Stead, Christina (Ellen)

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STEAD, Christina (Ellen)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Rockdale, Sydney, New South Wales, 17 July 1902. Education: Sydney University Teachers' College, graduated 1922. Family: Married William James Blake in 1952 (died 1968). Career: Demonstrator, Sydney University Teachers' College, in Sydney schools, 1922-24; secretary in Sydney, 1925-28; moved to Europe, 1928; worked as a clerk in offices in London, 1928-29, and in Paris, 1930-35; lived in the U.S., 1937-47; senior writer, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Hollywood, 1943; instructor, New York University, 1943-44; traveled, 1948-52; lived in England (mainly in Surbiton, Surrey), 1953-73, and in Australia, 1974-83; fellow in creative arts, Australian National University, Canberra, 1969. Awards: Arts Council of Great Britain grant, 1967; Patrick White award, 1974; Australian Premier's special award, 1982. Died: 31 March 1983.



A Stead Reader, edited by Jean B. Read. 1979.

Christina Stead: Selected Fiction and Nonfiction. 1994.

Short Stories

The Salzburg Tales. 1934.

The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas. 1967.

Ocean of Story: The Uncollected Stories, edited by R. G. Geering. 1985.


Seven Poor Men of Sydney. 1934.

The Beauties and Furies. 1936.

House of All Nations. 1938.

The Man Who Loved Children. 1940.

For Love Alone. 1944.

Letty Fox: Her Luck. 1946.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat. 1948.

The People with the Dogs. 1952.

Dark Places of the Heart. 1966; as Cotters' England, 1967.

The Little Hotel. 1973.

Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife). 1976.

The Palace with Several Sides: A Sort of Love Story, edited by R. G. Geering. 1986.

I'm Dying Laughing: The Humourist, edited by R. G. Geering. 1986.


Editor, with William J. Blake, Modern Women in Love. 1945.

Editor, Great Stories of the South Sea Islands. 1955.

Translator, Colour of Asia, by Fernand Gigon. 1955.

Translator, The Candid Killer, by Jean Giltène. 1956.

Translator, In Balloon and Bathyscaphe, by August Piccard. 1956.


Critical Studies:

Christina Stead, 1969, revised edition, 1979, by R. G. Geering; Christina Stead by Joan Lidoff, 1982; Christina Stead by Diana Brydon, 1987; Christina Stead by Susan Sheridan, 1988; Christina Stead: A Life in Letters by Chris Williams, 1990;The Radical Tradition: Lawson, Furphy, Stead by Michael Wilding, 1993; Christina Stead: A Biography by Hazel Rowley, 1993; Christina Stead by Jennifer Gribble, 1994; Revolution and Adjection in Christina Stead's I'm Dying Laughing by Brigid Rooney, 1995.

* * *

The first of Christina Stead's books to be published was a remarkable display of her virtuosity as a writer of short fiction. Although it does share certain preoccupations and techniques with the novels that were to come, few who read The Salzburg Tales when it appeared in 1934 could have predicted the directions her later work would take. Whereas her novels tend to achieve their power by accumulating naturalistic detail and concentrating on the gradual revelation of complex characters and relationships, The Salzburg Tales keeps moving in sprightly fashion from one narrator to another, one situation to another, one set of characters to another. R. G. Geering remarks that her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, "stands firmly in the great tradition of psychological realism in European fiction"; The Salzburg Tales reaches back to a more ancient, richly variform tradition, springing from that inventive gusto and delight in prolific tale-telling that Chaucer and Boccaccio most notably exemplify.

Not only in its composite structure but also in its range of miscellaneous subjects and styles, Stead's debut volume seems frequently reminiscent of The Decameron, The Arabian Nights, and The Canterbury Tales. Other sources of intertextual transformation include the writings of romancers and raconteurs such as Hoffman and Hawthorne. Pervasive in The Salzburg Tales is a deep curiosity about ramifications and roots of the narrative compulsion itself.

