Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2013

Christina Stead, a Biography, by Hazel Rowley #BookReview

Christina SteadIt’s taken me a long time to read Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead – and I made heavy weather of it towards the end.  It was just so depressing reading about the last years of this great writer…

Christina Stead was born into a dysfunctional family in 1902; endured a miserable childhood immortalised forever in The Man Who Loved Children; escaped abroad in 1928 and fell in love with a married man whose divorce took decades to come through; and spent much of her life with him in grim financial straits.   Now recognised as a major writer of the twentieth century, her brilliance was unrecognised for most of her life, especially in Australia, and she spent the last years of her life ‘humping her own bluey’ because while not destitute, she had no home of her own.  She died in 1983, with 16 novels to her credit, and four collections of short stories.

The honours, when they came, were all too late to make up for the neglect.  She was 72 when she won the Patrick White Literary Award and (perhaps understandably) barely acknowledged it, not even mentioning it in a letter to a friend, though the money was welcome.   The NSW Premier’s Award for Services to Literature came in 1982, the year before her death, and so did an Honorary Membership of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.  She was on her death bed when the University of Sydney offered her a doctorate.  For decades her work was out of print, and her name was as good as forgotten.

Stead TBRI’ve read two of her novels,  The Little Hotel, (see my review), and The Man Who Loved Children, (see my review) listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and as a must-read in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library.  On my TBR I have her short story collection Ocean of Story: Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead; Seven Poor Men of Sydney; House of All Nations; The Beauties and Furiesand For Love Alone.  I think I’m going to get more out of these latter novels since reading the biography, partly because I now understand so much more about the author’s ‘modus operandi’ and partly because Hazel Rowley analyses these books and places them in the context of Stead’s life.

Rowley establishes conclusively that Stead was a troubled personality.  Her father David was the major influence in Christina life.  They were both ambitious, imaginative, and curious about the world; and they shared a love of word play, story and jokes.  But he was also cruel.  He convinced the young Christina that she was plain, calling her ‘an ugly, fat lump’ (p16) and she sustained this belief throughout her life.  He was not loving or supportive: he was demanding and opinionated, and not having been well-educated himself, he was jealous when his children did well at school.

The Stead children learnt from an early age that their father was not someone you could trust.  With him you had to be on your guard: he set you up, challenged you, humiliated you when you least expected it.  Games often ended in tears. (p.17)

In her adolescence Christina learned that her talent in writing could be used to gain power over others: she could write a poem to taunt a new teacher; and she could portray people who hurt her with an acerbic pen.  In later life, she made a point of saying that her novels were ‘the truth’ – they were based on people she knew and the way they had behaved.  Indeed she even claimed at one point that she had written the truth ‘word-for-word’, and while Rowley demurs on the grounds that such a claim is ‘a bizarre stance for a creative writer to take, one which disowned the complex process of fictional transformation’, she also notes that there may have been at least one occasion where Stead actually lifted correspondence to use in one of her novels, I’m Dying Laughing.  In this novel she based her central character Emily on her former friend Ruth McKenney, who had, in Stead’s opinion, betrayed the ideals of socialism when she became disillusioned with Stalin and Soviet communism.

As preparation for writing, Stead read all Ruth McKenney’s letters to her, which dated from the late 1930s.  When McKenney was in Connecticut, then Hollywood, she had written to Stead in New York; after the war, they kept in touch.  Stead eventually destroyed these letters.  We will never know to what extent KcKenney’s own words were incorporated into Stead’s fiction.  McKenney, like David Stead, revealed herself so brilliantly in her own writing that it would have been hard for Stead to resist letting her speak for herself. (p.314)

Stead never abandoned her socialist views and she judged those who did harshly.  When other intellectuals and artists were reading Orwell, she stayed resolutely left-wing.

