The main character in Dark Places of the Heart is Nellie Cook, who grew up in the working-class Cotter family in England’s industrial north. A bohemian rebel since youth, in middle age Nellie is a shallow, loquacious, restless tyrant with a need to dominate the people in her life. Her particular obsession is her brother, Tom, who returns home after a hopeless affair with a married woman who has died of cancer. Nellie analyzes Tom’s affair relentlessly, continually trying to prevent him from taking up with any other woman. Tom seduces Nellie’s friends one after another.
Nellie is married to George Cook, a labor negotiator who is on the Continent attending labor congresses. Although she works for a socialist newspaper, she has no real grasp of politics or social conditions; her main interest is controlling the unfortunate women she collects in her rambling house in a scruffy London suburb. In this novel the reader sees a culmination of Stead’s technique of exposing each character in his or her own words: Nellie constantly describes herself in myths of origin about her family and her supreme importance in Tom’s life, while Tom charms everyone he meets with stories of his colorful adventures. Sister and brother both exert a mesmerizing power of speech.
Some of the scenes of the novel take place in Bridgehead, where Nellie and Tom visit their ailing mother, their embittered sister, Peggy, and their ancient Uncle Simon, who is an abused victim in the household. The Cotter family home in Bridgehead is important for the incisive and unsentimental picture it gives of working-class customs, beliefs, and attitudes. There are also hints of childhood incest, mental illness, and other dark secrets in the family’s past. In this late novel, Stead merges the political theme with individual character and personal relationships more successfully than in any other of her books.
Nellie’s husband, George, is offered a good job in Geneva, and he promises to send for Nellie when he is settled. She remains in England, is betrayed by her friends and husband, fights with her editor, and subsists on tea and alcohol while her lungs deteriorate. Finally, George sends for Nellie to join him in Geneva, where he has a good job, but he dies a short time later in a skiing accident. Nellie invites Tom to the funeral and returns to her house near London with a photograph of herself and Tom, holding hands and smiling at the funeral. Stead’s cool sympathy for her characters enables the reader to understand the failures and betrayals of the novel that are made inevitable by ignorance, social conditions, and the powerful drive for personal gratification.
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Harris, Margaret, ed. The Magic Phrase: Critical Essays on Christina Stead. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2000.
Pender, Anne. Christina Stead, Satirist. Altona, Vic.: Common Ground/Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2002.
Petersen, Teresa. The Enigmatic Christina Stead: A Provocative Re-Reading. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001.
Rowley, Hazel. Christina Stead: A Biography. New York: W. S. Heinemann, 1993.
Sheridan, Susan. Christina Stead. Brighton, England: Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1988.
Williams, Chris. Christina Stead: A Life of Letters. London: Virago, 1989.
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