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The Woman Who Loved Words

How Christina Stead's one brilliant novel was saved from neglect

Photo by: George Marks/Getty Images

Throughout her long, restless, and productive life, the reputation of the Australian novelist Christina Stead rose and sank with disheartening regularity. Before her great novel of family life, The Man Who Loved Children, was reissued in 1965, 25 years after it was originally published and soon forgotten, all nine of the books she had by then written were out of print. Even when that novel received appreciative reviews, one looked in vain for some mention of Christina Stead in the Oxford and Penguin reference tomes on English literature. The omission could not be explained by her Australian origins, since such compatriots as Patrick White and Henry Handel Richardson were given respectful attention.

It is hard to unravel the mystery of literary fame and obscurity—why some novelists won't be forgotten while their betters sink with scarcely a trace. Obviously it has something to do with what's in and out of fashion at different times, or with the stubborn efforts of influential critics on behalf of a writer undeservedly ignored. (Faulkner's name was known, but his books were little read until Malcolm Cowley's famous essay, in 1945, bid out a map of the novelist's world of Yoknapatawpha County and restored his rightful place on the literary map.) Or a novelist's fate can be decided by a publisher's willingness to advertise, or the writer's own talent for self-promotion. (Will Mailer be read after he is gone—and for which novels?)

It may well have been that the idiosyncratic diversity of Christina Stead's fiction, the bewildering unevenness of its quality, her astonishing shifts of setting and method from one book to another, made it difficult for reviewers and readers to discern a recognizable continuity of theme, subject, and purpose in her work, as though there were several different writers inside the novelist. The dramatic variety of scene and tone stemmed in part from the years of wandering that took Stead from Australia, where she was born in 1902, to London in her late 20s. There she took a job with a grain company run by an American, William Blake (born Blech), a novelist and businessman (and Marxist economist) whom she eventually married. Before her marriage, Stead spent five years in Paris, working as a secretary in a private bank, where she absorbed the complexities of international finance that she later poured into House of All Nations. In 1937 the Blakes moved to New York, where they became part of a circle of communist intellectuals, and where they remained through the war. Stead wrote reviews arid read manuscripts for The New Masses and did a brief stint as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. During their years in America her husband wrote An American Looks at Karl Marx, a quirky exposition of Das Kapital, and, surprisingly, published several historical romances.

Returning to Europe after the war, the Blakes roamed all over the Continent, living in cheap hotels and pensions while Stead kept on writing with enthusiastic diligence, and in 1953 they finally came to rest in the London suburb of Surbiton. After William Blake's death in the late 1960s, Stead briefly visited Australia—for the first time in 40 years. Within a few years, by then old and weary, she went back home for good. She died in 1983, at the age of 80.

For a number of years before her death, the thick dust of neglect that shrouded Christina Stead's name for 50 long had begun to lift. Many of her books have been in print for some time owing in part to the indefatigable salvage work of the feminist Virago Press in England. Clearly the feminist rediscovery of forgotten women writers was an important factor in the revival of interest in her work, though she herself was brusquely dismissive of women’s lib. She told an interviewer in 1973 that it was "nonsense ... a waste of time... It's totally, purely middle class," And she added, with pungent Australian forthrightness, "What put me off is throw away their bra [sic]. What would I do without a bra, I should like to know?"

Now that her unfortunate literary fate has to some extent been redressed, Stead's publisher has paid her the customary posthumous homage with Ocean of Story, a ragbag gathering of previously uncollected short stories, false starts on several novels, sketches of boarding house life in England and Switzerland a brief memoir of her father, and some rather disjointed reflections on the literary life. Like many such collections, this volume adds no luster to the writer’s fame. One can only wonder what purpose is served by publishing such decidedly minor and fragmentary literary remains, since there is hardly anything in Ocean of Story that enhances one's understanding or appreciation of Christina Stead's work as a whole. Particularly in her case, it seems almost perverse to put these shreds and patches between covers, for her characteristic canvas, at it best, was huge, unconfined, profuse in detail. She was a writer whose very essence was excess.

