Stead, Christina (1902–1983)
Stead, Christina (1902–1983)
Australian novelist whose 1940 book The Man Who Loved Children is regarded by many critics as a forgotten 20th-century masterpiece. Name variations: always published as Christina Stead; lived with William Blake (Blech) from 1929 and often called herself "Mrs. Blech" or "Mrs. Blake," even though they did not marry until 1952. Born Christina Ellen Stead on July 17, 1902, in Sydney, Australia; died on March 31, 1983, in Balmain Hospital in Glebe, Australia; daughter of David Stead (an Australian scientist and politician) and Ellen (Butters) Stead (who died when Christina was two); attended Sydney Teachers' College; married William Blake (Blech), in 1952, after living with him since 1929; no children.
Was a student, then teacher (1921–25); was an office worker in Australia (1925–28), an office worker in London and Paris (1928–33), an independent writer and journalist (1933–83) in England, America, most of the Western European countries, and in Australia (1974 on).
Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934); (short stories) The Salzburg Tales (1934); The Beauties and the Furies (1936); The Man Who Loved Children (1940); For Love Alone (1944); Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946); Cotter's England (1967, published in America as Dark Places of the Heart); The People With the Dogs (1952); I'm Dying Laughing (1986).
The long trip abroad to earn one's fame and fortune is a common story in Australian history, and it was played out in Christina Stead's life. She left her hometown of Sydney in 1928 and stayed away from Australia for 41 years, moving restlessly between Britain, Europe, and America and establishing a reputation as a brilliant modern novelist. Her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), is one of the most harrowing yet persuasive 20th-century descriptions of life in a dysfunctional family, and biographers have shown that it is quite closely based on her own childhood.
She was born Christina Ellen Stead in 1902, in Sydney, Australia, the daughter of David Stead and Ellen Butters Stead who died in 1904 when Christina was only two. Her father lived with his sister for awhile then remarried and had six other children with his new wife Ada Stead . They lived in a series of big seaside houses. Christina, as the oldest, played a large role in bringing up her younger siblings but felt a jealous rivalry with her stepmother. David Stead was an idealistic socialist, atheist, and marine biologist who brought up his children to respect science and to be inquisitive. He also played an important role in Australia's early experiments with socialism. He was appointed head of a government scheme to run trawlers and bring fish to working-class people at cost, rather than at the inflated prices charged by retailers and middlemen in the profit system. Like many well-intentioned schemes of the kind, it backfired, partly because the onset of World War I in Europe made boats and fishing equipment difficult to procure from England, and partly because the private fishermen did what they could to obstruct the scheme. It lost money, and David Stead was investigated by the government for his incompetent management of the scheme. He served the Australian government in a series of minor posts during the 1920s, including work in Singapore and Malaya, but was unemployed when the Great Depression began.
Christina Stead, meanwhile, had a conventional young Australian girl's education but was stand-offish, unkempt, and often the odd one out. She did not excel in her studies but wrote a lot of ingenious poetry as a teenager and was able to win a scholarship to Sydney Teachers' College. She studied for a career in schoolteaching and was among the first Australians to apply psychological and I.Q. tests to children. She became restless as a teacher after a couple of years in the classroom, and was forced to withdraw periodically because of voice strain. She trained instead as a secretary in night school (1925), then went to work in the office of a hat factory. After three years of hard work, saving as much money as she could, she boarded a ship for England. The fact that Walter Duncan, a brilliant young man she had known at college, was also going abroad on a scholarship, contributed to her enthusiasm for the journey—an episode later fictionalized in her novel For Love Alone.
Arriving in London, she took a job as secretary for a grain importer. She soon forgot about Duncan and fell in love with her employer, an American Jew named William Blake. Before long they were living together. Blake (originally Blech), despite his work at the heart of world capitalism, in banking and international trade, was a learned and eloquent Marxist economic theorist, who contributed greatly to Stead's education in the Marxism she had learned in outline from her father. He was separated from his wife Mollie Blake , but she refused to give him a divorce until 1952, so he and Stead were unable to marry until they had lived together for 24 years. They had no children, and she apparently had a series of abortions. Blake gave Stead a feeling of social self-confidence she had never had before. She was selfconscious about her plain appearance but now began to adopt fashionable clothes, and was careful to lose her Australian accent.