Describing the group of Salzburg festival visitors who will narrate in turn the episodes that constitute this book, the prologue characterizes each of them in terms of their distinctively individual kinds of imagination or speaking style and their preferred genres. Many later passages, within and between the ensuing segments of storytelling, comment further on the impulses that lead people to make their world go round by chasing their tales. But Stead's fascination with the polymorphic abundance of fiction-making is more fully expressed in the sheer diversity of the tales themselves. Few books present such a showcase of types of narration.

In a piece she contributed to a 1968 Kenyon Review symposium on the short story, Christina Stead mentioned an Indian anthology called The Ocean of Story and made this comment:

That is the way I think of the short story and what is part of it, the sketch, anecdote, jokes cunning, philosophical, and biting, legends and fragments … ancient folklore and church-inspired moralities and some tales to shiver at which are quite clearly frightening local events….

There are specimens of each of these sub-genres in The Salzburg Tales: sketch, both of a person ("Poor Anna") and of a place ("On the Road"); anecdote ("The Sparrow in Love," "Guest of the Redshields"); joke ("Sappho," which burlesques classical and Christian myths); legend ("Gaspard," which shows how legendary materials can serve a serious end, in this case an illuminating insight into life under the moribund ancien régime); fragment ("The Wunder Gottes"); folktale (several are recounted by the Centenarist); morality ("The Gold Bride"); and a tale of frightening local events ("The Triskelion"—one of the few items in this book that have a recognizably Australian setting). And other kinds of short fiction appear as well: fable ("The Sensitive Goldfish"); snatch of dialogue ("The Little Old Lady"); whimsical episode ("Silk-shirt"); parable ("The Death of Svend"); lyrical apostrophe ("Fair Women"); and various parodies—of Poe's Gothic extravagance ("To the Mountain"), of Chekhov's sentimental irony ("A Russian Heart"), and of courtroom dramas ("Speculation in Lost Causes").

The passage quoted above from Stead's symposium contribution yielded a phrase for the title of a large posthumous publication: Ocean of Story, comprising her previously uncollected stories, appeared in 1985. Whereas her first book had been a deliberately organized miscellany, Ocean of Story was a gathering up of leftovers. They had been written at various times over five decades. A few are fine short stories; but several are discarded drafts, shavings from her novels, or pieces of biography, autobiography, journalism, and other nonfiction. Though uneven, this collection shows the persistence of some of Stead's most distinctive qualities as a teller of tales. Among the most noteworthy are "My Friend, Lafe Tilly," which relates a womanizer's inability to accept the peripeteia that he undergoes and the grotesque details of his physical decline; "A Harmless Affair," about a passion that goes nowhere; and "The Boy," a study in dependence and entrapment. In many of them the action occurs entirely indoors, often in a boarding house or a small apartment, and the focus is on psychological intensities exacerbated by a sense of enclosure.

Between those two volumes of short fiction, half a century apart, came eleven novels—and also one other book that deserves mention here: a collection of four novellas, The Puzzleheaded Girl. Each novella has a casual structure that incorporates abrupt changes of direction—a frequent feature of Stead's long and short fiction. Perhaps the most startling in this respect is "The Rightangled Creek." Subtitled "a sort of ghost story," it may seem on the face of it to have no narrative unity except that of place: it is set in an apparently haunted house, occupied by a succession of people. For half its length the story deals with one family group—the members of which then, suddenly, disappear from view, and others move casually into and out of the rest of the narrative. Closer reading reveals that the story's course is often interrupted by descriptive passages that accumulate images of fecundity that invade the oddly doubled structures of the house. Any orderings of culture (the building itself but also the domestic arrangements and vocational schemes of its inhabitants) seem subverted by inchoate impulses from the natural surroundings. The imagery of profusion, disturbing handmade things, constitutes a self-referential narrative code, persuading readers to regard analogically as a unified whole the desultory formal features of this tale.

In one way or another much of Stead's short fiction poses a challenge to conventional expectations. Some stories risk appearing inconsequential; others mix folktale motifs with psychological realism, Gothic horror with whimsy, and so on. It is a strange and distinctive world.

—Ian Reid

See the essays on "The Marionettist" and "The Puzzleheaded Girl."