Ten days after the invasion [of Hungary in 1956] Stead wrote to Edith Anderson, who living behind the Iron Curtain, had reason to be anxious:

Don’t let politics faze you, is Bill’s opinion: he doesn’t think the present crisis will be ‘historically significant’ however much of a ‘hurly-burly’ … it looks now … Many intellectuals who regard party activities as ‘part of my picaresque life,’ are jumping off the train at this station.  It’s quite a clean-out of the soft element … Bill and I were discussing the curious traits of intellectuals, the liberal bourgeoisie – why are they so immoral? For they are.  To jump off every time you’re threatened is immoral.

It was, Stead admitted, Bill’s opinion, and in politics she wold only ever echo him.  To regard those who jumped off the locomotive of history as immoral was understandable in previous years (though a bit preposterous coming from someone who’d never clambered on to the train), but after 1956, it was difficult to defend this position.  Yet until the end of their lives, Blake and Stead would be impatient with those who criticised the USSR. (p. 358)

Well of course, Stead and her partner and eventual husband William (Bill) Blake (neé Blech) came to the attention of the anti-communist authorities in America and like many pro-communist artists and authors, found it safer to live in Europe during the height of the McCarthy era.  She fell out with Dymphna Cusack over politics too, though Rowley says that this was also partly because she was jealous of the success of Come in Spinner. (p. 314)  She was often ambivalent with her friends, admiring of their abilities, but jealous of their success, and she was downright hostile to the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s.

She was a bit odd about men as well.  She had a number of hopeless passions, notably Ralph Fox and Keith Duncan.  And although she did love Bill Blake, she was very unsympathetic towards him towards the end of his life when his health was failing, and she was more interested in other men than a loyal wife should be, though most of the time she fancied that they were interested in her without real grounds for believing it.  She hung around in New York because she thought herself in love with Harry Bloom and that he was enamoured too, and short of friends who were willing and able to put her up, she abandoned one of the best and kindest friends that she had in Australia because she had a fantasy that HG ‘Nugget’ Coombs wanted her to be near him in Canberra at the ANU.  It seems rather pathetic, at this distance.   Likewise, her excessive drinking.

Despite these flaws in her character Stead was a towering figure in 20th century literature.  She was remarkably unlucky in the timing of her career, but she was indefatigable.  She and Bill Blake tried to write almost constantly despite their peripatetic lifestyle.  But their grim circumstances took a toll, and Rowley notes that it was not just her cold and careless letters which betray the loss of joy in her life after they left the US, but also her fiction which underwent a metamorphosis.  Stead had left the US with an international reputation, and Blake was an established writer too.  But in Europe, they faced one humiliating rejection after another.  Her ‘angry, relentless’ fiction was not appealing to post-war values of ‘femininity, family and hearth’ and it was Stead’s bad luck to be writing when television captured many readers who never came back to the book.  Publishers were wary of Blake’s books because his political beliefs didn’t suit the Cold War paranoia, and neither of he nor Stead wrote commercially viable works.

Apart from The People with the Dogs, a mellow novel conceived in a time of happiness, Stead’s post-war fiction is fierce and bitter, devoid of the softer shadings that give relief to her earlier works.  The satirical humour has a sharper bite to it. Stead’s style, Angela Carter would observe, becomes ‘craggy, unaccommodating, a simple, functional, often unbeautiful means to an end’.  (p. 295)

Her fiction offered neither moral integrity nor hope.  Instead, it confronted readers with poverty, corruption and self-deception – things they preferred to forget. (p.296)

After the misery of WW2, people wanted uplifting novels not chaotic representations of dysfunctional relationships.  Stead’s novels were out-of-print before long, and stayed that way for decades.