Christina Stead was constitutionally incapable of brevity, of self-restraint, of discriminative spareness of any kind. She consumed words with the prodigality of a Dostoyevskian gambler hurling every coin he has at the croupier. Individual character was the absorbing passion in everything she wrote, and she pursued its sinuous and treacherous complexities with untamable confidence and sprawling vitality. In The Man Who Loved Children, there is a typically overpowering passage in which she describes the loathing that engorges Henny Pollit, a mother driven over the edge by a house too full of children, chaos, and poverty:

Every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insults, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs, for which the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

A writer capable of such demonic torrents is only crippled by the bounds of a short story. Stead needed largeness and space for her obsessively charged language and vision, space as vast and uncontained as her native country. This was clear in the first book she published, The Salzburg Tales, at the age of 32. The writing is all brilliance and gusto, but one can feel her straining against the limitations of the form she chose, a Boccaccian chain of some 40 monologues drawn from European folklore and legend, as told by a haphazard assemblage of people who have come to Salzburg for the August festival. The tales themselves, though spun with the pyrotechnical bravura of a young virtuoso eager to show her stuff, are less interesting than the biting satiric portraits of the tellers—a pretentious Viennese conductor, a Scottish woman doctor, an Italian singer, a French journalist, and others. But only four years later, using her experiences in the Paris bank, Stead hit her stride in the first of her two major novels, House of All Nations (1938), an enormously long (almost 800 pages), savagely observed, headlong dive into the world of international finance.

Stead took the ironic title from the name of a famous Parisian brothel. In over a hundred chapters bursting with an avaricious mob of crooks, speculators, imposters, dreamers and degenerates, she laid bare the poisonous nature of money-making on a grand scale in the Europe of the 1930s, as it staggered toward economic breakdown and war. (The theme of decadent Europe sliding into the hellhole attracted many novelists in the 1930s, among them Robert Briffault, whose panoramic Europa was enormously popular in its time and is now totally forgotten.) Catching her gallery of scoundrels in a tightly woven net of stock quotations, grain options, exchange rates, bookkeeping manipulations, and legal skulduggery, she constructs her monstrous edifice of greed and corruption until, when it finally collapses, we are left not only with the stench of moral disgust toward this labyrinthine world of financial swindlers but with awe at her omnivorous mastery of exactly the way it all works. Stead could not let go until the absolute rottenness had been plumbed with merciless clarity. As one rogue in the story remarks, “There’s no subject so rich in ideas as Money.”

But memory, as Stead demonstrated two years later (her fluency and speed were phenomenal), was even richer in literary possibility, more daunting and more fruitful than money. With the same copious, unrelenting intensity she had brought to the machinations of banking, Stead turned back to her adolescent years (transposed from Australia to Washington) in her saga of the Pollit family, awash in misery and tenderness as domestic war rages day and night within the walls of the shabby house.

The husband, Samuel Clemens Pollit, was based on Christina Stead’s father, a naturalist and Fabian socialist who worked for the Australian Fisheries Service. Sam is a windbag idealist who “loves” children (with seven, he yearns for more) because he is an overgrown child himself. Full of exasperating Darwinian optimism about process and the perfectibility of man, Sam is, like so many of Stead’s autocrats of the ego, a geyser of self-satisfied cant, a chirping domestic tyrant who exploits his children under the guise of play. For Sam, the family romance is a jolly kindergarten and his bitter wife Henny the wicked witch threatening to devour them all. Coarse, mawkish, and cruel by turns, a Dickensian grotesque yet horribly believable, Sam is too complacent, too self-absorbed, too pleased with his inventive cuteness—he talks to his children in a language that is part baby talk, part Uncle Remus and Artemus Ward—to notice the extremity of his wife’s despair.

