As you can see from the lyrical opening lines from her first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Christina Stead had vivid memories of her favourite places in Sydney, even though she had fled Australian parochialism some years before her final revision of the novel for publication in 1934. But although she came from a middle-class background, she also had vivid memories of the deprivation she had witnessed, and the first chapter paints a poignant picture of childhood poverty with her depiction of the childhood friend of her central character, Michael Baguenault:
Annie Prendergast lived with her family in part of the house. The little girl was thin, with black eyes and hair. She scratched her head and body all the time, and always smelled of ingrained dirt. In the corners of the house bats flew, swallows dropped mud and dung from every beam, and from all the cracks of the great whitewashed stones at the back ran cockroaches, beetles and rats. Cockchafer beetles, cicadas and mosquitoes shouted loudly in summer evenings in the tall trees; large spiders hung in the outhouses, and fearsome-looking, but innocent crickets and slaters dwelt under the bits of wood and sheets of corrugated iron fallen off the roof into the grass. The house attracted Michael and the other children with the same charm as a stagnant gutter. (p.4)
These children would be labelled ‘free-range children’ by the disapproving helicopter parents of our time, for they were free to roam around the harbour and to mingle with the fishermen and other working men. Stead does paint a negative portrait of their parents – not as neglectful – but rather as irrelevant. By the time Michael is a teenager he has with considerable hostility rejected his mother’s pious Catholicism, and seems relieved to discover that the man who brought him up is not his father after all. It is his presumed biological father who has lifted the family into middle-class respectability by leaving them a substantial legacy, which enables the two older girls to take up university scholarships, and for Michael and his sister to continue their secondary education.
I have 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 characters. They are misfits, they perceive the world differently to their compatriots and both are given to torrential outbursts of fury and resentment against their lot in life. Whereas the other poor men of Sydney have work, perilous though it was during the Depression, Michael is listed in the cast of characters at the front of the book as a ‘ne’er-do-weel’, unable to hold down a job and not very interested in having one anyway. Catherine runs away from home as a teenager and becomes an activist for the Communist Party, protecting her parents from the embarrassment by coming home only when she has become so thin and unwell that she needs some TLC from her uncomprehending mother.
The workers are based at a printing press. Gregory Chamberlain is the incompetent, harassed boss, and he hasn’t paid his staff in months, leaving them short for the rent, clothing and food. He tells them it’s because invoices haven’t been paid, but of course his own family doesn’t go without, and when pressed, he creates an unnecessary job for Williams, a member of his own family, and despite the perilous prospects for the press, he manages to find the pound a week to pay him (on the strict condition that Williams pretends he is working there gratis, as a favour for the boss). Chamberlain, however, has got himself mixed up with a rogue called Montagu, a flashman who felt himself a misplaced grand seigneur but he made up for it as well as he could by riding roughshod over his friends and swiping any money or any virtuosity manifested in his sphere. The workers know that something shifty is going on, but they’re not in a position to do anything about it, not while Chamberlain still owes them money.
Stead’s sympathies lie firmly with the workers, trapped by circumstance and an exploitative economic system. (Stead was a Marxist, though never a member of the Communist Party). For Michael’s cousin Joseph Baguenault and the other men Tom Withers and Baruch Mendelssohn, the impending ruin of the printing press is a disaster. Like most young men they have dreams: of having money to impress the girls; of settling down to wife, home and family; or of saving up to see the wider world. The image of Annie Prendergast’s miserable home from chapter one haunts the reader who can see what is at stake.
All the characters are also trapped by inescapable loneliness. Though the librarian Tom Winter is an unsympathetic character, making people miserable with his ‘tall stories’ not out of meanness but because he is a man who needs an audience, he is like all of them paralysed by loneliness as surely as Michael’s friend Kol Blount is physically paralysed and excluded from society. Michael and Catherine are isolated by a view of the world that the others do not understand. Although the novel ends on a note of hope with an ‘escape’ out of Australia, this is a pessimistic worldview, reinforced by the suicide of one of the characters at Sydney Harbour’s notorious Gap. (The novel was originally called Death in the Antipodes).
Seven Poor Men of Sydney is a demanding novel. As Hazel Rowley says in her biography of Stead: it juxtaposes conventional realism with the poetic and hallucinatory. It is the work of a word-drunk young writer and yes, it does have flaws, but for me, it’s an exciting experiment that predates Patrick White. Stead, revelling in the intellectual life of Europe was influenced by the modernist writing of contemporaries she admired, especially James Joyce, and especially in her early work, as Hazel Rowley says:
Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Beauty and Furies make sudden shifts in tone and register. They also contain the modernist interest in dream and fantasy, references to Freudian psychoanalysis, frequent allusions to other literary works, and speculation about the nature of narrative itself. […] Stead had taken a very different path from those writers who stayed in Australia in the 1920s and 1930s where ‘dun-coloured’ realism still reigned supreme. (Christina Stead, a Biography, by Hazel Rowley, Miegunyah Press, 2007, p 113)
I’m really pleased that I chose this first novel for Christina Stead Week 2016!
Author: Christina Stead
Title: Seven Poor Men of Sydney
Publisher: Sirius Quality Paperbacks, (an imprint of Angus and Robertson), 1981
Series design by Judy Hungerford, and cover illustration by Roger Janovsky.
Source: Personal library, an OpShop find.
Available from Fishpond: The Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Sirius S.)