Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2016

Literary Influences on Christina Stead (1902-1983)

Christina Stead Week November 14-20 2016

This post is in response to Sue’s query about literary influences on Christina Stead (1902-1983).  (See Monday Musings on Australian Literature at Whispering Gums).

My 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 through the pages listed:

p. 26-7

This section of the bio is about Stead’s adolescence, so it refers to influences in that period, when

like the fictional alter egos she would later create Stead was full of passionate, romantic yearnings intensified by a sense of outrage.  She had a marked penchant for the fantastic, the ghostly, gothic and grotesque.

If you come across occasional images of genies in her work, it’s because the Richard Burton translation of Arabian Nights influenced Stead all her life.  (It would seem that I have been short-changed in the edition I read: the Burton edition depicts an sumptuous and erotic medieval world not the sanitised version I had as a child).  She liked old tales and legends, the King James Bible, and tales of true adventure within her father’s scientific books, such as Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of the Species.  She read the bush ballads of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Steele Rudd too.  Her father disapproved of novels, but Stead read every one of Dickens.  She treasured Ibsen’s Peer Gynt about a dreamer and a wanderer and her early poetry shows the influence of the English Romantics: Milton, Byron, Tennyson, Keats and Shelley.  And she loved Shakespeare, claiming that she read the entire Complete Works every year of her adolescence.


By this time Stead is at school, where she enjoyed French:

Later she claimed that her whole view of life was formed by Guy de Maupassant, the profoundly pessimistic nineteenth century naturalist writer whom they studied at school. Inspired by the sobriety and simplicity of Maupassant’s writing, Christina borrowed all the French books she could lay her hands on from the Sydney Municipal Library: from Rabelais to Chateaubriand, Hugo and Zola.  The naturalism of Zola who claimed that writers should develop the meticulous observation of scientists, would be an important influence on her own writing.  And she ‘fell overboard’ for Balzac, a lifelong passion.

And although German was not taught at Stead’s school during the Anti German years of WW1, she had the George Henry Lewes two-volume edition of Goethe, and Rowley says said that Teutonic culture, with is Sturm and Drang and High Romanticism, had great appeal for a passionate, rebellious adolescent.


This section of the book is about Stead’s depiction of sexual desire in her fiction.

Stead’s wide reading gave her insights, albeit confused, into the ways of the flesh; as a young girl she had been aroused by the enchantments of Arabian Nights;at school her imagination was further piqued by Zola, Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, Stendhal’s essay On Love. 

She was familiar with Ovid, Petronius, Aretino and she knew the meaning of witches’ Sabbaths.  She also knew about Sade,  the Inquisition and bestiality in the Bible, as well as the bitter jokes of Aristophanes.  She had read Havelock Ellis, Adler, Freud and Krafft-Ebing at university.

[And by now any alert reader will have noticed that there is no mention of anything by women, (Austen, the Brontes, Gaskell or Wharton et al) –  if Stead had read them, presumably she made no mention of them and was apparently not influenced by them].


By now Stead is in Paris with her lover Blech, and he brought back books from London bookshops every time he went there.  At last we hear about Stead reading women’s writing: A House in Built by Marjorie Barnard and Florence Eldershaw. But she was also reading the latest Soviet novels, and was impressed by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.  Rowley, quoting Stead as saying D.H. Lawrence was a marvellous man, thinks that Lawrence’s preoccupation with Oedipal issues made Stead think about her own relationship with her father, and that For Love Alone bears unmistakeable traces of Lawrence in vocabulary and imagery.

But it was James Joyce and his flamboyant gift of language who excited her most and she read Ulysses along with learned commentary.  She thought that every living writer had to be influenced by Joyce, and she herself certainly was:

Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Beauties 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.

p. 120

Later in the bio, discussing Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Rowley also sees influences of Emily Brontë or Dostoevski, Poe and Baudelaire. [So maybe Stead did read Brontë ?  I can’t imagine her not doing so, and surely, she must have read Austen too.  Everybody did, at school?]


Here Rowley dissects the relationship between Nettie Palmer and Stead.  Palmer was widely read from around the world but she and her husband Vance were on a mission to advocate for a distinctive Australian culture.  Stead on the other hand was by then European in orientation, and her literary influences were European not Australian, and from her internationalist perspective, Palmer’s attitude seemed narrow and provincial. 

 p. 191

Here Rowley is discussing House of All Nations, the 800+page chunkster I have yet to read.  Rowley says of this, Stead’s most ambitious novel that she wanted it to be revolutionary and she wanted it to expose the paltry schemes of capitalist rascals.  She could draw on her own life amongst bankers, but for inspiration she read realist writers of panoramic sociological novels with many characters and fast changes from one scene to another :

Dickens’ Oliver Twist; Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; Tolstoy’s War and Peace; Balzac’s Comedie Humaine; Malraux’s Les Conquérants.

There was also the semi-fictional 42nd Parallel by Dos Passos.


So there you are: a quick dip into the literary influences on Stead, from a biography that I urge you to read in full.  Of necessity these notes are taken out of the context of Stead’s life, and (as I predicted in my review) they make sense more with reading of Stead’s work.  I myself shall certainly be watching out for the genies from now onward!