Henny, as Randall Jarrell remarked in his lyrical introduction to the novel’s reincarnation, is “the book’s center of gravity, of tragic weight.” The most haunting and fully realized of Christina Stead’s many driven, unhappy women, Henny leaves an ineradicable scar in the mind. The spoiled favorite of a well-to-do father, she has become, after ten years of marriage, too many children, and never enough money, a ranting, slatternly hag worn out with drudgery and rage at the fate dealt her by her mortal enemy, her husband. Henny, Stead writes, “was beautifully, wholeheartedly vile: she asked no quarter and gave none to the foul world,” and her screaming tirades ring with the stark universality of epic poetry as she gives voice to “the natural outlawry of women.” Stead’s novels are full of obsessive histrionic talkers, unstoppable monologuists borne on a tidal wave of words, but Henny is the most incessantly complex of them all, as heartbreaking as she is terrible. Only death can silence her.

None of the novels that Stead wrote after this profoundly original triumph of imagination and memory has anything of the turbulent life, the harrowing inexorability and fateful reality of The Man Who Loved Children. In trying to explain this, Jarrell argued that the failure of the Pollit novel, both with critics and with the reading public, led Christina Stead to “unconsciously work in a more limited way in the books that follow[ed] it.” The world’s incomprehension, he felt, had stunted the genius that flowered in The Man Who Loved Children. He may be right, though it is not a simple matter to know why a writer’s work declines, loses some vital strength and conviction, after a great achievement.

Nonetheless, Stead was the kind of exuberantly natural writer who couldn’t stop putting one word after another. She wrote eight books after 1940, nine if one counts the unpublished I’m Dying Laughing,  an American novel about the McCarthy years that she worked at off and on for decades. (One chapter, “UNO 1945,” is included in Ocean of Story, and while it has one of her gloriously vituperative husband-and-wife battles, and some intriguing remarks about disillusioned radicals, the piece, torn out of context, yields very little as it stands, in part because her point of view is unclear.) Though the novels that followed her finest book are now and then enlivened by her shrewd intelligence and harsh wit, by her earthy candor about sex (in a much more inhibited literary climate than our own), by her unique way of seeing and defining her characters, such novels as Letty Fox: Her Luck, A Little Tea, A Little Chat, and The People with the Dogs can be repetitious and tedious, marred by unexpectedly flaccid and mechanical prose, as though her burning way with words was beginning to run out of steam. Even the most ambitious of her later novels, Cotter’s England (1966), unfathomably renamed Dark Places in the Heart in America, is too unrelievedly single-minded in its relentless portrayal of the heroine, a destructive left-wing journalist in postwar Britain. The subtle authenticities that she endowed with such life, affection, and fierce truth in The Man Who Loved Children for some reason eluded her grasp in the work that came after.

And still the question nags, and will do so as long as Christina Stead is remembered: How could that brilliant novel have fallen between the cracks when it first appeared? Ironically, some of Stead’s communist friends in New York may have partly responsible for its neglect. Isidor Schneider, the culture commissar of The New Masses in the 1930s and ‘40s, meant to praise the book and buried it when he hailed The Man Who Loved Children as “a novelization of Engels’ Origin of the Family.” A surer way of killing all interested in a literary work of a novel’s value lay only in its ability to raise the consciousness of the working class.

Despite her involvement in communist politics, Stead was never tempted to writer such dreary sagas of revolutionary uplift as Clara Weatherwarx’s Marching! Marching! and other politically “correct” socialist realist works of the ‘30s. Stead was entirely too independent a spirit, always her own woman, and she remained impatient with cultural fashion to the end of her days. Yet the Marxist claim on her was incredibly persistent. As late as 1965, José Yglesias insisted in the Nation that the Pollit novel was primarily an attack on the bourgeois family, “that soul-destroying monster.” The reason for neglect, he wrote, was political: “It is Stead’s Marxist point of view which has delayed her recognition... Marxist ideas [are] inseparable from Stead’s literary vision.” With such friends, Stead didn’t need enemies.

As for Ocean of Story, whose publication once again prompts interest in Christina Stead—forget it. Go back and read the novel that earns this remarkable writer a permanent place in the pantheon of literature. The Man Who Loved Children can be bought in a paperback edition published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.