With Blake, Stead moved to Paris in 1929 and continued to work in importing and banking. Blake entrusted her with numerous business missions abroad, enabling her to travel widely in Europe, even in the worsening conditions of the Great Depression. Among their friends was Sylvia Beach , owner of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co., who had also befriended James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Clifford Barney, Kay Boyle, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Margaret Anderson , and other English-speaking literary "exiles" of the 1920s. In Paris, Stead wrote her first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, and the stories that were published as The Salzburg Tales. Beach liked them, passed them on to her English publisher-friend Peter Davies, and he gave Stead a contract for both books, which appeared to critical acclaim in 1934. Her future as a novelist seemed assured, but her third book, The Beauties and the Furies (1936), had a more mixed reception—British reviewers thought it a decline from her first two. American critics, by contrast, notably Clifton Fadiman, gave it high praise and said that Stead was the equal of Virginia Woolf .
Like many left-wing intellectuals during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Stead became deeply involved in radical causes. She believed that the Depression had sounded the death-knell of capitalism and that revolutions comparable to that which had swept Russia in 1917 would transform the Western industrial nations. Nevertheless, as an independent-minded novelist, she was far too shrewd and observant to fall into the simple Marxist sloganeering characteristic of the era, and never hesitated to write devastating literary satires on the political left and its personalities. She attended, and reported on, the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Paris, and settled for a time in Republican Spain, just before Francisco Franco's
right-wing coup overthrew the regime and launched the Spanish Civil War.
One of her Paris friends in the early 1930s was an English radical named Ralph Fox. He had helped found the Oxford University branch of the English Communist Party, had traveled widely in Russia, written a book about the revolution, a biography of Lenin, and a novel. Biographers speculate that she had a love affair with him, perhaps even with the connivance of Blake. However, Fox joined the International Brigade and was killed in Spain early in 1937.
Standing in sympathies between eras, her novels keep the nineteenth-century's devotion to realism, its scope of social concern, texture of observed detail, interest in character. Yet her understanding of these is informed by Marx and Freud, by a material social critique and by depth analysis of individual fantasy life and family relations.
Stead made her first visit to America in 1935 and then, as Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini gained power in Europe and Blake's businesses foundered in the Depression, returned in 1937. They stayed for the next nine years, through the Second World War, living amid a group of leftist writers and contributing articles and reviews to the Communist-run New Masses. Blake also published a well-written textbook, An American Looks at Karl Marx (1939), and two historical novels in quick succession, The Painter and the Lady (1940) and The Copperheads (1941). He became a Communist Party member and eventually drew the unwelcome attention of the FBI. His decision to abandon business made the couple far less prosperous than they had been hitherto.
After a year in Manhattan, made stressful by the presence of Blake's mother, with whom Stead feuded, they moved to Lambertville, New Jersey, where Stead gave all her attention to writing The Man Who Loved Children. The American-Soviet alliance (1942–45) during the Second World War made radicals popular for a time and Stead's literary reputation was sufficient to win her an invitation to write film scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and to teach a class on creative writing at New York University. She did not persist with either job, however, but devoted as much time as possible to her fiction. Among Blake's projects, as the Second World War drew to a close, was An Intelligent American's Guide to the Peace (1945), a masterful summary of the world situation in the wake of the conflict. He was paid a lump sum for it, and it appeared under the ostensible authorship of Sumner Welles, a prominent New Deal-era politician.
Most critics agree that Stead's best books were written during the New York years, especially The Man Who Loved Children (1940), For Love Alone (1944), and Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946). The first of these is an immense (500 page) fictional transfiguration of her childhood, moved to an American setting, full of convincing American detail, but replaying key scenes from her childhood. It shows in maddening detail the feuding of Sam and Henny Pollit, who have too little money to make ends meet and whose fights are complicated by the presence of their children, whose own perceptions are conveyed in amazingly convincing detail. Stead agreed with interviewers that she had an uncanny ability to recapture the feelings and impressions of childhood. Sales, unfortunately, did not match critical praise, and the couple remained unable to make a long-anticipated visit to Australia.
Her reputation remained stronger in America than Britain, and stronger in both than in Australia, where she was still virtually unknown, except among a small coterie of other writers. Australians who did mention her name sometimes noted, acidly, that she had abandoned her homeland for greener pastures, like many other talented Australians. To make matters worse, Letty Fox (1946), which dealt with a young woman's sexual promiscuity as she tried to make her way and find some security in modern New York, was banned in Australia by the censors; its sexual scenes were considered too graphic for their era. Stead condemned the ban, arguing in a letter to the censors that the book "deals with obscene material but is not obscene. It is very frank but written in an austere style." The fact that the Australian government was now keeping watch over Stead's work and knew her to be a Communist sympathizer (as were several of her siblings, still in Australia) also led to a denial of her application for a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant in 1952.