Reference used:

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


Fishpond: Christina Stead, a Biography

Stead’s novels are:  (links are to Wikipedia)

Short stories

  • The Salzburg Tales (1934)
  • The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas (1965) (containing The Puzzleheaded Girl, The Dianas, The Rightangled Creek and Girl from the Beach)
  • A Christina Stead Reader (1978) edited by Jean B. Read
  • Ocean of Story: The Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead, edited by R. G. Geering (1985)


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  1. I thought I could see DHL, but Joyce was inevitable – a. because he is so good, and b. because Stead and Blake (Blech) were in the circle around Sylvia Beach’s bookshop (Joyce’s publisher).
    Wikipedia is American and so uses American names but everywhere else Cotters’ England is known as Cotters’ England.


    • Ah, did not know that re Cotter’s, (but I should have guessed because I got so fed up with Wikipedia’s US-centric deletions of anything I contributed, I gave up).
      It must have been such an exciting time in those literary circles…


  2. Thanks for this Lisa … very interesting. My she was very widely read, which I guess is not surprising for her time and what an educated young person would have been reading and learning. She was wonderfully multilingual I gather.

    I love that she loved Guy de Maupassant. I had a book of his short stories by my bed in my late teens, early twenties as bedtime reading during my student days. (It was one of those cheap paperbacks but I still have it, of course!)

    I had read about her lack of interest in Palmer, which is not surprising given Palmer’s aims and her very Australian based coterie.


    • LOL it would have been fun to watch the body language between the two of them…
      I have just got a copy of Maupassant’s novel, Like Death, which I am dying to read!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember reading some early 20th-century lit crit while at uni and finding it remarkably absent of women, too, except for the inevitable Misses Austen, Bronte and Eliot. It would make sense if this trickled down to the school level too, and probably even to the personal level—a somewhat snobbish intellectual girl of this time might very well have thought that most “women writers” weren’t worth wasting her time on or learning her craft from…


    • Hi Elle, I’d have to disagree about Stead being snobbish. She was socialist in her politics, and her writing shows that she empathised with working people more than the bourgeois. I think it’s more a case of her wanting to move on from a 19th century style of writing, whatever the gender of its authors, with the exception being Dickens and Zola because of their concern for the poor and disadvantaged.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I see—that’s much more positive! (To be honest, I’ve never read any Stead, so it was a bit of a stab in the dark…!)


        • *smile* I hope to tempt you, Elle. And you have a valid point: although we would not really want authors to write, for example, in the style of Austen now, there are aspects of her craft that contemporary authors might well emulate, her delicious irony, for a start…

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve loved reading the opening excerpts of her work that you’ve featured. The Man Who Loved Children has been on my list for years, since reading about it in Jane Smiley’s 10 Ways of Looking At the Novel, but Seven Poor Men of Sydney was also captivating from the first line!


            • I haven’t come across that Smiley… it sounds like a worthwhile text. Not too academic for general readers?


              • Definitely not—thoughtful, of course, but much more an account of her personal responses to 100 great novels (some of which are surprising/obscure/etc.) than an academic tome. I really enjoyed it.


  4. Can I throw in Balzac as well, the source of the frontisquote for House of All Nations? “Oh, Balzac yes, I fell overboard for Balzac, when I was… as I said I learnt French quite easily, and I had these ten tickets from four other girls, maybe it was twelve tickets — a lot of tickets, and I read all the French books in the Municipal Library in Sydney, and Balzac was one of my main discoveries. I loved him. Yes, and I still do. I think he’s great,” she says in her 1979 interview with Rodney Wetherell. She did not like Proust, but I don’t get the impression that she’d read him (this was in a letter to Blech/Blake from Dearest Munx). She thought people only liked him for his aristocrats.

    She tells Wetherell that she wasn’t able to read Henry Handel Richardson when she was young because her father didn’t have her books in the house: “that was far too literary for my father.” They had Lawson and Paterson though. “I think I still know a lot of Banjo’s work.”


    • That’s interesting. So HHR was too literary for Papa, eh? I wonder how he knew that if he hadn’t read her! But it’s true, isn’t it, that the books in the house shape our early tastes, sometimes for too long, in my case, because apart from Huxley and Orwell, everything I read at home was C19th classics, and I read more of the same until I went to university in my twenties and discovered modernism.


      • I can remember finding that cloud of influence disturbing sometimes, especially at school, though without another frame of reference to compare it to I didn’t know exactly what was puzzling me. Why was postwar British realism being presented to us as if it formed the essential shape of literature? Why was I always being asked to empathise with depressed boys in postindustrial towns full of rain? “Far too literary” could mean that news of Richardson’s work didn’t penetrate her father’s world at all, if scientific nonfiction was his prime interest. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that he decided against her; it might indicate that the decision itself was utterly absent. But David Stead had been dead for two decades by the time she answered that question, so we’ll never know.


        • That’s the tantalising question, isn’t it, and it crops up so often in the works of authors with an axe to grind…


  5. […] text is an understanding of the intellectual model that underlies it.  If you look back at my post about the literary influences on Christina Stead, you will find her sources of ideas that were new to the 20th […]


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