Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2018

A Little Tea, A Little Chat, by Christina Stead #BookReview

This review is published to coincide with the anniversary of Christina Stead’s death (17 July 1902 – 31 March 1983).

Oh, Christina, you were a wicked woman in the best possible way!

Way back in 1948, Christina Stead wrote the ultimate satire of marriage and capitalism when she savaged the predatory male in this witty black comedy that shows in excoriating detail what a hashtag can never could.  Her portrait of Robert Grant, whose hobbies are making money and seducing women, is both revolting and hilarious, and readers will be cheering from the sidelines when he meets his match, Barbara, who is every bit as calculating as he is.  I wonder what Jane Austen, doyenne of The Marriage Novel, would have thought of it?  She would have been thunderstruck, I think, but her sense of humour would have held sway…

Girls, think of the sleaziest man you know.  Was it your first boss, who these days would be fired for his daily sexual innuendos?  Was it your Ex’s ‘mate’ who put the hard word on you when you briefly worked for him? Was it the well-known academic who put his hand on your knee under the table while his wife sat oblivious on the other side of you? Was it the clown at a party who cupped his hands under your boobs from behind and hauled you to your feet because he thought he was irresistible (and who copped a six-inch stiletto in the calf for his trouble)?  None of these are in the same league as Robert Grant…

‘A little tea, a little chat’ is Grant’s euphemism for seduction.  In 1940s New York, he’s always looking for opportunities to make money and to ‘beguile and betray’ the women he encounters. He has plenty of money to splash around because of all the deals he has made, and now after Pearl Harbour and the declaration of war, he’s busy finding ways to profiteer from it.  Stead’s descriptions of this perfidy seem so authentic, she must have heard conversations like it in New York where she lived with her banker husband.  There may have been some red faces when the book was published in 1948.  But maybe not. Types like this – as we see so often in today’s media – are completely shameless…

Grant sets up schemes to sue the government, diddling white-collar majors, paper-shifters who will go to war without knowing anything about business. 

‘I want to do something my size, we sue a Government, for argument’s sake, Beaver, Broad and Co have five hundred suits a year against the Government in peacetime: look at the chance wartime gives you.  A Government can’t help treading on your toe, infringement of contractual rights, property damage, property falsely sequestered.  […] We can make a forchun, my boy, without undertaking any contracts, nothing where you might get in the wrong.  Let them get in the wrong.  I’ll have the law on my side.  That’s a principal thing in a suit with the Government: then the same letter-file majors don’t know what to say.  And basically, my dear boy, Government is honest: don’t know how to wriggle out of it.’ (p.67)

As he ‘beguiles’ Edda, the wannabe-journalist daughter of his friend David Flack, he promises her a great time despite uncertainty about the war’s outcome:

Listen, darling, trust to me, I’ll make your forchun.  I’ll take you to winter resorts, we’ll go to Mont-Laurier, even Europe.  Rich Americans are still everywhere in Europe: this is your passport! Ha-ha!’ He slapped his pocket.

(He is, of course, speculating on property in Italy and France).

With promises like this, he’s always had the upper hand with women – until he meets Barbara a.k.a. The ‘Blondine’.  He fancies her, he does his usual routine with expensive gifts, he pays for her (and her mother) to go to Reno to sort out a divorce – and then she breaks contact.  He’s sulky because he’s wasted his money.  To soothe his wounded ego, he sets a detective agency and a spy-surveillance team on to her, while distracting himself with plans to write a novel about himself.  He selects Edda as the ghost writer, and outlines a plot drawn from his own life and conquests though of course he pretends it’s about another man. Later on, he thinks his way of life is so fascinating it would make a great play, and then a film.  If you’ve read Stead before, you won’t be surprised to hear that these scenes are a torrent of words, Grant’s self-absorption and moral vacuity on display in style though not in substance somewhat reminiscent of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. 

(That is to say, Herzog doesn’t ever stop talking either, but he has the capacity for self-reflection).