Leaving America soon after the war ended, in 1946, partly because they feared that as radicals they might become the targets of anti-Communist investigations, Stead and Blake traveled throughout Europe, living briefly in France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and England. They were shocked to discover the privations of ordinary people in Western Europe in the aftermath of the war: rationing, malnutrition, shortages of everything, and services broken down or neglected. America was a land of abundance by comparison, whatever its political intolerance. They moved nearly every year to joyless flats and apartments in southern England, hard up and often depressed—Blake's eyesight deteriorated but he still wrote copiously and took extra work as a publisher's reader. The only time they lived more comfortably, ironically, was on a short visit to East Germany, where Blake's historical novels were honored by the Communist regime and earned him handsome royalties. Briefly Stead moved to the northeast English industrial city of Newcastle-on-Tyne to live with a working-class family, an experience that formed the basis of her later novel Cotter's England (1967, published as Dark Places of the Heart in America). She said that she found writing more difficult in England than anywhere else; that it was "depressing to the creative faculties and bad for the morals."
Publication of The People With the Dogs (1952), a satirical novel about America, led to bad reviews. The New York Times said that this time she "uses all too little of that vigor and imagination which Miss Stead put into at least two of her earlier books" and that it was "the work of a writer whose passion seems all spent." This and other hurtful reviews put a stop to Stead's work on novels for many years. She began to write a lot of journalism, reviews and translations, but felt discouraged from undertaking new fiction projects, though she still had many half-written novels.
Through most of her lifetime, Stead was not widely known or admired—hence her chronic poverty after the early 1930s—but she had a devoted following among some of the best living writers. The American novelist Randall Jarrell wrote an enthusiastic introduction to a reissue of The Man Who Loved Children in 1965, acclaiming it one of the great novels of the century. It included these words:
Christina Stead's way of seeing and representing the world is so plainly different from anyone else's that after a while you take this for granted, and think cheerfully, "Oh, she can't help being original." The whole book is different from any book you have read before … the book has an astonishing sensory immediacy.
Stead was so pleased to receive this praise that when she read it aloud to Blake she burst into tears. This recognition gave her the courage to finish and publish several books she had worked on earlier, some dating back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, including Cotter's England.
She had often thought of returning to Australia but in the impoverished 1950s and early 1960s could not afford it. At that time she, as a woman, could not confer Australian citizenship on a husband who was an alien, and he would be allowed into the country only for a short visit, and on condition of already holding a return ticket. In the end, she returned only in 1969, after the trauma of Blake's death in 1968. Despite a sometimes stormy relationship, the two quirky writers had been compatible and had stayed together for 40 years.
Honored in her homeland, if belatedly, Stead, now almost 70, accepted a visiting fellowship at the Australian National University. She was well received and returned in 1974 to receive the Patrick White Prize for literature. She settled in Australia but continued to travel widely, earning more money now from speeches and writing, but becoming fragile in health. At one point, she had to be admitted to the hospital suffering from malnutrition.
Saul Bellow was another of Stead's admirers and, like Randall Jarrell, contributed to the revival of her reputation. He mentioned her work in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, saying that she too deserved the award. Feminists in the 1970s also acclaimed Stead. By 1980, her work was enjoying a revival, though still among intellectuals rather than the general reading public. It is harsh, often depressing, complicated writing that makes demands on the reader. Growing numbers found the high price worth paying, however, and by the time Stead died in 1983, at the age of 81, she had the consolation of knowing that her place in literary history was secure. Several more collections of her stories, another novel, I'm Dying Laughing (1986), and a two-volume collection of her letters have appeared in the years since her death.
Brydon, Diana. Christina Stead. London: Macmillan, 1987.
Lidoff, Joan. Christina Stead. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1982.
Rowley, Hazel. Christina Stead: A Biography. NY: Henry Holt, 1993.
Stead, Christina. I'm Dying Laughing. London: Virago, 1986.
——. The Man Who Loved Children, 1940, NY: Henry Holt, 1968, with 1965 introduction by Randall Jarrell.
Williams, Chris. Christina Stead: A Life of Letters. London: Virago, 1989.
Sheridan, Susan. Christina Stead. IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.
National Library of Australia, Christina Stead papers.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia