australia. The grim world conjured up in that novel would seem derivative of the London depicted in "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" had it not prefigured Orwell's novel by a year…. (pp. 9, 28)

In her later novels, Miss Stead has tended to concentrate on middle-class women—many of them aspiring writers—who feel themselves oppressed; "The Beauties and Furies," "For Love Alone" and "Miss Herbert" feature strong-willed, independent women made wretched by insensitive husbands or lovers, and determined to forge new lives. Yet however admirable or true, their resistance invariably seems willed. Unlike so many American novelists, she manages to imbue her working-class characters with a reality largely absent in her liberated heroines.

Miss Stead is sufficiently versatile to command several literary styles. She can strike off a Lawrentian image of a ravaged industrial landscape …; produce a sustained burlesque …; infuse with pathos a vulnerable young man contemplating in the mirror "that single leaf of flesh which had been given to him to write his own history upon"; or re-create the haunted atmosphere of a Gothic novel, as she does in "The Rightangle Creek: A Sort of Ghost Story."…

Still, her proclivity for tendentious speeches can become tiresome, her plots laborious, her characters overwrought and wooden. And the intensity of her prose often lapses into melodrama….

The virtue of "A Christina Stead Reader" is that it displays the variety of her achievement in a single volume. However imposing the giant sprawl of Miss Stead's novels, one comes away from this collection wondering if she might not have been better served by that archaic literary form, the short story. (p. 28)

James Atlas, "A Book of Parts," in The New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1979, pp. 9, 28.

Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Christina Stead Reader was presumably conceived with the hope of whetting interest in the work of this prolific and largely ignored writer…. Because she has written a lot … and, on the face of it, about many different subjects, she would seem to be the perfect candidate for publication in excerpted form.

The present volume is unmistakable evidence to the contrary: Christina Stead will not be nibbled at. She is a writer on the grand scale; she needs space—like D. H. Lawrence, whom she resembles in other ways—and to curb her is to make her look foolish. There is something architectural about Stead's prose which only justifies itself from the longer view; one notices rather...

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Elizabeth Perkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The energy that informs the novels of Christina Stead is that which Dylan Thomas called "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower", that which centuries before Chaucer had called the vertú "of which engendred is the flour". Among the flowers so engendred in Christina Stead's novels are Letty Fox, the heroine of the detailed and compact novel, Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), and Eleanor Herbert in Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife) [1976]…. (p. 107)

One problem that concerns the reader when examining the women who flower, so handsome and so energetic, in these novels, is whether they grow self-organised from within, as their vigour and beauty and confidence demand, or whether...

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Bill Greenwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The title of A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948)] is the euphemistic phrase employed by the central figure, Robert Grant, when tempting women to partake of bed without breakfast, which he does with effortless regularity throughout the novel. Grant is a shallow, soulless man, an amoral profiteer in wartime New York who holds court to a succession of dreary people while idly but constantly expounding his hypocritical ideals….

The problem for the reader is sustaining interest in Stead's poisonous creation. Much as I appreciate the title's irony, the novel contains a great deal too much chat. Page after page consists almost entirely of Grant's monologues, diatribes, phoney wisdom, and it becomes...

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Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Christina Stead's] oeuvre is unwieldy and anomalous. She packs her novels with weighty significance, and yet at the same time she is shockingly volatile, even flighty, apt to fly off at strange tangents, and rhapsodise.

'The Beauties and Furies' is no exception to this misrule. It's set firmly in Paris … and it concentrates seemingly soulfully on a runaway romance, but poetic licence takes over almost immediately. Student Oliver and adulteress Elvira—like Olivia and Viola in 'Twelfth Night'—are an ambiguous sexual cocktail, shaken up still further by the improbable addition of a voyeur-villain called Marpurgo, a character on loan from Jacobean tragedy….


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Angela Carter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness. Yet this revelation is apt to precipitate a sense of confusion, of strangeness, even of acute anxiety, not only because Stead has a devastating capacity to flay the reader's sensibilities, but also because we have grown accustomed to the idea that we live in pygmy times. To discover that a writer of so sure and unmistakable a stature is still amongst us, and, more, produced some of her most remarkable work as recently as the Sixties and Seventies, is a chastening thing. Especially since those two relatively recent novels—Cotters' England (1966) and Miss Herbert (the Suburban...

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Joan Lidoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the heart of Christina Stead's fiction echoes the persistent moral issue: egotism. She sees everyone striving by subtle or overt manipulations to subordinate others to his or her own needs and desires, trying to take as much while giving as little as possible. In her 1940 masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, Stead criticizes this ongoing struggle between competing egotisms, not only in her characterization and analysis, but in the very form of her fiction. This novel takes as protagonist no single hero, but an entire family. The animating conflicts from which Stead has constructed her story are the manifold tensions of family life. She shows each of her characters from his or her own point of view, but...

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