Yes, Herzog has redeeming features, whereas Grant has none – and only Christina Stead could get away with characterisation like this.  She succeeds because she creates characters such as Grant’s son Gilbert who has the measure of the man, and also his wife who appears late in the novel, refusing to play his game.  Other characters like March make a fool of him by manufacturing evidence against Barbara.  March also pays one of his informants – who promptly splits the money with Barbara anyway.

But Grant is incorrigible.  He swats away any remonstrance with claims that he can’t help it – he says his behaviour derives from his personality.  Even when he finally tracks down Barbara again and she smartly plays him at his own game, he tries to get her at a bargain price.  His monstrous ‘philosophy’ is revealed in an eight-page harangue to his son about the morality of making money, and as David Malouf says in the introduction to this Text Classics edition, for Grant women and commodities are indistinguishable:

He did not care for the pursuit not for adventure.  Ever since his early manhood, since his marriage, he had bought women; most had been bargains and most had made delivery at once. ‘I got no time for futures in women’. (Introduction, p viii).

Barbara and Grant deserve each other but Barbara as she swans in and out of New York on the alimony trail is IMO less morally culpable – because as Catherine Helen Spence so ably demonstrated way back in 1865 in Mr Hogarth’s Will, if there are structural reasons why women can’t support themselves, then their dependence on men doesn’t leave many other options. Stead was writing in the aftermath of WW2 when the women who had kept economies running while the men were away, were promptly sent back to their decorative support roles in the home.  The quest for a meal ticket was unedifying, but necessary…

Do read Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations too!

Author: Christina Stead
Title: A Little Tea, A Little Chat
Introduction by David Malouf
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016, first published 1948
ISBN: 9781925355727
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: A Little Tea, a Little Chat: Text Classics


Responses

  1. Stead was a genius! Both in her characterisations and in her writing – her torrents of words. I am glad you have got me reading her critically otherwise I may have stopped at the 2 or 3 ‘Australian’ novels I read decades ago. You make me wish I’d read this one, she really was at the height of her powers just after the war. I’ll pick another to review soon (I see you’ve not added your review to your CS page yet) though not House of All Nations whose length defeats me.

    • LOL I’m saving House of All Nations for when I’m laid up with a broken leg or similar. It’s about a thousand pages I think…
      Yes, am about to add this to my CS page (I couldn’t do it till it published itself while I was still asleep in bed this morning!)

  2. Thanks for the mention. I know a Grant-type who also met his match. Have to hand it to the Blondines of this world.

    • I’d like to think it’s different now, at least in the west, because women can and should be financially independent so that their emotional decisions are not influenced by needing a meal ticket!

      • But among the poor, your country, this country, I’m sure it’s still the same to an extent.

        • Yes, I used to teach girls who believed in (a) Prince Charming and (b) the Lottery and I just hope that their secondary teachers managed to straighten them out.

          • Media that presents that type of scenario is still so pervasive.

  3. Just read this a few months ago. What a writer and so humorous. One of my favourite quotes Hope springs infernal” I oft repeat. Cannot resist her turn of phrase. House of All Nations is a must Lisa. It always pleases me to know she is still being read and winning new readers too. Her own life was difficult financially and sometimes I shed a tear thinking of some of the deprivation she had to go through. And as Guy says there are still too many women in dire straits economically in this country for they were not privy to education, careers and superannuation. I am speaking from experience.

    • Oh, I know, Fay… many of my older colleagues were those who had to resign to have their children, and when they came back they were at the bottom of a promotion system by seniority. In Victoria, they were also gypped by the so-called Married Women’s Superannuation Scheme.
      But today, things are different and what we must do is to impress upon young women that they need to ensure their own financial independence not rely on some bloke to provide it for them.

  4. This sounds rather fab. But goodness me, I have a MOUNTAIN of other Australian fiction to get through first!

    • But isn’t that a nice luxury to have at hand!

      • Indeed it is.


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