As well as these dispiriting circumstances, their lifestyle just wasn’t conducive to productive work.  Rowley says that they would have been best suited to living in England because they had supportive friends and connections there, but Stead hated the climate and post-war austerity.  So they wandered all over Europe, staying in cheap hotels and dingy rooms, and while Blake quite enjoyed the endless travelling, it was disastrous for Stead because she needed her friends as catalysts for her characterisation.  It was anger with the people that she knew that fuelled her creativity:

Her aim was to disturb, even madden the reader, and she believed that a polished style reduced the force of the impact.  She did not want to produce carefully wrought, well-balanced ‘literature’, with a neat plot and a tidy ending.  She refused to tie together the loose ends of narrative.  Characters are introduced in her fiction, never to reappear – just as this happens in life.  Her endings are open; very often they circle back to the point of departure.  The moral message is ambiguous, as it is in life. And her dialogue has the fractured syntax, repetition, colloquialisms, facetiousness and bullying of actual speech.  As Angela Carter writes, it is ‘that chaotic sense of flux that makes reading Stead somehow unlike reading fiction, that makes reading her seem like plunging into the mess of life itself.’ This quality of unpolished rawness is something Stead’s readers either find immensely seductive or immensely irritating. (p. 278)

Rowley’s biography must be a godsend to any student of Stead’s work.  She delves into the characterisation, linking it to Stead’s friendships, and she analyses in compelling detail the way that Stead actually wrote, explaining the creative process in detail.  This is a very powerful biography of value not just to enthusiasts of Stead’s writing, but to anyone interested in modernism as well.  This is all the more remarkable because Stead concealed her inner self, destroyed much of her correspondence, and even wrote a diary in code, which miraculously survived the purge of her documents and her constant travels.

There is a great deal more that I could write, but really, you are better off to get hold of this biography and read it yourself!

Author: Hazel Rowley
Title: Christina Stead, a Biography
Publisher: Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University Publishing), 1993, revised 2007
ISBN:9780522854060
Source: Personal Library.

Availability:

Fishpond: Christina Stead, a Biography

If you are interested in Stead’s novels, my advice is to buy them when you can, in case they go out of print again….


Responses

  1. I will read this one day. What you’ve said here accords with what I’ve read and heard about her over the years, and with what comes out in For love alone, even towards the end when she’s found love. I probably won’t read it for a while though as when reading author biographies I like to have read more of their works. It’s my brain. I’m better at properly taking in information about books I’ve read rather than those I haven’t. Your review will keep me in good stead (oops!) until I get to read it myself!

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    • I know exactly what you mean, I found myself wishing I’d read more of her novels as I read. I also found myself wanting to add ones I didn’t have to the TBR. It can be fatal to read author bios!

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      • It sure can … But good ones are so interesting aren’t they?

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  2. Oh dear, it all does sound rather grim, doesn’t it. I’ve only read ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ and have it right up there as one of my favourite novels. I don’t know whether I would want to read the biography now, in case it spoils my enjoyment of that book!! I think that a friend’s mother, who lived in Sydney, knew Christina Stead, but I didn’t realize who she was at the time and I never asked her about it.

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    • It’s always the risk we take, when we read an author bio. We think we ‘know’ an author but sometimes there are rude awakenings. I remember being saddened to read that Rumer Godden wished she’d never had children because they interfered with her writing career. I’d always enjoyed her novels but after that I felt as if they were written by a stranger.

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  3. […] PPS 29/12/13 Guy at His Futile Preoccupations has written a super review here , and I have finally read Hazel Rowley’s biography of Stead and reviewed it here. […]

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  4. […] Hill on ANZ LitLovers has a good review of the biography, summarising Stead’s life and […]

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  5. […] said that Michael is the central character, but from my reading of Hazel Rowley’s biography (see my review) I know that both he and his wilful sister Catherine have autobiographical elements in their […]

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  6. […] source is Hazel Rowley’s magnificent biography of Christina Stead.  (See my review).  The index helpfully lists ‘literary influences on Stead’ so I have worked my way […]

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  7. […] but Christina Stead was an internationalist, and from what I know of her attitudes from reading Hazel Rowley’s biography, I suspect that Stead had long since given up on Australia.  It would be a mistake, I think, to […]

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