Christina Stead

In spite of the hundreds of scholarly articles, dozens of monographs, and two biographies on the life and work of Christina Stead (1902–83), critics, curiously, have not generally sought to divide up Stead’s career into her Australian, European, and American periods for the purposes of their analysis. Most of them have regarded her career as more integrated, recognising the fact that Stead responded to all the places in which she lived and that her interest in the people around her drove her approach to her work, informed her settings, and nourished her understanding of ideology and its impact on human behaviour. In this compact study of five of Stead’s novels, Fiona Morrison seeks to explore Stead’s particular interest in American politics and culture and their specific influence on her writing.

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In her novel Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘For centuries the writing-desk has contained sheets fit precisely for the communication of friends. Masters of language have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes ... and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart.’

Ch ...

Christina Stead is an author perennially ripe for rediscovery. Her acknowledged masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, came out originally in 1940; in 2005, it figured in Time’s list of the 100 best novels published since 1923. But in his introduction to the Miegunyah Modern Library edition of the novel, American novelist Jonathan Franzen cites ...

Publishers are like invisible ink. Their imprint is in the mysterious appearance of books on shelves. This explains their obsession with crime novels.

To some authors they appear as good fairies, to others the Brothers Grimm. Publishers can be blamed for pages that fall out (Look ma, a self-exploding paperback!), for a book’s non-appearance at a country town called Ulmere. For appearing too early or too late for review. For a book being reviewed badly, and thus its non-appearance – in shops, newspapers and prized shortlistings.

As an author, it’s good therapy to blame someone and there’s nothing more cleansing than to blame a publisher. I know, because I’ve done it myself. A literary absolution feels good the whole day through.

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In male (I do not, just yet, say ‘patriarchal’) discourse, woman is man’s supplement. The feminist’s perennial dilemma, then, is how to intervene in that discourse which is forever reproducing the very hierarchy that suppresses and excludes her, when – by the power of its appropriation of common sense – that discourse operates not as though it were given her by men, but as though it were simply ‘given’.

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I'm Dying Laughing by by Christina Stead

by
July 1987, no. 92

There has been altogether too much talk recently about literature and bliss, and not enough about sadness. Think of the gloom that descends when you have read all the works of a beloved author, and no fresh fields and pastures new remain. Years ago, I suffered this depression after reading all the works of William Faulkner. There was a brief respite when Flags in the Dust, an ur-version of Sartoris, appeared, but brief it was.

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Christina Stead was born in Sydney on 17 July 1902 and died there on 31 March 1983. She spent the greater part of her life, including her most creative years, abroad – in England, Europe, and America. She left Australia for the first time in 1928, returning only once for a few months in 1969 before she decided in 1974 to spend her last years here. Although her novels were written away from Australia and most do not have Australian settings, she never ceased to think of herself as an Australian. Nationalism simply wasn’t an issue for her: she didn’t regard herself as an expatriate, she didn’t reject her homeland, but neither did she feel any compulsion to assert an Australian identity. She was perhaps the first Australian writer to be truly cosmopolitan.

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A few Australian poems from J.J. Stable’s Anthology, A Bond of Poetry (‘The Man from Snowy River’, ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, ‘My Country’), Robbery Under Arms and For the Term of His Natural Life are, to my shame, practically all the Australian literature I can remember reading in my school days. My interest in Australian writers was stirred, really, by two events while an undergraduate at Sydney University. The first was two lectures given by H.M. Green, Fisher Librarian, on Christopher Brennan (an interest reinforced by the first performance at the State Conservatorium of Music in November 1940 of Five Songs – poems of Brennan set to music by Horace Keats). The second was a passing reference by Ian Maxwell in a splendid set of lectures in 1939 on three modem satirists (Butler, Shaw, Huxley) to Christina Stead’s House of All Nations. Maxwell was certainly up to date in his reading, as Christina Stead’s fiction was not at that time widely known in Australia and House of All Nations had been published only the year before. These two events made me realize that Australian writers were part of that great world of English literature which were studied at universities.

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With the reissue of The Beauties and Furies (1936) this month by the British feminist press Virago, virtually all of Christina Stead’s work is in print for the first time in the half century long career of this distinguished writer.

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From August 1978 through January 1979 I read the complete fiction of Christina Stead, as well as those of her critical writings I could locate. A writing career of more than forty years consumed by a voracious reader in six months! I trust that I was as scrupulous and sympathetic a reader as Christina Stead is an ethically and technically scrupulous, sympathetic novelist.

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