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].)